The science behind why conservatives are so easily triggered

Curiously, it is the same reason why they are best equipped for the meme wars

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 22, 2023 5:47AM (EST)

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump wait outside of Trump's President's Day event at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of former US President Donald Trump wait outside of Trump's President's Day event at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Across the right-wing propaganda and disinformation echo chamber, or perhaps even in person, you have likely encountered the following phrase: "I drink liberal tears." 

Those four words and their many variations are not harmless or empty. It's not just a joke or forced type of humor by self-styled "edge lords" and other right-wing disruptors and provocateurs. "I drink liberal tears" is an embodiment of a political worldview that is fascist, authoritarian and anti-human.

That phrase reflects a type of collective antisocial behavior that psychologists have described as "the dark triad" (Machiavellianism; narcissism; psychopathy). We see this with the cruel behavior of mocking newly elected Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania because he suffered a stroke, making fun of President Biden's public love for his son who is struggling with drug addiction, dismissing the pain and suffering experienced by mass shooting victims and their families, and minimizing the human tragedy caused by the COVID pandemic.

Such antisocial and cruel behavior is not simple "trolling" or other such diminutive catch-all statements. It is something far worse and much more dangerous: psychological warfare.

The lie that conservatives are more "rational" than liberals is a way of naturalizing fascism and other forms of authoritarianism.

At Vice, Jacob Siegel explained how information warfare via memes is designed to wear down the opposition and to encourage collective action by the global right and other neofascists and their collective forces in pursuit of their destructive project.:

We've just witnessed a successful meme insurgency in America. Donald Trump's campaign was founded as an oppositional movement—against the Republican establishment, Democrats, the media, and "political correctness." It used memes successfully precisely because, as an opposition, it benefited by increasing disorder. Every meme about "Sick Hillary," "cucks," or "draining the swamp" chipped away at the wall built around institutional authority.

Trump's win shocked the world, but if we all read alt-right power broker Jeff Giesea's paper about memetic warfare in 2015, we might have seen it coming.

"For many of us in the social media world, it seems obvious that more aggressive communication tactics and broader warfare through trolling and memes is a necessary, inexpensive, and easy way to help destroy the appeal and morale of our common enemies," he said.

In all, "liberal tears" are an intimidation and bullying tactic intended to break democratic norms and institutions around compromise, dialogue, reality, and what constitutes a humane society.

New research by Minyoung Choi, Melissa M. Karnaze, Heather C. Lench, and Linda J. Levine which appears in the journal Motivation and Emotion highlights the larger dynamics at work with how conservatives and liberals have divergent views and understandings of rationality and emotions. These differences are at the heart of America's democracy crisis and an ascendant neofascist movement that has embraced violence and other forms of extremism and illiberal behavior and policies. PsyPost summarizes the new research article "Do liberals value emotion more than conservatives? Political partisanship and Lay beliefs about the functionality of emotion" as follows:

A series of three studies has found that political liberals tend to see emotions as more functional than more conservative people. This comes in spite of the fact that more liberal participants reported less emotional well-being….

Over the past few decades, society in the United States has become more polarized. Liberals and conservatives have come to report more animosity towards the other group than warmth for their own group. Both studies and casual observations indicate that at least some of this polarization might come from the way they see and evaluate the importance of emotions.

The commonly endorsed stereotypes about the two political orientations also revolve around their attitude towards the importance of emotions. According to these stereotypes, liberals are seen as "bleeding-hearts," emphasizing the importance of emotions, while conservatives are seen as cold, emphasizing a lower value assigned to emotions.

Conservative memes expressing scorn for liberal emotions such as "Facts don't care about your feelings" and "America runs on liberal tears" also emphasize this difference. The authors of the new research see this contrast between the two political orientations as differences in their beliefs about how functional emotions are.

PsyPost concludes:

The researchers then used the data to estimate "progressivism".

"We defined progressivism as the extent to which each participant prioritized the 'individuating' moral foundations of Care and Fairness more than the 'socially binding' moral foundations of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity when judging actions to be right or wrong," they explained. Further analyses showed that the link between liberalism and viewing emotions as functional was largely explained by liberal participants' greater endorsement of individualizing than social binding values.

"Our findings suggest though that liberals view emotion as a feature of rationality while conservatives view it as a bug. Across three studies, liberals viewed emotion as more functional than conservatives – that is, as a healthy source of information about the self that provides direction in life rather than as a weakness and a waste of time," the study authors concluded.

Of course, conservatives are not more "rational" than liberals. The evidence actually suggests the opposite, that conservatives may in fact be more "emotional" in their decision-making approach to political and other social matters. Neuroscientists, social psychologists, and other researchers have shown that the brains of conservative authoritarians are more sensitive to fear and threat than are the brains of liberals.

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As compared to liberals, conservatives also have the following traits:

  • An intolerance for ambiguity and rejection of complexity.
  • A tendency to fixate more on unpleasant objects and thoughts (negativity bias).

Conservatives are also driven by death anxieties and existential fears about safety from some type of other. In addition, conservatives have a social dominance orientation to their behavior which translates into a desire for fixed and rigid social hierarchies and in-group and out-group arrangements in society. They reject democracy for that reason and are subsequently attracted to strongman leaders and autocratic regimes because they incorrectly believe that they are simple, orderly and efficient. 

Researchers have shown that the brains of conservative authoritarians are more sensitive to fear and threat than are the brains of liberals.

Conservatism is a type of motivated social cognition. Sexism and racism are key elements of that decision-making process and are reflected in how conservatives view the relationship between emotions and government. Mediated by a belief in "traditional gender roles," conservatives tend to stereotype women as being "overly emotional." This translates into a rejection of governmental policies and leaders that are deemed to be "feminine" because they are seen as modeling traits of care and concern and empathy.

Whiteness and masculinity are social constructs. Historically and through to the present, the intersection of those identities ("white masculinity") has created a social fiction and lie where in America and across the West white men are seen through the white racial frame as being inherently somehow more rational, reasonable, and intellectual than Black and brown people (especially women of color). The implication of this lie and social fiction is that, both implicitly and explicitly, Black and brown people are deemed to be not fit for full and equal citizenship in the polity. Trump's coup attempt, the attack on the Capitol, the Big Lie and its underlying belief that the votes of Black and brown people (and by implication multiracial democracy) are somehow fraudulent and illegitimate as compared to the votes cast by white Republicans, Trumpists, and "conservatives" is an example of those sexist and white supremacist values at work.

Ultimately, "I drink liberal tears" and the types of politics and values it represents and encourages is fundamentally a claim about power and authority. Conservatives do not believe in real freedom or democracy. Those who disagree with them are to be silenced if not crushed outright. The lie that conservatives are more "rational" than liberals is a way of naturalizing fascism and other forms of authoritarianism. In the end, there is nothing to debate or discuss -- which is one of the defining features of a healthy democracy -- because "conservatives" and fascists and other authoritarians imagine themselves as homo superior and all other people are inferior and therefore need to be dominated and subjugated.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Authoritarianism Commentary Conservatives Democracy Crisis Democrats Fascism Liberals Psychology Republicans