A very unlikely story
Can anyone really believe that the US government is run by Satanist paedophiles? Paul Demarty investigates the QAnon phenomenon
It seems we are living through a golden age of conspiracy theories. The vigorous state action required in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with the global rise of the nationalist right, has produced a weird and wonderful bestiary of extremely tall tales - and even a resurgence in some very old favourites, like belief that the Earth is flat.
There are few such theories, however, quite as florid as the ‘QAnon movement’, which - under the loving tutelage of its great hero, Donald Trump - has made significant inroads into the Republican Party, with several candidates for office in the coming months having some affiliation.
It will be necessary, of course, to give a brief summary of the theory. It originates from anonymous postings from somebody claiming to be a government official with high-level clearance (Q-level, which does exist in the department of energy). The postings initially appeared on 4chan - an image board that became the premier breeding ground for alt-right ideology; although they later moved to 8chan - an even wilder and weirder rival with a more monomaniacal rightist political character.
Q claimed that the government had long been controlled by a Satanist conspiracy he calls the Cabal. The primary activity of the Cabal is child sex trafficking; it is essentially an enormous elite paedophile ring, although its participants are also alleged to drink the blood of the children. Its tentacles stretch deep into the intelligence community, the Democrats, the media, Hollywood, and wherever else you like. But the Cabal has suffered a severe setback: the election of Donald J Trump to the office of the president. The apparent chaos of Trump’s leadership is merely a phenomenal form; what is really going on is a battle between Trump’s partisans and the Cabal. Soon, in an event called ‘the Storm’, Trump will make his ultimate counterstroke, arrest tens of thousands of Satan-worshipping child molesters, and restore order to America. The world will be safe - not for democracy, but for a sort of military millennium.
Seasoned followers of the American conspiracy scene will find some of this familiar. QAnon is a clear successor to ‘Pizzagate’, in which it was alleged that senior Democrats were involved in a paedophile ring. The ‘evidence’ for this was a reading of the leaked emails from Democrat functionary John Podesta that assumed that various words were in fact euphemisms for trafficking: when Podesta suggested ordering ‘pizza’, he was not after a Dominos delivery, but a child sex slave (hence Pizzagate), and so on. At the time (around 2016), it seemed that there were no more depths of baroque delusion to plumb, but Q - whoever he is (or they are) - has done it in style.
There are several reasons for bourgeois and liberal alarm at the growth of QAnon. One is precisely what we have been mocking so far - people really believe such things. It is difficult for politicians of the establishment to imagine winning over people who confuse pizza with raped children, and thus the rather ominous prospect looms that some not-insignificant minority of the American population has been lost forever.
There is secondly the matter that, rather as such ‘conspiracies’ are usually supposed to, this one goes all the way to the top. Though Trump himself has not openly endorsed QAnon (there would be quite a contradiction involved, after all, if he were to claim out in the open that he was conducting a secret war against the US state apparatus due to culminate in mass arrests and dictatorship), he has taken no clear stand against it, and indeed routinely retweets and shares material from Q cultists. He knows very well that it is the sort of fabulous lie that got him elected last time around, albeit unusually heteroclite in its content.
Beyond Trump himself, it is clear - as noted - that the Republican Party is increasingly riddled with QAnon supporters. Two candidates for Congress last year, in Florida and Minnesota, used Q symbols and slogans in their campaigns; and, among many bizarre features of the Republican national convention last month, there was a brief embarrassment when a speaking invitation to Mary Ann Mendoza of the Women for Trump political action committee had to be withdrawn, on account of her spreading Q-inspired anti-Semitic posts about the Rothschilds - whoops!
That brings us to the final matter - the way in which QAnon crossbreeds with other kinds of far-right irrationalism. Mendoza exemplifies the stretching of Q mythology in one well-trodden direction: where there are hidden manipulators to be discovered by rightwingers, it is unlikely to be too long before a Jewish character is imposed on the matter. Overt anti-Semitism is not common, at least among the more prominent boosters of QAnon, but there is a substantial section of the alt-right that maintains virulent hatred of Jews, and the two meet in places.
More immediately worrying perhaps is the overlap with the clusters of conspiracy theories focused on Covid-19. Exemplary here is a substantial protest of some 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square on August 29 against lockdown restrictions and the like. The organisers of the protest were a group called Stand Up X, whose main beef is the rollout of the 5G network, which is blamed for Covid-19 in place of the Sars-Cov-2 virus. A rather more heterogeneous bunch actually attended - anti-vaccination ideologues, some men carrying a British Union of Fascists banner and a good handful of supporters of Q.
The most striking thing here is not the overlap of ideas as such - frankly, the idea that the world is run by Satan-worshipping paedophiles has no poorer an evidence base than the idea that vaccines are poisonous - but how easily such a national agenda, focused on the American deep state, can so easily cross the Atlantic unaltered. The political hegemony of the USA brings with it cultural hegemony, and it is not all a matter of asinine superhero movies. We do not mean to minimise our country’s dismal contribution to the anti-vaxxer movement - it will only be necessary to mention the name, Andrew Wakefield, who continues to tout his wholly discredited theories across the pond - but the sheer extent to which such ideas have penetrated American society is quite frightening, and makes them good candidates for ‘re-export’.
