Maybe I’m wasting my time saying this.
Maybe everyone already knows.
The truth is that I haven’t bothered reading much of anything about QAnon or its permutations.
From my perspective, very little analysis is needed to understand this phenomenon.
It’s been happening for years, this growing migration of the radical right away from fact-based reality and into the world of myth.
I was there for the very first “Q drop.”
Back in 2017, I took note — along with many others — of a new voice on the controversial 4Chan message board.
Like a cryptic storyteller, a bard half-hidden by the shadows of a dying fire, the stranger promised to reveal his secrets in the course of time.
Much depends on you, he seemed to be saying.
You are all that remains of the once-great American tribe.
Your birthright has been stolen, the legacy of your ancestors defiled.
Can you imagine it?
You’re a nomad lost in the badlands, poor and hungry and frightened of all that you do not understand.
You huddle beside your campfire, your eyes straining to penetrate the darkness beyond the firelight.
The voice of the bard and the knowledge he claims to have about the past, present, and future awakens both terror and elation within you.
At last, when the bard sets down his lyre for the evening and the first watch is called, you lie awake among your rags and animal skins on the hard ground, pouring over his words in your mind for some clue that will reveal your destiny.
Maybe tomorrow night, you think as you drift off to sleep, he’ll tell me the rest of the story.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll finally learn one of the Great Secrets — about my world, my ancestors, myself.
The essence of what I have to say about QAnon and the growing morass of conspiracies that are quickly fusing with the MAGA movement is the following — (1) what you are seeing has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with myth; (2) this is not one coherent story but an evolving, fact-less narrative that engages participants on an emotional rather than cognitive level; and (3) thanks to the narrative skill of the original storyteller(s) and the mass-communication potential of the Internet, the audience is empowered to join the story by learning its basic framework and then becoming apostles and prophets in their own right.
Instead of rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, laughter — “how can they believe that?” — Americans across the political spectrum need to know what’s happening so they can stand ready to keep themselves, their friends, and their family from falling into the abyss; this new drug is very real, and it’s coming to the street corner near you if it hasn’t already.
There’s been a swift backlash from Big Tech against MAGA- and QAnon-related websites in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, with Twitter removing more than 70,000 accounts and Parler being dropped from Amazon Web Services.
But while these actions have disrupted the plans of those who seek to prevent the peaceful transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, the crackdown has also played into the existing myth that great forces are trying to silence the truth.
The participants have been provoked, and now they’re emboldened by a self-fulfilling prophecy about the terrific danger their knowledge must surely pose to their enemies.
Rather than recognizing an end to the party, many Red Hats have simply switched to other services like messenger apps Signal and Telegram. The right-wing Twitter website Parler is down but not completely out either.
QAnon is the progenitor, the genesis myth underpinning the violence we saw on January 6 and that we keep our fingers crossed about, hoping it won’t repeat.
But QAnon isn’t the beginning, which can be found in the rhetoric of self-help seminars and multilevel marketing schemes, nor is QAnon the end, which would be (I assume) some sort of quasi-religious fundamentalism.
Indeed, what the MAGA movement has wrought is much bigger in scale, a growing body of prophetic literature and storytelling, a spreading cult of sacred mysteries, a lifestyle choice, a brand, a chain letter that taps into the emotions of believers like the power of religious zealotry.
Unfortunately for us, Donald Trump is the hero of this epic story, the template for all future leaders in this tradition. He’s like Odysseus in the Odyssey, Rama in the Ramayana. Was Rama a narcissistic asshole? Probably! But 3,000 years later that doesn’t really matter much to anyone, now does it?
The flow of time wears the rough edges away from history’s heroes, perhaps leaving a fatal flaw or two — the lust of Hercules, the heel of Achilles — and yet in large part the hero passes into legend because a culture has been able to project its core virtues and values upon that hero down through the ages.
Whether you love the soon-to-be-ex-President or hate him, laugh at him or try to ignore him, 100 years from now — picture it: the consciousness of Elon Musk has been uploaded to a computer on Mars while here on Earth the chaos of climate change has made all previous crises seem like orderly fire drills—the pean of Donald Trump will continue to be sung just as surely as they’re still whistling “Dixie” in the south today.
