HermanCainAward, one of the fastest-growing subreddits on Reddit.com, is exactly what it sounds like: an archive of those who have been hospitalized and/or killed by COVID and didn’t believe the disease could harm them. It is named after Republican Herman Cain, the onetime candidate for president who succumbed to COVID some weeks after attending a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at which he was photographed maskless in the summer of 2020. Cain’s Twitter account would continue to downplay the virus even after his death.
The Herman Cain Award concept is simple and ugly. A single entry to the subreddit consists of anywhere between two and 16 screenshots of a social media profile (usually Facebook, with last names scrubbed out) belonging to someone who died after aggressively rejecting precautions that could have protected them and others. The idea is to track the individual’s journey from COVID theory, so to speak, to COVID practice: what a person posted or commented about masks or shots, or those who advocated for either before getting sick, and how they and their community narrated their disease once they were ill. As the forum has grown, entries have started following a fairly standard format: The first few screenshots typically feature the individual in question deploying a remarkably consistent set (there are 30 or so) of memes. Some vilify Dr. Anthony Fauci or champion the right to be unvaccinated. Others warn people they’re experimental rats or offer scripts that will properly punish wait staff for daring to inquire about vaccination status. Some deride masked liberals as “sheep” and the unvaccinated as proud free lions or refer to immigrants as vectors of disease or compare vaccination requirements to the Holocaust. Most of them treat the pandemic as a joke and frame ignoring it as brave or clever or both. The final few screenshots typically announce the disease, its progress, and the eventual death announcement, frequently followed by a GoFundMe for the family. If someone is merely hospitalized, the flair on that entry reads “Nominated.” When they die, it changes to “Awarded.”
It is cruel, a site for heartless and unrepentant schadenfreude. This is a place where deaths are celebrated, and it is not the only one. While endless ink has been spilled on the anger of Trump voters and Fox News viewers and QAnon adherents, there are other angers that haven’t been nearly as well explored. The exhaustion and fury doctors and nurses feel, for example, as they deal yet again with overwhelmed ICUs. Instead of being hailed as heroes, this time around they’re risking their lives to serve while walking through anti-vax protesters and being called murderers or worse by misled family members demanding or indeed suing for sick unvaccinated relatives on ventilators to be dosed with ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine or vitamin C. There is the anger of family members of those without COVID who are dying or sicker than they should be because treatment was delayed or denied to them at dozens of hospitals that had no beds available. There’s the frustration of parents trying to keep their children safe, the constant, destabilizing calculations and adaptations people are forced into when (for instance) the governor of Texas prohibits schools from taking safety measures and then two teachers at a single school die, forcing closures once again. There’s the run-of-the-mill anger of those weary of living under pandemic conditions and demoralized—in the most literal sense—by the selfishness of their compatriots.
Subscriptions to the HermanCainAward subreddit are increasing exponentially, from 2,000 subscribers on July 4 to 5,000 at the beginning of August to more than 100,000 on Sept. 1 to 243,000 Friday to 276,000 today. If that rate is any indication, rage is growing toward anti-vaxxers deliberately prolonging the pandemic out of an anti-social and deadly understanding of their rights. Now, it’s true that not everyone on the subreddit assents to its spiteful premise: One exhausted nurse wrote a long post about how much one of her anti-vax patients suffered, as an attempt at counterbalance. She acknowledged her own compassion fatigue but also urged readers to think harder about how we got to this sorry pass. Plenty of the discussions do orbit around that basic question. But most of the comments are angry. A collection of screenshots generally elicits a common sentiment: The person got their just deserts.
I began reading because I wanted to understand how pro-social impulses could get coarsened to the point where advocates for lifesaving measures like vaccines—people who think of themselves as the good guys—are literally celebrating deaths. I’m no closer to understanding that, but something very strange did happen because I read these records: Despite reading loads of statistics and case histories and news articles about the pandemic, r/HermanCainAward became my most thorough source on what it’s like for a person to die from COVID. I understand the disease more deeply because I have read so many viciously curated “stories” in which ordinary people blathering about politics end up narrating their decline from it—with help from their families—as optimistically as they can. They are younger than COVID patients used to be. Trying to put a positive spin on things. Soliciting prayers. Generally avoiding conversions. They do not expect to die. It’s relentless reading. And it keeps ending up the same way. Only health care workers have seen this many people decline and die.
