Part One: What is QAnon?
QAnon is ubiquitous today in American politics. It is now so wide ranging that there are now sitting Republican politicians, both locally and nationally, that endorse the ideas that QAnon touts. US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is by far the most prominent voice here. Repeatedly, both online and on national television, she has said she believes many of the ideas that QAnon puts forward. But even before QAnon received her approval, it had already gained a lot of attention from other Republican candidates, including individuals already in office and local Republican parties across the country. Yet the greatest champion of QAnon has been no one less than the previous president of the United States, Donald Trump. Its endorsement by the former president and other major Republican politicians ultimately led to the capitol riots on January 6th, in which QAnon followers made up a very vocal part of the riot. Despite failing to produce the changes that the rioters set out to accomplish, the movement and beliefs of QAnon have remained firmly rooted in the Republican party.
For the uninitiated, QAnon is a right wing conspiracy movement. Many of the things that QAnon believes are completely baseless. Essentially its main beliefs revolve around the idea that the deep state and many powerful figures are in a child sex trafficing Satan worshipping cult, better known as the “cabal.” QAnon’s beliefs also center on Donald Trump donning the role of savior, not only of the children being trafficked, but also the entire country from which he will one day root out all corruption. All these claims stem from an unverified source on 4chan, which then moved to 8chan and is now presently on 8kun. The source takes the name “Q,” a name that comes from the claim that this individual has Q level clearance in the US government and works for or with the deep state. The community of QAnon believers talk about and debate everything: Q’s claims and conspiracy theories, but also news, pop culture, and interpretations of historical events. QAnon followers believe many people are in the corrupt governing “cabal.” They accuse people like the Clintons, John McCain, the Obama’s, and many celebrities including Oprah and even Tom Hanks. The core tenants have remained fairly consistent, although they have been tweaked here and there. At bottom though, the base of QAnon beliefs has remained the same.
In general, QAnon has a deep distrust of major institutions, not only mainstream news but also the government and almost every politician, excluding those who have explicitly endorsed QAnon–and of course Donald Trump. Everything from the origin of COVID-19 to a single word in Trump’s speech is up for conjecture. Typically, Q’s messages are a string of rhetorical questions followed by the occasional slogan phrase such as “the storm is coming.” One of the first messages from Q was posted on October 28, 2017 and it reads in part:
Mockingbird HRC detained, not arrested (yet). Where is Huma? Follow Huma. This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet). Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals? What is military intelligence? Why go around the 3 letter agencies?
The message is utter nonsense, but it serves the purpose of providing enough of a hint of what the true meaning could be without ever stating it outright. This vagueness and lack of substance is not only characteristic of QAnon, but pretty unique to QAnon. All these questions surrounded by a fundamental vagueness has allowed people to develop all sorts of different interpretations and ideas. Consequently, QAnon has been very effective at incorporating other conspiracy theories. The result is that Qnon is now a big tent of conspiracies, every conspiracy from racist conspiracies and anti-vaccination movements to 9/11 trutherism, flat earth conspiracies, infowars, ideas about the Mayan calendar, and the freemasons now find themselves united and given currency by QAnon.
Yet the real driving force of QAnon is its lack of class consciousness, which has allowed believers to accept a self-proclaimed billionaire as their unequivocal savior. Believers praise Trump and often pick out certain statements that Trump has said to support their claims with as much faith (but less rigor) than a medieval Scholastic interpreting the Bible. Sadly, the problems that QAnon followers face clearly do not come from people undermining the system in order to eat children, but from the all-too-mundane conflicts of a late capitalist system in the throes of rapid decay. But because QAnon followers cannot see where they actually–or better yet, historically and materially–stand in relation to the world around them, they vilify certain groups of people who could serve as crucial allies in their fight to overthrow the powerful elites ruining the world. Black Lives Matter and even antifa are such groups. However, QAnon adherents’ world view is so manipulated and contradictory that they fail to see these allies and actually work against them.