What’s my evidence of this, you ask?
The number of votes is my evidence.
The numbers don’t lie.
After everything that’s happened, after the coronavirus and impeachment and a catalog of scandals and broken norms, over 74 million people still checked the box beside the name of Donald Trump in 2020 — about 12 million more than in 2016.
Many of these voters will turn on Trump in the coming months and years. But many others will not. These hardcore Red Hats will cleave to the myth of Donald Trump just as strongly as before, which is exactly what social-psychological research tells us happens when apocalypse cult members try to salvage their dignity when the sun rises the morning after the world was supposed to end.
Coming to terms with this fact, this fact of pure demography and the persistence of faith-based myth, is like waking up to realize you were in an accident and your body is now marred by a huge disfiguring scar.
It’s always going to be there now, you think to yourself with a dawning sense of horror.
There’s no going back to the way I was before.
January 9, 2021 — a new user makes their first post on a conservative message board in my area. (This really happened.)
It’s a general rant about the lying mainstream media, about the evils of the Deep State and House Speaker Pelosi, about the coronavirus conspiracy a.k.a. the “Plandemic.”
The rant doesn’t make much sense, but that’s not the point. The words shared by the stranger are memes, heuristics intended to trigger an emotional cascade that evokes the same primal feelings of terror and elation harnessed by the great bards and storytellers of old.
Along with the rant, the poster includes a picture that appears to show over a dozen laptops, Macs and IBM-compatible computers, spread out edge-to-edge across a table.
But the poster doesn’t mention the picture in his post.
It almost seems like an accident.
Did he forget to explain it? Are we supposed to know what it means?
Sure enough, one member of the message board takes the bait…
“Please explain the picture,” they respond to the original post. “Do you know something we don’t?”
The poster is very willing to oblige, of course — indeed, that seems to have been the whole point.
The picture shows, he says (and he assures us this is good information), the laptops that were stolen from the U.S. Capitol Building by the MAGA insurgents on January 6.
There is a group of patriots currently working to analyze and decrypt the information on them.
Soon — very soon — the world will know the details of what they contain, and the incriminating evidence of the conspiracies we have whispered about for so long will finally be revealed.
Now the message board crackles with the electricity of anticipation.
Can our new, mysterious poster tell us anything more?
When will the details come out?
How did he come by the picture?
Having heard the first few melodic chords of a new song being struck, the audience begs for more.
But fortunately, before the poster can begin to unfold his tale in earnest, one person in the group performs a reverse image lookup on the picture and discovers it was actually from a 2019 news story about computers captured in an anti-terror raid in Kenya.
The poster is called out for sharing misinformation, but do they care? Does anyone?
“It doesn’t matter if the picture’s fake,” the original poster says (I paraphrase). “It’s close enough to what I’ve heard the laptops look like.”
The post gains approval from other members of the message board, and I’m reminded of something else that popped up several days earlier, a letter from the Chairman of the Nye County, Nevada, Republican Central Committee, some rank-and-file political hack named Chris Zimmerman.
The letter, which I won’t link to or quote but which you can probably find online if you’re curious, was shared by another board member along with the short, anodyne comment: “Very interesting!”
Although the letter does not mention QAnon or contain — as far I can tell— any overt references to the conspiracy theory, it’s nevertheless written in the prophetic register of “Q” and echoes many of his major themes.
The upshot of the letter is this: although it seems like Trump is going to leave office on January 20, he’s not. Much is happening behind the scenes. Plans are being set in motion. You think you know what Trump said on his video after the riot at the Capitol Building? You don’t. I want to say more, but I can’t. Here are some things you can expect to happen between now and January 20: A, B, C, D. They won’t happen in that order or they might not happen at all, but I’m sure you catch the vibe.
Yes, I know, I promised I wouldn’t quote from the letter, but I just can’t help myself:
Even this week we have sworn testimony out of Italy that the Leonardo defense contractor used satellites to change the votes from our election in the USA from Italy. These Dominion voting machines were actively sending data to Germany, Serbia, China, Iran, and now Rome. This corruption is MUCH bigger than any of us expected but none of us would have believed it until now. This is why things seem to have taken so long.
