In September 2021, an assemblage of TikTok users anointed themselves “Purebloods” for their repudiation of the COVID vaccine. This was one month after the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first major life-saving intervention of the pandemic. The social media trend spread like a virus, catalyzed by conservative TikTok personalities such as Lyndsey Marie, who declared: “From now on, I refuse to be referred to as #unvaccinated. I want everyone to now call me Pureblood.” Her video attracted hundreds of thousands of views and inspired legions of likeminded anti-vaxers from across TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. To her followers, Lindsey promised a line of merch featuring the slogan “Pureblood: Unmasked, Unvaxxed, Unafraid.” You can still purchase this merchandise today through online retailers like Zazzle, alongside T-shirts that boast “Proudly Unpoisononed” and “The Final Covid Variant is Called Communism.” By this point in the pandemic, 660,000 people in the U.S. had died from COVID-19.
For all its seeming simplicity, the Pureblood slogan is actually dense with meaning. It suggests, paradoxically, that the vaccine will contaminate one’s blood, and that blood is supposedly “pure” before vaccination. The Purebloods marketed themselves as a breed of unsullied humans, superior to the herds of Americans duped into tainting their bloodstreams. The Purebloods were strong enough — their immune systems vigorous enough — to defeat the virus. Still, for some anti-vax activists and conspiracy theorists, COVID was not a real virus but a hoax manufactured by Democrats and other global elites — the latter an anti-Semitic code for powerful Jews.
Activists on the right have been remarkably successful at harnessing vaccine skepticism and suspicion of pharmaceutical companies to expand a right-wing political coalition, tying vaccine hesitancy and a distrust of government to a broader array of far-right ideologies that have become increasingly mainstream in the last few years. Among these entangled ideologies is replacement theory — the idea that nonwhite immigrants would replace “legacy,” i.e. white, Americans and white Westerners living in other countries — and the stolen U.S. presidential election. The resistance to vaccines and masks has also become a litmus test for Republican politicians eager to be elected by a growing far-right political base. What is clear is that the anti-vax position has become a defining characteristic of a right-wing political identity, an identity increasingly rooted in white grievance.
Vaccine hesitancy is not new, and it’s not just confined to the right. It is written into the very ways we speak about vaccines. In her book, “On Immunity,” Eula Biss points out that our language for vaccination informs how we view it: many of the metaphors we have for inoculation involve violation, corruption, and pollution — metaphors which have been wielded cunningly by anti-vax activists. Americans, fixated on guns, call inoculation a “shot”; the British, a “jab.” “Either way vaccination is a violence,” says Biss. We tend to say that multiple vaccines, when given at once, “overwhelm” our system, though there is little evidence to support such an idea. It took the medical journal The Lancet 12 years to retract a now totally debunked argument by Andrew Wakefield linking MMR vaccines to Autism, but we might conclude that the damage has already been done. Other metaphors around vaccination evoke coercion and conformity: to be vaxxed is to be sheep, a mere part of the herd. Popular anti-vax merchandise blazons “Herd Stupidity,” showing images of sheep with syringes poking out of their bodies.
The “Pureblood” movement takes this logic even further. As an anti-vax stance, it mingled popular culture with fascist allegory, conjuring the villains of “Harry Potter” and their fantasied families of unmixed ancestry. It referenced Rowling’s signature villain, Lord Voldemort, with his mission to create a master race of pure-blooded wizards. It is worth reiterating that these TikTok and Twitter Purebloods identified not with the heroes of “Harry Potter,” but with its villains. By this logic, the millions of us getting vaccinated were Mudbloods, the Muggle-born, half-blood wizards and witches who were the heroes and underdogs of Harry Potter.
What to make of this identification with villains? Had the TikTok Purebloods read “Harry Potter” correctly, or at all? Did they know they had come down on the side of evil? To my mind, they were either bad readers or good fascists, or possibly both.
The TikTokers’ self-comparison to Purebloods had an overtly sinister side to it, conjuring Nazis who enshrined blood purity as an ideology, a vehicle for the survival of the Aryan race. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” articulates the ideology directly: “All who are not of good race in this world are chaff … What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood.” There is of course no scientifically valid way to define Jews as a race, but such laws used notions of birth and blood to classify Jews as a race apart from other “good” Germans. Partly modeled on the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. South, the Nuremberg laws of the 1930s decreed that people with three or more Jewish grandparents were Jewish by law. These laws not only provided legal justification for the denial of Jewish citizenship, they offered a blueprint for the eventual extermination of Jewish people.
I would argue that the TikTok Purebloods conjure other recent episodes in U.S. history, including the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, led by alt-right, white supremacist, and white nationalist protestors. The militant, torch-bearing marchers — mostly white men dressed in the guise of preppy-respectability, with loaded assault rifles and Nazi insignia — chanted “blood and soil,” reclaiming the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden. Blut and Boden promoted a vision of ethnic identity based in German ancestry and land. It glorified rural white peasants as the rightful owners of German soil and empowered this population on the false premise that Jewish merchants had taken peasant land and were the source of their economic hardship. What to make of this far-right ideology of blood purity as it casually recirculates in the idiom of the modern anti-vaccine movement?