Something like QAnon does not just occur out of nowhere. QAnon isn’t a spontaneous mutation in US society, but rather a long development of US political and cultural trends. This article will address why QAnon shouldn’t be viewed as a mere internet prank gone wild, but rather the latest of a long line of political conspiracies that have historically played a prominent role in the background of right wing US politics.
Part Two: The Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Decline of Congress and the Media
After World War II, McCarthyism and the strong anti-communist culture that developed produced a lot of misplaced theories about communists within the US. Popular at the time was the idea that there were communists working together within the US government deep state to not only sabotage the US efforts against the Soviet Union and its allies, but also eventually to take over the US as another communist state. It is easy to see how these Cold War communist agents could hold the place of “the deep state” that QAnon believers use now. And in many ways these two groups–communists and deep state agents–are pretty interchangeable in both QAnon and McCarthyism.
The assassinations of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, along with JFK and later his brother Robert Kennedy, would mark the 60s as one of the more chaotic decades in the US for many Americans. The many protests and riots that occurred in this decade were not only a response to these assassinations but also to the Vietnam war, which was the longest American war until the war in Iraq would claim that title about 40 years later. The violence of the 60s was followed by the many scandals of the 70s. 1971 saw the leak of the now famous Pentagon Papers, which revealed that America had plans to invade Vietnam dating back to at least 1945. In 1972, the Watergate scandal broke and revealed that even the president was not above breaking the law for personal gain. Along with the Vietnam war, scandals, and killings, this period was marked by unrest and a growing distrust of the government.
The Vietnam war did end with the help of a popular anti-war movement and the civil rights movement achieved a lot of what it set out to do. Yet in the end, the scandals mentioned above were resolved to the point of preserving major institutions intact. Congress acted with due diligence both in its release of the Pentagon Papers and its investigation of Nixon. And the media clearly fulfilled its role of keeping the government in check.
QAnon references events from this period of US history, but it is not at the core of its beliefs. Yet this period of US history, a period that many QAnon believers even witnessed, is important in order to understand the conditions that led to the emergence of QAnon. In short, the 60s and 70s taught the government and other major US institutions the wrong lessons. Instead of pursuing more openness and transparency in the wake of the scandals and growing popular distrust, they became more secretive.
People’s lives began to noticeably change during the 1980s. Wages seriously stagnated and Reganonomics became a veritable truth in both major political parties, leading to tax cuts for the rich at the cost of a reduced social safety net that millions of Americans relied on. In this way, the 80s can be seen as the real start of events that would lead to the rise of QAnon.
Furthermore, the Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated how much the US government had improved at avoiding responsibility compared to the government of the 60s and 70s. The Iran-Contra affair ended with almost no serious or long lasting consequences for anyone involved, in stark contrast to the fairly benign Watergate scandal. In the latter, Nixon was forced to resign and those involved served some prison time. In comparison, the Iran-Contra scandal concluded with both the president and vice president remaining in office and Vice President Bush Sr. even going on to become the next president. Only one person involved in the scandal actually saw any prison time and the rest were either pardoned or simply given probation. Whereas in the 60s and 70s both Congress and the media upheld its “due diligence,” the 80s witnessed a breakdown in the independence and efficacy of these institutions. From this point on, the US government had found its modus operandi: flaunting the rules behind closed doors while lying to the American public.
Part Three: The 21st Century and the Prelude to QAnon
The US government and the powerful individuals who operate within the government today have fire-tested experience that they can get away with major scandals. The Iran-Contra affair served as an important benchmark for what the government can get away with. One of the ultimate demonstrations of this would happen two years after the September 11th attacks. 9/11 was a traumatic event for almost every American and coming on the heels of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union, it took many people by surprise. In the aftermath of 9/11 and leading up to the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the complicity of the media in supporting government scandals and secrets truly kicks off. Current and former government officials, conservative and even liberal political leaders alike, went unquestioned when pushing for the war with Iraq and Afghanistan in the media. Even major networks and publications facilitated the effort to push for a war with a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and would ultimately suffer more under American occupation than they had ever suffered under the Ba’ath party led by Saddam Hussein.
