The Conservatives Who’d Rather Die Than Not Own the Libs

Rarely has so significant a faction in American politics behaved in a way that so directly claims the life of its own supporters.

A woman wearing an anti-vax pin.
Jeenah Moon / Reuters

At Breitbart News, the politics of vaccination have taken a strange turn. A longtime writer at the populist-right website who wants to save his Donald Trump–supporting readers from COVID-19 is speculating that the left has tricked them into rejecting safe and effective vaccines.

John Nolte is vaccinated himself and, in an article this week, correctly notes that the shots are “a lifesaver.” But every time he touts what he calls the “Trump vaccine,” his Twitter feed and comment threads on his articles get flooded with irrational arguments and unfounded assertions from anti-vaxxers, he writes. That’s no surprise. The populist-right milieu that Nolte inhabits includes lots of influential voices that spread misinformation about vaccines on Fox News, talk radio, and Facebook. For example, America’s most prominent populist commentator, the Fox host Tucker Carlson, has been amplifying Nicki Minaj’s thirdhand claim that a vaccine had swollen her cousin’s friend’s testicles.

In Nolte’s account, however, a conspiracy of evil leftist elites are to blame for vaccine skepticism on the right. “I sincerely believe the organized left is doing everything in its power to convince Trump supporters NOT to get the life-saving Trump vaccine,” Nolte writes. They are “putting unvaccinated Trump supporters in an impossible position,” he insists, “where they can either NOT get a life-saving vaccine or CAN feel like cucks caving to the ugliest, smuggest bullies in the world.”

This conspiracy theory is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the left. Folks in blue America who fret about the surge of the Delta coronavirus variant want every American to get their shots as soon as possible, because they genuinely fear that unvaccinated adults will infect unvaccinated children, fuel new variants, overwhelm hospitals, burden doctors and nurses, degrade care for those who suffer any other medical emergency, raise the risk of breakthrough cases, and undermine political approval for President Joe Biden’s handling of the pandemic. Those are the reasons, right or wrong, that Biden and many of his supporters favor vaccine mandates. But the populist right has put disdain for the left and the establishment at the center of its identity. And rather than simply telling his readers that refusing a medical miracle in order to defy the left is irrational, Nolte accuses the left of exploiting their psychology.

Writing in a similar vein earlier this month, Nolte decried radio segments in which the shock jock Howard Stern mocked three right-wing talk-show hosts who died of COVID-19 after vocally refusing to get vaccinated.

Nolte theorized:

In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead? If I wanted to use reverse psychology to convince people not to get a life-saving vaccination, I would do exactly what Stern and the left are doing … I would bully and taunt and mock and ridicule you for not getting vaccinated, knowing the human response would be, Hey, fuck you, I’m never getting vaccinated!

Have you ever thought that maybe the left has us right where they want us? Just stand back for a moment and think about this … Right now, a countless number of Trump supporters believe they are owning the left by refusing to take a life-saving vaccine—a vaccine, by the way, everyone on the left has taken. Oh, and so has Trump.

To dispense with the obvious: No healthy person bases any major life decision on anything that Howard Stern says, and the left is not conspiring to thin the ranks of Trump supporters. If leftist elites are conspiring to do anything, it is self-interested stuff: padding their kids’ college applications, abusing historic preservation laws to prevent their neighborhoods from getting more dense. Biden himself wants credit for ending the pandemic, not to own Breitbart News readers.

Related podcast: Where does our bodily autonomy end and our duty to others begin? Listen to The Experiment, a show about people navigating our country's contradictions.

Listen and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts

Perhaps Nolte’s dark, paranoid claims simply show that he has lost touch with reality after looking at everything through a culture-war lens for too long. Or maybe, as some on Twitter have speculated, Nolte is engaging in his own attempt at reverse psychology, calculating that his best chance of persuading the still-unvaccinated among Breitbart’s audience of manipulable, leftist-hating, negatively polarized culture warriors is to tell them that the left doesn’t want them to get the jab and that staying alive is the real way to own the libs. (I requested comment from Nolte but have not yet heard back.)

Either way, a Breitbart polemicist deeply familiar with hard-core Trumpists thinks many of them will make life-and-death decisions not to protect their families but to avoid feeling humiliated by Democratic politicians and liberal celebrities. That’s an extraordinary conclusion.

It brings to mind bygone critiques of the populist right from outsiders attempting to warn about its dysfunction. “The secret shame of the conservative base,” the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez argued in 2009, “is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.” He was writing the year after Sarah Palin’s rise to vice-presidential nominee portended the GOP’s shift from Bushism to populism and the politics of ressentiment, a psychological state in which policy victories are less important than, as Sanchez defined it, “hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration.”

As Palin made gaffes and cost her party votes, the populist right rallied around her more enthusiastically, not less. Sanchez thought this faction was saying, in effect, “We cede to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.” Later, when the GOP base elevated Trump, a boorish, flagrantly vulgar celebrity who gave Stern permission to call his daughter “a piece of ass” and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, there could be no doubt that a faction of Trump’s base reveled in what others found deplorable.

Sanchez thought psychological grievances couldn’t be solved via politics, and, in another 2009 essay, offered conservatives a prescient warning about their base: “There’s a potential strategic benefit for any political movement in tapping these sorts of thicker grounds of solidarity,” he granted. “But the way it elevates and expands the scope of political identity—and therefore of politics—seems like it ought to be anathema to conservative principles.” The populist right, Sanchez argued, was fixating on matters that shouldn’t be swept up in national politics. He concluded, “It’s just another way of living in Washington’s shadow.”

To react to a Biden mandate by eschewing a life-saving vaccine is to die in Washington’s shadow. And Nolte isn’t being paranoid when he posits that the Trumpist right is dying more such deaths. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “As of September 13, 2021, 52.8% of people in counties that voted for Biden were fully vaccinated compared to 39.9% of Trump counties.” An NBC News poll last month found that vaccination rates varied widely by political orientation:

  • Democrats: 88 percent
  • Independents: 60 percent
  • Republicans: 55 percent
  • Republicans who support Trump more than party: 46 percent
  • Republicans who support party more than Trump: 62 percent
  • Democratic Sanders-Warren voters: 88 percent
  • Democratic Biden voters: 87 percent
  • Biden voters in 2020 general election: 91 percent
  • Trump voters in 2020 general election: 50 percent

The populist right is not unique in its self-destructive political behavior. Indeed, its members are quick to point fingers at riots that destroy the rioters’ own neighborhoods or social-justice reckonings that sap progressive institutions’ ability to function.

But rarely has so significant a faction in American politics behaved in a way that so directly claims the life of its own supporters. The approach that Trump voters are taking all but guarantees that more of them will die, relative to other Republicans and to Democrats. If mass death among its members doesn’t inspire an inward reckoning, what will?