The paradoxes of the conservative mind derive from a simple principle

trump voters crowd
Guests attending the White House Easter Egg Roll gather to see President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on the South Lawn of the White House Monday, April 22, 2019, during the 141st White House Easter Egg Roll. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

Observers of the Republican Party and the American right wing have noticed a perplexing pattern of beliefs about the COVID vaccines. While many in conservative media are critical or skeptical of the vaccines, highlighting supposed dangers while also downplaying the risk from the virus itself, many have also insisted that former President Donald Trump deserves much more credit for the vaccine than he's getting.

It creates something of a paradox in the conservative mind: The vaccines are dangerous and overhyped, but also they're something Trump deserves endless praise for having helped create. These ideas do not easily fit together. It's not exactly clear how many people are making these exact claims in parallel, seemingly contradicting themselves, but there's no question that both strands of thought exist comfortably in right-wing discourse without appearing to come into conflict. And there's no real sign of major right-wing figures resolving the contradiction by saying: "The vaccines are bad, and Trump is bad for having had a hand in their creation." Such a thought is anathema.

There have been some conservative figures, such as Fox News' Geraldo Rivera, who have fought against the anti-vax strains in their movement while praising Trump for his administration's role overseeing the development. This is a more consistent view, but it's more marginal in right-wing circles, which tends to be welcoming of anti-vax sentiment, like Fox News prime time host Tucker Carlson.

When it comes to the attack on Jan. 6, a similar paradox emerges. Much of the right wing has come around to the idea that the insurrection at the Capitol was no big deal — indeed, the Trumpy outlet "American Greatness" recently even argued that the rioters themselves should be elected to Congress. This reaction, and the fear that Democrats were making too big a deal out of the attack, was a large part of why Republicans in Congress blocked the formation of a bipartisan commission to study it.

But since the day of the attack, there's been an alternative view on the right. In reality, some claim, it wasn't Trump supporters who violently stormed the Capitol, but leftists and Antifa. This idea came up even this Thursday when "Women for Trump" co-founder Amy Kremer claimed that video of a Trump supporter at the Capitol riot didn't actually show a Trump supporter.

If this were really true, that the left was responsible for the violence at the Capitol, then surely Republicans would be demanding an investigation that would expose this reality. Of course, it's not true — the U.S. Justice Department has arrested hundreds of right-wing Trump supporters involved in the attack with ample evidence of their identities and beliefs.

There's been some internal pushback among those on the right who suggested Antifa was responsible for the attack — including from many of the right-wing rioters themselves. Still, somehow these narratives — the insurrection was no big deal, and also it was infiltrated by violent leftists who framed Trump supporters — somehow manage to exist peaceably within right-wing discourse.

But there's a unifying explanation for both of these contradictions. They derive from the principle that, in the parlance of the internet, the thing that matters the most is "owning the libs."

This simple phrase has somehow become the dominant motivational force for conservatives. It, of course, explains the success of the uber-troll Donald Trump. The right-wing movement and the Republican Party are defined so much more by their opposition to their perceived enemies than any other coherent principles. That's why they can claim to be defenders of the U.S. Constitution while also arguing it should be ripped up if it will keep Trump in power.

When it comes to vaccines, it's clear the libs love them, which immediately makes them suspicious to many conservative thinkers. And even if the conservative is personally willing to take the vaccine, the liberals' insistence that vaccines should be widely encouraged, is anathema, so they're willing to tolerate and accommodate the anti-vaxxers. But liberals also hate Trump, so it's just as appealing to the conservative mind to demand that Trump get credit for the vaccines that the liberals love so much. Whether this all makes sense is less important than if it can make liberals feel bad.

The same goes for Jan. 6. Obviously, the liberals are concerned about the attack, so dismissing it is one way to "own the libs." But if you can also somehow blame the attack on the libs — all the better.

There's another similar paradoxical thought process I found vexing at the start of the pandemic. At the time, many conservatives, following Trump's lead, dismissed the seriousness of the virus. But they also sought to blame the virus on the Chinese government, often insinuating that it was an intentional attack. These ideas didn't make much sense together. If the virus is no big deal, how is it plausible that it's a bioweapon?

Again, though, it didn't have to make sense. This time, it wasn't all about owning the libs. But it was still about knowing who the enemy was. And the Democrats, the public health establishment, and those taking the virus were clearly the enemy. And so was China (even though just weeks before Trump had been praising Chinese President Xi Jinping). This view didn't provide for a coherent response to the virus, but it triggered the emotions conservative figures and their audiences want to feel. And that's much more important than a little cognitive dissonance.

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