Opinion | With One Presidential Phone Call, QAnon Shows Its Power

Forgive me for failing, at first, to find much news in the news that President Trump had pressured officials in Georgia to overturn the election results. That he had been caught doing so on tape was even more dog-bites-man.

Not many people remember this, but we once had a lengthy impeachment hearing centered on a corrupt Trump phone call. It’s only natural that he’d reprise his biggest hit — “Perfect Call Feat. Senate Toadies” — in his grand finale as president.

Then I spent an hour listening to the full recording of Trump’s call, and my stomach sank. What got me was how thoroughly Trump’s arguments involved conspiracy theories hatched or spread by QAnon, the online cultlike thing that seems to be gaining a death grip on the American right.

In that phone call, I heard a president who is somehow both rabbit and rabbit hole — as much a rabid consumer of online conspiracy propaganda as he is a producer of it. The plot to undo the 2020 election isn’t Trump’s alone — it is also the product of a sprawling online phenomenon whose goals, logic and methods are as unpredictable as the internet itself.

Trump will soon step out of office, but that won’t diminish his standing with a conspiracy-media apparatus that has become so adept at transforming rumor into political reality. Through QAnon, the mendacity that has defined the Trump era will remain an enduring feature of right-wing politics, long after Trump slinks away.

QAnon originated in 2017 as an exceptionally bizarre conspiracy theory, centered around the premise that the country is run by a cabal of pedophiles whom Trump is bringing down. It has since morphed into something even stranger. More than a single conspiracy theory, QAnon is best regarded as a general-purpose conspiracy infrastructure, spreading lies across a range of subjects, from coronavirus denial to mask and vaccine skepticism and, now, to a grab bag of theories about election fraud.


What Do We Do About Q?

The conspiracy theories seem ridiculous, but the consequences are real.