Are you beginning to see it?
It’s not just the crazy ideas but the language they’re expressed in.
“I’ve got a secret, maybe I’ll tell you.”
“I can’t share the details, but it’s going to be big.”
“This will make sense very soon, I promise.”
It’s the rhetoric of the showman, the conman, the storyteller, the braggart, the teller of tales.
It’s the rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Indeed, once a member of the audience has become attuned to the cryptic voice of the bard— once the initiate has become imprinted by the template of the master showman, con-artist, and soon-to-be-ex-President — they have at their disposal the basic tools of myth and story-telling, ready to deploy a radical right-wing virus of their own configuration.
That is what makes QAnon and its spinoffs so dangerous: anyone who is half-way able to sing in the prophetic register has the potential to become both a host and a transmission vector, each new recipient of the multilevel marketing scheme empowered to become a cult leader of sorts, creating his or her own infected cell of friends and families out of the basic tenants of the myth.
Why do facts even matter to the bard engaged in myth-making?
The facts are just the inspiration, the start as opposed to the finish.
Each meme or heuristic evokes its own feeling, allowing a movable frame to be constructed around that feeling depending on the circumstance.
Made-up facts are piled upon made-up facts, turning yesterday’s gossip and rumor into today’s bedrock truth.
With the power of social media, hundreds of years of mythic evolution can be compressed into a period of months, the slow Darwinian process of oral tradition super-charged by digital metrics that allow a storyteller to know what parts of the tale the audience enjoyed the most or even target it to the most receptive listeners depending on how deep down the rabbit hole they’ve gone.
Myth is not always bad, but myth in real-time is the darkness in which democracy dies.
This is because myth cuts out the boring debate about policy and process that’s supposedly important for a functional democracy, hitting the listener right in the gut and substituting the need for knowledge and expertise with the much less mentally strenuous activity of having an emotional response.
Like a spreading virus, myth competes with actual facts and information, crowding out reality and turning each storyteller into a dying or incompetent host that exists only for mythic replication.
What’s Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act?
Nobody on the radical right really knows, nor do they care. They just know that one morning they woke up and Section 230 was bad.
Donald Trump says Section 230 must be repealed! And if the reason given for this tomorrow doesn’t comport with the reason that was given today, it’s not a problem because a mythic rather than factual frame was placed around Section 230 from the very start.
Through QAnon and the like, the MAGA movement takes the political goals of the far right and even the quirky conceits of Donald Trump himself — limited government, regulatory rollbacks, a deep antipathy toward Democrats, the miracle of chloroquine — and wraps them in the language of storytelling and myth, short circuiting the rational part of the brain before it has the chance to raise any objections.
This is how you end up with a raging horde of barbarians storming the gates of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, apparently unaware that they are committing an act of demotic terrorism.
Which leads us to an interesting and important question: is all of what we are now seeing with QAnon and MAGA happening by design?
When the first Q Drop landed on 4Chan back in 2017, was that a lark that turned out to be so much fun they just kept it going?
My guess is that although some of the latter occurred, there is likely much more design and planning behind the QAnon myth than is publicly known.
It’s been well documented — such as in the book Dark Money by investigative journalist Jane Meyer— that many of the radical right-wing ideas that entered discourse over the past generation represent the fruits of very careful ideological seeding, the deliberate channeling of money to think tanks and academic centers and publications intended to create an intellectual justification for small-government, pro-business policies that government officials can then be lobbied to implement.
My guess is that a core group of actors on the right thought to themselves, perhaps sometime toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, “You know what? The Benghazi stuff, the IRS scandal, Fast and Furious— it’s really energizing people even though we don’t have much in the way of actual evidence. Let’s take this shit to the next level and harness the power of social media.”
The seeds of myth have fallen onto extremely fertile ground.
Your typical Republican voter is considered to be less-well-educated than your typical Democrat, but listeners on the right have been primed for many years by conspiracy-peddling prophets like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh so there is little in the way of background education needed to get started.