Leading up to the war in Iraq, the public was told over and over again that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction,” yet none were ever found. Thousands died, an insurgency grew among the population, and Iraqi prisoners were grossly and once-inconceivably tortured in the name of liberal democracy. The lies were revealed long before Bush left office, yet no one in either the media or government was ever held responsible. While isolatable individuals may have gotten in trouble, the institutions which secretly pushed through such violence and atrocities remained unchallenged and intact. Unlike in the 60s and 70s, the anti-war movement never really saw any sort of success and since there was no draft and the military was composed entirely of volunteers, it never had the same popular backing that the anti-war movement saw during the Vietnam war. On top of this failed anti-war movement, the authority of the federal government only increased with new security measures and the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, a title that just 20 years ago would have only been found in the most dystopian of novels.
Obama also continued Bush’s legacy of strengthening the intelligence apparatus. While Obama did decrease the amount of money that went into the military, he still prolonged the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if the people around Bush were suspected of wrongdoing or colluding with large nebulous corporations, then the people around Obama were guilty of the same things. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder is the best example of this. In contrast to the right’s demonization of Obama as a “socialist anti-business” president, banks and businesses were given a lot more freedom during Obama’s presidency. Eric Holder allowed many people from Wall Street to get away with massive financial crimes and would even return–after his “public” service–to do work for Convington & Burling, a law firm which has clients like, BP, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, and Walmart.
The common phrase of “nothing will fundamentally change” should be familiar to many who follow politics in the United States. A phrase that was repeated by Biden to rich donors back in 2019, this phrase is emblematic not just of Trump-Biden era politics, but also the way in which both Democrats and Republicans govern. Despite how different the two parties claim to be, nothing ever truly does fundamentally change between presidents. Just like Biden claimed when running against Trump in 2020, Obama similarly enacted this idea in his succession of Bush.
Part Four: The Birth of QAnon
It is important to note that Obama, a Democratic Party president, continued the projects of the previous president. Americans have been told repeatedly that the two parties are fundamentally different, that they share very few goals in common. And while the American populace is generally convinced that both parties act as a foil to each other, Obama is a clear demonstration that they do not. The result was increasing distrust of the government and politicians.
These feelings of mistrust, long simmering, reached a boiling point that facilitated the election of Trump. Devilishly astute, Trump, the billionaire with his fingers in every pot, ran his campaign on the foundation of being an “outsider,” different from both the Republicans and the Democrats. He regularly insulted other life long Republican operatives and political figures and aligned himself with non-conventional right wing figures outside the mainstream, e.g., Rodger Stone and Paul Manafort. Trump came in as a self advertised outsider and the media helped spread that idea. When Trump went on to face Hillary Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton and also former Secretary of State under Obama, it was essentially a long time establishment Democratic politician versus a self proclaimed outsider. Trump and his campaign encouraged the already latent culture of creating wild conspiracies about political figures, a tactic he had long pursued, e.g., the birther conspiracy that claimed that Obama was really born in Kenya and not America. 2016 also saw the pizzagate conspiracy, the scrutiny surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the meteoric rise in popularity of the term “deep state.”
Seen in this light, QAnon is an expectable even if terrifying development. While QAnon’s ideas are outlandish, they also reflect the extreme mistrust many Americans now have in all government or media institutions. This is why the call to “do your own research” is such a common phrase with QAnon. Trusting at face value information given to the public is not an option for QAnon followers in our era of mistrust and post-truth. Rather, they look for signs outside the more traditional methods of looking for, verifying, and popularizing information.
QAnon rode the wave not just of the 2016 election, but also the many years leading up to the 2016 election that witnessed the repeated lying of US institutions to the public. QAnon is, at its core, an exercise of control by the right wing–a fabrication of a reality more conducive to specific political goals. The America that many in QAnon knew or want does not exist and their increasingly shrinking role as a political force in the wake of economic crashes, wars, and a distrustful government has created something like an existential crisis for QAnon believers. In a sense, they feel like their way of life or ideas are either not generally accepted or appreciated anymore. Larry M. Bartels in his article “Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy,” points out that a very common response for many Republicans is to claim that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” They are afraid–and in this sense justifiably so–that their ideology is seen as a thing of the past and not the present or future. This is partly why the phrase “conservatism is the new punk rock” was popular among right wingers for a time.
