Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

Top Bananas

A supporter holds a QAnon sign at a rally for President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 2, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Welcome to the Party of QAnon

The QAnon conspiracy nuts are likely to send a member to Congress in the coming election, with witless Georgia lunatic Marjorie Taylor Greene currently running 20 points ahead of her Republican primary opponent in the coming August runoff. Greene is the perfect personification of the Republican Party in the Age of Trump, a ridiculous but well-moneyed redneck who believes that the Washington Post operates as a propaganda office directed by Beijing, who brandishes a mall-commando black gun in a campaign commercial while braying that Antifa had better “stay the hell out of northwest Georgia” — I hear Euharlee is a real anarchist hot spot — who calls for treason charges against Nancy Pelosi, and who has famously advanced a genuinely bonkers conspiracy theory in which Donald Trump (Q is his prophet) is secretly battling a vast army of Satanic pedophile cultists in an apocalyptic confrontation that will end with everyone from George Soros to Bill Kristol shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.

Party of Lincoln, y’all.

There are some Republicans who do not want to be associated with that kind of horsepucky. When the Washington Postwrote up Greene’s candidacy, House leader Kevin McCarthy, whip Steve Scalise, and conference chairwoman Liz Cheney all declined to comment on their likely future colleague. President Trump, being what he is, never refuses to comment, and he took to Twitter, the presidential pocket pulpit, to label her a “big winner.”

But if the rotting rump of respectable Republicanism is embarrassed by this, the Trump-ensorceled rank-and-file whackadoodles are not. The GOP has nominated a QAnon nut, Jo Rae Perkins, to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Oregon. Her campaign put out a statement trying to distance her from the QAnon bughouse, and she disavowed her own campaign’s disavowal. “My campaign is going to kill me,” she told ABC. “Some people think that I follow Q like I follow Jesus. Q is the information, and I stand with the information resource.”

(“Some people think”? Do you or don’t you?)

Trump is, in addition to being president of these United States, the nation’s leading conspiracy goober, having been a prominent Obama birther, a dabbler in anti-vaccine kookery, an endless whiner about the “deep state” that opposes him, a trafficker in ridiculous lies about Joe Scarborough’s supposedly murdering an employee, a Seth Rich truther, a Jeffrey Epstein truther, a Vince Foster truther, etc. Donald J. Trump thinks Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy.

Donald J. Trump thinks windmills cause cancer.

Trump often couches his idiotic accusations in cowardly terms: “many people are saying,” etc. But he also speaks in classical, Henry Ford–style conspiracy tropes, as in his claim that Hillary Rodham Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors.” Trump is not an anti-Semite, much to the dismay of some of his disappointed admirers, but that is the language of old-school Jew-hating conspiracy theory. It is no surprise to see Trump’s champion in Georgia posing with a former Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed her specifically on the grounds that she is a QAnon believer.

For the embrace of conspiracy lunacy by figures such as Donald Trump and Marjorie Greene, up there on the barricades in northwest Georgia, there are basically two possible explanations: One, they actually believe this crap and hence are manifestly unfit for the offices they occupy or seek; two, they do not actually believe this crap but are willing to traffic in it in order to achieve personal, political, or financial ends.

Some of that is pretty obvious: In the same video in which Greene talks up the QAnon conspiracy stuff, she keeps referring viewers to a Facebook page with which she was associated, one that is followed by more than a quarter of a million people. On it, you can read such interesting content as hybrid vaccine–Bill Gates conspiracy talk, including claims that Gates has been banned from several countries “for poisoning their citizens, causing them to become sterile by his pushing everyone to be given virus shots from companies he owns a majority of shares in.” Conspiracy talk is a proven method for building up a social-media following, which, in these depraved times, can provide the basis of a political career or a path to fortune as an “influencer.”

Jo Rae Perkins is the nominee in Oregon, Marjorie Greene is probably going to Congress, and Donald Trump is president of the United States. The strategy works: But why does it work?

Conspiracy theories provide the postliterate culture with two things people desperately want: stories and communities.

When Trump was confronted with the image of police treating roughly a 75-year-old man in Buffalo, N.Y., he immediately went looking for a conspiracy theory, and found one provided by One America News Network, a pseudo-journalistic right-wing grift outfit that acts as a clearinghouse for certain kinds of conspiracy material. Citing OANN, Trump wrote that the Buffalo protester “could be” — could be — “an ANTIFA provocateur.” The man, Trump claimed, was trying “to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.” Again citing OANN, the president said the event “could be” — could be — “a setup,” that “he fell harder than was pushed.” One of the functions of conspiracy theories is to create a simple narrative of good guys and bad guys. In this case, anybody on the other side of the barrier from the police, with whom Trump instinctively identifies, is presumed to be a bad guy, and so the old man bleeding from his head must have — a priori — done something to deserve it.

No evidence? No problem. That’s an old conspiracy-theory convention: The lack of evidence is evidence!

That grotesque oversimplification is not a shortcoming of the conspiracy theory but the point of it, whether the worldview in question is Donald Trump’s or Antifa’s. The actual world and the problems in it are complex and often require a great deal of applied effort and education to comprehend on even a superficial level — you could, for example, spend a lifetime studying vaccines or international trade in a professional capacity without reducing the associated policy complexities to a Rubik’s Cube that you learn how to solve. Most of the people in Congress or seeking seats in Congress have neither the ability nor the inclination to do that intellectual work — and the ordinary Asinus americanus scrolling through Facebook has very little incentive to do it. Economists call this “rational ignorance,” meaning in this case that the asymmetry between the work a person would have to do to learn about an issue and the power that same person has to use such knowledge to effect changes in policy makes remaining ignorant the more rational investment of time and effort.

What you will see if you observe QAnon more closely is that it is only partly a conspiracy theory; what it is, at heart, is a very close-knit and self-reinforcing community based on a mythology — which is to say, a cult. We need not necessarily take “cult” here pejoratively. QAnon and other similar cults may be more or less innocuous, or they may be dangerous. The community of belief serves a simplifying function, too, even if its doctrines may be esoteric and pedantically developed, as in the case of Marxism and its stepdaughter, feminism, two modes of analysis that are, fundamentally, conspiracy theories, casting as the antagonist shadowy and amorphous forces (capital, patriarchy) that can be redefined and adapted as needed. The doctrine is only a means to create community. The QAnon cult’s claims about any particular development or fact are not what the movement is built upon, which is why debunking QAnon claims has little effect on QAnon cultists. The point of QAnon isn’t the Q story but what Jo Rae Perkins calls “Q people.” It is not the Luciferian pedophilia but the slogan “WWG1WGA” — “Where We Go One, We Go All” — that now crops up at Trump rallies alongside MAGA, its functional (and perhaps moral) equivalent. The cult simplifies the social complexities of modern life not by offering a dogma within which to analyze uncertain questions but by providing community relations to act as a kind of heuristic in their own right. You know how to feel about something because you know how “Q people” feel about it — WWG1WGA. It’s veganism or Scientology for dopey right-wingers.

See you in Gitmo.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Elections

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More
Elections

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More