ONE of the problems with writing and publishing on QAnon, the once-fringe conspiracy theory that has now begun its migration to the mainstream, is that doing so draws more attention to it, giving it the platform it needs to further proliferate. There is always a risk with writing about any malignant subject, but especially with QAnon. QAnon is a conspiracy designed for social media; its contemporaneity lies, to draw on Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum’s work, in sheer repetition, the accelerated reproduction of itself as its validation.
One can hope that, through writing, the presentation of the subject will coincide with its demise — especially when the subject appears so ludicrous that it could not possibly be true. Put differently, when it comes to conspiracy theories, the hope is that mass exposure will destroy them through the putative light of rationality. If that strategy sounds romantic, it is, to the extent that it expresses faith in a common, democratic reason that progressively weeds out “bad ideas” in the discursive marketplace. Still, it does partly explain the flurry of recent writing on QAnon.
Make no mistake, QAnon strains what we commonly call “reason,” — and that’s being generous. Although the theory is not monolithic, when stripped down, its core assertion is that a “cabal” of elites lie behind the scenes pulling the strings of our sociopolitical and economic lives. Composed of the ultra-wealthy, politicians, media moguls, Hollywood stars, CEOs, and the like, the “cabal” also runs international pedophilia and sex trafficking rings and regularly engages in cannibalistic and satanic practices, in part to harvest their drug of choice, the chemical compound adrenochrome, from its young victims. No good explanation is given for the existence of the cabal, other than appeals to vague notions of power, control and the pervasiveness of “leftist” ideology. Perhaps most importantly, the cabal is actively trying to overthrow Trump, who is engaged in a hidden battle with them to expose their members and workings.
It sounds ridiculous, but if the “theory” is not true, then it should be easy to disprove. Although the theory necessitates a cadre of faceless, “deep state” actors, many of its targets are public figures, whose whatnots and whereabouts are not that hard to uncover. Two of the theory’s most popular offenders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (who, in a nod to anti-Muslim birtherism, is often just called “Hussein” on message and image boards), are indelibly public figures. Indeed, the conspiracy was sparked with an anonymous post on 4chan by someone using the pseudonym “Q.” Claiming to be a government insider with access to classified information, on October 28, 2017, Q posted a cryptic message claiming the arrest of Hillary Clinton was imminent.
Of course, it never happened, which means that Q’s “prediction” is perhaps better read as an expression of fantasy. That the “prediction” had more to do with desire than reality is evident in its followers’ response: its failure to materialize did nothing to discredit it, but, rather, propelled it. Nothing that Q would go on to say then or now through numerous “drops,” (as followers or “anons” call Q’s posts) would materialize either. Yet, the theory continues to gain followers. Before Facebook cracked down on conspiracy theories this August, over 200,000 people were members of various QAnon Facebook groups. Now some candidates for Congress profess belief in specific QAnon conspiracies.
In this way, QAnon is a lot like those apocalyptic cults whose fervor only increases when the prophesied end does not happen. That’s how Adrienne LaFrance has characterized them. Anons wait anxiously for what they call the “Great Awakening,” when all will be revealed, their beliefs justified by the light of truth. In this sense, as LaFrance points out, QAnon continues “a tradition of apocalyptic thinking that has spanned thousands of years.” As for those movements before them, the point was not so much the arrival as it was anticipation. In LaFrance’s words, it offers a “polemic to empower those who feel adrift.” So, whether what Q says comes to pass is beside the point, because for “the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.”
This is also why you cannot argue with anons with any success. Insider interpreters of the theory, those who unravel Q’s cryptic messages in search of proof and confirmation of the theory, portray their inquiries, which mostly take place online, as “research.” Like many anons, a former student of mine, who is also a pastor, does his “research” on YouTube, one of the main social media networks used to disseminate the theory. But following Q is not really about research or proof, even if its proponents try to give the theory the appearance of well-earned knowledge. Part of that has to do with the fact that the connections they make are always circumstantial, made possible by an almost infinite data set ready at hand but ultimately explainable by other, easier means. One can, that is, prove almost anything on the internet.
Proof, however, always takes a back seat to experience. Narratives by anons that explain their path to Q sound like conversion narratives. As one follower puts it, “Everyone who follows Q has one: a day when you knew, that you knew, that you knew, that Q wasn’t a hoax.” She goes on in her essay, “The Day I Knew Q wasn’t a Hoax,” to describe her devotion in religious terms. QAnon is not “some crazy theory.” “One day,” she continues, “the light will be so bright, the darkness will not be able to hide from it. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ know that day is coming when Jesus returns. But I hope to see a small measure of that kind of righteousness in America one day soon.”
The emphasis on conversion and the language used to describe it is thoroughly evangelical, as is the concern with experience, apocalypse and nationalism. It is not too surprising, then, that the theory has found a home among evangelicals. To be sure, not all evangelicals follow Q, nor are all followers of Q evangelicals. QAnon is, however, an evangelical conspiracy theory, because it uses its language and motifs, as well as its anxieties and fears. QAnon is not a foreign intruder to evangelicalism, as some apologetically suggest; it’s not a “wolf in wolf’s clothing.” Evangelicalism, especially in the last fifty years or so, has always had a soft spot for the apocalypse, for coded messages; it has, in its more fundamentalist forms, long harbored suspicions of designated evil actors and one-world governments. QAnon is just the latest twist in this well-established tradition. QAnon is not “the alternative religion that’s coming to your church,” because it is already there, and always has been, albeit in slightly different forms.