Anti-vaxxers are interesting from this perspective, since historically it is a rather politically ambivalent movement, with a ‘left’ (new-age, hippie) component and also a right wing (religious and also ‘libertarian’ in the American sense). In the recent period, many commentators on the movement have noticed a decisive shift towards the far right. “Back when I started covering the anti-vaccination movement more than a decade ago,” wrote Kiera Butler for Mother Jones earlier this year, “the loudest voices came from politically liberal, mostly white, and affluent enclaves ... where parents worried about the side effects of what they perceive as toxins in vaccines.” But today,
Instead of fretting over unwholesome additives in vaccines, members [of online anti-vax groups] now rant about government overreach. They describe schools’ immunisation rules as an assault on their freedom, and they swap theories about how Bill Gates is working with the government to control citizens with microchips.1
The role of more baroque theories like those of Q is then straightforward: they can knit together all the particularities of ‘government overreach’, all the individual schemes for social control proposed by different sorts of cranks, into a straightforward narrative with heroes (Trump), villains (Satanist paedophiles) and an action-packed third act (“the Storm”).
All of which leaves aside what might seem the most pertinent question: how can people believe this garbage? It is a question worth asking ‘naively’ for a moment. Though one can no doubt find among them the semi-literate rednecks of liberal stereotype, there is no evidence that QAnon supporters are abnormally unintelligent. Indeed, within the ‘hardcore’ followers on 8chan (now 8kun after a series of legal troubles), great exertions are applied to the task of working out what the latest cryptic pronouncements are all about. Q’s messages have gotten more vague over time - leading to endlessly inventive games of word association. He likes to litter his messages with ‘codes’ - random-looking strings that may be passwords, serial numbers or whatever else; his fans immediately set about deciphering them as best they can, showing great energy and imagination.
Yet there is no ‘there’ there - one sceptical password security specialist analysed a sample of these ‘codes’ and concluded that the patterns of characters involved almost certainly resulted from somebody randomly mashing a QWERTY keyboard (such keyboard mashing is, of course, not as random as we think it is in the heat of the moment, thanks to the way our hands get used to certain movements and positions on the board, and so on).2
Given that it provides, if you will, the grammar of most subsequent conspiracy theorising, we may start looking for an answer in the X-Files - which also tells the story of a rogue ‘insider’ in a state apparatus that has become dominated by shadowy forces of dubious moral bona fides. In one early episode, Fox Mulder is told by his mysterious informant - unimaginatively called Deep Throat - that “a lie is best hidden between two truths”.
Direction of politics
It would be stretching credibility just a little to call Q’s lies ‘hidden’ - hidden in plain sight, let us say. The perspective from which they are believable, however, is one where governments never let a crisis go to waste and relentlessly chip away at civil liberties; where the stated reasons for state actions are often at wild variance from the true underlying motives; where, indeed, the same is true of vast corporations, such as that pharmaceutical companies have in living memory manufactured a public health crisis out of nothing, in the form of the notorious opioid addiction epidemic; where politicians are routinely corrupted by lobbying; and where, indeed, the very rich and powerful are permitted to sexually exploit the weak, including minors, with impunity.
Suddenly, the thought-world of QAnon looks a little more familiar. (Admittedly, none of that accounts for the devil-worshipping angle, but every soup needs a little seasoning.) Indeed, we already said that there is nothing about QAnon that is intrinsically less rational than anti-vaccination memes; but that logic holds in less comfortable places. Suppose, for example, somebody had loyally followed the UK government line on how to fight coronavirus through every wrenching U-turn, and agreed with the government that at every step it has taken the best possible action on the basis of ‘the science’. Surely we would have to conclude that such a person was more deluded than the Q superfans of 8chan.
Liberal alarm at QAnon and similar phenomena focuses on what it portends about the direction of politics right now, and finds depressing enough news there - the collapse of any sense of shared values throughout western societies, to the point that it seems there is no shared reference to the truth. The liberals are in fact being over-optimistic, however, simply by treating this as a strictly contemporary pathology, a product of ‘the Trump moment’ or, at most, the period since the election of Ronald Reagan in the States.
Yet - as we often argue in these pages - the root of the problem is that, in order to maintain the rule of a minority class, it is necessary that the masses be deceived into identifying their own interests with that ruling class. This is particularly true in capitalist societies, where the proletariat has a material interest in democracy, and where it is likely therefore that the class struggle on its own will bring extensions of the franchise to layers of people with interests opposed to those of the capitalists at one time or another.
The gap between how things really are and how they must appear in order to stay that way is quite real. It is in this gap that conspiracy theories, apocalyptic religion and rank bigotry sprout their poisonous leaves.