Third in a series on the 2020 US Election
America is right now in a strange place, many would say. Though the Presidential election was “called”—as one Indian commentator in the state of Bihar, where an equally interesting election has just drawn to a close, stated, he now perforce has to add this new term to the electoral vocabulary common to India—some days ago, the sitting President of the US refuses to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s supporters plan a massive rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday in a show of force intended to convey to the man who now believes that he practically owns the White House that they will form his stormtroopers. There are rumors that, come January 20, Trump may be running a parallel administration. Perhaps, much like Venezuela, the United States will have two presidents and the world will be divided between those conferring recognition to either of the two claimants to the throne. There is some talk of militias taking to the streets and even of “civil war”. Uneasiness hangs in the air.
But stranger things have been happening in the US for some time. To enter into the mind of America and the maelstrom of contemporary American political culture, it may be productive to look in some detail at a recent phenomenon that may strike some as lingering on the margins and that has yet entered into the nooks and crannies of everyday American life. Of all the conspiracy theories that have roiled the American cultural and political landscape, none seems as bizarre, breath-taking, and curiously audacious (if that is the word) as the one that goes under the name of QAnon. Its origins are sometimes traced to a conspiracy theory in turn known as Pizzagate, which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington DC known as the Comet Ping Pong. A month after Clinton conceded defeat to Trump, a man by the name of Edgar M. Welch from a town in North Carolina arrived at the Comet, whose owner had at one time corresponded with the Clinton campaign about a fund-raising dinner, expecting to find kidnapped and sexually abused children huddled in a corner or hidden behind a closet. Diners with their children bolted for the door as Welch fired a few shots into the air. His search turned up nothing and minutes later the gunman surrendered to the police. In his first interview after his arrest, Welch explained: “I just wanted to do some good and went about it in the wrong way.” He conceded as well that “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent”, but nevertheless insisted that the sexual trafficking of children is a global problem.
Welch had armed himself with a military-style assault rifle, doubtless because he envisioned the possibility that he might have to shoot his way out of the pizzeria if he was up against a gang of malevolent child molesters. One might imagine that Welch had watched one too many B-grade Hollywood films, but it is also an indubitable fact that in America military-grade weapons in the arms of common people are only slightly less common than kitchen knives. But his first media interview points to most of the elements that would go into the making of that heady brew described as QAnon. Welch, it transpires, habitually trafficked in conspiracy theories and listened to the radio talk shows of Alex Jones, a prolific conspiracy theorist with a massive following who has claimed that Mrs. Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up” children. It should surprise no one that Trump appeared on Jones’ radio show in 2016. One can think of Jones’ reach in several other respects: if his InfoWars website receives 10 million visitors monthly, he also peddles ideas that go far beyond the visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton, who is only a metonym for “the swamp”, “corrupt far-left Democratic elites”, and “radical Socialists” who “want to destroy our country”—ideas such as the notion that there is a demographic war being waged against white people and that the genocide of white Americans is imminent. Besides Welch’s attraction to conspiracy theorists, as his interview revealed, he was also taken in by evangelical Christianity’s promise to help men rediscover the God-given masculinity that resides within them. This is on the supposition that the “pansy culture” of modern-day America, driven by political correctness and allegedly exemplified by feminists, socialists, and the whole panoply of queers, lesbians, transgendered people, and various other sexual and political misfits, does not permit men to be men.
Let us recall, however, that Welch insisted that he “just wanted to do some good.” When the great civil rights icon, John Lewis, passed away in the late summer, those who mourned him—and that number, notably, did not include Donald Trump—recalled that Lewis thought it all but necessary to seek “good trouble”. The followers of QAnon unhesitatingly advocate for what they deem to be “good trouble” and the good fight, and there can be no greater “good” than the elimination of the sexual trafficking of children and the punishment of pedophiles. It has been speculated that it is QAnon’s purported fight against the sexual trafficking of children that has drawn a disproportionate number of women to the movement. QAnon supporters allege, needless to say without a shred of evidence, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles—among them Democratic politicians, liberal Hollywood actors, and celebrities—who operate a global child sex-trafficking ring and are plotting against Trump.
