“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines,” wrote the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, “totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”
In the past seven days we’ve seen such a “lying world of consistency” inspire mass actions by far-right movements, from the far-right invasion of Portland, to the storming of the Reichstag by anti-lockdown protesters, to the Trafalgar Square demonstration, also against masks and lockdowns.
At each of these protests, fascist symbols were displayed alongside folksy, sub-political slogans; in London and Berlin known neo-Nazis stood alongside libertarian hippies. The glue holding it all together is the conspiracy theory known as QAnon.
QAnon emerged in October 2017 from cryptic internet postings purported to originate from a high-level US official. Drawing on almost all previous conspiracy theories, it asserts that Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war with a Satanic paedophile cabal, involving large parts of the liberal Democratic establishment and Hollywood.
A “triangle” of rich families is alleged to run the world – the Rothschilds, George Soros and the Saudi royals – while the “Hollywood elite” (seen as a codeword for Jews) is alleged to be “adrenochrome harvesting” (extracting adrenaline to create the psychoactive drug adrenochrome) from the blood of children. Soon, according to QAnon believers, “The Storm” is coming: Trump will arrest thousands of cabal members and intern them at Guantanamo Bay, while the US military will stage a coup.
It is absurd, of course. But during the Covid-19 pandemic QAnon supporters’ slogan – Where We Go One We Go All – the word “adrenochrome”, and the letter Q have become common signifiers, not just among traditional far-right demonstrations, but across a larger and more diverse movement.
The Global Network on Extremism & Technology noted in July that “three formerly distinct online ecosystems – lifestyle/wellness, violent extremism and conspiracy promoting groups – have become intertwined through shared #QAnon related hashtags and conspiracy narratives on vaccines, 5G and the evils of the ‘Deep State’ during this pandemic.”
To a new generation of “influencers” on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, unregulated and unverified purveyors of marketing and information, it became clear that conspiracy theories make money. The more you feed people the idea that drinking bleach can cure the virus, or that 5G telecoms masts are causing it, or that the whole thing is a “plandemic”, the more traffic you generate and the more money you make.
Politicians, too, are feeding off the myth. According to the Economist, some 72 QAnon sympathisers have sought nominations for the Republican Party in elections this year, while in Germany the far-right AfD has continually riffed on Covid-19 conspiracy themes. The FBI has already identified QAnon as a terror threat – but the much greater danger is that the theory has become, for large numbers of people, an ideological gateway drug to the far right.
At a literal level, QAnon purports to explain what neither liberalism nor Marxism nor mainstream conservatism can: why the world doesn’t work; why nothing changes; why power elites persist. But at a sub-literate level it serves a function that Arendt identified in the ideologies of both Nazi Germany and the USSR: to promote irrationalism. Observers of QAnon networks have likened their activities to a collaborative roleplay game: you have to work out what the cryptic “Q-drops” mean, and to do so you have to consult other atomised and confused people. It’s fun, it creates structure and meaning, and then – when you take to the streets over, for example, a road closure proposal by the local council – you “find each other”.
If you watch the response of nicely turned-out residents in Palm Beach, Florida in June – to the simple issue of a vote by the local government to make mask wearing mandatory – you can see the levels of mass psychosis that QAnon feeds off. “You, doctor, are going to be arrested for crimes against humanity,” says one woman, jabbing her finger at a medical expert. QAnon has emerged as the overarching explanatory myth, explaining ten years of economic disempowerment and political turmoil.
Arendt understood that the purpose of conspiracy theories was to make people knowingly complicit in irrationalism: to shut them off from facts, analysis and reason, and to create a closed world in which everything makes sense. In the “lying world” created by Nazi propaganda, she wrote, “through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations”.
See also: Samuel Horti on how conspiracy theorists have embraced coronavirus
Covid-19 was a shock, the recession it has caused is a shock, but they are the latest in a long list of shocks, going back to the dotcom bubble, 9/11, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse. With neither liberal politics nor neoliberal economics capable of explaining such shocks, people take refuge in ridiculous beliefs. Once ensnared in a community of ridiculous beliefs, Arendt warned, people “do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself”.
In the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, the Nazis found not only justification for their core myth – the world Jewish conspiracy – but their model for government. The Germans are going to rule the world just as ruthlessly as the Jews do, was the subtext – and we can do it through the same alleged methods of intrigue, network and conspiracy.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, however, is not the work of a single person: unlike the Nazis, we have a networked information society and the “wisdom of crowds”. The theory has a life of its own, and is being deepened and made more comprehensive with the addition of health and lifestyle lunacies, and the Covid-19 conspiracies.
If we read it literally, as the product of mass psychosis, what are QAnon’s adherents actually promising each other? That just as the Hollywood elite, the Saudis and the Democrats secretly rule the world now, so we – the ordinary, midwestern, white, Christian Americans – can rule the world in future.
If it literally came to pass that the US military staged a coup, threw Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton into Guantanamo and exposed thousands of famous people as Satanic paedophiles, what would the US look like? There would have to be camps, prisons, trials, secret detention centres – and, of course, the people in them would not be Hollywood stars, but black, Muslim and Hispanic and Jewish Americans, together with the supposed “cultural Marxists” who are alleged to be conspiring to “replace” white Christian America.
And since there would be resistance to The Storm, there would most likely be a civil war. The US’s dominant role in world affairs would end, its alliance systems would break up and its economy would be in ruins. That is what QAnon followers are really fantasising about.
The Protocols, which, like QAnon, had a life of their own, far beyond the overt propaganda of the Nazis, led to death camps. QAnon, if left to spread, could do the same. The lessons of history here are not hiding among the arcana and footnotes.
What should progressives and democrats do? Experts in conspiracy say that prevention is better than cure: they suggest that, rather than debunking the theory, pre-bunking is more effective. Politicians, media personalities and journalists need to go out of their way, in advance, to warn that QAnon exists and that its aim is to create an alliance of concerned and powerless people and draw them into the far right.
The worst thing to do is ridicule the person spreading the theory: instead, write the authors Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook in The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, accept that critical thought and scepticism are healthy, but try to get the victims of conspiracy theory to confront evidence and logic.
Ultimately, however, we are going to defeat the far right by empowering the people it is recruiting – but in different ways to the gun-toting and vigilantism they are currently flirting with. What they want is a political and social alternative to the present. You only have to hear one sluggish speech by Joe Biden to understand that liberalism cannot offer one. Biden’s campaign rightly accused Trump of boosting QAnon – but the Democratic presidential nominee needs to take the theory apart, line by line, linking its irrationalities to a warning about where the US is headed if Trump wins a second term.
And in the UK, where thousands of conspiracy theorists and far-right activists descended on Trafalgar Square on 29 August, what’s wrong with QAnon, and climate denial, and the “plandemic” myth, needs to be the subject of sermons, school curricula and, above all, the speeches of serious politicians.
See also: Richard J Evans on why pandemics have always created conspiracy theories