Governor Greg Abbott is afraid. Not of COVID-19, which is killing thousands of Texans, but of losing his primary.
Last week, Abbott announced that he was banning COVID-vaccine mandates by “any entity” in Texas, a policy so absurd that you’d be forgiven for thinking, as the running joke on social media goes, that the coronavirus wrote the executive order itself. You might as well ban restaurants from requiring employees to wash their hands, or bar hospitals from making surgeons wear masks in the operating room. According to The Texas Tribune, about 270 Texans a day have died of the virus in the past month—close to 70,000 people in total—and only 52 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The vaccines could control the pandemic, if Republican officials and their allies in conservative media weren’t so busy trying to convince their followers not to get them.
Throughout the pandemic, Abbott and other Texas Republicans have emphasized the need for “personal responsibility, not government mandates,” even as they have imposed their own government mandates designed to thwart public-health efforts. Abbott has used the power of the state to prevent not just businesses but also schools and local governments from adopting coronavirus-mitigation measures. At Abbott’s urging, Texas Republican legislators are currently working on a bill designed to stop businesses from adopting such mandates.
The reason for all this recklessness is that, as his 2022 primary approaches, Abbott is aiming to stay in the good graces of Fox News’s prime-time lineup, which retains a powerful sway over the Republican primary electorate, and former President Donald Trump. If either or both turn against him, their influence over Republican primary voters in Texas might actually make Abbott’s race competitive. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Texas legislature are attempting to solidify their hold on state politics, through a partisan and racial gerrymander that they hope will keep them in power for the next 10 years, thus ensuring that a minority of the state’s population continues to dominate policymaking.
Abbott faces two primary challengers, the carpetbagging former U.S. representative from Florida Allen West, and former Texas state Senator Don Huffines. Because Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in decades, Abbott is more worried about losing his primary than losing the general election. His anti-mandate mandate came shortly after West, who has refused vaccination, announced that he was being hospitalized with COVID. To illustrate just how anxious Abbott is about his challengers, he shut down a webpage with anti-suicide resources for LGBTQ youth after Huffines accused him of “promoting transgender sexual policies to Texas youth.” Wouldn’t want any Republican primary voters to think that the governor of Texas wants to keep Texans from dying!
Amazingly, though, all of this is even more craven than it first appears. Early in the pandemic, Abbott banned local jurisdictions from imposing mask mandates on individuals. But once more Texans started dying, cities began to get creative, imposing mandates on businesses instead. Rather than owning up to his mistake, Abbott sneered to a local TV station that these local governments had “finally read what we had written.”
Abbott was trying to cover his right flank with that ban, while sloughing off the responsibility to keep Texans alive on more liberal local governments—without even telling them how they might do that. The numbers eventually got so bad that Abbott reversed course and issued a statewide mask mandate, but more lives might have been saved had he acted sooner. Texas Monthly’s Christopher Hooks dubbed Abbott’s approach the “Greggian Knot,” namely “a simple problem made hopelessly complicated by the governor’s own desire to be removed from the consequences of his own actions.”
Abbott is not the first elected official too afraid of his own base to act responsibly, instead insisting that someone else with authority make the hard decisions for him. When Trump and his sycophants in right-wing media were demanding that the 2020 election be overthrown on the basis of Trump’s wild fantasies of voter fraud, fulfilling the most basic responsibilities of democracy fell to local election officials, state legislatures, and the Supreme Court. Those officials did not have to resist just their pro-Trump constituents who had bought into these lies, but also pressure from state and national figures—Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the Republicans in the House who signed on to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the election by fiat—who lent credence to them.
Because, thanks to those efforts, everything worked out last time, conservative anti-anti-Trump pundits argue, there’s nothing to really worry about—never mind that Trumpists have spent the past year installing themselves in key positions all over the country with authority over election administration. In Hood County, where Trump won handily, his supporters purged an election administrator deemed insufficiently fanatical about the falsehood that the election was stolen.
But Texas shows that there’s plenty to worry about when the governor of a state that has tens of millions of people living in it decides that his most important constituents don’t even live in the state and have shows on Fox News. Many Texas businesses plan to ignore Abbott’s anti-vaccine mandate, given that it could be preempted by federal-government regulations. If so, some of the damage of Abbot’s absurd policy might again be mitigated by those willing to use their authority responsibly, while Abbott plays to the cynical anti-vaccine elements in his own party rather than confronting them.
All of this should put the right-wing Texas tough talk in context. Abbott is just a guy too afraid of Fox News and Donald Trump to do his job.