After Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, I joined so many others in allowing myself to feel relief, and, yes, joy. The violence we feared coming on Election Day did not materialize, and it appears that American democracy, so far, survived Trump. But we’re in no way out of the woods: As of publication time, Trump refuses to concede, and is threatening to run again in 2024. After four weary years of threats to just about everything that defines civil society, we will be left facing many evil genies these years have uncorked.
Among the most malignant is QAnon.
Here, in part, is how Wikipedia defines this loose coalition in Fall 2020: QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US President Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. QAnon also commonly asserts that Trump is planning a day of reckoning known as the “Storm”, when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested. No part of the conspiracy claim is based in fact.
You heard a lot about QAnon during the last crazy months leading up to the election. It became a bigger story after a QAnon supporter, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican, won a Congressional seat in a deep-red section of Georgia. Trump tweeted his congratulations to her, calling her a “future Republican star.” Around this time, we began reading about QAnon all over the media, and seeing photos of people at rallies sporting Q hats and other paraphernalia.
Some call QAnon a “conspiracy theory,” but that’s too simple a definition. QAnon is more like a collective delusion. The Global Network on Extremism and Technology, a think tank studying how terrorists use technology, based at Department of War Studies at King’s College London, defines QAnon as “a militant and anti-establishment ideology rooted in a quasi-apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, corrupt world order and usher in a promised golden age.”
Up until the election, Q-followers shared one core belief: That Donald Trump will lead a holy war against Satan, aka “the deep state.” In other words, people and institutions associated with liberals: the Clintons and the rest of the Democratic establishment, Hollywood figures (a favorite target is Tom Hanks), mainstream media, and, yes, George Soros.
All of these people, Q-ers believe, are really a gigantic pedophile ring that kidnaps children and harvests their blood. Sound familiar? There’s an obvious subtext of anti-Semitism in these tropes. The Jew as devourer of Christian children, who controls the banks and the world. These images date from the Middle Ages. In the 20th century, they got incorporated into the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and then the Nazi propaganda machine.
It started at the fringes of the web early in Donald Trump’s malignant presidency, when the anonymous Q began posting cryptic messages—“drops.” From there Q content migrated into mainstream social media. Followers create deliberately misleading hashtags, such as the innocuous sounding #Savethechildren, thereby drawing in people who might think they’re on a UNICEF-sponsored site, but instead find themselves reading posts like “Better be careful all these kids disappearing and burgers costing next to nothing at all the $2 burger etc. Human meat, you may be eating kids, Say no to fast food burgers.”
Q also hooks in people via their “drops;” searching for and decoding drops for some becomes an addiction. People who’ve fallen down this rabbit hole liken it to getting trapped in a cult.
With so many arms and no clear hierarchy, QAnon is a protean monster, mutating and multiplying like cancer cells, and it is precisely its adaptability to today’s climate that makes it so scary. QAnon, like a sewer flowing through the Internet, collects and absorbs every piece of noxious substance that passes into it from the waste pipes of our culture.
QAnon is not just online. In 2019, the FBI was labeling it a domestic terrorism threat. On the night of Election Day in November, the police in Philadelphia arrested two men at a polling site in a Hummer filled with guns and QAnon literature. Some journalists who wrote about QAnon have gotten death threats. Social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram keep telling us that they are clamping down on Q content, but this is way easier said than done because of its very protean nature.
But the election is over, Trump was defeated, and QAnon has lost the anointed leader. Need we still worry about the phenomenon and its paranoia? Won’t it just now shrivel up and crawl under a rock? Not so fast. During the fraught week after the election, “Q” went missing. But then he—she?—reemerged, and Q-followers threw out new conspiracy theories onto the Internet. One in particular caught Trump’s attention: Dominion, a manufacturer of voting machines, deleted millions of Trump votes. Trump promptly retweeted it (in all-caps.)
