The Storm Is Upon Us

By Mike Rothschild

There’s a school of thought, and it’s one I’m inclined to ally with, that has it that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 was the result of a publicity stunt or exercise in branding that slipped the guardrails of democracy. If so, it may share something with the phenomenon of QAnon. While there are a few prime suspects, it’s still not known for sure who got the QAnon ball rolling, but more to the point it’s not clear what their aim was. Perhaps, in an attention economy, it was just a way of catching eyeballs and getting clicks. But whatever its initial purpose, even before the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, it was clear that things had gotten well out of hand.

In both cases – Trump and QAnon – the tinder had been prepared in advance and was only now, to borrow the analogy of Evan Osnos in Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, being lit. The question then becomes just why so many people adopted such a crazy belief system, one that had at its heart the idea that “deep state” elites were running a pedophile sex ring and that Donald Trump was the only one capable of having the guilty parties apprehended (and summarily executed). Rothschild has an answer for that, and I think it makes sense:

This is ultimately what brings people to Q, and what keeps them there. The promise of bad people being punished is one element of it, but the feeling of being part of something important and powerful is vastly underestimated. Q believers see themselves as soldiers fighting for the ultimate cause – and are surrounded by people who validate them, rather than insult them. Yes, Q makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and posts on a message board full of the worst people saying the worst things. But that can be explained away, or written off as just another attack by the enemy. What’s real, what’s tangible to Q believers is how it makes them feel. What questions it answers. What holes it fills that other aspects of life don’t. For some, it’s as compartmentalized as that – good feelings shared with a community about something awesome that will happen to people they hate.

In other words, QAnon is a sort of religion. Rothschild spends a fair bit of time discussing its cult-like attributes, with experts weighing in. The biggest argument against such a classification is QAnon’s lack of a clear leadership structure or org chart, but on the most basic level I think we can still talk of a Church of Q. It’s a belief system giving its adherents a meaning and purpose to their lives, a sense of community strengthened by an us vs. them mentality, the faith that justice will finally be served on the wicked, and an outlet for their frustration, anger, and hate. Of course, it all seems silly from the outside, but so does much of what goes viral on the Internet. “Bored and isolated,” Rothschild writes of Q followers, “they went looking for explanations, enemies, and entertainment. And conspiracy theories provided all three.”

The Q movement, like Trumpism, was also aided by plugging into a “rich tapestry of conspiracy theories, ancient hatreds, currency scams, moral panics, and social media rumors,” as well as anti-liberal “populist” attitudes that were becoming deeper and more prevalent at the time. Chief among these latter being a hatred of the government and the media, a hatred that would metastasize with the pandemic lockdown. But with the election of Biden in 2020 and the eventual end of the pandemic, were the phantoms of QAnon laid to rest, or only temporarily banished? Has the storm passed? The fact that the Republican Party had effectively become “the party of Q” during the Trump years and even after doesn’t bode well for the future.

Rothschild’s book does a good job covering a complicated phenomenon “touching numerous different areas of culture, politics, sociology, and technology.” Along the way he alerted me to some points that I’d missed. In particular, I was interested in how QAnon was deliberately marketed to target demographics like Boomers (“as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories” on Facebook) and women. I knew nothing at all of the phenomenon of “Pastel QAnon,” which had to do with promoting QAnon by way of female bloggers and influencers who were into wellness and yoga stuff. This is a part of the Internet that’s outside of my own media silo. But given the prominence of women in the movement – the congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, and January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt – I shouldn’t have been surprised. Q was not a movement exclusive to angry white men, but one made up of an entire class of anxiety- and grievance-filled Americans. A group that hasn’t gone, and won’t easily go, away.

Review first published online December 1, 2022.

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