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I want to share with you two remarkably similar numbers. At first glance, they should have nothing to do with each other. On closer examination, they’re inextricably linked.
The first number is 57. That’s the percentage of Republicans who told Yahoo News/YouGov pollsters that the United States should take Ukraine’s side as it defends itself against Russian invasion (28 percent said the U.S. should back neither, and 5 percent said we should back Russia). By contrast, 76 percent of Democrats said the U.S. should back Ukraine.
The second number is 56. That’s the percentage of Republicans who told Kaiser Family Foundation researchers that they were vaccinated. For Democrats, it’s 92 percent. The partisan disparity is so profound that fully 61 percent of all unvaccinated adults are Republican.
Vaccines have nothing to do with Russia, and Russia has nothing to do with vaccines. So why are those two numbers so similar? The answer lies with a phenomenon that afflicts a substantial minority of the right, including a substantial minority of my neighbors. It’s a constant, intense contrarianism rooted in deep antipathy against perceived “elites” or against the “establishment” on the left or the right.
The overlap between various conspiracy theories is simply extraordinary. Find someone who believes Trump truly won the 2020 election, and the overlap with anti-masking activism (especially pre-vaccine) and vaccine skepticism is almost guaranteed. Find someone who believes in the basics of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and you’ll find an election conspiracist and likely a Ukraine skeptic.
Indeed, contrarianism and antipathy also present a crucial explanation for Trumpism. What’s a key reason the right likes Trump? Because the mainstream media doesn’t. When would they boo Trump? When he conforms to what the establishment wants, including by getting a COVID-vaccine booster.
If you spend any time watching Tucker Carlson or following the rhetoric of popular far-right voices, such as Candace Owens, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and many, many others, you’ll see a consistent theme—they’ll find what they call “the narrative” (another word for the perceived conventional wisdom in the media or in the political establishment) and simply argue the opposite.
We saw the pattern throughout the pandemic. “The narrative” was that COVID was serious, and so right-wing figures minimized the virus, claiming that it was like the common cold, or that it was merely the flu, or that it would claim only 500 or 5,000 lives.
“The narrative” claimed that masks could help limit the spread of the disease, so far-right figures mocked masks, sometimes even referring to them as “face diapers.”
Then as the narrative moved to full-throated support for vaccines, the same cohort held back. If “they” want me to take a vaccine, then something must be wrong.
The right-wing contrarian can quote chapter and verse of every time the narrative was incorrect. And there are certainly legitimate critiques to level against the conventional wisdom. Way too many people in the mainstream media and political establishment were too credulous about the Steele Dossier, for example. At the same time, many of the same individuals were too quick to dismiss the authenticity of the Hunter Biden emails disclosed in the waning days of the 2020 election and to improperly label them Russian disinformation.
Regarding COVID, every scientific stumble and mistake is on instant recall. The contrarian is quick to point out the inefficacy of outdoor masking, the bizarre reversals of warnings against mass gatherings during the George Floyd protests, and the improper delays in reopening schools.
But don’t for a moment mistake contrarianism for critical thinking. A true critical thinker holds all sides accountable for their mistakes. Those who underplayed the COVID threat would be rejected just as decisively (if not more, given the staggering toll in lives) as those who overplayed it. Those who said there were no contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign would be rejected just as decisively as those who said there was active collusion with the Russian government.
The critical thinker is universally skeptical. The contrarian commits a double error—he’s both excessively cynical and excessively credulous. He’s too quick to disbelieve one side and too quick to believe the opposite. For example, he’ll reject an avalanche of evidence of the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine while jumping quickly on fad treatments, like hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. He’ll reject overwhelming proof that the January 6 insurrection was a Trumpist attack on the Capitol and respond immediately to speculation that the FBI or antifa instigated the riot.
The same people who were catastrophically wrong about the severity of COVID or the effectiveness of vaccines continue to enjoy an audience from the same people who demand rigorous and merciless accountability from their political opponents.
The pattern holds true across multiple fronts. The contrarians still love the voices who spread absurd misinformation about the 2020 election, in part because the rest of the media rejects them. And what does the Russian invasion teach us about the right? It’s that a similar percentage will resist “the narrative” even when the reality and the morality of the moment could not be more clear.
The Russian invasion tells us something else also. It reaffirms that the pure contrarians are a Republican minority. Living in the heart of red America, I’ve experienced a rough two-thirds, one-third political dynamic. Two-thirds of my neighbors are part of the coalition of the normal. One-third are full of profound antipathy. But the one-third easily makes two-thirds of the noise online or at the grassroots. They punch well above their numerical weight.
They’ve dominated and intimidated Republican politicians and Republican neighbors. They’ve ruled with fear. They’re so active online that they create the impression that they are the American right.
Until now. Yesterday, the House voted 424–8 to impose trade sanctions on Russia. The eight dissenters were all Republican, but there were only eight. It was a sign—a hopeful sign—that the GOP can recover from conspiracy theories and that the contrarian minority will not control the conservative future.
It remains to be seen whether the Republican winds are truly shifting. Much depends on the GOP primaries in 2022 and 2024, and that’s exactly where the far right holds disproportionate sway. But if the GOP is going to turn the page, the 57 percent will need to exert their will. Their sanity and clarity are the key to a Republican recovery.