The QAnon conspiracy theory is laughably absurd, but its proponents continue to hover around the conservative mainstream. Liam Glen writes on the persistence of such false ideas and on society’s duty to resist them.
Politics can often veer into debates over the nature of reality. In many cases, there is a good deal of room for disagreement. Will raising taxes on the rich hurt economic growth? Under what circumstances does a higher minimum wage cause unemployment?
Other arguments are closed cases. Climate change is real. Vaccines are safe and effective. In these situations, the empirical evidence is clearly on one side, but if one fudges the data enough, it is at least possible to make a cogent argument for the reverse.
Some ideas, however, are indefensibly inane. They stand so utterly opposed to objective reality that it is impossible to give them serious consideration.
One such example is that of QAnon. For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the conspiracy, it is a hoax originating from the far-right /pol/ message board on the anonymous website 4chan.
A user identifying themselves as “Q” posted messages detailing an elaborate plot, which (to briefly summarize) claims that the US government is run by a ring of satanic pedophiles, but Donald Trump is secretly working with Robert Mueller to bring them down.
Although Q’s predictions are almost invariably proven wrong, the conspiracy
has continued to grow. QAnon imagery is a common sight at Trump rallies, and it has been taken seriously by prominent conservatives.
This is one of the most notable examples of a fringe conspiracy theory making its way into the mainstream, but it is far from the only one. It is a surprisingly common phenomenon, and in each instance, it reveals a shocking and disturbing indifference to the truth on the part of those who enable it.
Much Ado About QAnon
QAnon has been inexplicably prolific. It has been at the center of some high-profile incidents, such as when a sheriff’s sergeant in Florida met with Mike Pence while wearing a Q patch and when a California city councilwoman gave a pro-QAnon speech as she was leaving office. Conservative celebrities who have embraced the hoax include comedian Roseanne Barr and former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling.
To their credit, some who are close to the administration have tried to put a stop to the affair. When asked “Is Q legit?” former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer flatly responded “no.” Meanwhile, former Trump official Sebastian Gorka has repeatedly denounced the theory.
Others however, take a more cavalier attitude. This extends to Donald Trump himself. He has repeatedly retweeted from QAnon believers, seemingly without paying attention to the contents of their accounts. On one occasion, pro-QAnon conspiracy theorist Lionel Lebron was even invited to meet with the president in the White House.
While it is unlikely that the president is intentionally promoting the hoax – it is very possible that he does not even know about QAnon’s existence – he is obviously indifferent to whether his actions feed into conspiracy theories.
A Tenuous Grasp on Reality
This should not be a surprise. During the Obama presidency, Trump spearheaded the nonsensical birther conspiracy. As a candidate, he appeared on the show of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones – most famous for harassing the families affected by the Sandy Hook massacre – and praised his “amazing” reputation.
It is easy to say that all of this is a symptom of the post-truth era. But mainstream acceptance of conspiracy theories is nothing new. To give just one example, influential Evangelical preacher Pat Robertson joined the many voices in the 1990s promoting the idea of a nefarious New World Order controlling global events behind the scenes. In the early twentieth century, these ideas took an even more sinister angle with conspiracies such as the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Just because things have always been bad, however, is hardly an excuse not to strive to be better. The problem is especially pronounced in Trump’s Republican Party, where the line between mainstream and fringe politicians and commentators is practically nonexistent.
Fox News is currently being sued for promoting the conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee had former staffer Seth Rich murdered.
Similarly, prominent pundits like Rush Limbaugh – recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – has promoted versions of the “Clinton body count” conspiracy. According to this idea, Bill and Hillary Clinton, who live under intense and constant scrutiny, have somehow managed to covertly murder anyone who wrongs them. This theory leaves unexplained why Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky, Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump are still among the living.
Meanwhile, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. has been particularly notorious for promoting conspiracy theorists on social media. This extends to figures like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec. Among many other controversies, the two are notable for supporting the “Pizzagate” hoax claiming that high-profile Democrats were operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. (the restaurant in question notably does not even have a basement).
Of course, conspiracy theories can appear anywhere on the ideological spectrum. But in the modern United States, they have not seeped as far into the liberal mainstream. Claims made by commentators like Rachel Maddow, for instance, can border on the conspiratorial. But they are not nearly as ridiculous as Pizzagate or QAnon.
The only real comparison may be to figures such as Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black nationalist Nation of Islam. The self-proclaimed prophet has notably predicted that a spaceship will one day come down to destroy white Americans and, even when denying that he is anti-Semitic, has been unable to stop himself from making reference to “Satanic Jews.”
There exists a worrying subsection of progressive activists and politicians who refuse to denounced Farrakhan. But besides this, the influence that he and his like hold on the modern American left is negligible.
Regardless of ideology, however, it is the duty of everyone to ensure that these types of ideas do not gain further legitimacy. While there are certainly circumstances where it is justified to doubt the official narrative, this is a far cry from promoting in nonsensical theories like the New World Order, QAnon, Pizzagate, or the Nation of Islam’s cultish theology.
These ideas contradict objective reality to such a degree that they are incompatible with a functioning democratic society. Of course, democracy means that conspiracy theorists have a right to express their beliefs. But it also entails a duty on the rest of us not to use our own freedom of speech to promote them.