Instead of confronting why things are the way they are or why a system would fail to punish people who are clearly taking advantage of it for their own personal gain, they have invented a conspiracy to blame both outsiders and powerful people. Crucially, their assertion that the powerful and the rich are responsible for many problems in the US and the world is correct. There is no doubt that Trump and QAnon have tapped into real, deeply held feelings, fears, and aspirations. But their motives are deceitful. Consequently, while QAnon comes so close to understanding what is wrong with the way America operates, clearly identifying the connective tissue, they nevertheless utterly fail to explain the actual reasons why these connections are bad.
Part Five: QAnon Today and the Hope of a Populist Alliance for True Change
Despite what many right wingers have claimed, Donald Trump lost on November 3rd, 2020. For months leading up to the election, many people who followed QAnon were certain that Donald Trump would win the election again. He didn’t and the QAnon movement responded through a combination of lies about a fraudulent election, a repositioning of the goalposts of electoral victory, and the longing that the Trump administration would enact an insurrection to secure his presidency. Many QAnon followers ended up responding to the call Trump gave to storm the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
While this is a very simplistic take on what happened on January 6th, it is simply what happened–there are no two ways about it. Before January 6th, Trump repeatedly trumpeted numerous clear messages to his own followers that they should come to D.C. And this is exactly what happened. The poster boy for the QAnon followers who stormed Capitol Hill is the now infamous QAnon Shaman. Many of those who stormed the Capitol believed in Trump’s disgruntled last ditch efforts to try and seize power, to actually steal an election. The result was the death of five people and an assault on US democratic institutions not seen since the British last invaded the US over 200 year ago.
Despite the colossal failure of Trump and QAnon to secure his power, the movement is not going anywhere. QAnon has proven that it is not simply the backdrop to a current fanatical right wing, but perhaps the backbone of a far more right leaning and dangerous political movement. Donald Trump did not just send people into the Capitol to “stop the steal,” but also to threaten, attack, and possibly kill any political opponents that he had. Both Democratic and Republican Members of Congress were in danger that day. And yet this has not been enough for Republicans to come together to actually hold Donald Trump accountable. Only seven Republicans voted to impeach Donald Trump, the remainder voted to acquit him. Now those same seven Republicans–who have probably just cast the only good vote in their entire political careers–are being punished by their party back home.
The Republican party is now trying to gain the favor of QAnon followers and has officially recognized its political legitimacy within the Republican party. What happens is now anyone’s guess, but if Donald Trump truly does plan on making his own political party–as rumors have it–there is no doubt that many QAnon followers will form the vanguard of that party. QAnon is the latest symptom of a sickness that has beleaguered US politics for decades. A sickness of scandal, lies, and misinformation at the highest government levels, a collusion of liberal democracy, global big business, and the rich elite, a cancer of post-truth and mistrust. Today, however, the lethal consequences of this disease are both more dangerous than at any time before and more obvious. A democracy that trades in scandals and lies and colludes with big business interests will always need to support itself with the rhetoric of post-truth. Populist and protest movements on both the left and right recognize this. In this way, QAnon is both a deadly symptom–a post-truth movement in its own right–and the possibility of a way forward: uniting and building alliances between the American people against big business and the empty lies of capitalist-controlled democracy. This way forward marks the path of a government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people” for the first time in our history. In short, it is the path and promise of a socialist democracy realizing the long held dreams of humanity.1
Edited by Zachary Low Reyna
1Or as Marx put it in his letter to Arnold Ruge (1843): “Our program must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing mystical consciousness obscure to itself, whether it appears in religious or political form. It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. It will then become plain that our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past. Lastly, it will become plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work.”