John Krull

Conservative governors and other politicians battling COVID-19 vaccines are betting—and betting heavily—that H.L. Mencken was right.

“No one in this world, as far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way,” the acerbic sage of Baltimore wrote nearly a century ago.

Mencken was not a fan of the democratic impulse. His contempt for what he called “mobocracy”—the manifested will of the public—was epic in nature. He believed most human beings to be as easy to manipulate as trained poodles.

Quite a few Republican officeholders hope Mencken had hold of a fundamental truth.

The best example may be Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi.

On Sunday, Reeves sat for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. To say Reeves’ performance was a public relations disaster is a bit like saying the Titanic experienced minor misfortune at sea.

Admittedly, Reeves didn’t have a strong hand to play.

The numbers show that Mississippi has the highest per capita death rate from COVID of any state in the union. In fact, as Tapper pointed out, if Mississippi were its own country, the state would have the second-highest death rate in the world, behind only Peru.

Most reasonable people would see this as a problem of significant proportions.

Reeves, not so much.

He pursued the curious tack of arguing that deaths really aren’t that important an indicator—an argument that likely won’t serve as a balm for those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. Then he tried to shift the focus to supposedly tyrannical measures in defense of public health that other “Democrat” governors—a keen appreciation of grammatical niceties apparently is not among Reeves’ virtues—and President Joe Biden have taken.

Tapper would have none of it.

Every time Reeves tried to move the conversation to other states—all of whom have better records regarding COVID than Mississippi does—Tapper brought it back to the Magnolia State.

By the end, Tapper was incredulous.

He asked, rhetorically, why he would bring the governor of Mississippi on to talk about other states.

At that, Reeves showed a sickly smile because it was a fair point.

If Tapper had wanted to talk about what other states were doing, he would have asked the governors of those states to do his show. Reeves was there to talk about Mississippi.

When the governor couldn’t do that, he resorted to the “hey, look, your shoe’s untied” defense.

Reeves is not alone in that.

The governors of states that have most mishandled the pandemic—those in, say, Florida, Texas and Alabama—are desperate to talk about anywhere but their own states.

Good luck with that.

Alabama, for example, accomplished something last year the state never had done before. More Alabamans died in 2020 than were born. Texas and Florida have seen their COVID numbers spike, and their healthcare systems become overwhelmed to the point of collapse.

Not surprisingly, the governors in Florida and Texas—Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott—have seen their poll numbers descend in free fall, imperiling what should have been sure-bet re-elections for both.

It turns out that saying “Vote for me so you’ll have a much better chance of dying early” isn’t such an attractive political pitch.

There’s a reason for that. Polls—even the most recent one conducted by Fox News—show Americans support vaccine mandates and that such support is climbing steadily.

That’s because—shock of shocks—most Americans are tired of the pandemic and weary of seeing loved ones at risk or watching them die. They want to do everything they can to get past this tragic period in history.

Governors such as Reeves, DeSantis and Abbott, though, have trapped themselves. The noxious nonsense they’ve been peddling regarding vaccines has been swallowed by the most activist and engaged members of their base.

So, they have no other option but to keep wagering that H.L. Mencken was right.

That their supporters won’t figure out the truth.

That no one ever went broke or lost a public office by underestimating the intelligence of the people.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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