How Do You Solve a Problem Like QAnon?
Supporters of US President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli (C), a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, enter the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
It’s one thing to suspect electoral shenanigans. It’s another to believe the assertions of internet randos that CIA director Gina Haspel was killed in a firefight to obtain a computer server in Germany linked to election fraud. Or to post public entreaties for Republicans to expose election fraud by boycotting the Georgia runoff elections, so that the algorithm’s subtraction of Republican votes causes totals in some precincts to go negative — the theory evidently being that people clever enough to rig elections aren’t clever enough to have hired programmers who’ve heard of an absolute value, or to change their own tactics to adjust for those their enemies announce. Or to hold that a 30,000 lb bomb was dropped on a bunker in Robinson, Maine, killing 50,000 Chinese. Or that there are 100,000 UN soldiers, including 16,000 African cannibal mercenaries, training in the swamps of Georgia under Russian command in preparation for an attack on the United States.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Righties have a weakness for believing stupid shit.
We’re not the only ones — Louise Mensch racked up countless retweets for her breathless announcement in 2017 that Steve Bannon was being considered for the death penalty for espionage, and a prank Resistance Twitter account called PatriotLouUSA fooled prominent members of the sphere and was attributed by some followers with prophetic powers. But nobody on the left is as enthusiastic as deeply or as long about stupid shit as are people on the Right. When Lefties do employ stupid shit, such as gleeful pee tape rumors, the origins are typically elite Lefty circles. Our stupid shit comes from the base, tends toward the wildly implausible, and of late tends to promise imminent glory on earth: the end of a story, in which we win.
This divide exists because Left and Right are different outlooks and different cultures. Accordingly, Lefties have a different failure mode than we do. The failure mode of right-wing is kook. The failure mode of left-wing is puritan. (Puritans are typically more effective than kooks; hence the tendency for members of Lefty subcultures be pretty successful at trying to top each other in ideology, and punishing people who don’t share it.)
Both sides have disconnect between the professional class and the fringe base, but if anything the Righty professionals view the stuff that excites the fringe base with greater revulsion than their counterparts on the Left. Puritans, being disciplined and skilled, can be more useful than untrained kooks whose main asset is fervor. This is why prominent Lefties make use of their puritans, and prominent Righties smile and nod nervously when their kooks brings up chemtrails, and hopes they’re not too afraid of lines in the sky to go out and vote.
There are two conceptions that it’s important to dismiss. The first is the idea that kook automatically means extremist. It doesn’t. You sometimes see far-right figures trying to recruit the kookier members of the conservative base by showing up to events, or posting to social media in defense of figures derided for kookishness. History shows that this doesn’t pan out the way Hard Righties hope. They get some converts, but not masses of them; being attracted to the idea of particular individuals on white horses doesn’t automatically translate to a long-standing and generalized support of authoritarianism that outlasts the prominence of whoever the fantasy football captain of the moment is.
The other side of the coin is the belief in some quarters on the Right that outlandish conspiracy theory is useful as a builder of enthusiasm and morale. Adherents to this belief share the philosophy — one could even call it a Rightist folk theory of politics — that energy is not the sine qua non but the Alpha and the Omega of political change, because the side that produces the greatest energy wins. This belief is especially common among Hard Righty types especially, but it’s not limited to them; pugnacious personalities are particularly susceptible. Subscribers to this theory might say, for example, “I don’t care if QAnon is real: it’s keeping people ENERGIZED and BUILDING ENTHUSIASM.”
But energized and enthusiastic for what? Suppose you’re a big admirer of General Flynn. One day, General Flynn tells everybody who follows him to get out in the street. Okay, now you’re out in the street: what do you do? You’re not out on a fantasy street. You’re on some specific street in your town. What street do you choose? What do you do when you get there? Whatever it is, it certainly won’t be coherent or strategic in objective. Forget about adapting to changes in conditions. There’s no local hierarchy, no chain of command, not even any spokescouncils for forming consensus. The only source for orders from General Flynn is his social media which — as long as it isn’t disrupted — is broadcast in the clear to everybody in the world at the same time.