The age of info insanity is upon us, and really weird claims are all the rage. Some have been saying Trump faked his coronavirus diagnosis because he’s about to round up an imaginary satanic pedophilia cabal. “Let’s get into the conversation of President Donald Trump supposedly having coronavirus— ‘supposedly’ being the operative word there.” Others are speculating that Joe Biden was wearing a wire in the debates. “There it is. Biden’s wearing a wire.” It’s actually just a crease in his shirt. And a popular meme among teens was the claim that Wayfair is shipping children in industrial-grade cabinets. I just have a lot of questions here. The main driver of info insanity is something called QAnon, which is where stories like these originate or are amplified. “I have grown to fully trust Don, master of all masters. He is a genius, a 5D chess player, a man with a huge heart.” He was an unknown person who claims to be an intelligence insider but obviously isn’t. And Anons are the people who follow him and decode his vague posts. The main gist of QAnon is that elite satanic pedophiles are everywhere and they’re coming to get your kids. More specifically, pedophiles are everywhere among liberals, celebrities, and the media. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is busy plotting to round them all up. “Why is it that all these pedophiles were allowed to be untouched for years and years and years until President Trump was sworn in as president?” The scale of QAnon isn’t yet clear, but it’s definitely big. It’s reached the crucial ‘your mom has heard of it’ stage. “Q is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” There are now 87 QAnon supporters who have run for Congress, and the first will be elected this November. “I think it’s something worth listening to and paying attention to.” And Trump refuses to push back against QAnon because QAnon loves Trump. “Well, I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much.” QAnon is serious, and it merits our attention and our concern. We need to respond. It’s tempting to just laugh all this off. But in this video, I’m going to show you why that is actually one of the worst things you can do. To understand QAnon, it helps to understand magic. I don’t mean this kind. I mean the medieval stuff. Throughout history, people believed in spells and superstitions and, yeah, religions. Magical thinking is driven by spotting patterns and creating connections. A black cat crossed your path, then your daughter fell ill— presto, look out for black cats. This is how Anons are interpreting reality. They’re thinking magically. They’re seeing patterns and drawing connections. “So there we have a connection between The Grateful Dead and the mystery schools of Egypt, ancient Egypt.” One of the major reasons QAnon is on the rise right now is because when the world is scary and uncertain, we are drawn to magical thinking. We now have a major schism between two tribes, magical thinkers and evidence seekers. The rest of us, the evidence seekers, are still plenty irrational and magical, but we mostly defer to science and empiricism. We are two tribes making sense of the world in different ways and perceiving different realities. QAnon has an indifference or outright hostility towards reality that to us evidence seekers is shocking or baffling or hilarious or infuriating. “What if I told you that those who are corrupting the world, poisoning our food, and igniting conflict were themselves about to be permanently eradicated from the Earth?” So how do we evidence seekers respond? Often with ridicule. “So I dived deep into the rabbit hole to talk to four prominent QAnon researchers.” “Donald Trump is one of the most intelligent men probably in our lifetime— like, top five, believe it or not.” “I find it hard.” We mock. We belittle. We dunk on them. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It feels fantastic. “Boring!” Ridicule is a booming industry in Trump-era America. “I’m no psychiatrist, but I think it’s safe to say—” “This guy’s got some big issues.” There’s even an anti-QAnon community of influencers and podcasters and YouTubers dunking on QAnon all day every day. Many of them seem to love this stuff the way that other people love awful movies. It’s so bad, it’s good. “Not the bees!” Creators like these are funny and smart and, generally speaking, right. In a lot of ways, ridicule works. It’s a peaceful weapon against the powerful. It persuades people who haven’t chosen sides yet. And it demonstrates to those already on your side that your team is the smartest and wittiest and most wonderful of all. Ridicule is part of society’s immune system. Just like your body’s immune system fights a viral invader, ridicule attacks nonsense and drives it back to the fringes. Or, at least, it tries. “Where we go on, we go off. God bless, patriots.” But where ridicule falls entirely flat is at bringing people back who do believe in QAnon. Instead, ridicule leaves in its wake shame, anger, resentment, and in the worst cases, humiliation. We underestimate the power of this emotion. If someone humiliates us, we will hold that grudge indefinitely, and we will get our revenge. I think we all learned this from The Karate Kid. What role has the judgment and condescension of college-educated urbanites played in spawning QAnon? How big a factor is humiliation in the rise of Donald Trump? And if you think you’re above being targeted with ridicule, if you think you’re beyond the reach of humiliation, allow me a brief demonstration. Maybe you think Donald Trump engineered some brilliant covert conspiracy with Russia despite not being able to keep anything else secret. “We are actually about to find out if Russia maybe has something on the new president.” Maybe you think JFK was taken out by the FBI or the CIA or the military industrial complex. “I think most Americans would agree that it was not a lone gunman. That’s the conspiracy in the Warren Report.” Actually, this guy definitely did it all by himself. Maybe you believe in anarchism, which has never worked anywhere ever and spectacularly explodes in all experiments. If you believe any of these things, you might have just felt the sting of ridicule. That’s the feeling we give others when we ridicule them. Did it make you rethink your positions? Not unless you were already rethinking them. More likely, you doubled down. You got to work figuring out why I’m an idiot. Maybe you even started plotting your revenge, like a mean tweet. We all believe goofy stuff. We go to great lengths to avoid admitting being wrong, because it’s embarrassing. And when you’re really, really, really wrong, it’s humiliating. “Why are they not in jail? Oh, is it because you’re part of them? Are you part of the deep state?” “Thank you, ma’am. Your time has expired.” “The deep state is going down, and if any of you are in the deep state, you’re going down with it.” “Ma’am, this is your last warning. I’m finding that you are disrupting this meeting.” The bad news is, regardless of what happens with this guy, QAnon is still going to be here. And while most platforms have cracked down on Q, Anons are clever at evading these measures. QAnon may very well grow and even get uglier in the years ahead. So if we can’t dunk on fools, what do we do? What society as a whole does about QAnon is a complex question that has no definite answer. But what we as individuals do about Q in our personal lives is relatively simple. We don’t panic, and we don’t lash out. We calm down and we slow down. Here are three things to do if someone you know gets into QAnon. These are based on the work of Mick West, who has been debunking conspiracy theories for 15 years. Stay connected. For almost everyone, it’s not necessary to cut off a Q believer. If you do this, that’s one less lifeline back to reality they have access to. That’s one less voice that isn’t simply cheering them on. Share information they may be lacking. When you see someone posting incorrect information, share links that show why it’s incorrect and simply ask questions about how these conspiratorial claims would work. Often, when people delve a bit deeper, they can see for themselves when something is implausible. And finally, be patient. These beliefs are unlikely to suddenly vanish. It will seem like nothing is working when slow progress is actually being made. If you intervene, you need to be gentle. Be kind or be neutral. And if you can’t do either, do nothing, because your attacks can make things worse. Believers in QAnon will benefit more from our interest and our respect than from our condemnation. “Calling it stupid, calling the people who are involved in it stupid— and I’ve never known a good way to get people to do anything for me by calling them stupid.” Instead of looking at QAnon followers as a force to be defeated, look at them as fellow flawed humans you can positively influence. This isn’t some contest you need to win. Anons are just people like us. They’re not mentally ill. They’re not beyond redemption. The most formidable adversary QAnon might ultimately face is QAnon. This is a narrative that is not built to last. It’s premised on predictions that never materialize. Any and all outlandish claims are accepted. Dissent is not tolerated. There is no objective reality. And everything is interpreted. QAnon will always be an incoherent mess of nonsense. These are gigantic faults. And for many Q followers, they will become obvious in time. And the Q Show is still in its early seasons. People will also simply get bored. In the meantime, we need to endure and not chase people deeper down the rabbit hole. [MUSIC PLAYING]

