QAnon and the modern American conspiracy theory

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Finally, some good news: Matthew Lusk, a Republican who is running unopposed for a Florida congressional seat and who believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory, isn’t convinced that the deep state is actually running a pedophile ring.

Lusk is quoted as part of a New York Times story on the spread of QAnon from fringe internet sites to the real world. While he believes that QAnon does in fact expose “what the fake news will not touch without slanting,” he told the Times that he’s hesitant about the most extreme aspects of the theory.

“That being said,” he continued, “I do believe there is a group in Brussels, Belgium, that do eat aborted babies.”

Suffice it to say, the fact that a growing group of elected officials and public figures believe in such a truly wild theory — predicated on the idea that a high-ranking Trump administration official is secretly passing information to the public, via the far-right message board 8chan, about Democratic politicians' involvement in pedophile cabals — is probably not great for the long-term health of American politics. The Times identified a dozen candidates for office in the U.S. who have espoused QAnon, including a state legislator in South Carolina and a city council member in California. QAnon-related iconography has become a common sight at rallies for President Trump himself, while a teacher at an Arizona community college was fired after discussing the theory in class.

QAnon has additionally inspired multiple instances of violence, to the point that its believers have been identified as a terror threat by the FBI. In 2018, a Nevada QAnon believer named Matthew Wright picked up an AR-15-style gun and barricaded himself inside an armored car on a bridge near the Hoover Dam. And last year, a QAnon believer killed a Staten Island mob boss.

Many people who believe in QAnon have ascribed a quasi-mystical significance to the anonymous posts (originally on the message board 8chan, now on its facsimile 8Kun after the former was shut down following the shooting in El Paso, Texas), which have claimed that Trump is working to uproot an international pedophile ring run by liberal billionaire George Soros and numerous Hollywood figures. Another QAnon theory is that Robert Mueller’s special investigation — which probed Russian interference in the 2016 election — would ultimately imprison various Democrats at Guantánamo Bay.

“To quote Q No. 2436,” said councilwoman Pam Patterson of San Juan Capistrano, California, in December 2018, “for far too long, we have been silent and allowed our bands of strength that we once formed to defend freedom and liberty to deteriorate. We became divided. We became weak. We elected traitors to govern us.”

Conspiracy theories are nothing new in American civic life, on either side of the aisle — the film Loose Change, which posited that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government, was a common topic of discussion among people I knew while growing up in the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California, during the Bush years. But QAnon feels different than much of what has come before. The Times story explored how it has become more of a full-fledged community, based on the collective interpretation of some obscure texts, than any kind of specific, discrete theory could ever be. Furthermore, it has given its followers — many of whom are old, isolated, and lonely — a way to bond with each other and feel as if they have some kind of special insight into a chaotic world.

This is what is going to keep QAnon relevant, even if Trump loses the 2020 election, or the original “Q” stops posting on message boards. Just as QAnon evolved out of the Pizzagate conspiracy, something similar will rise from its ashes. QAnon is really just a broad access point for people prone to conspiratorial thinking. Given the incentive structures of social media, and the increasing social atomization of the country, conspiratorial belief structures that can make people feel as if they belong are only going to increase in potency.