QAnon Is the Latest American Conspiracy Theoryadriana
The rise of the right-wing paranoid fantasy, egged on by Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene, reflects deep currents in American politics.
America has a long history of conspiracy-theory-based movements that initially seem too unhinged to take seriously. But amid a wide-ranging distrust of traditional sources of public authority, they have come to acquire a perverse sort of legitimacy for a segment of the citizenry clinging to dogmatic skepticism of a hostile, faithless, and nonwhite social world. The pattern goes back to the nation’s founding: As historians like Bernard Bailyn have documented, the Revolutionary-era mindset of colonial revolt against the crown was steeped in lurid fantasies of the organized British defilement of Protestant virtue. Nineteenth-century anti-Catholic fantasies of libertine monks and priests sexually violating white Protestant women took root in anonymous pamphlets—the bygone equivalent of an Internet discussion board—before burgeoning into mass nativist political movements under the direction of the Anti-Masonic and Know-Nothing parties. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan himself, while no LaRouchite, was an enthusiast of end-times speculation and its signature theme of noble Protestant innocence besieged—a fact that the president’s advisers jealously guarded from the public at a point in Cold War hostilities when the genuine threat of nuclear apocalypse didn’t need a spiritual imprimatur from the leader of the free world.
Against this historical backdrop, QAnon’s apocalyptic fever dreams are less the disease than a symptom—one among countless recent augurs of severe democratic decline and fascist ascension in America. In a more immediate sense, QAnon is the digital offspring of the Tea Party movement and birtherism—militant, conspiracy-theory-steeped uprisings that began on the right fringe to similar choruses of dismissal from traditional political gatekeepers and steadily grew into mass mobilizations behind the Trump presidency.
“The very first time I heard of QAnon, an academic colleague had pulled up a chart showing all these arrows and lines of influence, and I was amazed how similar it was to the apocalyptic charts from the late 19th-century millennial movements,” says Matthew Avery Sutton, a historian at Washington State University and the author of American Apocalypse, a landmark study of Protestant millennialism. Sutton notes that QAnon’s origins in the shitposting world of right-wing discussion boards call to mind other paranoid turns in the country’s past that drew on mass hatreds and religious bigotry to fuel their sense of millennial certainty: “There are parallels here with things like the Illuminati, the anti-Masonics, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There have always been these things that are sort of secular but sort of not. They offer something secular people can buy into but religious people can also buy into. It works both ways.”