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Conservatives Are Afraid to Swallow

Why the right is obsessed with things being ‘shoved down our throats’

None of the coronavirus vaccines are administered orally. They are injected into the upper arm with hypodermic needles. But you’d never know that from the way American anti-vaxxers talk about it. According to them, the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s drugs are all being “shoved down our throats.” Hmm.

“It creeps people out when government is almost forcing something down somebody’s throat,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has said in regards to vaccination efforts. Peter Navarro, an economist who served in the Trump administration, recently tweeted that Dr. Anthony Fauci wants to “jam vaccine down kids throats.” And last month, Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe told her nearly half a million followers that “forcing [the vaccine] down the throats of the young and healthy is truly deranged,” since, in her eyes, “COVID isn’t a threat to them.” (Yes it is.)

The brutal irony here is that people who become seriously ill from COVID-19 (an outcome the vaccines effectively prevent) will have something shoved down their throats: a breathing tube. Yet right-wingers’ use of the idiom is hardly confined to medical circumstances. Everything they’re against is, in their view, shoved (or “pushed,” “rammed,” “forced” or “jammed”) down their throats. LGBT identities. Black Lives Matter. Feminism. If the conservative media machine can make something into a boogeyman for their audience, those viewers and readers will then regard whatever it is as invading the popular consciousness.

One could observe that it is the hard-right pundits of the internet and cable TV who are forcing this stuff upon them — how many would have heard of Critical Race Theory without Tucker Carlson railing against a wildly distorted version of it? — but the fact remains: Culture warriors are quite vigilant where it comes to “liberal” policies or concepts metaphorically entering their mouths, presumably to be swallowed, then digested. Perhaps there’s a link to the rise of different “pills” as symbols of ideology, and the fear of consuming a drug that alters your inner chemistry. Or, throat talk could be an extension of the way conspiracy theorists describe the unawakened masses as “sheep” and other livestock being fattened for slaughter. A duck or goose that is force-fed so that its liver can be made into foie gras certainly models the dangers of having anything funneled down one’s throat. Overall, we do prefer to pick what goes in there.

The phrase is useful to the right because of its brutality and the claim of a direct attack. The offending concept never merely exists out there in the world, with minimal effect on your life, but is going to assault your anatomy. It’s a visceral image that invites horror and outrage. However, the frequency with which it appears in homophobic and transphobic contexts raises the possibility that we’re dealing in graphic innuendo. A guy like Omar Navarro (the repeatedly unsuccessful challenger for a congressional seat long held by Rep. Maxine Waters of California) denouncing Disney for shoving “the LGBT agenda” down his throat by including a queer-coded character in the movie Cruella sounds as though he’s afraid of having to suck that character’s dick. And by injecting that extra bit of gay panic into his rhetoric, he projects a dystopian future for his fragile male followers: Someday, they could all be legally compelled to give out blowjobs. The conservative loudmouths aren’t just averse to change — they’re literally scared to swallow.

This is in line with their prudish, sex-negative values more generally, but it’s also an important styling of the commentary. Alleging oral penetration is a much easier play than getting into the weeds of “indoctrination” and “brainwashing.” It’s simple, punchy and explicit. And as a brash overstatement, it distracts from the truth: Disney isn’t shoving anything down Navarro’s throat, since the choice to watch the prequel of a children’s cartoon about Dalmatians is entirely his. Likewise, few right-wingers are confronted head-on by views they insist are regularly jammed into their pieholes. They have every opportunity to remain in their bubbles, both online and off — even as, for example, a deadly virus rips through the demographic. They live in a traditionalist, heteronormative, hyper-patriotic, majority-Christian, racially divided country, and therefore typically look for countervailing opinions or trends to complain about. If you don’t want diversity or acceptance, there are plenty of safe spaces where you can be comfortable.

This reality doesn’t square with a daily trespass against millions of throats. Although, to the extent that leftists want to platform a few big positions — that health care is a human right, climate change is a crisis and inequality is worsening every problem — maybe the “shoving it down our throats” tic has semantic value in reversal. The GOP loves to announce in affronted tones that they’re gagging on the “woke” politics of anti-capitalism and social justice. From another perspective, they’re children uninterested in the health of the national body, refusing to eat the vegetables that would keep us alive. I sure hope some of them grow the hell up.

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