This is why politicians on the moderate right and many Republican party members have such a hard time saying no to these people — QAnon and other conspiracy theories have generated an ample supply, in very short order, of energized right-wing information warriors in a way no amount of Heritage Foundation seminars or Manhattan Institute white papers ever could.
Consider, for example, how the radical right has recast its policy goals into powerful mythic language using the concept of “the Deep State.”
This probably goes without saying, but the actual nature of the Deep State doesn’t matter to QAnon believers.
They know it’s bad, and they trust that each recitation of the myth will reveal that wickedness to them in various ways.
Over a million unelected bureaucrats truly exist and work in Executive Branch agencies across the country and around the world, and under the ultimate direction of the President these bureaucrats make decisions that in some form have an impact on us all.
“OK, so you don’t like the Deep State,” you might say to a typical Red Hat rebel. “But what is the alternative? How do we govern a nation with over 328 million people in it, far and away the highest GDP in the world, 50 states and a smattering of territories?”
The reply comes easily: “That’s not something the myth is concerned with. The Gods will take care of it. We know only that the Deep State is our enemy.”
Pressed harder to articulate how their belief can be translated into a real-world policy, even the most fact-starved Red Hat rebel would probably have to acknowledge that it’s impossible to effectively govern a country by hiring and firing over a million skilled federal employees after every new presidential transition, i.e., every 4–8 years. The logical fallback, then, would be the notion that we don’t need 90 percent of federal employees anyway, which is exactly the radical right’s policy perspective made accessible by mythic means.
“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government,” Republican Grover Norquist famously said. “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
By taking a real concept with a real function and transforming it into a mythic enemy, the right has thrown democratic discourse and civic knowledge into the sacrificial fire, getting back in return the pure emotional rage of a motivated political actor while keeping an overall focus on the strategic target.
There is nothing even close to this on the left, nothing that fuses myth with prophecy, narrative with political advocacy in real time. Nothing.
The problem is compounded by the way the mythic narrative allows the right to demonize its enemies and elevate its allies without first needing to perform any intellectual legwork.
No sooner does President-elect Biden extend the olive branch of peace, appealing to our common heritage as Americans in gentle and moving rhetoric, then the radical right can immediately counter the goodwill effort using simple heuristics, adding another chapter about the destruction of the once-great American Empire to the epic narrative simply by inserting the word “Biden” at the end of a string of words that may or may not include “Clinton” and “Obama” and “Democrat” and “Deep State.”
And if you ever try to criticize the myth? Don’t bother.
The myth isn’t composed of real facts, so if you try to use facts to contest the myth then that is only further proof you haven’t understood it.
Look more closely. Pray harder.
The sacred mysteries are never what they seem.
In the end, the events of the past four years have unfortunately left our country in a fragile space that is rapidly collapsing toward civil unrest and rebellion.
While the moderate right and the government bureaucracy have now been awakened to the threat, the government lacks the tools to combat misinformation posing as First Amendment speech and there is no alternative narrative being offered by the left that doesn’t strike a whole lot of average Americans like a bizarre transmission from outer space.
Meanwhile, the left has acknowledged the threat for many years but has failed to produce a hero at this terrifying moment in history, instead sending an empathic everyman into the arena to negotiate with a bloodthirsty hydra.
The hero the left once had, Barack Obama, was rightly or wrongly missing in action throughout the majority of the Trump years, following the tradition and decorum of his station and refusing to provide a regular counter-point to the twisted reality peddled by President Trump. Without a speaker of equal gravitas to weigh in, the mainstream media often had no other choice but to present Trump’s rhetoric without any equivalent counterweight to contest it. Perhaps as a result, according to an annual Gallup survey this year, Obama lost his place as the number-one admired man in America to none other than Donald Trump.
Will ex-President Trump play by the same gentlemen’s rules that other former presidents, including President Obama, have generally followed after leaving office? Most assuredly he will not. Although his de-platforming will hamper his ability to communicate, Donald Trump has so many proxies across the country that the MAGA myth will persist and grow long after he’s left office.
