There has always been an undercurrent of conspiracy theories in American politics.
In 1833, the Anti-Masonic Party was dedicated to the proposition that Freemasons were controlling the world. Scholars have identified it as the first “right-wing reactionary movement” in American politics. Anti-Masonry emerged from the suspicions and anger toward rapid economic modernization and the geographic expansion happening during the 1820s and 1830s. In addition, the group was deeply committed to conspiracy theories, primarily the claim that Masonic elites secretly controlled America.
Why should you care about a conspiracy theory from 1833? Because, today’s version of the Anti-Masonic Party may be QAnon.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging a secret plot by a supposed “deep state” against President Donald Trump and his supporters. No part of the theory is based on fact. The theory began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous imageboard 4chan by “Q”, who was presumably an American individual, but probably became a group of people. Q claimed to have access to classified information involving the Trump administration and its opponents in the United States.
What does the name mean? Q = leader, and Anon is short for Anonymous.
Before there was QAnon, there was “Pizzagate” – a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s emails had coded messages that connected Democrats, pizza restaurants, and human trafficking and sex rings. Pizzagate reached an unfortunate climax when one of its true believers, a man from North Carolina, drove to Washington D.C. to a certain pizza restaurant, convinced that children were being held in the basement, and fired a rifle inside the restaurant.
Many aspects of Pizzagate were folded into QAnon conspiracy theory(s) used today. Donald Trump is secretly engineering the downfall of the anti-Trump deep state, a collection of global elites engaged in human trafficking and pedophilia, and the harvesting of a supposedly lifesaving chemical from the blood of children. Supposedly, Trump’s closest military intelligence officials are sending out secret coded messages about this great battle of good vs. evil, and the QAnon faithful are the only ones who have successfully decoded the coded messages. Further, the QAnon community believes the anti-Trump cabal is controlling politicians, entertainment, and the media.
The QAnon community is headed up by Q, who is a high-level military officer, a government official, or even Trump himself – someone with “Q-level security clearance for the Department of Energy.” This community is waiting for two epic events to happen:
- The “Storm” – a great mass arrest event, in which over 100,000 people from the highest levels of power and entertainment are arrested and face a great day of reckoning.
- The “Great Awakening,” where Q Anon will usher in a new utopian age.
The vocabulary of QAnon uses Christian metaphors like “The Storm” (the Flood or Judgement Day) and “The Great Awakening” (19th Century movements of Christian revivals in the US) to appeal to Christian supporters.
For most of us, this all sounds like a bizarre concoction of fantasy. But, QAnon is a strangely appealing story, if you feel disenfranchised and believe that the world is about to change in a revolutionary way.
It seems to be appealing because the QAnon followers believe that they can take part in revolutionary change. They are conducting an information war by going on social media and posting QAnon memes, spreading these QAnon conspiracy theories, and ushering in this “Great Awakening.”
Okay, so some wackos believe this stuff. What’s the problem?
Problem #1 – Terrorism
From an FBI law enforcement bulletin: “The FBI assesses that anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely will encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations, thereby increasing the risk of extremist violence against such targets.”
QAnon has already started living up to that warning.
- On June 15, 2018, a man was arrested on terrorism and other charges for driving an armored truck, containing an AR-15 and handgun, to Hoover Dam and blocking traffic for 90 minutes. He said he was on a mission involving QAnon: to demand that the Justice Department “release the OIG report” on the conduct of FBI agents during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
- The Blue Marble Jubilee fundraising event at Grass Valley Charter School in Grass Valley, California scheduled for May 11, 2019, was canceled as a precaution after a tweet by former FBI head James Comey on April 27 using the hashtag #FiveJobsIveHad, in which the first letters of the jobs were GVCSF, was interpreted by QAnon followers as a veiled reference to the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation, suggesting that Comey planned to stage a “false flag” terror attack at the event; the hashtag was also interpreted by QAnon adherents as an anagram of “five jihads”, and the time stamp on the post was related to the 9-11 attacks. The police and the FBI received warnings, in addition to the school, which decided not to take the risk of internet vigilantes attending “to guard the place”, as a police sergeant put it.
- Anthony Comello of Staten Island, New York, was charged with the March 2019 murder of Gambino crime family underboss Frank Cali. According to his defense attorney, Comello had become obsessed with QAnon theories, believing Cali was a member of a “deep state,” and was convinced he “was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself” to place Cali under citizen’s arrest. Confronting Cali outside his Staten Island home, Comello allegedly shot Cali ten times. At his first court appearance, Comello displayed QAnon symbols and phrases and “MAGA forever” scrawled on his hand in pen.
Problem #2 – QAnon goes mainstream within the Republican Party
Since QAnon followers believe Donald Trump is the hero in their story, they have (mostly) been associated with the Republican Party. And Republican elected officials, by and large, have not denounced the movement and its claims.
But now, QAnon is going “mainstream” within the Republican party, to the point of both being claimed by candidates and actually winning elections.
Outspoken QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Green won the party’s nomination for a U.S. House seat in Georgia. Since the seat is reliably red, she will win in the fall, and in January 2021, we will have a QAnon disciple as a U.S. Congresswoman.
After Greene won that election, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) urged fellow Republicans to condemn this extremist movement.
Qanon is a fabrication. This “insider” has predicted so much incorrectly (but people don’t remember PAST predictions) so now has switched to vague generalities. Could be Russian propaganda or a basement dweller. Regardless, no place in Congress for these conspiracies.
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) August 12, 2020
So far, only one other congressional Republican has followed Kinzinger’s lead. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA), who lost nomination last month to a far-right primary challenger, said “Q Anon has the same number of letters as Moron” and is an enemy “to intelligence and common sense.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office said he and Greene enjoy “a good and productive relationship” and that he will give her seats on House committees if she wins her general election.
Trump has applauded her as “a real star.”
The American Independent Foundation reached out to every Senate Republican to ask if they had made any statement denouncing Q Anon. Not one of the 53 offices responded affirmatively.
QAnon is no longer a fringe conspiracy theory. It is a popular ideology that teaches people to reject reality and distrust institutions. It also promotes a conspiracy theory that can cause some people to take dangerous actions.
And, as Paul Krugman points out, it could give us four more years of Trump:
Trump, in other words, can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try. And at some level both he and those around him seem aware of his basic inadequacy for the job of being president.
What he and they can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices, coupled with conspiracy theories that resonate with their fear and envy of know-it-all “elites.” QAnon is only the most ludicrous example of this genre, all of which portrays Trump as the hero defending us from invisible evil.
If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s almost certainly not a political tactic that can win over a majority of American voters. It might, however, scare enough people that, combined with vote suppression and the unrepresentative nature of the Electoral College, Trump can manage, barely, to hang on to power.
I don’t think this desperate strategy is going to work. But it’s all Trump has left. The only thing he can hope for is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror based on nothing real at all.