Trump loyalists team up with anti-vax doctors for ‘health and freedom’ tour
Top loyalists to Donald Trump, who frequently push lies about election fraud, have joined forces with conservative doctors touting unproven Covid curesand vaccine skepticism, and like-minded evangelical ministers at a series of events across the US this summer.
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The conservative “ReAwaken America” tour – featuring ex-general Michael Flynn and top Donald Trump loyalist donors – has held events in Florida, Michigan and other states.
It underscores how Trump’s allies, anti-vaccine doctors and conservative preachers are amplifying baseless claims that are hurting the nation’s public health and its democracy with potentially far-reaching impacts, say pandemic and election experts.
The tour comes as Covid cases soar and as Republican drives to pass state laws weakening voting rights increase. While the tour has touted Flynn’s key role, a Tulsa Oklahoma media figure and Christian entrepreneur named Clay Clark has been instrumental in orchestrating the gatherings – also dubbed “health and freedom” conferences – using his “ThriveTime” podcast and radio show and Charisma News coverage.
The ReAwaken events have featured talks by vaccine skeptics such as Simone Gold, who was charged for taking part in the Capitol riot and leads America’s Frontline Doctors, a rightist group that garnered attention for touting dubious Covid-19 cures such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Stella Immanuel, a Houston doctor who is part of Gold’s group and who spoke at a Michigan ReAwaken rally on 20 August, gained notoriety last year for public remarks at a Washington rally near the supreme court, suggesting America’s health problems were linked to alien DNA and sperm from demons.
Another doctor listed as a speaker at the rallies is Scott Jensen, a former state senator and Fox News favorite who is running for governor in Minnesota. Last year, Jensen was a candidate for Politifact’s “lie of the year” for claiming baselessly that doctors were overcounting Covid cases for their own financial gain.
Further, the conservative tour has provided new audiences for rich Trump donors such as Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, who has stated falsely that Trump would be reinstalled as president by 13 August, and Patrick Byrne, the former chief of Overstock, who bankrolled with millions of dollars a spurious “audit” in Arizona’s largest county that has drawn bipartisan fire for lacking merit.
The ReAwaken meetings, which each appear to have drawn audiences in the hundreds or more, have also taken place this year in Oklahoma and California, with more slated for Colorado and Texas in coming months. Promotional materials indicate that attendees are asked to pay $250 for general admission or $500 for VIP tickets, with pastors eligible for half-price tickets.
Voting rights lawyers and pandemic experts are troubled by the volume of election and pandemic disinformation that the ReAwaken tour seems to be spreading.
“Many Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen, despite numerous failed court cases alleging it and recounts that verified the results,” said Gerry Hebert, who spent over two decades as a senior lawyer at the justice department handling voting rights.
Hebert added: “People have refused to wear masks and get vaccinated because of Covid disinformation campaigns. Lies and disinformation campaigns can kill, both our fellow Americans and our democracy, and this ReAwaken America tour seems designed to accentuate these problems.”
Similarly, Covid experts say that the ReAwaken America tour is exacerbating medical disinformation.
“These events are stark reminders of how Trump was elected in 2016 and remains popular to this day, with many now vying to assume his mantle in campaigning for elected office at all levels of governments,” said Irwin Redlener, who leads Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Recovery Initiative.
“I’m actually embarrassed by the fact that there are doctors fully into this craziness.”
Flynn, who was pardoned by Trump late last year after twice pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in the federal investigation into Kremlin meddling in the 2016 elections, has become a fixture at conspiracy-heavy gatherings this year, including one in Texas in May that was backed by QAnon advocates who have falsely claimed Trump will become president again this year.
Other Trump loyalists have popped up at the ReAwaken events, including Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who also was pardoned by Trump after he was convicted of lying to Congress and other felonies as part of the federal inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, and Charlie Kirk who runs the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA.
Anne Nelson, the author of Shadow Network, a book about the rightwing Council for National Policy, which boasts some key evangelicals, said Clark’s ReAwaken tour has echoes of earlier “religious political entrepreneurs” but said Clark “has modernized their techniques with religious rallies and media platforms promoting Trump surrogates like Michael Flynn and medical misinformation peddlers like Simone Gold, to build momentum for the radical right, leading up to next year’s midterms and 2024.”
The ReAwaken gatherings have dovetailed with more drives by conservative doctors and Trump loyalists spreading pandemic and election disinformation.
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For instance, Gold’s America’s Frontline Doctors, which was formed with the help of Tea Party Patriots early last year, filed a motion this July aimed at the health department seeking to halt vaccinations. The motion contained some widely debunked assertions about Covid-19.
The discredited claims included that CDC data reveals that the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are “not effective in treating or preventing” Covid-19, and that the pandemic is not a public health emergency.
Further, Gold’s group announced in May that it was launching a national RV “Uncensored Truth Tour” with an initial focus on several states including Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Critics see the RV tour as another vehicle for Gold to spread disinformation, as in her comments in Washington at a rally the day before the Capitol attack, when she labeled FDA approved vaccines “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine” and urged people to avoid being “coerced”.
More broadly, Redlener is dismayed by the abundance of disinformation at the ReAwaken America rallies, and via similar avenues. “The increasingly flagrant promotion of anti- science ignorance and bizarre political extremism is worrisome,” he said.