In the 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories,” political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent said that conspiracy theories appealed to the powerless as a way to explain their defeats. In a democracy that regularly gave losers a chance to gain power, however, the winning side would abandon conspiracy beliefs when they gained power. In short, Uscinski and Parent wrote: “Conspiracy theories are for losers.”
How to explain, then, why so many Trump supporters — who are backing the winning team — have embraced this type of thinking? At a Trump rally in Tampa on Tuesday, dozens of proponents of the online pro-Trump conspiracy theory called QAnon made themselves highly visible. The QAnon theory began with online rumors that a Trump administration insider, known as “Q,” is secretly leaking information about the president’s campaign to shut down a pedophile ring run by prominent Democrats.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory about how Trump will overturn the supposedly existing conspiracy that’s holding him back. Its appeal demonstrates that Uscinski and Parent are paradoxically right: Conspiracy theories are for losers. Trump supporters’ fixation on QAnon shows that they really don’t feel like they’re winning, even as they hold the reins of power. The mystique of QAnon is yet another example of how Trumpism is built on the politics of resentment.
Since QAnon first crawled out of the Internet’s churning goo, the theory has metastasized. Recently it shifted to targeting celebrities the movement alleges are also involved. But it continues to revolve around the central conceit that behind the scenes, Trump is really doing something amazing and heroic — that the shambolic mess of a commander in chief the world sees is just a front for a hypercompetent superhero.
The popularity and prominence of the Q phenomenon doesn’t seem to fit with the conspiracies-are-for-losers argument. As Washington Post reporter David Weigel tweeted, “Can anyone recall another time when there was more conspiracy-mongering by supporters of the party in power than the party out of power?”
Trump’s and Trump supporters’ turn to conspiracy theories is reminiscent of other countries’ political cultures in which such thinking plays a larger role. Allusions to the dark machinations of external — and internal — foes loom large in post-Soviet politics among both the powerful and the powerless, for instance. And the writer Jesse Walker notes in “The United States of Paranoia” that conspiracy thinking has made its way to the center of U.S. politics before, as during the Red Scares. But even by these standards, the details of QAnon — for instance, that “Q” is really John F. Kennedy Jr. — are deeply bizarre.
QAnon’s appeal derives from the mix of online communities’ proclivity for extremism, political polarization, real-world child-abuse scandals and the inability of the Trump administration to enact the policies it promised its most extreme supporters. Even though conservatives are winning, Trump’s brand of disruption isn’t.
Why would anyone believe Q’s claims? Well, one answer is that not many people do — that QAnon and related phenomena are vastly magnified by the media. Over the past few years, after all, we’ve learned a lot about how Internet communities can manipulate public attention and the media to make themselves appear larger and more powerful than they are. Attention-seeking trolls become skilled at grabbing eyeballs through ever more noxious or outré displays; eventually, they can break through to the mainstream.
Maybe QAnon started as a way to rise to Internet fame on Reddit, 4 Chan and elsewhere. It certainly has been successful at capturing media interest, even if its creator (or creators) remain anonymous. After all, the group’s showy presence at the Tampa rally did lead to a flurry of coverage: The Washington Post carried at least seven articles about QAnon in the 24 hours after the rally.
Nor was Tuesday the first time Q popped up on the political radar. QAnon apparently began with anonymous Internet posts last October. Weeks later, it was already notable enough to be the subject of long-form explainers in New York magazine.
The theory’s spread suggests that more is at work than just forum trolling. There’s an audience for these claims. The group’s celebrity endorsers, such as Roseanne Barr and Curt Schilling, seem more like honest dupes whose pro-Trump proclivities have led them to support preposterous claims. And the Internet users who have engaged in real-world activities — shutting down a bridge near the Hoover Dam, stalking lawyer Michael Avenatti, patrolling near a homeless shelter purported to be a pedophile shelter in Arizona — aren’t trolls in it for the lulz.
QAnon’s claims, at least initially, gained verisimilitude because they mimicked real-world revelations of systematic and organized child sexual abuse. Given Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Penn State football program and the fact that Dennis Hastert, the former Republican speaker of the House, was allegedly a serial child molester, it’s unsurprising that many Americans find themselves skeptical of institutions and receptive to narratives in which the powerful commit child sexual abuse in particular.
The polarization of U.S. politics has also made audiences more receptive. Many voters act more out of hostility toward the other party than positive feelings for the party for which they vote. Combined with a general decrease in trust among Americans, this proves a fertile ground for combining mainstream politics with conspiracy theories.
Ascribing evil motives toward leaders of the other party is a big leap, but it’s not impossible. Political scientists have found that it is easier for partisans to accuse the other party of conspiring. Similarly, the researcher Kyle Saunders finds Republicans who are low in trust are more likely to believe that global warming is a hoax — a media message promulgated by some conservative actors.
The final ingredient is that, despite his bombast, Trump has often failed to deliver for his most zealous supporters. Trade wars are neither good nor easy to win. There is no wall, and Mexico isn’t paying for it. Obamacare hasn’t been repealed. Overall, we aren’t tired of winning.
Even where Trump has delivered, such as suspending immigration from countries like Syria, the process has been difficult and often ineptly managed. And many of the administration’s accomplishments — confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, passing a tax cut — look more like the wish list of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) than that of Trump’s supporters.
How can some fervent Trump supporters reconcile the gulf between expectations and reality? By building their own reality. Political scientist David Karpf argues that the appeal of QAnon looks like that of an “alternate-reality game.” In the Q continuum, Trump prevails against quasi-demonic enemies to protect the innocent despite the complicity of the media. That’s a lot better than watching him be outplayed by Kim Jong Un.
This conspiracy theory, then, is still for losers.