Wednesday, January 13, 2021
It may be lost in the tumult over a second impeachment, but don’t miss this news item: a new poll shows that 30% of Republicans have a favorable view of QAnon. This is a serious problem. In fact, last week’s insurrection would almost certainly not have happened absent the rise of QAnon. It's an easy punch line, but it’s no joke – we have to talk about QAnon.
QAnon is an internet-driven movement that traffics in wild conspiracy theories, centered on a belief that Donald Trump is working to bring down a global pedophile ring run by Hollywood stars, Democratic politicians, and government officials. The pedophile ring has been trying to undermine Trump with the help of media and “the deep state,” and QAnon followers view Trump as a messianic figure who might be the “Q” figure responsible for the anonymous information drops that drive the group. A wave of arrests to bring the pedophile ring down and reveal a massive trove of secrets – i.e., “the storm” – is always predicted to be just around the corner, but it never arrives. None of Q’s predictions have come true. (If you’re aware of one that has, please let me know.)
Given how widespread it has become, QAnon has a shockingly short history. In a 2016 precursor, a man was arrested with a gun inside a Washington D.C. pizza place that was the center of an online conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate – the restaurant was supposed to be the site of a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton. (Turns out it wasn’t.) QAnon itself originated the following year on the anonymous message board platform 4chan.
After a few years on the political margins, QAnon burst into the mainstream this year. During the pandemic, the popularity of its websites and social media accounts exploded. The conspiracy theories expanded beyond the global pedophile ring to encompass conspiracies about COVID, vaccines, election fraud, and anti-Semitic accusations regarding government control.
Several GOP candidates openly embraced QAnon during their campaigns, and two were elected to Congress. Q signs were popular at Trump rallies this fall, and among those who attacked the U.S. Capitol last week. The two women who died during the attack were QAnon followers. The man who led rioters into the Senate wore a shirt with a giant red, white and blue Q. As the Washington Post reports today, “the fervent online organizing seen ahead of last week's assault has begun building again,” and a “QAnon group on Gab has grown by more than 40,000 members since the failed insurrection.“
If you’re a Republican, the rise of QAnon is a serious problem. There is nothing remotely conservative about the conspiracy theories espoused by the group, and they discredit the party, much to the chagrin of rational Republicans. Many GOP stalwarts have tried to discredit the movement. After President Trump refused to criticize QAnon, Senator Ben Sasse said, “QAnon is nuts.” Jeb Bush suggested that “nut jobs” should have “no place in either party.” George W. Bush’s press secretary and Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer called QAnon supporters “a bunch of wackadoodles.”
If you’re a Democrat, the rise of QAnon is a serious problem. Even though only 5% of Democrats have a favorable view of QAnon, now is not the time for those on the left to feel self-righteous. In all likelihood, Republicans are more prone to the lure of QAnon because they feel marginalized from an increasingly left-leaning American elite (including corporations, entertainment, media, and academia), and conspiracy theories help us feel significant and in control. There is nothing to prevent similar dynamics from developing on the left in the future. This is a human problem, not a partisan one.
If you’re a Christian, the rise of QAnon is a serious problem. Though many Christian organizations such as the Gospel Coalition have denounced QAnon, calling it “a satanic movement infiltrating our churches,” the infiltration continues. A few days ago, a friend sent me a video of the pastor at an evangelical church in Minnesota talking publicly about the fact that President Trump will declare martial law this week, and that the pastor will be ready to join the coming war against Antifa, rifle at the ready. This is pure Q Anon conspiracy craziness. What struck me was the pastor's comfort spouting this nonsense in a publicly accessible video -- no effort to hide, to be anonymous; just a pastor purporting to guide his flock about what the Christian life entails. Though statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence abounds that many Christians are being sucked into QAnon, which represents a betrayal of our faith’s commitment to minister to the world as it is, not as it exists in conspiracy fantasies.
If you’re an American, the rise of QAnon is a serious problem. The fact that a significant number of us have embraced conspiracy fantasies that are a stark disconnect from reality poses challenges on (at least) two fronts.
First, the most pressing issues we face in this world not only require collaboration across political boundaries, they also require a deep understanding of, and willingness to confront, reality. If many Americans are willing to believe that Tom Hanks is helping lead a global pedophile ring, we’re going to be hard-pressed to convince them that climate change or global pandemics are real.
Second, QAnon accelerates our growing tendency to view political disagreement in apocalyptic terms. Through the QAnon lens, our opponents do not simply disagree with us on tax rates or immigration policy – they are sexually abusing and selling children, then murdering witnesses to hide their crimes! What lengths would you go to in order to protect young children from being raped? As QAnon ratchets up the stakes of our good-versus-evil political battles, we will do anything to stop our enemies. That was painfully obvious last week at the Capitol.
QAnon is built on lies. It has and will continue to ruin lives. For it to have taken root in America does not speak well of our capacity for critical thinking. For Christians to be playing a central role in its rise is shameful. This is a challenge that will continue long past the Trump presidency, and we have to meet the challenge with clear vision and an unshakeable commitment to reality.