Things said by the person profiled in this article:
“The world opened up in Technicolor for me,” she said.
“It was like the Matrix — everything just started to download.”
“The ups and downs have not fazed me because I get it,” she said. “This is a war of information, of propaganda, and I’m just riding the waves.”
“I am really good at putting symbols together,” she said.“
Be prepared, and stay cool,” Ms. Gilbert wrote to her Facebook friends recently. “Slow and steady wins the race. We’re in the home stretch now.”
Who knows what it would take to convince this person that she’s wrong? Likely trying to do so is futile. But what it reminds me of are the people who absolutely positively know the date when Jesus returns to earth. The last few hundred years are littered with “prophets” making these claims, always being wrong of course, but always shifting their target to something else, some reason why it didn’t happen, or it did happen but we were distracted, or it will only happen if we do something drastic to usher it in.
Qanon just seems like the prophetic wing of right-wing evangelicalism, with a few small tweaks. Which means it’s just about as intractable, and filled with despair, including despair of any hope that anyone else has. It’s designed to fail, to not deliver on its promises and predictions, because the point is to coalesce people in opposition to a mainstream. When it fails, some will fall away, but many will remember the feeling of “where we go one, we go all”, and that’s what will last into the next conspiracy theory or movement or performative protest.
They will remember the feeling of knowing what’s really going on, even if that was an illusion, and they will remember how this was achieved through the effort of a large group of like-minded people, all working in different ways but dovetailing and sustaining this illusion. It doesn’t matter that it makes no sense in the larger scheme of things. It has internal coherence, like the elaborations of fan fiction in a fantasy world, and it differentiates the in-group from the mainstream, which makes people feel special, and it allows an avenue to make anger, hate, fear, and resentment into something productive in its own terms.
And so it bears the marks of its formation in apocalyptic conservative Christianity and end-times paranoia. Only the chosen realize what’s truly going on – all others have blinders on, no matter how much they think they know through their science and technocratic reasoning. It’s a Gnostic world in the end. The chosen are “really good at putting symbols together”, and everyone else just sees the surfaces of things, the lifeless materialist connections of science and the superficial conclusions that legal standards of evidence lead to.
As with so many things, forms of faith have laid the groundwork for these things that seem to be a long way away from literal Christianity, but really aren’t. The conviction that all human reason is fallen, there is a real truth which is only accessible by the faithful, and that the consequences of what you believe (i.e., the ideas you hold in your head) are cosmic, lays the groundwork for QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
There are alternatives to this model of thought. One doesn’t have to be faced with the alternative between having an otherworldly, untethered faith that can lead to conspiracies, or be blinded by the secular world. Lots of religious traditions of all sorts have confronted these sorts of dead-end epistemologies in their own terms, and found ways to maintain the meaningfulness of their traditions while keeping at bay the exclusivist and paranoid tendencies.
But this is very tempting, in a world of seeming chaos, where otherwise inexplicable things happen all the time. A nice conspiracy makes everything orderly, and has the added benefit of invariably putting you on the right side of history. You never have to look at yourself and ask whether you are part of the problem. You aren’t, and you can’t be, because you know the truth. And so the self-satisfied certainty of fundamentalist Protestantism and the wheels-within-wheels theorizing of conspiracies really share the same cultural genetics.
What to do? Well, the thing about apocalypticism and end-times thinking in religious circles, is that they tend to die out. The ones who stay on can become more fervent, but many see the cost as too high, and the logic as too far-fetched in the end. We’ve had shifting strategies in the political world since Reagan to coalesce opposition to broad progress on social issues. Remember the Moral Majority? They had their myths, sometimes in the form of moral panics. Opposition to Bill Clinton. 9/11 Truthers. Elements of the Tea Party. MAGAs. The million spinning conspiracies promoted by Infowars and the rest of the right-wing media. And now QAnon. These overlap, they aren’t all the same, but they are a shifting strategy that has always pulled in some who want to claim they know more and see more than the rest of us. There’s enough truth to make them plausible – corporations really do control too much of the world, not because of conspiracies but because we have an economic system that accelerates the shift of capital to the most wealthy and concentrates power. You don’t need a conspiracy to see that’s the case, but it helps emotionally to build a world around it and posit nefarious causal factors.
So, the “what to do” question might be – there’s not much we can do, because these conspiracies are inherently unstable, no matter how much their failures are patched up through even more abstruse reasoning. They have a shelf life, and the next one comes along. And what makes them attractive is that they are an outlet for hate, fear, resentment, and anger. And some of those emotions may have a real and legitimate source, and some don’t. Hate never does, at least not the hatred of people and groups. But anger? Yeah, sometimes. Fear? Sure. The thing is, these reactions and conspiracies do nothing to solve the causes of those emotions. They just make us think that they are solved, they give people the fantasy world in which they have already been resolved. Just like the end-times thinking of fundamentalists, we can imagine a world in which the people we don’t like get what they deserve, and the people we do like get what they deserve, and we can finally rest.