It has always been and remains a problem that COVID is functionally invisible to so many Americans. We already medicalize death more than most cultures, but the sensible restrictions on visitors to COVID wards have meant that the disease crippling hospitals across the country goes mostly unwitnessed. We all know getting on a ventilator is bad and having to go on an ECMO machine is worse, but most of us have not heard what lungs sound like when they have that by-now-classic “ground glass appearance” in scans. We have not watched people panicking and yanking tubes out because they can’t breathe. We have not seen patients swollen and full of air, unrecognizable. Or proned. Or having their last conversation before they go on the ventilator.
You don’t see most of this stuff in these r/HermanCainAward screenshots, either, but you do see a lot you just wouldn’t otherwise. Specifically, you see the suffering. It’s filtered, of course, usually through collapsing defiance and positive thinking that fails. People post that they’re not feeling well when they’ve already become patients. They usually put it simply, with a request for prayers. The contrast to their grandstanding in prior posts acts as an intensifier; that they aren’t commenting on the very thing they’ve preached about so much comes to serve—cumulatively, as you read these—as evidence of just how awful they feel. The selfies can be brutal. The photographs family members post are worse because the patient is frequently unconscious, bloated, clearly in a bad way. Relatives’ updates tend to feature obsessive medical details like ventilator settings and oxygen saturations, and you learn to recognize the time course of the disease: When mentions of dialysis start up, you know, as a reader, that the prognosis is poor. The death announcement—once the requests for prayers and hopes for miracles are over—frequently reveals how much worse it really was than anyone let on: You find out the patient also had MRSA, or had developed an autoimmune disease, or had struggled with strokes and clots.
Jaded though they are, many r/HermanCainAward readers have experienced this much as I did: as a truly frightening look at what COVID can really be like. What hundreds of stories about deaths told through mean-spirited screenshots reveal is that the disease—when it gets bad—is worse than even the most pro-vax person really understood.
And that’s what sets r/HermanCainAward apart from the didactic pleasures of other schadenfreude-based forums like r/LeopardsAteMyFace: It’s more horrible than satisfying because the horror isn’t going to stop. These individual stories do not produce conversions. These aren’t situations where anti-vaxxers learn their lesson, get vaccinated, and save themselves. Sure, there’s the occasional “Redemption” tag, awarded when a patient or relative regrets opposing vaccination and urges their friends to do what they can to avoid a similar fate. But those are rare. What this massive record of human suffering really illustrates (in all its startling, repetitive sameness) is how seamlessly anti-vax communities reconcile themselves to the deaths their convictions will perpetuate. The posts about individual liberty and self-sufficiency devolve into abjectly dependent appeals: A call to “prayer warriors” is almost a required feature at this point in a r/HermanCainAward entry. When someone dies, the grief is gentle and generic: He was a good guy, he got his angel wings today, it was his time, God called him home. Their families frequently express gratitude to the medical staff who cared for their loved ones. It is resignation, and deeply sad. And yet: Chilled though I’ve been by how this subreddit can rejoice at a death, I’m somehow no less chilled by how easily the bereaved normalize their losses. A 35-year-old man with three young children and a free vaccine available should not be dead! There is astonishingly little recognition of this.
If these individual stories seem to change nothing, what about a cumulative record? Does anything besides schadenfreude happen when Americans see one after another after another after another of these stories? I’m not sure, but a new category has recently been gathering steam in the subreddit: the IPA (Immunized to Prevent Award). People post photos of their new vaccination cards, saying that reading the r/HermanCainAward finally convinced them they didn’t want to “win.” They get enthusiastically cheered on by commenters. “I’m not anti-Vax,” one such comment reads, “I was just afraid and confused by all the misinformation out there. Genuinely frightened and confused. Taking a quick 5 minute look at this Sub-reddit brought me back down to earth. I’ll be getting my first round of the Pfizer Vaccine early next week. Thank you for existing.” There are more of these than you might expect; who knows if these stories are true, but if even some of them are, maybe these stories can, in the aggregate, persuade people who wouldn’t be especially moved by specific cases.
Nothing about the r/HermanCainAward, a dark record of a dark, dark time, is decent or kind or particularly fair. Even using Cain as the model is uncharitable; he was actually among the conservatives who didn’t deny that COVID was real. He advocated following CDC guidelines including social distancing and even masks on his radio show, despite not always adhering to those recommendations himself. I’m not sure that matters; no one could argue that a place where people gather to mock the dead is “moral,” or accuse it of hypocrisy, or of virtue signaling, or of coastal elitism. It is an anti-persuasive venue, a place that dispenses with rational appeals for people to behave better in favor of something much more primal and horrifying. And who knows? Maybe it’s persuading people specifically because it’s not trying to.