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The Dawn and Twilight of the Contrarian Right
When Being "Against the Current Thing" Falls out of Fashion
For the last two decades, we have seen the dramatic rise of a contrarian rightist. Incentivized and enabled by social media, and with the veneer of legitimacy on the back of the shortcomings of Western institutions—these Very Online Contrarians have risen to prominence in the social consciousness. The Contrarian Right has evolved over the years, but today is defined by a worldview fixated on the “Decline of the West," grievances around “Cancel Culture” and “Wokeism,” and a predilection to conspiracy. This movement has enjoyed its day in the sun, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rallying of the West in opposition are seriously challenging a narrative already dogged by an escalating frequency of failed predictions.
It’s difficult to pin the beginning of this movement. Perhaps you could start after 9-11 with the “Truther Movement” which was a conspiracy that claimed the United States government orchestrated the attack on the Twin Towers. This conspiracy was popularized by the “Loose Change” movies, which—predating YouTube—relied on mailed DVDs for distribution. Revealingly, Joe Rogan was an early enthusiast of Trutherism and reportedly bought ten copies of the Loose Change DVD.
Social media hadn’t yet unlocked the frictionless virality characteristic of the conspiracies embraced by today’s Contrarian Rightists, so the Truthers were generally excluded from “polite society.” With rare exception, politicians would not entertain their delusions, the media wouldn’t take them seriously, and societal norms taught us to gently change the subject when these were brought up in conversation. Was this self-censorship? Not really, it was just a set of norms of behavior and mutually agreed upon facts that are important to a functional society. It is not as if there were legal barriers to expressing these incorrect ideas.
Without social media, the Truther movement lost steam. Similar style conspiracies took over thereafter, calling mass shootings “false flags” meant as a pre-text for gun confiscation and “birtherism” insisting that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim. For any of these conspiracies to gain traction, they had to make a wildly emotional claim that would compel more conventional thinkers to energetically deny them. These dismissals by conventional thinkers would then reinforce the false belief among contrarians, and a new conspiracy was born.
At this point, cracks in American Institutional competence had already begun to form, the most prominent of which were the falsehoods from the Bush administration on Saddam Hussein’s WMDs justifying the Iraq War. However at this point, the loudest voices on the Right were institutional neocons who supported the Iraq war, though a rising contingent of Contrarian Rightists had aligned with Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 presidential bids. To many at the time, Ron Paul’s successes were quite surprising. Institutional conservatives dismissed him as not serious, despite winning straw polls and raising large campaign sums from small donors.
Donald Trump’s election was peak euphoria for the Contrarian Rightists who finally felt vindicated after decades of dismissals and rolled eyes from both the institutional left and right. The rise of Trump and the Contrarian Rightists relied on many of the same social media and cable news catalysts and incentives. Contrarianism thrived during the Trump years. This was a paradox, as “contrarianism” typically implied being in the outgroup. In this case, the contrarianism took on a kind of populism where it was fueled by opposition to institutions like the New York Times, CNN, Harvard, and the “elite” who were generally appalled by all things Trump. Conspiracies thrived as well. QAnon and Alex Jones’ InfoWars became household names. These online falsehoods spilled into the real world, manifesting in events like “PizzaGate” where an armed young man radicalized by QAnon demanded entry to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington D.C., where there was a false rumor of children being trafficked from the basement.
It wasn’t until the waning days of the Trump administration that the populist contrarians began to publicly falter. The outset of the Covid-19 pandemic threw the Contrarian Right into a panic of hoarding rice and beans and wearing gas masks while lending credence to the “Prepping” movement. Public Health institutions—sidelined and underfunded for years—were slow to (or completely failed to) acknowledge the seriousness of Covid-19, and when they did, the Contrarian Rightists were quick to pivot to avoid sharing narrative space with the institutionalists. Once the institutions caught up and realized Covid-19 was serious, the populist contrarians pivoted from preppers to “just the flu” minimizers, then alternative medicine cure-alls (bleach, hydroxychloriquine, ivermectin), to anti-mask, and finally to anti-vaxx. Meanwhile the 2020 elections were spawning their own election fraud conspiracies, the January 6th insurrection, and then numerous conspiracies that the insurrection was a false flag (first blaming the media, then Antifa, then the CIA).
