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It would be easy to dismiss the many odd things that come out of Danielle Smith’s mouth as the product of a disordered mind. Easy, and accurate.

The past week alone has provided several examples. Equating the vaccine-compliant majority with Hitler’s followers; suggesting police officers who enforced public-health orders should face criminal charges; calling for doctors to be removed from decision-making roles in the next pandemic, in favour of the military; all on top of her previous musings about ivermectin, the World Economic Forum, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of course, Alberta sovereignty: she appears to have no analytical filter of any kind, but rather functions as a sort of ideological magpie, lining her nest with whatever shiny objects she happens across, without further examination.

Certainly, it is hard to see what any of this has to do with conservatism: limited government, respect for tradition, all that. Indeed, some have argued persuasively that she is not a conservative at all.

On the other hand, she is hardly alone. A lot of conservatives have made the same strange journey as Ms. Smith in recent years, and have arrived at much the same set of crackpot beliefs: anti-vax, anti-WEF, and so on. Canadian conservatives may not be as far gone as their counterparts in the United States – though distressing numbers of both think Donald Trump won the 2020 election – but it is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

This cannot be coincidental. Why have so many on the right, not to put too fine a point on it, lost their minds? What it is about conservatives these days that makes them so susceptible to insanity?

Tribalism – this is what my side believes, therefore it is what I believe – doubtless has a great deal to do with it, but it fails to explain why this particular tribe should have settled on this particular belief system. Likewise, to put it down to a desire to “own the libs” – whatever they are against I must be for – does not tell us why this must be achieved by such fantastic means. Liberals are tetchy enough to begin with; it should be possible to enrage them with the facts.

It’s this detachment from reality that sets today’s conservatives apart. The left has its share of fanatics, but they do not give the same impression of having suffered a complete psychotic break; they are doctrinaire, not deranged.

Many things have contributed to this. Liberals have for some time controlled the commanding heights of the culture – in academe, in government, in the media and the professions – to an extent that was bound to breed resentment, even if they had made some effort to hide their disdain for the hicks below. This resentment has, perhaps inevitably, become attached, not just to the keepers at the gates of knowledge, but to knowledge itself.

Add the baleful effects of social media, with its facility both for spreading lies and emboldening those who believe in them; throw in a couple of complex, easily muddied issues like climate change and the pandemic and you have a recipe for mass confusion, not to say delusion.

But there’s an additional element that I think warrants special mention. It is a distinctive feature of the conservative psyche: an ingrained oppositional mentality, a habitual, almost reflexive mistrust of whatever is conventional wisdom, a fatal weakness for the contrarian take. If the characteristic liberal facial expression is pursed-lip piety, the conservative equivalent is the knowing smirk.

A certain amount of contrarianism has much to recommend it – my business in particular is based on it – as the conventional wisdom is often wrong. It is also, it must be admitted, deeply satisfying. The discovery that “everyone else is wrong and I am right” can induce an almost narcotic-like feeling of wellbeing.

And therein lies the danger. Over time the narcotic wears off: the high requires stronger and stronger doses to sustain it. Thus, the conservative spiral of the last decade. What starts out as an enlightened skepticism of this or that shopworn liberal nostrum becomes a dogmatic insistence that all liberal nostrums must be wrong.

At length it becomes a rejection of all nostrums of any kind: anything on which there is a consensus. The more widespread a belief, and the more eminent the scholarship behind it, the more this becomes proof of its falsity. So, the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists believe the earth is warming and we caused it? What did I tell you? Groupthink!

At these higher doses the kick takes on a conspiratorial edge: I have seen through the lies others were taken in by. “They” tried to fool me, but I was wise to them. Which is how you end up with a Danielle Smith as party leader. Or a Pierre Poilievre. Or a Donald Trump.

This is the accelerant in the mix: the contrarian temptation, to which so many conservatives are so irresistibly drawn.