Moreover, on this view, Trump has been targeted as he was chosen by a group of high-ranking military generals to run for president and help break-up this conspiracy. Many QAnon adherents claim that the criminals, besides being driven by pedophilic urges, kill and eat children with the intention of extracting a life-enhancing chemical found in their blood. QAnon supporters to varying degrees have also been linked to various other articles of faith that underlie their cosmographic imagination, among them an unremitting hostility to what they vaguely—if at all—understand as socialism, a disdain for something called the “deep state”, a distrust of vaccinations, and a belief in biblical prophecies about the end of the world and the emergence of a new utopia populated by the (chosen) survivors. QAnon adherents speak of “the calm before the storm”—the storm here may be likened to a lightning strike, when the cabal will be smashed with the arrest of thousands of its members.
Just who “Q” is remains unknown but Q’s identity—an individual at first, perhaps an official of high standing with top security (“Q”) clearance, slowly transforming into a collective, and, some say, Trump himself—is not wholly germane to entering the worldview of QAnon. To some in the movement the Pizzagate antecedents are now forgotten and the proper beginning is seen in a 28 October 2017 post by the anonymous “Q”, posturing as a government insider with access to highly classified information, that appeared on 4chan, an image-based bulletin board already reputed for its extreme vulgarity, grotesque memes, and teardown culture. In time Q’s posts would gravitate to 8chan/8kun, another image board that is also linked to child pornography, white supremacism, antisemitism, and several mass shootings. Minutes before Brenton Harrison Tarrant went on a rampage that would leave 51 dead and as many wounded at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, he shared links to the live stream video on 8chan and on Facebook. Similarly, the perpetrator of a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, which left 23 dead, posted his white nationalist manifesto on 8chan an hour before he commenced firing.
QAnon’s supporters are scarcely troubled either by these nefarious associations or by the fact that Q’s numerous prophecies, none of which have materialized, are just plain drivel. Supporters have at hand a number of explanations, some altogether pedestrian and others somewhat more ingenuous. Thus, if 4chan and 8chan are home to brutal pornography, some of it of the very variety that the cabal against which the QAnon movement is waging an apocalyptic war is allegedly mired in, one can always argue that technology can be used as much for good as for bad. Since Q speaks much like an Oracle, often in a secret coded language, leaving cues for the initiated (“Q drops”), it is not surprising that his prophecies cannot be interpreted by those working with a common sense notion of language. Moreover, aver QAnon supporters, “disinformation is necessary”. Thus the prophecies—regarding the impending arrest of Hillary Clinton, Zuckerberg’s forced departure from the US, the resignation of Jack Dorsey as Twitter CEO, and countless other inanities—only appear to have failed.
All of this might rightfully be dismissed for the fantastic nonsense it is if it were not, its critics allege, so dangerous. The FBI last year classified QAnon as a domestic-terror threat, but Trump has nevertheless not disavowed QAnon, and has even described its followers as “people that love our country”. His comments on the rally held in 2017 by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Trump infamously declared after fights broke out between white supremacists and their opponents that there were “good people on both sides”, come to mind. At his last town hall meeting before the election he claimed that he knew nothing of QAnon—except, as he has said on more than one occasion, that “they do supposedly like me.” He has also adroitly noted, recognizing that one can always invoke the sublime innocence of children to one’s advantage as a form of cultural capital, that QAnon followers “are very much against pedophilia” and that he shares “this sentiment”.
Supporters began showing up at Trump rallies in 2018, and in the recently concluded election 25 politicians—23 Republicans and 2 Independents—competed in local and state races as avowed QAnon candidates. Marjorie Greene has been elected to the 14th Congressional District in Georgia: it is a predominantly white district where earnings are well below the national median income, support for Trump is overwhelming, and where 6000 residents signed a petition to preserve the public statue of a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader. Greene counts herself among QAnon’s early believers and she often has herself photographed in jeans and a cowboy hat—images of the rugged West, the adventurous spirit of the homesteader, the ethos of individualism—sporting an assault rifle. Greene has characterized QAnon as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out.”
