QAnon, the decentralized far-right conspiracy network, makes it into the mainstream
In 2016, a devout Christian man drove from North Carolina to a little pizzeria in Washington D.C. named Comet Ping Pong. Armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, he arrived for the sole purpose of stopping a sex trafficking ring run by the Clintons. The infamous Pizzagate became an endless source of memes for those not part of the fringe-right, but I don’t think anyone could have truly comprehended the degree to which Pizzagate would be a turning point for far-right radicalization.
Later on in 2017, an anonymous 4Chan user going by the name of “Q” posted in the /pol/ forum claiming that he was someone with a high security clearance who had evidence that Trump is fighting a secret war against the “deep state”. The conspiracy hinges around Trump’s own rhetoric: everyone is out for him and he is the one who is right about the way things truly are.
Since then, QAnon has evolved into a decentralized, far-right, white supremacist network whose conspiracies and rhetoric have been co-opted by many far-right “news” organizations, militias and extremists, not to mention many Republican politicians and congressional candidates. Even Pittsburgh’s Mayor, Bill Peduto, has retweeted a QAnon conspiracy theory. To add to this, about half of Americans are at least aware of QAnon, and believers are able to maintain a strong presence, despite social media platforms like Twitter continuously trying to ban QAnon content and accounts.
One of the latest QAnon conspiracy theories, #SaveTheChildren, focuses on an alleged sex-trafficking cabal run by elite Democrats, while hijacking the legitimate efforts of the nonprofit Save The Children. The theory is absurd and baseless, but it has found a significant and sizable audience of people you wouldn’t expect. Suburban housewives and some parenting influencers, who once posted Minion memes and “1 like = 1 prayer” posts, have transitioned to posting QAnon content. These same people are also reposting the bogus “5G causes coronavirus” conspiracy theory, as well as the conspiracy that Bill Gates and other liberal elites planned the pandemic.
It’s easy to laugh in disbelief at insane fringe conspiracy theories and at the “Karens” and “boomers” who believe them. But this level of detachment from reality combined with a self-destructive, narcissistic view of the world can very easily lead to violence. It has already done so, to the point that the FBI believes QAnon is a source of domestic terrorism.
Since it is such a decentralized network, QAnon’s disinformation and supporters move between other right-wing networks easily. For example, incels, a group of frustrated men who blame their personality issues on women, LGBT+ people, and minorities, have a huge overlap with QAnon and other far-right and white supremacist networks.
The rise of these far-right movements and fascism isn’t new. There’s a correlation between financial crises and the rise of far-right populism, as political figures take advantage of the institutional distrust and disaffection toward the elite to present simple solutions to systemic issues at the expense of minorities and immigrants. Once accepted into the mainstream, the ideology spreads like wildfire.
The 2008 financial crisis was a boon for the far-right Tea Party movement in 2010, and the Republicans quickly accepted them. With a Democrat president in power who had just bailed out the banks without punishing anyone involved, combined with the anti-globalization sentiment that had been festering, it was too easy for the Tea Party to gain momentum. Similar movements also took place across Europe, as well as in India and Latin America later on in the decade.
The Tea Party movement was normalized through palatable buzzwords and imagery, and figures like Sarah Palin were capable of embodying the movement. We’re seeing that now with the rise of fascism under the Trump administration.
The Democratic Party is mildly complicit in this process, as they had ample opportunity to provide strong opposition and failed to do so. Instead, they forwarded establishment politics and passed increases in the military budget, created ICE detention centers, and passed corporatist economic policies. Combine all of the above with social media echo chambers accelerating the spread of disinformation, and we’ve reached an environment where QAnon is a movement with legitimate mainstream support. The current attempts at opposition from Democrats, while welcome, have come too little, too late.
However, QAnon is just the tip of the iceberg. There are much more dangerous far-right networks that still have yet to be designated as terrorism. Major attacks, such as in El Paso, Charleston, Pittsburgh, and recently in Kenosha, are not labeled as acts of terrorism, but all of the attackers have connections to the diffuse network of white supremacy.
This all sounds terrifying, but we should not be scared by the far-right. That’s giving in to what they want. We should also not try to reason with them because they’re too far gone from reality, and white supremacy and fascism are not “opposing views.” We should not provide platforms for them to amplify their ideology as that fuels their self-victimization narrative. This should be obvious, but I continue to hear rhetoric that we should let them talk so that we can understand them and expose them, which is not doable. A simple glance at any far-right forum will prove that point.
I imagine, in a world where CEOs get punished for robbing the country and our politicians are invested in the working class instead of the One Percent, things may be different today. But the current reality is that the Trump administration has normalized far-right, white supremacist movements. After all, the president endorsed eugenics in a Minnesota rally, all while ICE is performing hysterectomies on migrant women in concentration camps on the border and right-wing terrorism is on the rise. It’s our obligation to cut through the noise and stand up strong against the fascists and the far-right. I hate to say it, but the future of the country is at stake.