QAnon is not a "conspiracy theory"
It's way less popular — but more dangerous — than normal conspiracies
Hey folks, it’s Friday.
If you want to hear me chatting with Julia Galef on her excellent “Rationally Speaking” podcast, our conversation is up now. I’m getting more interested in rationalism, and I thought it was a really great show.
I’m going to close out the week with a post that has a bit more of a “thinking out loud” quality to it than I usually do, because the rise of the QAnon phenomenon — up to and including its role in the January 6 riots and House Republicans’ apparent decision to stand by Marjorie Taylor Greene — is, for lack of a better word, really weird.
I was talking to Joseph Uscinski who studies conspiracy theories at the University of Miami to try to get a sense of how Q’s popularity compares to other major conspiracy theories. The point he made to me is that in the surveys he’s done, support for QAnon polls way lower — like, at 6.8% — than the numbers he gets for Epstein was murdered (50%), JFK was killed by a conspiracy (44%), or even school shootings are false flags (17%). QAnon’s impact on the world, in other words, doesn’t come from it being especially popular. If you think of it as a conspiracy theory, it performs rather poorly.
Instead, it functions more like a cult.
Conspiracies and me
I liked that point in part because it’s a good point, but also in part because I’ve always had a soft spot for conspiracies.
I really love Oliver Stone’s conspiracy dyad “JFK” and “Nixon.” Because the former was so much more popular than the latter, a lot of people don’t realize the extent to which Stone fleshes out the theory in the second film. But the notion is basically that back when he was Vice President, Nixon was involved in helping to set up a kind of off-the-books black ops group of far-right oilmen and Cuban exiles with ties to the mafia, CIA, and FBI. This group was, in turn, responsible for everything from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. And the reason Nixon deleted those infamous 18 minutes from the Watergate tapes was actually to cover up this other, even more damning conspiracy.
That’s all a little far-fetched, but it’s part of what was once a vibrant ecosystem of left-wing conspiracy theories about the United States. I was really into some of the more baroque reporting related to Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame, and the forged documents about yellowcake in Niger. There were, once upon a time, tantalizing stories featuring the odd dealings of Italian intelligence operatives and potential ties to Iran.
Some critics of the “Russiagate” inquiry charged it as being a modern-day anti-Trump conspiracy.
But while I see what they mean, I really don’t think it fits. A proper conspiracy theory, or at least the kind I find interesting, posits that malign actors have control over U.S. state institutions. The idea of Russiagate was that the Russians are the bad guys, and the good guys were our federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies who would all be vindicated by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. In a sense, it was almost the opposite of a conspiracy theory. Instead, it was the pro-Trump people who came up with a real conspiracy theory: that Trump was a threat to the military-industrial complex (or perhaps a pedophile cabal), so they took him down with a bogus dossier and a ginned-up investigation.
To me, this reflects a real change in American politics. My sense is that a slightly more old-fashioned version of the progressive coalition would’ve been less interested in the Russia stuff and more taken with the possibility that a coterie of rogue FBI agents, working in cahoots with Rudy Giuliani and with the tacit support of James Comey, sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to punish her for siding with the victims of police violence. Indeed, that’s more or less what happened as best I can tell. But there’s been very little interest in this from Democrats relative to Russia stuff as the party has become more and more the party of self-confident professionals, while distrustful people have flooded into the GOP.
When I was a teenager, my understanding was that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was part of a broader conspiracy likely involving the United States government. The original conspiracy I picked this up from my family was that his embrace of class politics made him too dangerous to the establishment, but the more anti-imperialist version immortalized in the Rage Against The Machine song “Wake Up” was also in circulation:
Networks at work, keeping people calm
You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot
The same song asserts that “they murdered X and tried to blame it on Islam.”
That’s just a song, obviously, but it reflects the extent to which a strand of conspiratorial thinking was embedded in left-wing politics. Indeed, I don’t want to pose as too much of a Black Slang Knower, but my understanding is this was the original meaning of the concept “woke.” I first heard that word at Oohhs and Aahhs on U Street, back when the neighborhood was less gentrified, from folks explaining that “they” had deliberately breached the levees and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Those are kind of race-specific conspiracy theories, but when Carl Stempel, Thomas Hargrove, and Guido H. Stempel III looked at a bunch of 9/11-related conspiracies, they found that “members of less powerful groups (racial minorities, lower social class, women, younger ages) are more likely to believe at least one of the conspiracies … as are those with low levels of media involvement and consumers of less legitimate media (blogs and grocery store tabloids).”
