At the recent Trump rally in Houston, I stumbled upon a group of eight people, most of them middle-aged white women, sitting in camping chairs outside the arena after the rally as thousands of MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters dispersed into downtown. I asked where they were from, anticipating they were Texans who had traveled from all over the state to attend the rally. A few of them were from Texas, but others came from points across the country: California, Chicago, Atlanta.
I asked if they all knew each other and had coordinated this trip to Houston. They said they did, but that this was the first time they had all met in person. “We’re part of an online community,” one woman said. “Have you ever heard of Q?”
QAnon only began a year ago, but it’s already become the mother of all conspiracy theories, drawing everything from the sinking of the Titanic to UFOs to the JFK assassination, Pizzagate, the Robert Mueller probe, and the Kavanaugh hearings into its ever-expanding orbit. It has also drawn a growing number of believers who follow clues or “breadcrumbs” left in anonymous online forums by Q, a supposedly high-ranking intelligence official with a high-level security clearance.
In the era of Trump and social media, QAnon is the perfect conspiracy theory: the breadcrumbs lead everywhere and nowhere. It’s a kind of viral fusion conspiracy, perfect for the age of social media. For those who believe in Q, the interlacing conspiracies and cryptic clues amount to overwhelming evidence that President Trump and the military are engaged in a clandestine war against globalist forces, including “deep state” Democrats who are about to be exposed and arrested—any day now. Like all good conspiracies, QAnon is immune to criticism by virtue of being about everything, explaining everything, and offering an answer for everything.
Outside the arena in Houston, another woman (they all declined to give their names) chimed in. “We support Trump, for sure,” she said, “but Q is about much more than Trump. It’s about… everything, really. It’s about the truth.” They acknowledged that I was a member of the media, and that the media routinely lies, but they were nevertheless quite friendly and even showed genuine concern that I investigate QAnon for myself so I would find out what’s going on and help get the truth out there. I said I would look into it.
After Robert Bowers gunned down 11 people and injured six others at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, I thought about those friendly QAnon followers—not because I think the nice ladies I met in Houston would condone violence (they wouldn’t), but because Bowers had posted about QAnon conspiracies on Gab, the social network for white supremacists, and his mind was by all accounts addled with such conspiracy theories.
Mostly, he posted Holocaust denial garbage and conspiracies about Jews destroying the planet. He also believed in the idea that a “deep state” run by Jews is manipulating the president and trying to “control whites.” Bowers believed in this fervently, almost maniacally. He reportedly ranted about Jews during his firefight with police. Even after he was wounded and taken into custody, he told one officer, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.”
The 46-year-old long-haul trucker who was something of a loner had a particular fixation on the caravan of Central Americans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which helps refugees settle in the United States. In his last Gab post before the shooting, he wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The Roots of American Paranoia Go Deep
Paranoia isn’t new to American public life. Its most violent manifestations are of course rare, but what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” has always been part of American political culture, in part because America has always been complex and chaotic. Conspiracy theories bring order and solace, they make sense of the chaos and reorient the world along moral and logical lines. For this reason, the appeal of the paranoid style has always been particularly strong among Americans.
The difference now is that the paranoid style has gone mainstream. Evidence abounds in recent decades, but one need look no further than Trump’s own political career, which began with him wading into the Obama birther conspiracy in 2011. More recently, QAnon followers have been turning up at Trump rallies, from Texas to Florida to Pennsylvania, all with the same talking points: QAnon is a “community,” a “movement,” a “great awakening.” Their movement, as they will freely attest, is intimately bound to Trump’s presidency.
Although it’s unfair and irresponsible to implicate Trump in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, as some major media outlets were quick to do, there’s no question that Trump’s occasional allusions to conspiracy theories have given political paranoia more room to breathe, in much the same way that the rise of social media has given conspiracy theorists a platform and a powerful new way to connect to one another.
Still, to blame the mainstreaming of paranoia on Trump or social media is to misunderstand the role that political paranoia plays in our national life. In 1995, the late Michael Kelly wrote an essay for The New Yorker entitled, “The Road to Paranoia,” about a militia group that had risen to prominence in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. The main subject of Kelly’s article was a man named Bob Fletcher, the “investigative researcher” and spokesman for a group called Militia of Montana, or MOM. Fletcher and MOM espoused a sort of proto-QAnon conspiracy—a grand, all-encompassing conspiracy that has shaped the course of history and threatens to reduce all Americans to slavery under a New World Order.
Just as they did for the Pittsburgh shooter, “globalists” played a prominent role in the conspiracy worldview of Fletcher and his fellow militiamen of the mid-1990s—a worldview shared by the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and those who sympathized with him.
But it’s important to understand that these men are not insane. They are angry and obsessive, and some of them are dangerous, but the difference between them and a rational skeptic of government is a difference in degree, not in kind. The fever dreams that animate conspiracy theorists arise from a fundamentally American consciousness. As Kelly wrote of Fletcher, and might write today of QAnon followers,
He is a stranger of a strange land, warped not against his culture but by it, and the curve of his warp follows the curve of the culture; it is only steeper and continues further off the edge of the graph. What Fletcher believes is nothing but an extreme manifestation of views that have long been shared by both the far Right and the far Left, and that in recent years have come together, in a weird meeting of the minds, to become one, and to permeate the mainstream of American politics and popular culture. You could call it fusion paranoia.
Kelly’s analysis applies just as much—perhaps more so—to the Trump era, when the president himself, having won the White House by tapping into a powerful anti-establishment ethos, embodies a skeptical and sometimes paranoid view of government. The notion that an antidemocratic establishment of governing elites has long ruled America, and is even now working to undermine Trump’s electoral victory, is more or less a mainstream view on the right. Elements of this view used to be mainstream on the left, back when it was more concerned with disrupting globalism (like in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests) than staging Antifa battles in the street.
These ideas aren’t without merit. There is in fact a ruling elite in this country that often works against the interests of ordinary Americans, often in an antidemocratic fashion. Trump’s victory was in part a repudiation of that elite, and his supporters are not wrong to conclude that the elite are not happy about it and are working to undermine his administration.
But it’s one thing to recognize the existence of a governing elite, and another thing to posit that globalists are conspiring to enslave the American people. For the Pittsburgh shooter and QAnon followers alike, the line between reality and the surrealism of their grand conspiracy is a matter of degree. Kelly wrote that, “Where the realists see tacit collusion among members of the governing elite, the radicals see flagrant, treasonous plots.”
And if enough Americans, whether on the right or the left, see treasonous plots behind every bush, eventually some of them will decide to do something about it.