When people started showing up at recent Trump rallies waving signs with giant “Q”s on them and making references to QAnon, a conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories, members of the press, and no doubt many people at home, were puzzled. Aren’t things crazy enough already without this fresh new lunacy? The trouble is that this is neither the first nor the last absolutely bonkers conspiracy theory to infiltrate today’s GOP, getting both literally and figuratively within a few feet of the president of the United States. In fact, it would have been more surprising if the Republican Party wasn’t overrun with conspiracy theorists.
It’s hard to do justice to the intricate madness of what QAnon is about in a concise manner, but I’ll let Molly Roberts give it a shot:
The simplest description of the plot line goes something like this: President Trump isn’t under investigation; he is only pretending to be, as part of a countercoup to restore power to the people after more than a century of governmental control by a globalist cabal. Also, there are pedophiles.
A figure named “Q,” who supposedly possesses Q-level security clearance, disperses “crumbs” that “bakers” bring together to create a “dough” of synthesized information. (This is not how baking works, but that seems the least of our worries.) Because Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet and 17 is also a number Trump has said a few times, among other clearly-not-coincidences, he is the real deal, not an Internet troll engaged in an elaborate example of live-action role-play.
She forgot to mention that JFK Jr., who faked his own death, may be Q. Ryan Broderick of Buzzfeed suggests that the whole thing may have actually started as a prank meant to make right-wingers look ridiculous, which sounds pretty plausible. If you hunger for a more detailed explanation, there’s one here.
On the surface, what’s most curious about this kind of conspiracy theory emerging on the right is that it comes at a time when they control everything. “Can anyone recall another time when there was more conspiracy-mongering by supporters of the party in power than the party out of power?”, asked The Post’s David Weigel, and it’s true: Conspiracy theories are usually used by those who feel alienated from power to explain how things got the way they are. When they lose an election, at least some people will be pushed to believe that not just the election itself but lots of other things are controlled by dark, powerful forces whose machinations are hidden from ordinary people.
That’s one of the reasons conspiracy theories are attractive: They tell you that everyone is stupid and ignorant, while you are one of the few people smart and clued-in enough to understand what’s really going on.
Still, that doesn’t explain why Republicans would be so vulnerable to even the most deranged conspiracy theories, when there’s a far friendlier explanation for everything happening now, namely that Donald Trump is a fantastic president beloved by the people, which is why he won in 2016 and his party controls Congress and most of the power in the states. Why is that the less attractive story?
The reason is simple: Conservatives have been trained by the people they trust most to believe that everything is a conspiracy. And not just a conspiracy; a conspiracy against them.
No one embodies that more than Trump himself, of course. He transformed himself from a celebrity into a political figure by becoming America’s most prominent proponent of the racist “birther” theory that President Barack Obama was not in fact born in America. No conspiracy theory seems too idiotic for Trump to at least consider, whether it’s that Ted Cruz’s father killed JFK, or that Antonin Scalia was murdered, or that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally against him, or that vaccines cause autism. He went on the program of the noxious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who among other things asserted that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged with child actors, and told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”
But it started way before Trump. For years, conservatives have been fed one conspiracy theory after another by the hosts on Fox News, by Rush Limbaugh and by many other right-wing media figures. They’ve been told that climate change is a hoax dreamed up by scientists running a grift for grant funding. They’ve been told that unlike, say, the Koch brothers, who are just patriotic Americans exercising their right to spend their money advocating political outcomes they favor, George Soros is a sinister puppetmaster who pays protestors to agitate for left-wing causes.
In fact, even what we regard as relatively “mainstream” conservative news organizations offer their audiences a picture painted every day of a society run through with one conspiracy after another: a conspiracy of liberal professors to brainwash your children, a conspiracy of liberal journalists to twist the news, a conspiracy of liberals in Hollywood to undermine your values, a conspiracy in government to destroy Trump. No matter who is in power, there are still multiple conspiracies out to get you.
One of the signal beliefs of the conspiracy theorist is that almost no one can be trusted, because the truth is buried under a mountain of lies. Don’t believe what you read in the newspaper and see on TV, because they’re all in on it. Or as Trump himself put it, “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Is it any wonder that Trump’s Republican Party is particularly fertile ground for this kind of thing?