The same applies to QAnon’s clear instigation of moral, racialized panic, which can be traced back ultimately to anti-Semitic medieval “blood libel” conspiracies. In the contemporary version, Satanism, ritual sacrifice, and drug use remain constant fears, although this time it is not the black-clad, heavy metal set that is of concern but, rather, Hollywood trendsetters, political suits, and bankers, who are often marked out in anti-Semitic terms. Even the concern with secretive pedophilia and human trafficking rings has its own “analog version” in the McMartin preschool scandal of the 1980s, which made “fantastical claims about a massive pedophile ring lurking beneath a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.” It turned out not to be true, just as it was not true at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, ground zero for QAnon’s precursor, Pizzagate.
Again, though, it is not about truth or knowledge but desire: evangelicals want it to be true because it fits with their nostalgic longing for an imagined past and their place in it. As Tad DeLay has pointed out, evangelicalism “is a faith that’s dying, and it knows it.” Rather than confront its decline head-on, it instead projects its own paranoia outward, onto an imagined other. The imagined other, moreover, is not simply pedophilic and satanic; these are stand-ins, which ultimately function in QAnon literature to name all that is non-Christian, which also means non-white and queer.
In this sense, QAnon takes the form of a conspiracy theory, but it also functions as propaganda, which, according to Quassim Cassam, is what conspiracy theories are always about anyway. Even when the ideological line of any particular theory is not immediately clear, conspiracy theories are, according to Cassam, “political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda.” Anons like Neon Zero (see his book Revolution Q, which I will not link to) like to claim that what they peddle is non-partisan, beyond the politics of left and right; they are, they say, on the side of the American people first. But their targets, the evil actors in the conspiracy, are for the most part those “on the left.” QAnon ideology is invariably right-wing — even far-right — and their hero is indubitably Donald Trump. QAnon is propaganda all the way down, whether any particular individual thinks it is or not. “Make America Great Again,” as the savior says.
But here’s the thing that I think is difficult to acknowledge: the strategy has worked and is working, which is why we should not simply dismiss it as “batshit crazy,” to use the words of a social media acquaintance. Again, the theory sounds ludicrous, but as propaganda it does its work in excess of its root claim. It is on this level that QAnon has gained more traction and popularity, especially during the pandemic. To give just one example, QAnon has weaponized the pandemic, spreading conspiracies about the virus itself, along with anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiment. In terms of how the conspiracy functions, there is not much difference between the content that QAnon groups on Facebook post and the typical right-wing group.
Earlier I stated that the uptick in articles about QAnon betrays a straightforward faith in a common, democratic reason that will naturally weed out certain ideas in the end. With respect to QAnon, that remains the hope of William Shoki, writing for Jacobin. He has suggested that conspiracy theories ultimately arise out of “a sense of impotence in the face of political decay.” Conspiracy theories, then, are symptoms, expressions of “powerlessness” and “defeat” in the face of seemingly intractable and faceless forces. Contemporary conspiracy theories such as QAnon can be read, in this sense, as a response to what the late Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism,” the ingrained assumption that the contemporary neoliberal arrangement of our socioeconomic order is all there is and will be.
For Shoki, countering such conspiracies requires believing in and asserting our ability to actually change things. We are not at the mercy of hidden, deterministic forces, as the conspiracy theorists assume, but of capital and its atomizing dynamic. Organizing, in this view, would then be the correct response to QAnon and, if properly done, it could return a sense of agency to the legions of anons, thereby converting them to leftist causes.
The problem with reading QAnon in this way is that anons do not appear to lack agency, at least in their own minds. They seem to work quite comfortably within capitalist realism. Perhaps at some vague, theorized level anons do feel as “impotent” as the rest of us, crushed under the weight of the neoliberal “system of technofinancial automatism,” as Bifo Berardi puts it. The projection of lack onto deep state puppet masters would then be misguided but at least understandable and, because of this, ripe for harnessing and redirecting otherwise.
While I am sympathetic to that line of reasoning, the problem is that QAnon is using its agency quite well, just for different and opposing ends. The success of their propaganda is a reflection of that agency. The memes that go viral, the uptick in membership in online groups, the articles dissecting their views, the related conspiracy theories that rapidly become common sense and chances to exercise freedom, the nods from the president and his administration—all of these point to QAnon’s ability to successfully harness the power of social media for its right-wing causes. Trump himself is the proof of their victory, proof that history is, in their minds, on their side.
One of the persistent problems with left organizing is the common assumption that if we only got the “real message” out, then people would follow suit. Perhaps, however, QAnon shows that that idea no longer matches reality. Rather than appealing constantly to some faith in democratic reason, which we hope will right the ship, at some point we have to acknowledge that anti-Semitism, anti-blackness, xenophobia, homophobia and the fetishization of violence are not merely symptoms of economic disease but, rather, the things themselves. Contesting the agency of QAnon and right-wing conspiracies will require a much better analysis of the relations between capital, bigotry and organizing. We shouldn’t rely on a simplistic faith that good ideas always prevail or that economics dictates everything in the end. If we do not take that seriously and continue to assume good will, then we have already lost. QAnon and the right more broadly certainly do not see those on the other side in that light.
Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University. His most recent book is Jesus and the Politics of Mammon published by Cascade Books.