We shouldn’t expect QAnon to go away, but to continue mutating and multiplying. Especially now, in the midst of the pandemic: Catastrophic times are when conspiracy theories thrive (think the Middle Ages, when people blamed the Black Death on the Jews). To that add the fact that for the last ten months, people are isolated at home, glued to their Facebook and Instagram accounts.
As people try to make sense of it all, they pick up the QAnon content hiding behind benign-seeming hashtags and posts. Last summer, Instagram followers, as they scrolled through the site’s panoply of images showing candy-sweet home and-child-oriented consumer products, were also reading that the web-based furniture company Wayfair was really a child trafficking ring. The crazy rumor soon was ripping through social media like a bat out of hell. The Q craze has spread all over the globe, according to Marc André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who researches QAnon. According to Argentino, QAnon has migrated via social media into more than 70 countries. It has been particularly embraced by the far right fringe in Germany, the New York Times reported in October. Moreover, here in the States, even with Trump gone, QAnon remains in the mainstream. In November, more than a dozen QAnon supporters, all Republicans, ran for Congress. Two— both of them women—won: Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, from Colorado.
In fact, it turns out that QAnon especially appeals to women.
And this is why, in addition to being a Jewish issue, QAnon is an unrecognized feminist one as well.
Many of today’s far-right movements are testosterone-driven—think Proud Boys and Oath Keepers—replete with muscular imagery. QAnon, on the other hand, attracts women—especially mothers—associated with Trump’s “base”: White, Christian, and not college educated. Likely what happened is that women seized on those aspects of QAnon content that fed preexisting fears—pedophilia, for example—and made it their own. Within the broad anti-trafficking movement, there has always been a moralistic streak, and this movement seizes on that. Women are organizing anti-child trafficking rallies, and posting like mad using #Savethechildren and its countless hashtag variants (#childtrafficking, #DefundHollywood, etc.), where they rant about how Joe Biden is a pedophile, and claiming that the Etsy site sells child porn.
QAnon content has also been creeping into yoga and wellness sites, where you can now find posts in girly fonts about Covid 19 being fake news, and how vaccinations are really a government-led attempt to kill your children—all against backgrounds of pale soothing colors. Argentino, the Concordia University researcher, calls this phenomenon “pastel QAnon.”
“These influencers provide an aesthetic and branding to their entire pages, and they in turn apply this to QAnon content, softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” Argentino wrote on Twitter in September. “This branding is the polar opposite of ‘raw’ QAnon.”
In 1930s Germany, women went crazy for Hitler, and the Nazi Party specifically targeted them through their propaganda machine. Six weeks after Hitler took power in 1933, an exhibit entitled “Die Frauen” opened in Berlin, and Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech. “This is the beginning of a new German womanhood,” Goebbels said. “If the nation once again has mothers who proudly and freely choose motherhood, it cannot perish. If the woman is healthy, the people will be healthy. Woe to the nation that neglects its women and mothers. It condemns itself.” At this time of extreme anxiety throughout the world, when misinformation gets transmitted via social media in one second, it bears repeating that the Nazis used whatever media they had at the time to broadcast their vile message. They used children’s books, posters, movies, board games. How primitive such media seem today! Yet they managed to convince Germans of the necessity of a Final Solution to the Jewish “problem.”
Is there a parallel between the Nazi ideation and tactics then and QAnon today?
One big difference between the Nazis and QAnon is just how organized and sharply focused the Nazis were, and how they drew on the systemic anti-Semitism in Europe that dated back to late antiquity. QAnon, in contrast, is much murkier. But QAnon’s goals—a world violently purged of “Satan,” code for liberals, Jews, Hollywood and elites, bears resemblance to the Nazis, who started a war and designed death camps for Jews and other “undesirables” as part of their plan to establish a 1000-year Aryan Reich.
Is it too much of a stretch to make this comparison? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that QAnon has capitalized on how easily misinformation floods the Internet, available to anybody who clicks on a link, and on the other hand attached itself to a resurgent right wing with an anti Semitic flair.
How scared should we be?
Photos: Flicker, Becker1999
Alice Sparberg Alexiou, journalist and author of three books, is a contributing editor at Lilith.