But there is more to QAnon: Nothing in America—not the most absurd ideas, nor such an intimate act of religious worship as prayer—is immune to the charms of the market and it comes as no surprise that the most entrepreneurial QAnon advocates have built small business empires merchandising QAnon t-shirts, books, videos, hats, and other paraphernalia. The QAnon evangelist David Hayes, who goes by his online handle PrayingMedic, has 420,000 followers on Twitter, and one of his post-election night tweets is both an unmistakable sign of the nexus between Trump and QAnon and the fact that Trump has a universe of surrogates and acolytes who stand by to do his bidding: “Trump has an insurmountable lead in Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These states should be called. POTUS is closing the gap in Arizona. The only way Biden wins is by cheating.”
It is sometimes thought that QAnon’s appeal, besides the recourse to the deeply held notion that a society has almost no greater obligation than to protect children from harm and danger, also resides in its participatory structure. The “Q” drops and clues contained in tweets and posts are deciphered much like clues to crossword puzzles and social media enables people coming together in groups to sort out these puzzles and prepare for the day of reckoning. QAnon’s proponents may be inspired with the thought of taking down a secret cabal but in some fashion they construe themselves as a cabal of those uniquely possessed of higher truths that are invisible except to the initiated. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier in October, two researchers noted that “while QAnon participants can often seem crazy, irrational, or credulous, our research suggests that their collaboration creates a populist expertise that provides (and, crucially, justifies) an alternative to knowledge generated by “mainstream” institutions. Put differently, QAnon does the work of constructing alternative facts.” However, it is something more than a universe of “alternative facts” as it is understood these days that is being generated: some QAnon believers are moved by a belief in Trump’s divinity and speak of his access to secret even sacred knowledge. The QAnon acolyte of Trump, Brenden Dilley, another talk radio show host, trumpeted his triumph over coronavirus as indication of the fact that he was blessed with “god-tier genetics”.
Still, just what animates the proponents of QAnon is a question that has been inadequately probed by commentators. I have pointed to some elements of that story: the dread of socialism, the desire to do good, a fervent belief in the American way of life, and a fear that the America they know is fading into history. One can perhaps equally gravitate towards another set of explanations, rooted in the anxieties that have been induced by rapid changes in norms of social life, the evisceration of rural lifestyles, and the apprehension among some that they may not have much of a place in the America that is emerging in the wake of significant demographic shifts and the ascendancy of racial minorities in political life and the public sphere more generally. The place occupied by Fox News in the imaginary of Trump’s America, and more specifically QAnon, would require a book unto itself. Some commentators point to QAnon as the most recent instantiation of the American historian Richard Hofstadter’s thesis on the persistence of the “paranoid style in American politics”, but the talismanic invocation of this essay does more to obscure rather than reveal anything truly significant about QAnon. There is a more plausible argument to be made about the long history of millenarian movements and the fervent belief in apocalyptic Christianity which is a distinctive feature of American religious populism. QAnon’s own adherents have furnished the best metaphor with which to assess them. They await what they call the “Great Awakening”, and so hearken back to the 18th century religious revival known by the same name. Its principal proponent was the New England Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, cautioned his countrymen and women at a time when secularism was posing a threat to religious piety that they were to submit themselves to a wrathful God.
QAnon’s adherents believe in the Great Awakening and think, moreover, that it is imminent. The signs, I submit, are not propitious for such a momentous event. Nevertheless, I concur with QAnon, and the election offers unimpeachable evidence to this effect, that the United States of America is very much in need of a Great Awakening. Lunatics, as the inimitable Saadat Hasan Manto divined in his masterful story, “Toba Tek Singh”, about the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan at the time of Partition, are well poised to tell us something about the lunacy of the normal.
Adapted with revisions from a substantially longer article entitled “The Bitter Pill of American Democracy: The Morning After”, published in Open magazine, print and online (6 November 2020).