The Morning Jolt

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Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Be Ignored

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

On the menu today, looking at the long-term consequences of QAnon, an unnerving concern about security for Wednesday’s Inauguration, and one activist group demonstrates true responsibility.

Measuring the Consequences of the QAnon Conspiracy

Friday afternoon, I wrote a Corner post noting that the Trump-directed sweeping roundup of celebrity and politician human traffickers promised by the “Q” of QAnon has not occurred and does not appear likely to occur before the end of Trump’s presidency Wednesday. This post stirred a surprising number of angry responses.

“Why are you obsessed with QAnon?” This is, I think, the second or third time I’ve ever written about it; the QAnon conspiracy theory has been around since 2017. For certain folks, any attention paid to a topic they dislike is too much attention.

This is America, the First Amendment is still there, and you’re free to believe in any nutty idea you like and free to speak about any belief you like. The problem starts when those beliefs stir individuals to take actions that harm other people.

The animating belief of the mob that took over Capitol Hill — “a conspiracy of sinister elites stole election victory from Donald Trump, Mike Pence can stop it but refuses, and only we and the president can reverse this epic injustice”— overlaps quite a bit with the QAnon one — “a conspiracy of sinister and Satanic elites is involved in child sex trafficking, other government officials can stop it but refuse to do so, and only we and the president can stop this epic crime.”

The guy in the buffalo hat and face paint, Jacob Chansley, goes by the nickname “QAnon Shaman.” (His lawyer says he’s hoping for a presidential pardon.) The AP “reviewed social media posts, voter registrations, court files and other public records for more than 120 people either facing criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 unrest or who, going maskless amid the pandemic, were later identified through photographs and videos taken during the melee” and found “QAnon beliefs were common among those who heeded Trump’s call to come to Washington.”

One of the objections to that Corner post was “paying attention to this is a waste of time.” Unfortunately, the QAnon conspiracy theory and its believers are now consequential.

If ignoring strange beliefs would make them go away and ensure that no one ever acted upon them in a way that harms others, we would be on easy street. Alas, ignoring crazy or extreme beliefs does not make them go away, and does not ensure that those believers will act in a way that does not endanger others.

Recent years have demonstrated to us that no matter how nutty you think an idea or claim is, somebody out there not only believes it, but also that person is probably willing to do something terrible and violent over it. The Nashville bomber believed in “lizard people.” The man who killed worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh believed that Jews and George Soros were helping migrant caravans in Mexico. The gun-toting delusional guy who barged into Comet Ping Pong pizza was a Pizzagate believer. This predates the Trump era; in 2016, the FBI arrested and indicted a Milwaukee man who was planning a mass shooting at a Masonic Temple, believing that the Freemasons “are playing with the world like a game.”

But we have crossed a line from lone paranoid nuts to larger groups, who are starting to communicate with each other, all with an interconnected belief system. A recent Yahoo article quoted Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports and articles on terrorism:

. . . the people behind Jan. 6, 2021, mobilized right-wing extremists of every stripe — white supremacists, neo-Nazis, QAnon, anti-Semites, antigovernment militias, xenophobes, anti-feminists — and brought them together as a movement in what amounted to a Woodstock festival for extremists.

What was the name of the 2017 Charlottesville rally that turned violent? “Unite the Right,” and it included white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, alt-right true believers, militia members, and seemingly every other variant of repugnant anti-constitutionalist hatred.

The thing is, it’s not merely supporting Donald Trump that makes someone want to charge Capitol Hill and physically assault a police officer with a “thin blue line” flag. A lot of people who want to villainize anyone to the right of the Brookings Institution will want to blur the line between “QAnon Shaman” and any registered Republican, or anyone who criticizes a Democrat.

But other people’s bad-faith efforts to obscure the difference between a Republican and an anti-constitutional extremist only increases our responsibility to draw those distinctions.

Some not-small chunk of the hardest of the hardline crowd wants to shoot up Congress because our legislative branch will not submit to their will. They’re trying to influence how lawmakers vote by threatening to kill them and their families. That’s a parallel to jihadism, and a giant, honking consequential short-term and long-term problem.