The movement’s acolytes take inspiration and guidance from the eponymous Q, an anonymous figure who has posted cryptic notes on the troll-infested internet forums 4Chan and 8Kun. But QAnon’s theories don’t come down fully formed from Q, nor from Trump; in a manner that resembles an online game, they are created collectively, giving the movement a flexible, almost religious quality.

QAnon’s participatory thrill has alarmed misinformation researchers. Because every pronouncement from Q can spark endless “research” and commentary, new adherents are made to feel like they have a role in uncovering the deepest secrets about the world. “It is insufficient to be persuaded by the anti-vax or QAnon movements — those who’ve joined the movement feel an obligation to share the ‘truth’ with those who’ve yet to be enlightened,” the media scholar Ethan Zuckerman wrote in 2019. “Those who are most successful in converting others are rewarded with attention, a commodity that is easily convertible into other currencies.”

In the Church of Q, Donald Trump is the one and only messiah. But the Georgia call shows how fully he participates in it, too.

Travis View, a co-host of the excellent Q-tracking podcast “QAnon Anonymous,” told me that when Trump was rattling off his litany of false claims on the call, “he was sounding a lot like a thread on the Q research board, on which people spit out ideas, conspiracy theories and snippets, and people sort of build upon them.”

View described a symbiotic relationship between Trump, QAnon message boards and pro-Trump news outlets like One America News and Newsmax. It’s a bit like jazz musicians improvising, each one punching up the other’s riff.

“We’ve seen OAN and Newsmax basically regurgitate baseless conspiracy theories from QAnon world,” View said. The stories from pro-Trump outlets “get into Trump’s brain, and then he regurgitates them back, and of course because he’s regurgitating the conspiracy theories he heard on the internet, all the internet conspiracy theorists believe that their conspiracy theory is validated, because Trump repeated it.”

On the call, Trump claimed that voting machines made by a company called Dominion Voting Systems were rigged to help Biden win. The theory has been debunked; it is also moot, because officials in Georgia confirmed Biden’s victory through a hand recount of paper ballots.

The Dominion idea was one of several stolen-election theories that started on QAnon-friendly forums. Pro-Trump outlets then echoed the theory — as NBC News recently pointed out, Ron Watkins, the administrator of 8Kun, has been featured on One America News as a voting-systems expert, which he is not. When Trump inevitably tweeted out the OAN segment, the circle was complete: OAN had given its aggrieved audience “news” that confirmed its belief in the conspiracy. Trump promoted self-serving misinformation, and QAnon grew just a little bit more powerful.

The atmosphere of fear and mistrust that has pervaded America’s response to the pandemic has been very good for QAnon, and now this dangerous movement holds real political power.

In November, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter, won a seat representing Georgia’s 14th District in the House of Representatives. Some Republican officials have attempted to downplay Greene’s political success and distance themselves from her ideas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Greene becomes a G.O.P. star. On Monday, at Trump’s rally to support the two Republicans running in Georgia’s Senate runoffs, the crowd’s wildest cheers came when Greene took the stage. The audience sounded much more enthusiastic about Greene than about Kelly Loeffler, one of the actual Republican candidates.

If the Republican Party has given up entirely on fighting QAnon’s influence, it might be because Q has grown too big to tame. Late last month, NPR and Ipsos published the disturbing results of a poll assessing QAnon’s hold on the nation. People who responded to the survey were asked whether it was true or false that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media,” QAnon’s central lie. Seventeen percent said “true,” and 37 percent more said they didn’t know. In other words, a majority of Americans think it is at least possible that QAnon’s nuttiest theory might be fact. A third of respondents also said that voter fraud had helped Biden win.

This level of influence isn’t going to disappear at noon on Jan. 20. QAnon’s vast reach, and Trump’s deep hold on it, are here to stay.

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