The militarized marchers in Charlottesville appropriated Nazi slogans to resuscitate the racial logic of the Antebellum South and Jim Crow — that only white Southerners with Western European ancestry could claim ownership of the land, that Blacks and Jews and nonwhite immigrants and other minority groups were the enemy usurpers of a white confederacy. They chanted, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us,” explicitly invoking replacement theory and the belief in a global Jewish conspiracy. Blood emerges once again as the central image of a propaganda based on the biologically false premise that some racial identities are pure. The U.S. has a long and storied history of anxiety about racial contamination and mixing, and arguably a fascist imaginary to rival that of Germany. U.S. anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing marriage, co-habitation, and sexual relations between mixed-race couples were not struck down in many U.S. states until the 1960s. Such laws were uncannily similar to Nazi Nuremberg Laws, which not only drew sharp lines between “Germans” and “Jews,” but made “blood treason,” the marriage or sexual relations between these groups, forbidden.
Such history converges in the anti-vax doctrine of the Pureblood. The anti-Semitic, white supremacist, and xenophobic tenets of blood purity have become entrenched in populist anti-vaccine sentiments embraced primarily by activists on the far-right, and not just in the U.S context. Other communities that reflect this convergence include online wellness circles, which found common ground with an ablest and racist philosophy that refused allegiance with the so-called weak and vulnerable. Many online wellness influencers doubled down on the notion that a thriving immune system could conquer COVID-19. The bodies that couldn’t rid themselves “naturally” of COVID, through so-called “natural” remedies, were deemed unfit — a Social Darwinist logic that has run rampant throughout the pandemic. Missing, of course, in our deeply polarized conversations about the pandemic is the ability to hold the multiplicity of truths about COVID-19 — that it could be mild for some, and serious and deadly for others, and that it could produce long-term health complications for a significant portion of the population.
As it turns out, many of the figures who dubbed themselves Purebloods also claimed the grievance of Holocaust victims, at the mercy of mask and vaccine mandates and other assaults on their freedoms. Anti-vaccine activists have consistently likened COVID-19 public health measures to the Holocaust and compared healthcare officials to Nazis. Some anti-mask and anti-vax activists even donned yellow stars — like the badges Jews had to wear under the Nazi regime — to emphasize their status as victims.
Nor is it merely fringe activists making such comparisons between pandemic health measures and Nazism. The comparison has been solidified by Republican Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican Washington Representative Jim Walsh, Republican Idaho Representative Heather Scott, Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Lara Logan, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who stated that those opposed to vaccines were more persecuted than Anne Frank. Other anti-vax activists and conspiracy theorists have claimed COVID to be the product of a Jewish conspiracy. Over the last couple of years, anti-Semitic narratives, such as a global Jewish takeover through vaccination, have found fertile ground in anti-vax propaganda. In the paradoxical logic of anti-Semitism, anti-vax crusaders are likened to “Jewish” victims of a Jewish conspiracy seeking global domination.
Right-wing anti-vaxers have used anti-Semitism and racial resentment to don two guises at once, as Ubermenchen with superior, unmixed blood (uncontaminated by both vaccines and by extension, racial mixing), and as victims suffering under an authoritarian regime. I can’t help but think of Jamaica Kincaid’s satire of white grievance in her 1990 novel “Lucy”: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”
All this is quite personal for me. I am haunted by the anti-Semitic and racist overtones of the anti-vax movement, with its enduring belief that some blood is pure and some is not. Purity is not only a childish fantasy, it is a lethal and destructive ideology. As a Jewish woman who lost her mother to COVID in May 2020, it is an affront to hear the equation of pure blood lines with an anti-vaccination movement that has staked its existence on the casual eradication of the most vulnerable — the immunocompromised, the elderly, the Black and Brown and Indigenous communities so disproportionately impacted by COVID. As it happens, many people from many communities died from COVID, including many anti-vaxers. But the rhetoric of the movement remains disturbingly consistent: that because you have a health condition or a disability, or because you are Black or Brown, or because you are older, you are expendable, your life is worth less, you don’t count for as much when you die. This is the language of Nazi eugenics and Social Darwinism, which separates the so-called fit from the unfit.
I think of the privilege involved in declaring oneself pure: bodies magically immune (because economically privileged, or lucky, or white) to a virus that killed my mother so ruthlessly, and took my childhood friend at the age of 41, who was opposed to vaccination. I think of these TikTok Purebloods often and wonder if they are still unsullied by virus or vaccine. When I’m feeling uncharitable, I want them to suffer as much as I have suffered and lost. But most of the time, I wouldn’t wish this nightmare on anyone.
And I am reminded that we are all tied by blood, by virus, by this pandemic, by the choices we make or don’t make, and by the consequences of those choices.
Jennifer Spitzer writes and teaches at the intersection of transatlantic modernism, psychoanalysis, modern spiritualism, the medical humanities, and gender and sexuality. She previously taught at New York University, where she completed her Ph.D., and at Harvard University, as a Lecturer in History and Literature. Her book, “Secret Sharers: The Intimate Rivalries of Modernism and Psychoanalysis,” is forthcoming from Fordham University Press.
Image by Braňo on Unsplash