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QAnon and America’s political moment

USA Politics

A QAnon flag waves at a Second Amendment rally in Virginia, January 2020. Photo by Anthony Crider/Flickr.

According to QAnon supporters, most of whom live in the United States, the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles. Among the nefarious practices of this ruling elite is the harvesting of children’s blood to extract a psychoactive compound known as adrenochrome.

A number of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, together with liberal Hollywood celebrities, business leaders, and global financiers are believed to run this “deep state.” QAnon adherents claim that former president Donald Trump spent his four years in office secretly investigating them in the hope of arresting their top leadership in a reckoning known as “the Storm.”

QAnon supporter Jessica Prim was arrested last April in New York for posting online messages threatening the life of then-candidate Joe Biden. While being taken into custody by police, she tearfully implored, “Do you know about the children?” Mental illness appeared to account for Prim’s state of mind at the time. Nonetheless, it was QAnon beliefs, spread through social media networks, that motivated her actions.

The foregoing reads more like the content of an outlandish Saturday Night Live skit than the description of a growth movement within the American alt-right. The occupation of the US Capitol on January 6 was arguably QAnon’s coming-out party. It left most Americans and many others around the world wondering how so many ordinary citizens could fervently believe in such a patently absurd conspiracy theory.

Of course, Trump’s “Storm” never materialized as predicted. And now he’s gone (sort of). This has provoked a crisis of faith and internal tensions within the QAnon community. Even so, few expect the conspiracy theory and its supporters to fade away any time soon. There are just too many of them and they have achieved global recognition as a formidable rapid-deployment force in the world of rebel politics.

Millenarian, apocalyptic, and conspiracy communities cast a long shadow in American religious and political life. In characterizing their often “paranoid style” of thought, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 that:

…a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies.

QAnon represents the most recent excrescence of this cultural tendency. The main critical response to its fantastical credo has been to publicly refute and reject its various claims. Sadly, counter-messaging has done little to stem its growth. QAnon’s resilience comes as no surprise to cognitive psychologists such as Stephan Lewandowsky who, together with colleagues, published The Debunking Handbook last year to help individuals and institutions deal with the scourge of misinformation polluting the digital public sphere.

The authors of the handbook explain why refuting false beliefs often fails to weaken them, and sometimes even strengthens them (“backfire effects”). One reason for this, they point out, is that strongly-held beliefs are often integral to the individual’s broader worldview and cultural identity. This epistemic and emotional investment motivates biased engagement with disconfirming information and prompts defensive reactions that can neutralize its impact while reinforcing threatened beliefs and commitments.

In the case of QAnon, defensive protection is baked-in. Many key online messages by Q, the supposed high-level US government official that spawned the movement (most analysts believe that Q is actually multiple people) are cryptic, cloaked, and open to various interpretations with regard to specifics. These “Q drops,” as they are called, are designed more to feed speculation and inspire conspiratorial writing by supporters than to clearly define the situation or predict future events with precision.

To add preemptive protection, some Q drops have suggested that disinformation is deliberately mixed in with accurate revelation to disorient and mislead QAnon’s political enemies. The result is an evolving belief system that is notoriously hard to pin down and deflate with effective rebuttal, especially when any such evidence is attributed to sources that QAnon supporters see as antagonistic and untrustworthy. This includes mainstream journalists, “libtard” politicians, sanctioned experts, and academics.

Rallygoers line up to enter the Target Center arena for a Donald Trump for President rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 10, 2019. Photo by Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons.

One is reminded here of the tenacity of belief as documented by social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter in their 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. The authors describe a Chicago-based apocalyptic group whose leader predicted that a UFO would arrive on a specific day to rescue believers from an imminent cataclysmic flood. When the UFO didn’t arrive as expected, the anxious group leader received a timely message from extraterrestrials informing her that God had decided to spare the planet after all in recognition of the group’s steadfast devotion and faith. The desperate tactic worked to preserve the allegiance of some believers, but not others. That it worked at all reflects the adaptive versatility of conviction.

As many have noted, QAnon is symptomatic of a problematic digital culture of echo chambers and algorithmically sealed filter bubbles. Here, credulity, manipulation, resentment, tribalism, and misinformation mix and ferment into strange and powerful brews. Such is the dark side of participatory media. The roots of QAnon, however, run deeper.