That meant that at the time (2006), 9/11 Truth conspiracies had a distinctly progressive tinge.
9/11 Truth — from left to right
A 2009 survey from Public Policy Polling asked people, “Do you think President Bush intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place because he wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?”
About a quarter of Democrats thought this was the case.
Something that’s interesting is that if you slice it up in ideological terms, you actually get less polarization — only 6% of Republicans but 10% of conservatives believed that Bush deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen.
There was strong demand for anti-Bush narratives during the aughts, and it’s also easy to forget, but a major aspect of the post-9/11 political climate was a sense on the left that the mainstream media was being too deferential to the Bush administration and the national security establishment.
Glenn Greenwald has tried to repopularize the phrase “Corporate Media” since becoming a Substacker, but that’s really part of his ongoing transition into being a rightist figure. Fifteen years ago, when the poster below was in wide circulation, it was clearly a left-branded concept complete with the idea that the very existence of a Department of Homeland Security was suspicious and problematic.
In keeping with all that, Michael Moore — an influential and popular alternative media personality — put out a movie called “Fahrenheit 9/11” that won awards and seemed to imply that the Bush administration let the attack on the Twin Towers happen in order to help Unocal build a pipeline in Afghanistan.
What’s interesting is that if you go back to Stempel et al.’s demographics of conspiratorialism, there’s a decent amount of overlap between conspiracy-heavy social groups (less-educated non-churchgoers) and the social groups that have swung toward Donald Trump. I don’t have any idea which way the cause or effect goes, but the aggregate impact of the GOP coalition gaining non-college voters (which clearly includes some Black and Latino ones along with the fabled white working-class) while losing college-educated professionals aligns conspiracies more with partisanship.
By late 2016, “17% of Hillary Clinton voters said that the U.S. government definitely or probably helped plan 9/11, compared with 15% of Donald Trump voters,” a much smaller partisan gap than obtained eight years earlier.
The realignment has only continued since then. We now have a 9/11 Truther in Congress — and she’s a Republican — which would have been unthinkable in 2004 when waving the bloody shirt and Bush Kept Us Safe were the centerpieces of Republican Party politics. Obviously, in that kind of context, the right becomes the natural home for fresh conspiracies that are more ambiguous in their content.
Epstein: the realignment continues
Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump socialized together.
And the first time Epstein was prosecuted, he obtained a sweetheart deal from federal prosecutor Alex Acosta, who was appointed to his job by a Republican Party president and was later appointed to serve in the Trump Cabinet.
Epstein died in federal custody during Donald Trump’s presidency, and at the time, Trump’s attorney general was the son of the man who first hired Epstein to be a high-school teacher.
Just on the merits, this ought to be a very fruitful terrain for conspiracies that paint Donald Trump and his circle as the authors of Epstein’s murder. The Cabinet secretary in question, after all, resigned rather than face media questions about his role in Epstein’s prosecution. But it’s not just that House Democrats refused to play footsie with conspiracy theories about Trump having Epstein murdered — they also never called on Acosta to testify to answer questions about a plea deal that very definitely did happen.
Instead, “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” became a right-wing conspiracy theory focused on his ties to a guy who last served in the White House 20 years ago.
I’m not deeply invested in any theory about Epstein, but I always thought Democrats blew it by not pushing for some oversight here. I do remember that in the first week after he died, it became extremely stigmatized in progressive circles to suggest there was anything fishy about his suicide. What happened is that a coalition of criminal justice reformers, public defenders, and the like mobilized to swiftly inform the world that prison conditions are really bad throughout the United States and prison suicides are a serious systemic issue. So anyone saying it was odd that a high-value prisoner thought to potentially have incriminating information about other wealthy and powerful people had died unmonitored in a prison cell was considered an apologist for the systemic abuses of the system.
Well, I’m not an apologist for the systemic abuses of mass incarceration, so I shut up (but it still kind of seems fishy to me).
This is emblematic of the ongoing sociological transformation of progressive politics into a politics largely by, for, and of high-minded professionals who place a lot of value on the idea that other people should defer to their expertise and that they — in a kind of logroll — ought to defer to the expertise of others. The expert judgment of criminal justice reformers was that it’s not unusual for prisons to be badly mismanaged or for people to kill themselves, so there’s nothing to see. I think this style of politics has some real political and substantive downsides, but it does tend to serve as prophylaxis against conspiratorialism. But aligning expertise with one party and conspiratorialism with another creates problems.