Parallel to these popular conspiracies was the online revival of cultural contrarianism. Old prejudices were revived with a contrarian bent: “All Lives Matter” as the new white supremacy, “Tradwife” as the new sexism, and “Gender normative” as the new anti-LGBT. Health fads like the “carnivore diet” and “Low T” took off among the same cohort of individuals. Nostalgia for an idealized past extended beyond “TradWife” traditional family roles—contrarian influencers expressed renewed interest in traditional Western Architecture, disdain for Modern and Contemporary Art, and a fantasy worldview that humans couldn’t possibly affect the climate.
It’s worth noting that the excesses of the left and real failures of institutions at the very least inspired many of the Contrarian Rightists. The Portland riots and lawlessness in cities like San Francisco helped inspire the “All Lives/Blue Lives Matter” movements. Public Health failures, like the Surgeon General’s resistance to masking early in the pandemic undermined later correct messaging on Covid-19. Dismissals of meme stocks, cryptocurrency, and initial characterizations of “transient” inflation could make it seem like all official economic positions were suspect.
The height of the Contrarian Rightist movement introduced a new figure: the Blue Check Contrarian (“Blue Check” referring to the symbol on Twitter that verifies an official account). These very online contrarians amassed huge followings by aligning themselves with populists and castigating “official” narratives. Included in this group are many contrarian podcasters, VCs, Twitter personalities, and Substackers. Of course, there is an implicit paradox here: the Blue Check and huge Twitter followings imply societal approval. Are these people really contrarians or have they become the mainstream? Tucker Carlson is the best example: he claims to be a contrarian voice but has the #1 cable news show. Similarly, Joe Rogan styles himself as a contrarian but has the #1 podcast.
Predictably, the advent of the Blue Check Contrarian was the beginning of the end for the Contrarian Rightist movement, but not just because contrarianism loses its “edginess” when it becomes mainstream. Instead, something unexpected happened: Russia invaded Ukraine. This upended the narrative of the Blue Check Contrarians, who were dismissing President Biden’s daily insistence that an invasion was imminent and for years lauded Vladimir Putin and the “traditional gender and ethnic values” of Russia. It also led to a sudden rallying of Western nations and values that directly confronted the “decline of the West” narrative so central to the Contrarian Rightists.
Suddenly, the contrarians were forced to confront that the West seemed to be correct in its predictions, effective in their sanctions, and just in their opposition to Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. While this conflict is still evolving, the familiar Blue Check Contrarian narratives have begun to unravel. Many former contrarians now are adding Ukraine’s flag to their Twitter names. The most ardent Contrarian Rightists rely on Putin’s entirely unconvincing arguments about “de-nazification,” historic grievances, whataboutism, and “ethnic unity.” And more than anything, even the most ardent Contrarian Rightists are increasingly uncomfortable watching cities like Mariopol being reduced to rubble and despair.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the effective unified Western response are rapidly unraveling the narratives of the Contrarian Right while our old Western institutions regain credibility. This story is still unfolding, but it is encouraging to those of us who believe institutions and liberal values are important and necessary for a thriving, peaceful world. For Ukrainians, this isn’t about clashing narratives however, but simply a daily struggle to survive: both for their families and for their flawed-but-free home country.
P.S.: It’s possible I’m too optimistic with a near-term collapse of contrarianism. I was also hopeful that January 6th would be the end. As with January 6th, it did seem like the contrarianism fever broke at first, and basically everyone was appalled. But as the weeks have progressed post-invasion, there has been backsliding and far-right figures are again blaming the West, stoking conspiracies (eg, about widespread Nazism in Ukraine, anti-semitic aspersions of Zelenskyy and his wealth, calling Ukraine a territory of the United States while victimizing Putin, etc). It may take more for the fever to break, but it will break eventually. (3/25/22 - DP)