Consider the America that QAnon supporters are living in. Economic social mobility has decreased since the 1980s. Income inequality has widened. The manufacturing sector, historically a route to the middle class, has declined. The service sector has expanded and transformed in a way that leaves those without postsecondary educational qualifications with bleak prospects in the labour market. Personal debt is at a record high. Accelerating demographic changes have intensified cultural, religious, class-based, gendered, and racialized tensions. In this context of fear, pessimism, and uncertainty, there are many across the country who feel they are losing their political voice, social identity, and rightful position of dignity and respect within America’s imagined community.

This social predicament helps explain the alt-right’s myopic focus on civil rights as “don’t tread on me” negative liberties. It gives rise to the impotent rage of anti-masking protests during a crippling pandemic. It motivates the organized displays of fully armed resistance at the mere whisper of increased gun regulation, or in response to the imagined menace of a phantom Antifa army waiting in the wings to destabilize the nation. It frames the rabidly anti-Democrat, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-BLM tirades posted online in defense of a threatened “way of life.”

These actions are all expressions of what the psychiatrist Alfred Adler called “masculine protest,” borne in this case of a deep-seated fear of irrelevance, invisibility, precariousness, and, most of all, real or imagined loss. Loss of promise. Loss of privilege. Loss of recognition. Loss of stability. Loss of place. Loss of purpose. Loss of trust in a “rigged system.” The result is an inarticulate but deeply committed politics of rage.

Political philosopher Nancy Fraser has described this orientation as the taproot of today’s “reactionary populism,” the angry spawn of neoliberalism’s social and economic failings. Reactionary populism stunned the world in November of 2016 by elevating a brash, straight-talking real estate developer and reality television star to the presidency of the United States. And it was reactionary populism that tried to keep him there after he failed to secure a second term.

The (mostly) white men in QAnon shirts seen in the vanguard of the mob that overran the Capitol building earlier this month were sneeringly dismissed by many as thugs intent on violent rebellion. But this focus ignores the thousands, if not millions, of Americans who watched sympathetically from the comfort of their homes, sharing their grievances from afar. Arresting and punishing the few willing to dramatize their pain and anger in front of cameras, while fully appropriate, does nothing to resolve the wider political crisis. If anything, it only serves to push the communities they represent back into the protective darkness of cyberspace where they can commiserate, proselytize, and continue to make desperate and paranoid sense of their plight.

If America’s new president truly wants to heal a perilously divided nation reeling from a virus that has taken over 400,000 lives in under a year, it will not be enough to simply call out groups such as QAnon and demand that they shut up or be silenced. The silencing of those who already feel unfairly ignored by those in power will only amplify their anger and resentment.

What QAnon supporters could use right now is public acknowledgment of their fears and frustrations coupled with an alternative explanatory narrative and remedial strategy—one grounded in social reality and not conspiratorial fiction. The mid-twentieth-century sociologist C. Wright Mills famously argued that an individual’s “private troubles” can only be effectively addressed as political issues if they are accurately traced back to the institutional forces and structural relations of our society. Consciousness-raising is inescapably an exercise of the sociological imagination.

Acknowledging an individual’s life difficulties in no way requires legitimating their ignorance, bigotry, or prejudice. Nor does it entail excusing their crimes and misdemeanours, for which they should be held accountable according to the law. What it does require is recognizing and empathizing with their predicament despite the ugliness of their ignorance, bigotry, prejudice, and wrongful actions. This is especially justified when their failings are to some extent a misguided response to their predicament, a furious effort to regain control.

Recognition and empathy open a social channel to proposing a less delusional political route to a future and national identity worth fighting for and defending. Donald Trump no longer sits in the Oval Office. But MAGA cannot simply be swept away. It must be replaced with something of greater promise. For dug-in, outré groups such as QAnon, which exploit the polarizing, centrifugal features of today’s information ecosystem, that will prove much easier said than done. Even so, progressives must ask, in the words of political scientist Wendy Brown, “What kinds of left political critique and vision might reach and transform them?”

Romin W. Tafarodi is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].


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