Written by Colin Thin (he/him)
CW: Brief mentions of abuse, pedophilia and racism
The storming of the capitol building by Trump supporters attempting to ‘Stop the Steal’ of the election, many of whom bore Qanon symbols or placards, has turned the attention of many towards the conspiracy-theory community. It is unclear what form Qanon will take under Biden, but it is clear that the end of the Trump Presidency will not bring the end of Qanon or its influence on the American Right.
Qanon is a wide-ranging set of conspiracy theories related to President Trump and his allies. They are seen as the sole defenders of the US against a satanic cabal of Democrats and Hollywood Liberals, who work from within the ‘deep state’ and engage in human trafficking, child sacrifice and paedophilia. Though its core themes can be traced to old anti-Semitic theories, Qanon itself began in 2017. It did that, with a series of anonymous posts on the 4Chan message boards from a poster who signed off ‘Q’, claiming to be posting from within Trump’s inner circle. ‘Anons’ interpreted these ‘Q Drops’ and came up with their own theories as to the real goings-on in American politics.
Qanon has since shifted across a variety of online message boards and into mainstream social media sites. With its growth, Qanon has absorbed a range of other conspiracy theories and their communities, from 5G to anti-vaccination. These theories are now incredibly varied and often contradictory, but present throughout them is a clear commitment to President Trump and a tendency towards racism and the far-right. With Qanon being so closely associated with the President, the issue became a topic of debate on the campaign trail. However, Trump refused to disavow Qanon, only saying ‘I’ve heard these are people who love our country’.
Since his election loss, Trump has effectively endorsed Qanon by amplifying their election-related conspiracy theories. The Trump campaign’s legal team – made up of Rudi Giuliani and open Qanon advocates Sidney Powell and Lin Wood – also used these theories in their attempts to overturn the election. In one memorable press conference, Giuliani (sweating so profusely that black hair dye was running down his face) attempted to make a point about election observers with an analogy based on the film ‘My Cousin Vinny’. Meanwhile, Powell claimed that both Jewish billionaire George Soros, and the dead ex Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, were involved in making Trump’s votes disappear.
What is evident in these efforts to ‘Stop the Steal’, is Qanon and Qanon related theories moving into the mainstream of the Republican Party. In the weeks following the election polls showed that 52% of Republican voters believed Trump had rightfully won the election, whilst 68% believed the election had been rigged in some way. The election also featured the election of a number of pro-Qanon representatives around the US. Marjory Taylor Greene was the first of these pro-Qanon candidates to make it to the House of Representatives. In her primary Greene was backed by numerous Republican donors, showing how mainstream Republicans have taken the Qanon insurgency and ran with it. Though many have backed away from such rhetoric since the violent events on capitol hill, many Republican members of congress had supported the president’s efforts to ‘stop the steal’, amplifying the conspiracy theories.
In many ways this insurgency mirrors that of the ‘Tea Party’ which arose amongst grassroots Republicans after the election of Barack Obama. This was also fuelled by conspiracy theories (especially the ‘birther’ theory claiming Obama was born in Kenya) and was initially seen as marginal before it began to successfully challenge mainstream republicans in the primaries. Many activists involved in the ‘Tea Party’ were key in the election of Donald Trump and have now moved towards this new Qanon wing of the party. Though it is impossible to know how Qanon will develop under a Biden Presidency, the ‘Tea Party’ era provided a good model to understand how the Republican Party absorbed and incorporated these sorts of far-right insurgencies.
Qanon is not a new phenomenon; Americans have long been paranoid about perceived enemies both internal and external. This has often taken racist forms, with the dominant white population being paranoid about the activities of groups that they marginalise. A fear and suspicion around elites has also been common, especially during periods of increasing inequality. In the 20th century, increasing state surveillance and use of intelligence agencies shifted Americans’ suspicions towards their own government, whilst the cold war created paranoia about communists both inside and outside the US. Qanon is, in many ways, a synthesis of all these trends within American conspiracy theory into one vast and incoherent set of ideas.
One thing to understand about Qanon is that their ideas, theories and understanding of the world is incredibly flexible and can shift whenever facts become inconvenient to them. However, since Biden’s inauguration, some seem to have become disillusioned, and many Qanon followers have doubled down on their theories. Some have taken Trump’s remarks around being back ‘in some form’ as a hint of a secret plan to remain in power, whilst others have found hidden symbolism in the 17 flags behind Trump during his farewell speech (Q being the 17th letter in the alphabet). With a conception of reality as flexible as this, there is no reason why Qanon will not be able to shift into an oppositional movement against the Biden Presidency. It already has a strong foothold in the Republican Party from which to do so.
Conspiracy theories have flourished at times of crisis throughout American history when Americans have felt deprivation or a loss of control over their lives – from the antisemitic theories of the great depression to the popular theories deriving from 9/11. Unless Joe Biden adopts an agenda far more radical than what his career and cabinet picks have suggested, Americans will continue to be ravaged by a myriad of crises – climate change, coronavirus, police brutality, rapidly increasing inequality – and Qanon is likely to continue to grow and change in new and bizarre ways.