This is not exactly an effective way to run direct actions, let alone let people know that The Storm Is Upon Us™
The reality is that energy is nothing without structures and habit. Movements that focus on stoking energy don’t accomplish much because they don’t try to build structures, & don’t operate well within them when they do. Energy alone is sufficient! And Energy arises on its own! VICTORY IS INEVITABLE, adherents of this theory bellow, often shortly before they lose.
Lefties, especially radicals, do two things differently: they study instances of “energy” rising to learn how to stoke and encourage it, and they they focus on building or taking over organizations or institutions that provide stability in lean times and can channel energy in times of plenty. This, of course, requires having the necessary skills. Righties lack these skills because we don’t train in them, so you see doubling and tripling down on energy instead.
It’s easy and fun to mock people who fall down rabbit holes on internet conspiracy theories. But being overcome by their fantasies doesn’t mean people are stupid, or crazy. People fantasize when they have a need that isn’t being met. The central fantasy of QAnon isn’t adrenochrome, or cannibal cults, or mole children, or any of the myriad lunacies of the outlandish dystopia it presents. The central fantasy is the idea that *things will be better because somebody is going to do something.*
The Lefty organizer Lisa Fithian was speaking about society in general, but she summed up the result of our particular pretty well: “We think that somebody else is in power, and therefore our problems are somebody else’s responsibility. If something is wrong, we feel powerless to fix it, always waiting for someone else to solve the problem, leading to resentment, weakness, apathy, or anger.”
The Righty base desperately wants to do something, but doesn’t know how. And that’s because the elites don’t want it to learn. The root of our real problem on the Right is that elites and the base want different things. So elites don’t train the base doesn’t get trained in how to actually produce change. QAnon is what you get when an naïve, untrained base tries to fill that vacuum. What they fill the vacuum with is a story where somebody is doing something, and the end of the story is a great big WE WIN.
That’s the bad news. But this is a column about how’s. So how do we fix the situation? Could we turn this to our advantage at all?
The elites’ solution to grassroots conspiracy theory is the same as their solution to every other grassroots upswell: denounce kooks when you have to, otherwise ignore the situation, wait it out, let the energy disperse. (Elites understand how energy in politics actually works.) This may not work out in the best interests of Righties overall, but it preserves the elites’ catbird seats quite nicely. The fringe solution is that mainstreamers and elites should never denounce kooks and in fact use the power they have slowly built for the purposes of things kooks want; this goes against basic realities of human nature, never mind the fact that kooks have rather a tendency to overreach, put all their faith in One Single Glorious Victory, and then fail. The boring mainstreamer solution is sort of the flip side of the fringe solution: kooks should use their enthusiasm for boring but useful tasks that boring mainstreamers like, such as walking precincts and the like. (Reality: the problem with assigning kooks doorknocking routes for your chosen candidate is that they’re as likely to try to turn everyone they meet on to QAnon.)
Any attempt to rein in Righty conspiracy theorists and make them actually useful will have to consider their actual interests and aptitudes. And they have them. Many of them are backbone-of-America types: they have jobs, have family lives, and are actively engaged in their communities in various ways. They turn out to events and meetings. They’re genuinely enthusiastic. They’re hard workers. They’re curious about the world and passionate to make a difference in it. They are genuinely interested in learning about things that aren’t immediately obvious. It’s just that they learn them from random YouTube videos because they don’t know how to use PACER to find court records, or how to file FOIA applications to get government documents, or how to look up Form 990s to learn about how nonprofits are organized and funded.
…but what if they did know those things?
The kind of people who get into QAnon probably aren’t going to be big on structures and habit. They’re never going to be boring; as Phoebe Courtney, half of the husband-and-wife gadfly team behind the INDEPENDENT AMERICAN newspaper, put it in reference to the John Birch Society of the 1960s, they’re not the sort to become “docile precinct workers.” But if they had the tools and training to actually dig in useful places, they might turn up some interesting things. It’s often noted that the Right has a surfeit of pundits; what we lack are diggers, the dedicated researchers who do the boring work of poring through documents to find news. But maybe we’ve had them all along — they’re just naive and untrained. What if we trained them, empowered them, and turned them loose?
People turn to conspiracy theories to explain a world they can’t understand. Giving them the tools to explore the real world could keep them more grounded — and turn up some interesting things for the rest of us.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.