Survey-beliefs and action-beliefs
This brings us back to Uscinski’s point that Q is different. 9/11 Truthers never caused any huge social problems, and lots of people walk around holding bizarre beliefs about JFK without actually doing anything bad.
But again, to review his numbers, this is not because Q is a particularly widespread phenomenon:
Epstein murdered, 50%
JFK killed by conspiracy, 44%
Deep State embedded in government, 44%
Climate change is a hoax, 22%
School shootings are false flags, 17%
I am a believer in QAnon, 6.8%
In other words, Q is badly underperforming the fundamentals in terms of how many people believe there is a Deep State embedded in the government that has people murdered with impunity (if that sounds nutty to you, think of how many popular movies have this as its premise). And as Elizabeth Nolan Brown has documented in detail (check this link but also the rest of her thread), the misperception that there is some incredibly large amount of child sex trafficking in the United States is not just widespread but actually fairly mainstream.
In some ways, you might wonder why people are so passive in the face of widespread belief in malign government conspiracies and massive sexual abuse of children.
I assume part of the answer is that these conspiracies are a subset of a larger set of inaccurate beliefs where, as political scientist Brendan Nyhan finds, “many of the most destructive misperceptions arise in domains where individuals have weak incentives to hold accurate beliefs.”
You might call these survey-beliefs, things that people will tell pollsters that they believe. That’s different from action-beliefs that you use as guides to make actual decisions in your life. A lot of progressives didn’t believe that the economy was doing well in 2019. But that was a survey-belief, and it had no actual role in their lives — they were just expressing dissatisfaction with Donald Trump.
What’s fascinating about QAnon is that it’s taken conspiracy theorizing out of the realm of surveys and into action.
QAnon as decentralized cult
Uscinski says we shouldn’t think of QAnon as a conspiracy theory at all; rather, it’s a “decentralized cult” that happens to enjoy conspiracy theorizing.
The cult is a provocative analogy because cultists of course do actually go do things — move, cut themselves off from friends, give away all their money. One key difference is that cultists tend to make a kind of hard break with the outside world, and that’s typical of a lot of Q stories that you hear.
I’m not totally sure what to do with this, but I’m also not sure that Democrats trying to become table-pounding opponents of conspiratorial thinking will be all that constructive. Conspiracy theories are already very stigmatized in upscale circles. But while QAnon specifically is extremely harmful, it’s not obvious that conspiracy theories in general are actually a huge problem.
Joshua Hart and Molly Graether find in their 2018 paper “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories” that “conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe that the world is a dangerous place full of bad people,” and they “find it difficult to trust others.” In his 2014 book, Uscinski writes that conspiracy theories “tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity.”
In fact, it seems to me that a lot of conspiracy theories can be understood as slightly unsophisticated people trying to process real political phenomena in personalistic terms. A true fact about politics in the 1960s is that the Great Society was very good but the Vietnam War was very bad. The idea that (good) JFK was assassinated in a coup orchestrated by (bad) LBJ to stop him from withdrawing troops from Vietnam doesn’t really make any kind of sense. But positing a struggle between a Good Guy and a Bad Guy is a better story than the tangled reality of Cold War Liberalism. Similarly, the idea that COINTELPRO murdered MLK to sabotage the left has the exact same upshot as Omar Wasow’s careful scholarship indicating that post-assassination riots tipped the 1968 election to Nixon, but doesn’t require you to follow a bunch of regression math.
Similarly, the idea that The Man deliberately flooded the Lower Ninth Ward to spare the Garden District is wrong. But it’s not a coincidence that the poor Black neighborhoods of New Orleans are more flood-prone than the rich white ones!
To an extent, at least, I think lots of people need to understand bad events in terms of the bad acts of specific bad human beings, which tend to entail the positing of perhaps more “conspiracy” (in the sense of secret collaboration) than is really there. The Obama administration’s approach to the financial crisis, where we got a huge overhaul of financial regulatory institutions but no naming names of bad actors or prosecuting of individuals, was sort of the apotheosis of the systemic approach to the world, and it ended up being really politically and emotionally unsatisfying.
I’m not going to actively endorse explaining things in terms of inaccurate conspiracy theories, but I really do think that leaning hard against them may be counterproductive. After all, the conspiracy-minded, as a group of people, aren’t going away. If only one party tries to explain things in their language, then it will only drive polarization and make things worse.