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Qanon Apocalyptic Chic [Trenchant Edges]
A brief primer on the 21st century's stickiest conspiracy
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we dissect fringe ideas to find the good stuff.
Today we’re not talking about the good stuff.
We’re talking about the toxic crap you’ve got to fence away to get to the good stuff.
Yesterday we talked about how project management can provide a useful guide to distinguish between more and less likely conspiracies.
Today we’re going to overview the deep background of Qanon and tomorrow we’ll see how the project management perspective works to clarify the movement.
But the roots on this one are hella deep and its story is far more complicated and decentralized than most conspiracies. So we’re going to have to step back and skim through a couple of centuries of conspiracy thinking.
Our story begins at the dawn of Capitalism
In 1776, Adam Smith released the book the Wealth of Nations, which established the basic ideas of liberal economics and what would become neoclassical economics. It was another step in what we’ve been referring to as the Enlightenment’s Rationalist Project and one that coincided with the beginning of the American Patriot revolution.
But our story is more interested in Paris starting in 1789. We start with Smith and the Patriots first because the French Revolution with its promises, pretentious, failures, and cruelties was not an isolated incident. It started because of complex social and historic forces and ended for the same reasons.
But it was in those chaotic days that something else was born.
Conservative commentators invented something much more enduring than the First Republic: Modern conspiracies and modern antisemitism.
Most notably in Abbé Augustin Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, blended anti-masonic conspiracy theories and old fashioned European antisemitism into a familiar story: Secret outsiders are infiltrating our society trying to destroy its values and impose their own totalitarian institutions.
While it can’t be overstated that European antisemitism was pervasive long before this, this escalation of paranoia of nonchristians in general and Jews in specific would have lasting, horrific consequences.
The most important trope of this pre-French Revolution anti-semitism is the Blood Libel, the accusation that Jews murder Christians (especially Christian Children) for secret rituals or to bake matzah bread. Moral panics over this have killed at least tens of thousands of Jewish people in pogroms over the centuries and sometimes even persist to this day.
About a hundred years later, the most famous antisemitic document of all time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published in Russia. Probably created by the Russian secret police as a psyop, the Protocols blended antisemitic tropes with Maurice Joly’s 1864 satire of Napoleon the third’s politics, The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.
The protocols spread quickly beyond their original context and many pointed to them as an explanation for WW1 a decade later. Especially in Germany.
We don’t know when Adolf Hitler first read the Protocols, but it appears from various secondary sources like Josef Gobbels’ journals that he was aware of their being forged but believed they were essentially true anyway.
The Nazis frequently used the protocols as part of their propaganda, most notably in the Berne Trial, in which two Jewish community groups sued the Swiss National Front for distributing Anti-Semitic propaganda. The trial ended up hinging on the fraudulence of the protocols, and it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory: They won the trial, but in many ways lost the PR war.
The Nazis claimed this was a textbook example of a Jewish plot to silence the truth and used the trial buzz to generate more interest in the protocols.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this pamphlet is one of the most destructive documents ever written. Any story you can say, “The Holocaust is only the beginning of the atrocities motivated by this document” is pretty fucking awful.
But that’s another story for another time.
Two cornerstones of Nazi propaganda was Judeo-bolshevism and cultural-bolshevism, the idea that the Jews were using art, culture, and literature to destroy the moral values that made Ayran Germans Great Again.
An idea that would be fully imported and recycled into American pop culture by Robert Welch’s John Birch Society. The mid-20th century’s ultra-libertarian conspiracy theory clearinghouse.
Famous for calling Eisenhower a communist because he didn’t overthrow enough left-leaning governments, losing a feud with the National Review’s William F Buckley for the soul of conservatism, and providing the political and economic education of Charles Koch, the JBS is one of the most influential 20th-century sources on 21st-century politics.
And they took the old nazi tropes and cleaned them up with a little cold war varnish.
