The violent, deadly assault on the Capitol was populated by white supremacists militias and driven by themes that are deeply tied to racism, anti-Semitism, and glorification of guns. Those involved carried flags combining the Confederate war banner with an outline of an AR-15 rifle, or wore sweatshirts for “Camp Auschwitz” that bore horrific Nazi slogans, and—of course—they carried banner after banner praising Donald Trump.
But the cord that tied the whole congregation together was often just a single letter: Q. The man who led the chase of a Black police officer up the stairs inside the Capitol was wearing a QAnon shirt. The red-face “shaman” who appropriated American Indian paraphernalia for his manic act was also painted with the Q logo. QAnon was there everywhere. On jackets and hats, in logos and chants. The bizarre theory was in many ways the keystone for the violence that reigned on January 6. After all, when you’re “taking back America” from a secret cabal of pedophile Satan worshippers … are there really any limits?
Even if the QAnon cult grew up around Donald Trump, that doesn’t mean it has to stay centered there. This is, at its core, an outsider philosophy. That it sounds like the plot of a bad X-files rip-off isn’t coincidental; they’re both built on the same basic idea that there is a shadowy, all-powerful conspiracy out there, and only a knowledgeable few, by following obscure clues and winding their way down difficult paths, can get a glimpse of the Truth that is out, over, or down there.
Large factions of the Q-community have actually become connected with theories of UFOs. Or with ideas that might otherwise be seen as “New Age.” And of course, QAnon has, almost from the beginning, overlapped with long-held anti-Semitic delusions about Jews secretly directing the world’s wealth … George Soros anyone?
Back in September, game designer Reed Berkowitz wrote an excellent comparison of the development of QAnon to certain types of games. QAnon takes the basic concepts that are present in a number of games, and inverts them.
“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)”
Berkowitz compared the experience of becoming involved with QAnon with that of someone playing “experience fictions.” Some of these games have been elaborate efforts to bridge the gap between fiction and reality. Participants may receive mysterious packages in the mail. Or get a panicked late night phone call. They may be directed to a seemingly innocuous web site that turns out to have hidden information if you look at it just right. These games can also happen in person in the form of escape rooms or other participatory events.
In discussing these games, Berkowitz touches on the idea of “Apophenia,” — the tendency of human beings to find patterns, even where they don’t exist. Give people a handful of random information, and they will find a pattern, even if they have to create elaborate rules to make that pattern fit. It’s sort of the broader version of the way people will find faces in the patterns of wallpaper or the leaves of a tree.
In game design, apophenia is a problem, because it can cause people to plunge off in the wrong direction, losing the thread that the game designer meant them to find. In QAnon … it’s all there is. The sporadic bits of “information” issued from Q or other supposed sources at the heart of the conspiracy don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to go anywhere. Through apophenia, someone is sure to create an apparent set of connections. Then, through a community process that rewards the most elaborate, most obscure, most twisted interpretations, the theory adds new layers of complexity.
Those who create the latest kink in the road win the approval of thousands of observers and move up in an invisible hierarchy — to put it another way, their diary gets lots and lots of recommendations. And then everyone involved gets to bask in the glow of grasping this thing that so eludes all those rubes and suckers around them.
As The Washington Post reports, QAnon theorists were involved in every level of planning and carrying out the January 6 insurrection. It was, after all, “the #Storm”—exactly the kind of event that the whole theory had been telling them to anticipate. But just because the storm was put down (as soon as someone just went around Trump), doesn’t mean that QAnon feels defeated, or the threat from their ranks has ended.
Cults, and that’s exactly what QAnon has become, don’t abandon their beliefs just because predictions fail to coincide with the real world. Again and again, past examples have demonstrated that true believers will carry on.
In fact, for the last four years, QAnon has had an obstacle that may have really stopped it from reaching maximum growth: Donald Trump has been in charge. That’s a real stumbling block for a delusion centered on the idea that the mask is about to be ripped away from the (literal) lizard men and the entrances to the baby-transportation tubes are about to be laid bare. QAnon is an outsider theory, that has grown around someone who — until now — has been the ultimate insider. That’s about to change.
The QAnon community was at the center of planning for the January 6 event. Right now, that engine is running again, and it’s roaring along even faster than before. The QAnon group on not-dead-yet chat site Gab has added 40,000 new members just since the insurrection. The same thing has happened on other Q-connected bulletin boards and chat sites. Sites are actually failing just because so many people are piling in.
There are now just QAnon believers in Congress and in state houses across the country. There are QAnon business leaders. QAnon celebrities. QAnon athletes. QAnon military leaders. For all of them, their conspiracy theory cannot be wrong, it can only be wronged.
“You all know the attack on the Capitol was done by the far-left political movement antifa,” Thomas McInerney, a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force, declared in remarks captured on video and peppered across Twitter by accounts participating in a frenzied effort to construct a different narrative of the Capitol riots.
Don’t expect either them, or their ever more elaborate conspiracy theory, to go away any time soon. For true believers, everyone not on the inside is a servant of those Satan-worshipping, baby-eating lizards. And they can’t surrender to that.