It’s Not A Theory — Josh Marshall on the QAnon phenom.
As the QAnon phenomenon becomes more central to critical political and public safety questions, I realize we need a new vocabulary to describe this and similar phenomena. Q is not a “conspiracy theory”. The faked moon landing was a conspiracy theory. Perhaps birtherism was a conspiracy theory, though one with similarities to QAnon because of its strong ideological valence. But Q is not a conspiracy theory. It’s a fascistic political movement which predicts and advocates mass violence against liberals (and everyone else outside its definition of true Americans) in an imminent apocalyptic political reckoning. What we call the ‘conspiracy theories’ are simply the storylines and claims that justify that outcome. They could easily be replaced by others which serve the same purpose.
In other words – and this is still a very basic confusion – the Q phenomenon is not a factual misunderstanding that more credible news sources or prevalent fact-check columns would deflate and tame. You can even see this play out in real time in what we might call Q ‘man on the street’ interviews in which a reporter dissects or debunks some claim the Q supporter believes. The response is invariably something like, “Well, there are a bunch of other bad things I heard they did.”
Some Q supporters clearly believe some of the movement fables. You can see this in the late 2016 story of the man who stormed the Pizza shop in DC which was a focal point of pedophilia claims in the PizzaGate conspiracy theory, which was a precursor to Q. (Most PizzaGate fables were later incorporated into Qanon.) Edgar M. Welch, the would-be mass shooter and rescuer of abused children, was clearly quite surprised to find that Comet Ping Pong was in fact just a good pizza joint, with no abused children, no dungeons, no secret headquarters of John Podesta.
But Welch, I think, is the exception. Just as the ‘conspiracy theory’ language is inadequate and misleading we need a better way of understanding belief, particularly belief as a form of aggression. I don’t think most QAnon believers actually ‘believe’ that Hillary Clinton runs a pedophilia ring, at least not in the sense that you and I think of the word. Most of us in politics and in journalism have a rather classical and mechanistic understanding of cognition and belief. We use our mental faculties to ascertain what is true and then we believe those things that appear to be true. Or we take the word of trusted sources and believe those things. We may believe things which are not true either because we’ve been mislead or because our pre-existing biases distort our understanding of what is true. For this, good fact-check columns can help. When we say things we know are not true that’s lying. We know that’s not right. But sometimes we do it anyway.
This is a very inadequate way of understanding the Q phenomenon and much else in contemporary politics and culture.
I say you’re a pedophile not because I think you’re actually a pedophile but because it is an attack. Because it hurts you. In online and message board culture there are legions of users constantly attacking anyone they disagree with or don’t like as pedophiles or other horrid accusations. Presumably these people aren’t acting on some mistaken information that the people (the identities of whom they usually don’t even know) they’re attacking have sexually abused children. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a form of aggression. Things like the Q phenomenon are just this aggression writ large. I say you’re a pedophile because it is itself an act of aggression but also because it dehumanizes you. It’s a storyline that makes hurting you or killing you make more sense and be more exciting.
Not surprisingly given his role in these movements, Donald Trump is a good illustration of how to think about belief in this context. We know that Trump is a scurrilous, pathological liar. But as I’ve written, Trump doesn’t believe or not believe as you or I likely do. In fact, if you could sit Trump down sedated or under some kind of truth serum and ask why he was lying about some particular claim I think he would find the question almost bewildering. Someone like Trump finds what would be helpful to his needs or claims or interest in the particular moment and then says those things. And I think he even kind of believes them because they help him. What you say and ‘believe’ isn’t tethered to what’s true in quite the same way. You might as well ask a novelist why she writes things that aren’t true. She’d be equally befuddled by the question.
If you’ve worked in business a certain kind of salesman is like this. You size up the customer, find out what they want, what they feel they need and then tell them a story to make the sale. Is it lying? Well, not to them. Not exactly. It’s selling. Again, you don’t ask a playwright why he writes stories that aren’t true. Needless to say Donald Trump is that kind of salesman. How is it Donald Trump always seems to rapidly believe whatever is helpful to him in the given moment? Or later say exactly the opposite when that’s helpful? There’s rampant voter fraud. Bill Clinton is the worst sexual predator in human history and is definitely awful even as Trump himself casually harasses, importunes, assaults, rapes and more? Since they help you you do sort of come to believe them because why not?
Any sports fan comes to believe that their team is absolutely the best and the rival team is definitely the worst, with all manner of chants, regalia and affirmations even though they know – from another perspective – that all of this is in fact absurd. To Trump it really would be like asking a novelist why they keep making up stories that aren’t true. The reaction is incomprehension. The point here is not to defend Trump who is malevolent predator and degenerate liar. It is to explain that his calculus of truth, belief and advantage are quite different than what most of us are likely familiar with.
Just how QAnon and comparable movements work is something I’m still working to get my head around. (These two articles are the analyses that interest me most – here and here.) But calling them conspiracy theories is not only wrong in concept it seriously misleads us about what they are and how to combat them. Qanon is a violent terroristic political movement with strong fascistic facets the upshot of which, in every storyline, is a final violent reckoning in which Trump’s political enemies are rounded up and murdered. That’s what it’s about. The fables are just getting people primed and ready for that moment.
Doonesbury — Modern times.