They called it Cultural Marxism and lite versions of it are so influential as to be self-evident on the right. Evil communists took over universities to teach Stalinism to OUR CHILDREN? Yup! That’s where this idea comes from, fueled by some genuine 1960s moral panic.
*ahem* Certain people have been rehashing this very idea over the last 10 years to the point where a large number of conservatives openly discuss it.
Now, not all Cultural Marxism theories are inherently antisemitic. But even at its most benign, it teaches the structure of modern antisemitism. Outsiders are pretending to be insiders and want to corrupt and destroy everything good in the world.
Once you believe that, it’s really just a question of who the outsiders are.
But hey, it’s not like there’s a very online, very motivated network of antisemites looking to turn regular conservatives and libertarians into neonazis, right?
Wait, is there one? I’ll let Robert Evans explain it here because it’s a bottomless shitshow.
Before we finally get to Q here, we also need to discuss two more important pieces of backstory.
The first is the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the second is a way of trolling online Conspiricism spaces.
The Satanic Panic was a moment in USAian history where a combination of newfound victims rights and trauma awareness mixed with bad science and opportunistic religion looking to reassert its cultural power.
In short, kids under hypnosis were asked a bunch of leading questions and thus created a flood of fake accusations of what’s called Satanic Ritual Abuse. People are highly suggestible under hypnosis and it’s very easy to elicit fake memories. So when you combine a culture trying to believe victims with a technique that can just invent whole histories of abuse limited only by the imaginations of children… well, you get the Satanic Panic.
The most important thing about the Satanic Panic is how much it resembled and drew from antisemitic tropes of the Blood Libel. Nonchristians taking children to abuse for occult power.
So while many of the details are different, the overall structure remains the same. And shuffling facts around within a belief structure is much easier than changing the structure. This means it’s easier to radicalize someone further towards the far-right once they’ve accepted one of these models of the world.
If you’re starting to get the sense that this is a theme… yup.
Alright, we’re in the home stretch for today.
The last thing we’ve got to deal with before outlining Q is Insider Hoaxes, which probably started sometime in the 90s once Conspiracy websites got enough critical mass that fake accounts trolling them became a regular thing.
The structure of the Insider hoax is simple: I, anonymous (anon) Dave, and part of the secret cobbler conspiracy and want to get out and help thwart it. Here’s my line:”
In a way, it’s a framing device for homemade urban legends aimed towards people predisposed to paranoid ideation.
Your first quality Insider Hoax feels like a revelation. Like you’re finally getting the secret knowledge you signed up for when you stopped trusting the mainstream.
It’s a thrill.
My personal favorite is still 2005’s Revelations of an Insider from the conspiracy site Godlike Productions.
Peak Oil? Nah, dude, the earth produces oil like bees produce honey.
It’s quality schlock.
Point is, these were a fairly common thing that happens in conspiracy spaces and you mostly learn to ignore them because the novelty wears quickly. And few “insiders” can keep the game going convincingly.
I’ve never seen an insider who could really sell their authenticity. Most would just repeat talking points from some book. Transparent lies.
This All Brings us to Qanon
What is Qanon?
It’s a Big Tent New Religious Movement started by an insider hoaxer on 4chan, the internet’s colon.
It’s a conspiracy of conspiracies, a rolling mess of conflicting ideas contextualized by the unexpected ascent of Donald Trump. The original core narrative is that the reason the mainstream media was so mean to Donald Trump is that they were trying to stop him from confronting the secret cabal of pedophiles in the Democratic party.
(which is why they gave him literal billions in unpaid media coverage, lol)
Q’s story is a jigsaw mess of extant ideas on 4chan’s /pol board circa 2016-2017.
Basically, it takes the Pizzagate Democrat Pedophile conspiracy and frames them as the enemies that Donald Trump has been plotting against for over 20 years, with every move he makes part of a master strategy to destroy the cabal and, wait for it, Make America Great Again.
Initially turning on the Mueller investigation, which it implied was actually a plot to arrest leading Cabal members like Hillary Clinton.
