Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
John Nolte was a foot soldier in the Trump Revolution. A longtime Breitbart.com writer, Nolte made his bones writing anti-media screeds defending Donald Trump's most indefensibly bigoted comments. Nolte's influence (like that of Breitbart.com itself) waned in recent years as Trumpism took over the Republican Party and such defenses became commonplace in right-wing media. But it is reasonable to think that by writing for the Trump base for more than a decade, Nolte gained both credibility with those readers and insight into their thinking.
Now, Nolte is promoting the safe, lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines that conservatives like his readers have disproportionately rejected. And the argument he's selected to try to convince them is notable because it demonstrates his understanding that those readers are brain-poisoned by reflexive partisanship and conspiracy theories. Nolte's argument is wrong, and crazy, but because it's based on what I consider an accurate reading of his targeted audience, it just might work.
Nolte has urged his readers to get vaccinated in a series of pieces over the last two weeks, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 deaths are now among the unvaccinated. But he also argues that by getting the shots, his readers could foil the efforts of the "organized left," which he says has been employing "reverse psychology" to "trick" them into not taking the "Trump Vaccine."
Nolte's new, pro-vaccine conspiracy theory features a range of right-wing grievances that are familiar to his audience. He suggests that a cabal of "sociopaths" including "His Fraudulency Joe Biden," other Democrats, journalists, and celebrities, are trying to "bully" the right into getting vaccinated as a way of manipulating them into declining the shots. The conspirators are doing this, Nolte alleges, because unvaccinated Trump voters are more likely to die, which would make it easier for Democrats to win elections and implement their "fascist agenda," which includes unleashing "terrorists like Antifa and Black Lives Matter into our cities."
In short, Nolte is saying that his readers have been deceived into thinking that they can own the libs by refusing the vaccine, when they can really own the libs by taking it.
It's incredibly toxic for Nolte to posit, without anything resembling evidence, that the president is literally trying to kill a vast swath of Americans for political gain -- asking Breitbart readers, "In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?" And Occam's razor cuts Nolte's theory to shreds. It is much more logical to interpret Biden and others taking steps to encourage higher vaccination rates as the result of them wanting more Americans to live. It makes more sense to view the "bullying" Nolte perceives as coming from celebrities and others as genuine frustration at the anti-vax right endangering themselves and others. He is also curiously uninterested in the right-wing commentariat's role in discouraging vaccinations and undermining the vaccination campaign, making it unclear whether they are foolish dupes for falling for the "reverse psychology" gambit or willing partners in the effort to kill their audience members.
But while his argument is incoherent and far-fetched, I think it might be effective in convincing recalcitrant Trump voters to get vaccinated. Indeed, his pitch is not too far off from something I threw out two months ago as a message that might resonate with unvaccinated Trumpists. I suggested that more of them would take shots "if Democrats started adopting the message that they are happy Republicans aren't getting the vaccine because, when they contract the disease and die, it will be easier for Democrats to win elections and enact socialism." Nolte's innovation is to argue that Democrats secretly believe that "the more of us who die, the better," and that their public statements urging Republicans to get vaccinated actually prove it.
Nolte has written for a right-wing audience for more than a decade. I've studied right-wing media for roughly the same amount of time. What we both understand is that Nolte's readers and others who rely upon the right-wing media ecosystem are consumed by conspiratorial thinking and pathological hatred of the left. We agree that they have become so driven by owning the libs that they are willing to risk their lives to do so.
Where we differ, I think, is that Nolte considers this accelerationist nightmare a good thing, which the scheming of pernicious leftists drove out of control during the pandemic. I'd argue instead that these are the tragic but foreseeable fruits of Nolte and a generation of others in right-wing media relentlessly stoking rage and paranoia on the right.
On the other hand, Nolte is an unrepentant Trumpist who is openly urging his audience to take the lifesaving vaccines. That's a combination that has proved quite rare -- instead, with few exceptions, we've seen a push for vaccination largely from center-right commentators who lack credibility with Trumpists, while pro-Trump commentators at Fox News and elsewhere who have more sway over that audience undermine those efforts. Nolte's argument is wrong, but at least he's trying. And because it is wrong, I hope his effort succeeds. Please, own me.