For the general public, the word “conspiracy” had an entirely different meaning four years ago than it does today. Before Trumpism had made its way across the United States and the world beyond, conspiracy theories were far-fetched beliefs that were often taken with a grain of salt. Some of the most popular theories in North America to date are that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an inside job, Area 51 is a military centre that experiments on aliens, and the Safeguard Complex in North Dakota is related to the Illuminati. Conspiracists seek to discover the “truth” behind major events or news despite the fact that their explanation is often non-testable and non-refutable. For years, theories have been contrived to explain the unknown, but the power of conspiracy theories was made evident with the emergence of QAnon in October of 2017.
What is QAnon?
It began when an anonymous user posted several times on the message board 4chan. The user self-identified as Q, claiming to have a level of US security clearance known as “Q clearance”. Since the original posts, the group has evolved to theorize that former President Trump, the public’s messiah, is waging a secret war against Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media. Some members of the ‘pedophilic cabal’ include top Democrats such as President Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The group includes Hollywood entertainers like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Ellen DeGeneres; as well as religious figures like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Many QAnon members extend the belief that members of the cabal kill and eat their victims to extract a life-extending chemical called adrenochrome. Ultimately, the group is convinced that there will be a day of reckoning where Donald Trump will arrest and execute these prominent democrats.
While QAnon started as folklore, it is now widely accepted as truth. In December of 2020, NPR and Ipsos conducted a poll to look at the spread of misinformation in the United States. Data displayed that less than half of those polled (47%) were able to identify that this statement is false: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” Thirty-seven percent were unsure about whether it was true or false while seventeen percent believe it to be true. By September 2020, nearly half of Americans had heard of QAnon, which was double the number from six months before. Of those who had heard of it, one-fifth of them had a positive view of the movement.
Why is its existence not surprising?
Millennialism would argue that QAnon is a natural response to the state of social and economic inequality in the United States. Millennialism is a theory proposed by late historian Norman Cohn. It states that countries which live in a state of social change and economic inequality are uniquely susceptible to convictions that a saviour will arrive to punish evil. The feeling of powerlessness translates to rage, and this anger needs direction. In the case of QAnon, the feeling of powerlessness about social change and inequality led portions of the population to direct their rage towards democrats.
In the digital age, millennialist thinking is running rampant online. QAnon is not the first modern conspiracy theory that spread through social media platforms. Japan’s descent into economic recession and stagnation in the nineties and early two-thousands gave rise to a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth).
America is not the first country to descend into conspiracism, but it may be the first to experience conspiracism at this scale.
QAnon is more than a belief system. It is a political movement, social community, and a source of entertainment. For its supporters, QAnon is the social support structure that organizes their lives.
This transition did not happen in a vacuum. QAnon supporters have seen their theories legitimized by Republican politicians across different levels of government. Donald Trump has retweeted QAnon supporters (it is unknown whether he was aware of their affiliation with the group), his son Eric Trump has posted a QAnon meme on Instagram, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is a supporter of QAnon, was elected into US Congress in November.
For the group, these instances of support were food for the validation of the conspiracy, and it was only further driven in Donald Trump’s interview with Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham. In the interview, Trump referenced QAnon talking points, stating that Joe Biden was being controlled by “people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.” Political support, whether intentional or not, confirms the beliefs of the group. It tells supporters that their efforts have not been in vain and that their beliefs are valid.
It is this type of support that makes QAnon so dangerous, dangerous enough to march alongside far-right militants and white supremacists in the January 6th Capital Riots. Trump’s inability to admit his role in the chaos only furthered the belief that the group’s protests had a purpose. It is this purpose that inspired a Colorado QAnon believer to pack a Glock pistol, an assault-style rifle, high-capacity magazines, and 2,500 rounds of ammunition to Washington in hopes of “…heading over to Pelosi C—’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.”
The riots and the plotted assassination of Nancy Pelosi are prime examples of how political propaganda can mobilize a group, no matter how far-fetched their beliefs. When you validate conspiracy, you give validation to a group that is so ingrained in fantasy, they are blind to reality.
Why should QAnon be dismantled?
It is crucial to note that before Trumpism, political parties actively discouraged extremist thinking. This isn’t to say that members of political parties didn’t hold extremist ideologies. The discouragement of such thinking was a matter of political strategy as most voters identified in the middle of the political spectrum. It follows then that appealing heavily to one side of the political spectrum would discourage the large body of moderate voters.
However, Trump’s presidency overturned this trend—no President dating back to the 1950s has had a larger partisan gap in his approval ratings than Donald Trump.
Trump energized his followers through right-wing populism. In so doing, he appealed to groups that were anti-establishment, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, and often anti-human rights. When you have a President who continuously spouts hateful speech about minorities, you add fuel to a movement that supports those same beliefs. When this President then references QAnon talking points, supports the movement directly or indirectly, and believes many of the same things the conspiracy claims, you mobilize a group to believe that their hate is reasonable. When you elect a Congresswomen who is not only a member of QAnon, but is also racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, fascist, and insurrectionist, you send a message that these beliefs are deserving of a place in a democratic institution. Republican support of QAnon is arguably more dangerous than the conspiracy itself: It is a blatant threat to democracy.
QAnon and the Republican support it receives must be dismantled. The past six months have displayed that QAnon is both powerful and holds the potential for violence. It will take a bipartisan effort, one which should begin with Republicans and Democrats publicly denouncing the conspiracy together. If these efforts are not made, QAnon will become the rule, not the exception.
Edited by Helia Mokhber
Claudia Velimirovic is in her second year at McGill University pursuing a major in honours International Development and a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her first year writing for Catalyst and she is particularly interested in gender inequality and women’s health.