As I said, Q or Qanon was part of a genre of 4chan /pol posters like FBIAnon, HLIAnon, CIAAnon, and WH Insider Anon who popped up in 2016 and 2017 trying to promote various weird interpretations of current events and history.
Q stands for the Q clearance the original poster allegedly had. Q clearance is a real thing in the Department of Energy so you know the original poster was at least curious enough to search Wikipedia.
The initial appeal of Q was a mix of what it was saying and how. Q’s drops were usually framed as lists of questions for other Anons to decode. Instead of pontification the way I’m doing, Q created a social market for others to build followings by generating Q-themed content.
It’s honestly kinda brilliant.
The original Q apparently lost control of their account once they moved from 4chan to 8chan/8kun and the father/son porn and imageboard barons Jim and Ron Watkins apparently took control of the account in early 2018.
The Q Clearance podcast does a good job laying out the case for the Watkins as the current holders of the Q account.
Now, that account hasn’t posted since election day.
But Q isn’t really the center of Qanon now. In the near-4 years since the first Q-drop, Q’s spawned a massive alternative media ecosystem. Hundreds of would-be influencers vying to be the best.
Whole merchandise supply chains.
It’s an industry now. And Q’s only been a small part of it for a while.
Qanon as Fascist Movement
Lots of folks don’t want to address this point, but it’s the heart of the matter.
The core building blocks of Qanon are indistinguishable from the kind of conspiracy theories that have fueled global fascism over the last century or so.
Roger Griffin defined fascism as Palingenetic Ultranationalism. Palingenetic means, “The rebirth of a nation through a violent revolution” and Ultranationalism is extreme devotion to one’s own nation.
We’ll cover this more tomorrow, but Qanon believers are waiting for The Storm, where the cabal will be exposed, their enemies will be eliminated, and those who doubted or mocked them will be humbled.
And everyone will benefit in the perfect new world with evil vanquished forever.
There are a ton of variations of how this might play out but it’s essentially an apocalyptic revenge fantasy. The kind the bestselling Left Behind franchise sold to conservative Christians, only with even more explicitly political framing.
Because the movement is built on you Doing Your Own Research and Thinking For Yourself (but only alone specific lines) it will inevitably push people towards deciding the only way to get The Storm is to make it happen themselves.
I’m agnostic as to whether this was an intentional feature of Q from the get-go or an emergent property that developed as various far-right factions contributed their own bits and pieces to the movement.
Because Q’s initial narrative is built of what could be, in other contexts, reasonable criticisms of American media and politics, it’s very sticky because the irrational parts and the lies fit in neatly with the hard critique.
Ex. The global ruling class does, in fact, consist mainly of criminals. Are they all pedophiles? Probably not. Some certainly are.
It’s easier to see this in other countries. Members of the Saudi royal family are literally allowed to murder people without punishment.
Or, to pick an example closer to home, remember that time Dick Cheney shot one of his friends while hunting and the guy apologized to him? That’s not sketchy at all.
The most durable lies are half-truths.
And Qanon created a viable pressure cooker community of half-truths.
Even though some have left the movement with this year’s constant disappointments, a decent chunk will simply radicalize further to the right.
So that’s a cheery note to end on.
But it’s better seeing what’s there than denying or ignoring it.
Note: Not everyone who believes some part of Qanon is a fascist. Most, I’d guess, aren’t. Not consciously and not yet.
As of January 6th, a ton of Q people were getting burned out and the actual nazis on 8kun would try and recruit them. As of January, they were mostly against that option.
But as more and more of the Q network’s predictions about Trump returning to the Whitehouse go the way of arresting Hillary Clinton… well, we’re not going to see these folks getting happier.
Jan 6th turned out mostly fine, a few deaths aside, mostly because Donald Trump never believed in anything more than his own self-glorification. And was too risk-averse to commit and actually walk with his most loyal fans to threaten Mike Pence into “doing the right thing” and changing the election certification.
We, uh, might not get that lucky again.
Anyway, see you tomorrow.