The long climb out of the economic pit created by the pandemic is a big and pressing problem, as are Big Tech’s inconsistent rules of acceptable discourse, and appetite to censor, along with the national debt, the continued aggression of China, the plight of addiction, and I’m sure you can think of others. But we must confront the possibility that after the pandemic — which, by the way, isn’t over, and is in fact getting worse, as the more-contagious strains spread faster than our ability to vaccinate people — the single biggest and most pressing problem facing the country right now is the proliferation of extremist ideologies that spur adherents to violence — QAnon, the Proud Boys, Boogaloo, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and the rest turning into our own homegrown terror equivalent of al-Qaeda. Antifa will offer its own counterpart threat from the far left. Their ideologies and worldviews may differ, but their methods are all violent.

Does the notion of a homegrown al-Qaeda seem overheated? Maybe. But some people who fought al-Qaeda for a living aren’t so sure.

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was formerly the head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and the commander of all U.S. and allied troops fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. “I did see a similar dynamic in the evolution of al-Qaida in Iraq, where a whole generation of angry Arab youth with very poor prospects followed a powerful leader who promised to take them back in time to a better place, and he led them to embrace an ideology that justified their violence. This is now happening in America,” McChrystal told Yahoo News.

A radical group of citizens have adopted a very hardline view of the country, he noted, that echoes the Lost Cause narrative that took root in the old South after the Civil War. “Only President Trump has updated Lost Cause with his ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative that they lost because of a stolen election, and that is the only thing holding these people down and stopping them from assuming their rightful place in society,” McChrystal said. “That gives them legitimacy to become even more radical. I think we’re much further along in this radicalization process, and facing a much deeper problem as a country, than most Americans realize.”

McChrystal’s closing comment in that article is, “Even if Trump exits the scene, the radical movement he helped create has its own momentum and cohesion now, and they may find they don’t need Trump anymore. They can just wait for another charismatic leader to appear. So the fabric of something very dangerous has been woven, and it’s further along than most Americans care to admit.”

The Capitol Hill riot might turn out to be akin to Oklahoma City bombing, or the Columbine shooting. Ironically, Oklahoma City represents the better scenario.

Timothy McVeigh ended up discrediting the militia movement he supported, because he transformed their image from one that some Americans might agree with — “we are men who are angry with the government and contend it does not respect our Constitutional rights” — to “we are men who blow up buildings with day care centers and kill children.” Thankfully, there’s already some evidence that the extremist groups are starting to fracture; apparently the QAnon stuff is too crazy for the other groups. Demonstrations at state capitols were pretty minimal this weekend.

But Columbine inspired one copycat after another; it represented a dangerous national ideation. To a certain type of angry, isolated, alienated teenager or young adult, a mass shooting was how they were supposed to express their rage.

Sooner or later, Congress is going to contemplate passing some sort of legislation that will be deeply divisive and controversial. Will the next group of angry extremists decide that the best way to stop Congress from passing legislation they oppose it to gather thousands and attack the Capitol building?

As If Inauguration Day Weren’t Tense Enough Already . . .

Just in case you thought this newsletter weren’t dark enough lately, “U.S. defense officials say they are worried about an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, prompting the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into Washington for the event.” That may seem unthinkable, but Indira Ghandi and Anwar Sadat probably thought the same thing.

The One Group That Wants to Preserve Life by Acting Responsibly

After the irresponsible and wrong run amok, the responsible and righteous step up. The March for Life goes virtual this year, to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19 and to give the U.S. Capitol Police one less large crowd of activists to worry about and police this year.

ADDENDA: Our old friend Joe Scarborough accuses social media of being the driving force behind the January 6 Capitol Hill riots: “Those riots would not have happened but for Twitter, but for Facebook . . . . People were tweeting about health, and tweeting about mindfulness, and tweeting about — I don’t know, flowers and music. And then they stumbled onto some of these conspiracy theories. And because Facebook’s algorithms were set up to cause this sort of radicalism to explode, that’s what happened. Their likes exploded, the people following them explode. You actually had Facebook and Twitter set up their business models in a way that would lead to the insurrection against the United States of America, it’s on them.”

Hey, does cable news ever twist the facts, stir up as much outrage as possible, rile people up, and offer fodder for radicals?

. . . Ten months of minimized human contact and interacting through screens is probably really bad for a lot of people’s ability to accurately perceive reality.

. . . Centrists get a lot of grief for being boring and milquetoast, but have you noticed there’s never been a terrible “centrist riot”?

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