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When Kayfabe Gets You Killed

At least wrestling is fake. COVID-19 is not.
by Jim Swift
August 10, 2021
When Kayfabe Gets You Killed

There’s an obituary recurring so frequently these days, you could play Mad Libs with the headlines:

  • [COVID-19 critic] [Republican Lawmaker] [GOP Official] [Conservative Media Personality] 

who called 

  • [COVID-19] [Dr. Fauci] [Mask Mandates] [Vaccines] [Lockdowns]
  • [a hoax] [a fraud] [ineffective] [unconstitutional] 

dies of COVID-19. 

Every death from COVID is regrettable, but deaths among people who chose not to get vaccinated are especially frustrating. And there’s something strange about the stories of deathbed retractions of anti-vaccine views, in which very sick individuals who had preached the anti-vaccine gospel recant and encourage others not to do as they did. Take the case of former Newsmax host Dick Farrel, who apparently texted a friend:

Amy Leigh Hair, a close friend of Farrel, wrote on Facebook, “COVID took one of my best friends! RIP Dick Farrel. He is the reason I took the shot. He texted me and told me to ‘Get it!’ He told me this virus is no joke and he said, ‘I wish I had gotten it!’”

It is hard to feel sad for people who abuse their platform or position to spread disinformation and doubt about COVID-19, and later find that they, or somebody they love, is suffering or died from COVID-19. It’s frustrating, because these same people were unable to offer sympathy to those with differing views until they got to the empathy part of COVID-19. Especially when they were profiting—personally or electorally—from doing what they were saying. 

David Frum recently observed that when you try to stop somebody from falling for a scam, by the time they realize it was a scam, they’re more mad at you for being right than they are at the person who scammed them.

But there’s a difference between people like the Newsmax radio fill-in guy—who bought the scam hook, line, and sinker—and the actual famous people who are only doing COVID kayfabe.

For instance, you may have noticed over the last week or so some anti-vaccine types talking about how Hungary is the great nationalist-populist workers’ paradise. But Hungary is a country that actually has vaccine passports, which are supposedly a form of  “Medical Jim Crow.” So which is it?

At Fox News, where vaccine skepticism is on display every night, Rupert Murdoch was one of the first people on the planet to get vaccinated and Fox has a vaccine mandate for employees. And of course, Donald Trump got his Fauci Ouchie a long time ago. Which is not something you hear a lot about. The higher up the food chain you go, the more it seems like being anti-vaxx is a pose, not a lifestyle.

It’s hard to know if any of this breaks through to people. There was an old line about free trade during the ‘90s: The benefits of free trade often aren’t noticed because they don’t hit you in the face. But the downsides of free trade are easy to see if your town is decimated. 

So what’s going to happen with COVID? Will unvaccinated folks be moved to reconsider by the stories of small-p prominent right-wing COVID truthers who die? Or will they continue to be dazzled by the people doing COVID kayfabe?

One of the many tragedies of this pandemic is that only the rich and famous play COVID kayfabe. It’s the little people, the local politicians, the regional media talent, who do really believe what they’re saying. It’s sad.

But if people can learn from them, maybe their deaths won’t be for nothing.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.