Remember how every time Osama bin Laden released a tape from his cave in Afghanistan or his compound outside Karachi, that was big news and the media ran with it?
Do we really expect that the media will be unable to resist the ratings bonanza that comes with a periodic jolt of terror and elation from Donald Trump?
If it appears Trump is somehow still getting his message out via the mainstream media and President-elect Joe Biden is unwilling to get his hands dirty, Obama had better be ready to declare that Trump’s breaking of precedent gives him the license to come in with guns blazing. Someone of equal gravitas is going to need to play the moral guard dog for our country every time the media gives Donald Trump a platform to speak after January 20 — which unfortunately might be quite often.
The country’s election of Joe Biden to the presidency is a start in the right direction, but to wrench the needle back the other way, Democrats and liberals need to act swiftly to capture the vast swathes of moral high ground the Republican Party has mostly ceded over the past four years generally and the last few weeks in particular.
Although I’m not going so far as to suggest that the left create a competing progressive myth with all its attendant fact-less outrage, I do believe it’s time for the left to set aside semantic navel-gazing and aggressively engage with, rather than attempt to deconstruct, deep heuristics and archetypes — concepts like faith, safety, heroism, destiny, national identity, and the battle between good and evil.
Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals, no matter whether they have an active role in politics and advocacy, need to stop thinking about misinformation impacting only low-information voters in red districts.
The thing about myth in the age of the Internet is that people can absorb it no matter where they are, no matter what their social or economic class, and over time the myth that began in the American heartland can and will seep into areas it was not originally found, adapting and twisting itself to suit the particular characteristics of the place no matter how much of a liberal bulwark it outwardly seems to be.
Most importantly, the left needs to grudgingly accept all the attributes of Donald Trump that have made him an authentic American folk hero.
Even in the face of the evidence, i.e., the insanely large number of Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, liberals and Democrats — perhaps out of a sense of jealousy: the hero should have been me; why wasn’t it me? — are just plain unwilling to acknowledge that Donald Trump still has the potential to earn any place in American history other than “worst president ever.”
The left is missing this because they don’t want to see it.
The left is in denial about it.
The left has wasted too much time with its postmodern agenda, mistakingly confusing its academic acuity in deconstructing the defenseless grand narratives of yesteryear with a laughable pretension that it can also deconstruct contemporary American narratives in real time.
Hey liberals! We don’t have 3,000 years to wait for the Legend of Donald Trump to get deconstructed!
We need to do it now.
We should have done it yesterday.
But we can’t do it until you come partially back down to Earth, until you stop shrugging your shoulders and clucking your tongue at the idiots and deplorables, until you stop saying “defund the police” in one breath while simultaneously professing your deep regard for the memory of Brian Sicknick, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who died in battle against the MAGA mob on January 6, in the next.
It’s time to think about communicating multi-dimensionally and strategically, both to the common folk as well as the elite.
It’s time to find out what voters really care about instead of telling them what they should care about and then asking them to vote for you based on that.
It’s time to recognize that as much as you don’t like to think about national security or the police, the failure of the first partially caused this crisis back in 2016 and the success of the second is the only thing that kept the legislative branch from getting massacred on January 6. The military is now guarding Washington, D.C., and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to take the extraordinary step of affirming that President-elect Biden will be sworn in on January 20, apparently to head off the previously unimaginable scenario of seditious military forces helping an outgoing American president stage a coup to remain in office.
Now, to get through the post-Trump era and avoid full-blown Civil War, we will need both the national security apparatus and state and local police forces acting decisively, with high morale and a sense of the rightness of their mission. It would really, really help if you were able to show some good will toward these well-trained, brave men and women and try to respect their necessary role in this fight instead of giving the radical right more grist for their propaganda mill.
Most of all, it’s time to find and elevate — or perhaps rediscover — the mythic hero we’ve been waiting for, the one who can gather together all the disparate threads of our society and offer a radically different and competing template upon which we can transmit our collective virtues and values into the new millennium, thereby ensuring that Donald Trump goes down in history as the antihero, the villain, the true enemy of the people, instead of the legendary hero his zealous supporters want him to become.