“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire
One of the big questions the chattering class of American pundits have been asking recently is whether QAnon is the new Tea Party, after Marjorie Taylor Greene won her primary in Georgia and will likely become it’s first open supporter in congress. Dozens of others ran for congress (and won their primaries). However, the Tea Party isn’t a great analogy for QAnon. Despite coming from the same place politically, QAnon is far more unhinged, and far more dangerous than the Tea Party ever was.
For those who don’t already know, QAnon is a sprawling conspiracy theory supported by the far-right fringe of the Republican party. Basically, it states that powerful Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, George Soros, and the “Deep State” run a shadowy, Satanic child kidnapping and pedophilia ring. They base their beliefs on cryptic posts from someone 4Chan who goes by the handle “Q” and claims to be a government official with a top-secret clearance. They also believe that Donald Trump is playing some sort of 4-dimensional game of chess with these forces of evil, and that at any time he will sweep thousands of Democratic elites up as part of “The Storm” and sent them all to Guantanamo Bay, or some other prison camp.
Greene for example wrote blog posts in 2017 and 2018 speculating that the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to one counter-protester’s death was an “inside job” and promoted claims that Pizzagate is real.”
This movement is incredibly dangerous to LGBTQ people as well. In decades past gay men were all suspected of being pedophiles who molested boys. Lesbians who worked with children were on of the primary targets of the “Satanic Panic” of the 80’s and 90’s. Today, transgender people are accused by these same conspiracy theorists of stealing and mutilating teens girls and autistic youth. If QAnon beliefs come to be the de facto position of an ascendant GOP, it is only a matter of time before they “save the children” by coming after LGBTQ people in ways that make the Lavender Scare look tame.
President Trump was asked during a press conference on Wednesday, August 13, 2020 if it was true that he was leading a secret government operation against a cabal of about a conspiracy of pedophiles, cannibals and Satanists, he replied, “Is that supposed to be a bad thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”
QAnon believers are a staple at Trump rallies, and he has retweeted QAnon accounts hundreds of times. Hosts like Sean Hannity at Fox News will happily support whatever Trump says, even when they know its is batshit crazy, and QAnon is no exception. This was the network that went all in supporting all of Trump’s most idiotic claims, from drinking bleach to cure COVID-19 to buying Greenland. The GOP in Congress have lost their will to fight either Fox News or Trump, and are now effectively collaborators. This is the party of Trump, and when he signals his support for QAnon, the entire party apparatus will follow.
While some senior Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Congresswoman Liz Cheney have denounced QAnon as a “dangerous lunacy”, it is hard to imagine this resistance holding up. Republicans leaders were quick to embrace the dangerous lunacy of a Trump presidency when it became clear that it was to their net benefit to do so, and dangerous not to.
The number of QAnon followers has exploded since the beginning of the pandemic. Polling shows that 30% of Republicans believe it is mostly true, 16% believe it is partly true, and only 6% believe it is mostly false. Among Fox News viewers, those numbers are 36%, 15%, and 4% respectively. Accepting QAnon will become a matter of survival for most GOP members of Congress; you can’t win your primary if you start off with half your base believing you are protecting Satanic child molesting cannibals.
Indeed, the conspiracy theory is likely to become the default tribal epistemology (things people in a group “know” to be true even if they are not) of the Republican base. This base of white evangelicals has a long history of believing in child-molesting Satanic plots. Thus, denial of QAnon would be political suicide for Republicans in gerrymandered districts where the only election that matters is the primary.
Mainstream media pundits have finally cottoned on to the more obvious dangers posed by QAnon. Its members have committed kidnapping, murder, and acts of domestic terrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigations has designated QAnon a domestic terrorism threat as a result.
Facebook last week banned about 900 pages and groups and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon, part of a sweeping action that also restricted the reach of over 10,000 Instagram pages and almost 2,000 Facebook groups pushing the baseless conspiracy theory, which has spawned real-world violence.
Facebook also took down thousands of accounts, pages and groups as part of what it called a “policy expansion,” seeking to limit violent rhetoric tied to QAnon, political militias and protest groups like Antifa, NBC News reported.
The coming US elections are certain to be a complete shit-show; Trump won’t accept the results, it could take weeks to count all the votes, and it’s almost certain to come down to the Roberts court deciding the results. If Biden wins, and Democrats retake the Senate, then perhaps the QAnon = Tea Party analogy will apply—with QAnon being even more extreme, violent, and explicit in rejecting the legitimacy of the President than the Tea Party was. But relatively powerless.
If Trump remains President as of January 21st, 2020, however, then the analogy falls apart completely. If the Tea Party had achieved its goals in 2010, the Affordable Care Act would have been defeated, and the US would have implemented some sort of draconian austerity plan to slash the federal budget deficit. If Qanon has its way, thousands upon thousands of Democratic leaders and government workers will be sent to concentration camps. This might sound far-fetched, but we’re already actively following the template for modern single-party states.
Places like Russia and Belarus, which have already fallen into despotism, have followed a pattern. First they tear down the judiciary and rebuild it in their own image. Then they use these rubber stamp courts to arrest and imprison their political opponents. Twenty-five percent of federal judges are now Trump loyalists, and likely to be more than half before the end of a second term, including a 7-2 majority on the Supreme Court. And the Trump administration has long called for the arrest of his political opponents.
Another related facet of democratic decline, as noted by Levitsky & Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die,” is the framing of political opposition as a morally corrupt enemy of the nation. This then justifies extraordinary measures against them, even measures that require the violation of democratic norms. This feeds directly into the belief of Trump’s white evangelical base that “the country would be better off if the “other side” ceased to exist.”
At the same time, Republican leadership is realizing this movement can be exploited for their own gain. For example, the Texas Republican Party is now selling “We Are The Storm” merchandise. Republicans will inevitably realize they can this force of violent craziness on their political opponents via stochastic terrorism is only a matter of time (e.g. inspiring QAnon member to “SWAT” their opponents for supposedly having children locked in their basement). In a party where the only thing that matters is seizing sole-power of US government, and keeping their base happy, QAnon is just another tool to achieve those ends.
Which brings us to a near-future where a vindictive, petty Trump is still President, and intends to stay there until he dies. The courts have been packed to give him whatever he wants, the guardrails of democracy have been torn down, and the Department of Justice has become the instrument of vengeance he desired. The Republican Party has the power it wants, and the only real threat to individual elected officials is losing a primary to someone who swings even harder right. The base is still howling for action to be taken against the enemies of America.
If Trump gets a second term acting on QAnon’s wishes a win-win-win situation for Trump, Republicans, and the conservative base. It becomes harder to see how it is NOT acted on than it being indulged.
As NBC News journalist Brandy Zadrozny noted this past week;
“We’ve seen what happens when we dismiss right wing extremism online—namely lots of murders. We’ve already seen examples of real-world violence from QAnon followers. What will it take for us to take them at their word?”
Brynn Tannehill is a senior defence analyst and is a founding former board member of SPARTA.