Mitt Romney, a man who went from getting 72.6% of Utah’s votes for president in 2012 to garnering an approval rating of only 34% among Utah Republicans in a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll last February, knows a thing or two about the shifting winds of public opinion. 

He doesn’t like how they’re blowing in the pandemic.

To be specific, he believes a growing distrust of authority is “a canary in the coal mine” for the United States.

In a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Tuesday, Romney said he is mystified by the hesitancy of so many Americans, including Utahns, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is endorsed by religious and government leaders alike.

“People tend not to listen to those with experience and perspective, and instead go to the internet and have more confidence in an entity with an anonymous name that they don’t even know, where there are no editors and, in many cases, (the posters are) adversaries,” he said.

As if real life were nothing more than a never-ending series of sitcom plots, his meeting with us came not long after the FDA felt it necessary to issue the following general statement: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

Sen. Mitt Romney
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, meets with Deseret News and KSL editorial boards in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Many Americans are only two or three generations removed from ancestors who dealt with livestock daily, in one way or another. They didn’t need Washington to tell them the difference.

But today, large numbers of Americans, persuaded by various people on the internet and at least a trio of Fox News hosts, are taking a deworming medicine designed for livestock, called ivermectin.

It’s supposed to cure COVID-19. At least, that’s what people on the internet say — people like the one I found on Facebook who, underneath a photo of the medicine (the box has a picture of a horse, in case of any confusion), wrote, “... less than a hour after taking Ivermectin paste per my body weight I was mostly symptom free. ... Was in bad shape until then! This ... works I don’t care what anyone else says.”

It’s false. It doesn’t cure COVID-19. At its worst, it could be intentional misinformation begun by enemies of the country, that is then spread by “friends” on social media.

But the Facebook poster may have hit on the motto of a new generation of Americans: We don’t care what anyone else says, especially if they are in any position of authority. Tell us what to do and we’ll kick up a fuss like a bucking bronco — one that conveniently is free of worms.

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The FDA’s use of “y’all” was a nod to Mississippi, where the state health department says at least 70% of recent calls to its poison control center were from people who had taken the drug. Most cases apparently were mild, but the Mississippi Free Press reported at least one person had to be hospitalized. 

What can be said about a generation that, raised amid the miracles of modern medicine and the luxuries of high living standards, would rather self-medicate with horse medicine than take a vaccine the experts say will keep the virus at bay and, at long last, end the pandemic? What can be said about a distrust of authority so deep it uproots confidence in science, religion and institutions as important as free elections?

In case you had any misunderstanding about how deep the distrust goes, former President Donald Trump — whose administration made the quick development of the vaccine possible — encountered a smattering of jeers when he told a rally in Alabama to take it.

“I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do,” he told the crowd. “But, I recommend take the vaccines. It’s good. I did it. Take the vaccines.”

Sensing trouble, he quickly retreated to attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci and mask mandates. 

The winds of public opinion can turn quickly, indeed.

To be honest, I take exception to Romney’s assertion that all of this is a canary in the coal mine. That bird’s been dead for a while. But what it sniffed before taking its final breath ought to concern us all.

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A free government, tempered by checks and balances and an independent judiciary, can’t last long if the people it governs lose all trust in its institutions, or in the basic goodness of most people who run them. 

When it comes to authority, Americans have a long history of healthy skepticism, but evidence shows it hasn’t been healthy for a while. The Pew Research Center has been studying this since the days of Eisenhower. Today, only about a quarter of people say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time, and they don’t much trust each other, either.

Unless you’re selling snake oil or horse medicine, that is.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist

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