Why QAnon will outlive Trump
The president is only incidental to what the conspiracy theory offers its followers
When asked recently by NBC's Savannah Guthrie to state his feelings about a popular conspiracy theory, President Trump gave an equivocal answer. "I know nothing about QAnon," he said. "I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard."
Trump's response was widely criticized, not least because it gave a very one-sided impression of the theory in question and its proponents, whose delusions it seemed to encourage. I am not entirely sure what else he could have said. If reports like this one are any indication, QAnon is far more important to millions of the president's supporters than, say, his party's attitude toward marginal tax rates. Trump needs QAnon.
A more interesting question is whether QAnon needs Trump. This proposition is, I think, harder to defend, for the very simple reason that the theory is only incidentally related to his bizarre political career. There is every reason to think that it or something like it will outlast him regardless of whether he wins re-election in November.
Both in outline and at the level of individual details (e.g., the involvement of the Clintons) QAnon resembles most of the conspiracy theories that have flourished in right-wing circles in my lifetime. Its most direct ancestor is said to be Pizzagate, which posited the existence of a cult that met under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee and a Washington-area pizza chain for the worship of Satan and the abuse of children, who were kept in basement dungeons, raped, and eaten by John Podesta and others. But Pizzagate was what the political scientist Michael Barkun has described as an "event" conspiracy theory, an attempt to make sense of a discrete situation — in this case, the admittedly bizarre reference to "Spirit Cooking" in an email exchange between Podesta and his brother Tony released by WikiLeaks in late 2016.
Whatever else it might be, QAnon is not an attempt to make sense of an event. It is not even a conspiracy theory of the best-known variety, those organized around the notion that a sinister group is attempting to gain control of a country or the world. Fantasies of this kind, which have been commonplace since the publication of the supposed Protocols of the Elders of Zion at the turn of the last century, reached the height of their influence in this country during the 1990s. There are good reasons to think that, in addition to a large number of 20-something Reddit and 8chan users, QAnon is supported by more or less the same people who were talking about the so-called "New World Order" 25 years ago.
What has changed? Has the creature from Jekyll Island retreated to its lair? Have the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations disbanded? Has globalization been reversed? Perhaps the genius of QAnon is that it is what Barkun calls a "superconspiracy" that synthesizes virtually every lunatic proposition beloved of the American far right: It proposes an alliance between pedophiles in Hollywood, Wall Street vampires, DNC occultists, left-wing street militias and the Jewish billionaires who finance them, crypto-Marxist professors, the Chinese military, Big Tech, and goodness knows who else in order to explain — what exactly?
This, which ought to be the crucial question about QAnon, seems to me strangely enough the least important one, both for proponents and for those of us trying to make sense of it. QAnon is lived rather than consumed. It cannot be falsified because it provides the basic conceptual technology by means of which its adherents experience reality. In this sense, QAnon is the answer not to David Icke but to the combination of dumbed-down academic postmodernism, MBA-speak, and therapeutic moralism that make up the worldview of our professional managerial class. It is not a theory or a set of beliefs but an entire social ontology.
This is why I think that QAnon is unlikely to disappear. It offers a complete picture of the world and a built-in response to the slow but inexorable financialization and digitalization of the economy, the collapse of the American industrial base, the decline in morality (however understood), the eclipse of religious, national, and other forms of tangible authority — above all, the total decentralization of power, which is not concentrated in the hands of a cabal or in the office of the presidency but dispersed among billions of individual participants in the globalized economic order.
This is the grounds upon which it is most deserving of criticism. Rather than provide the conceptual language for making sense of a world in which Jeff Bezos has roughly as much power to alter the underlying structures of globalized capitalism as an employee at one of Amazon's warehouses, QAnon offers a consoling narrative: the light-bringing Prometheus who will deliver the race of men from bondage, the world-spirit mounted on horseback who will master the world, the promised messiah who will lead the Fremen to victory.
This story is pernicious, not because it invests Trump with qualities he does not possess but because of its mistaken premise that a hero can save us from whatever we imagine are the evils of the age. It is not only false but self-exculpatory, every bit as much as the competing elite narrative of meritocratic know-how and woke ritualism triumphing over the dark forces of reaction. Both worldviews absolve their adherents of complicity and incuriosity.
I, for one, would rather be clear-eyed and despairing.