February 11, 2021
III. America’s other epidemic: the rapid spread of qanon
The U.S. has been confronting two major epidemics throughout 2020. One of them – COVID-19 – arises from a respiratory virus transmitted freely from individual to individual through droplets in the air. The other – the QAnon conspiracy theory – can be thought of as a mind virus transmitted through social media echo chambers. Both have infected tens of millions of Americans. The first is subject to control by rapidly developed vaccines, so hope for ending the epidemic is on the horizon. There is no known vaccine for the second of these epidemics, so it presents the greater long-term challenge to control, though experience in extracting members from other cults offers some hope for rescuing a fraction of the victims. We have reviewed the QAnon phenomenon in some detail in an earlier post on this blog, but we briefly review its central elements here, along with possible ways to think about it.
For decades, internet trolls had advanced conspiracy theories that claimed to involve Hillary Clinton. One of the most bizarre of these began in October 2016, after Wikileaks had released a large cache of e-mails hacked from the account of John Podesta, who at that time was the chair of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Among those documents were e-mails between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of the Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong. The e-mails referenced various items on the Comet Ping Pong menu as food for Democratic Party fund-raising events. However, internet trolls claimed that these were in fact coded references to illegal activities by the Clintons. In particular, they asserted with a complete lack of evidence that the menu items in fact referred to young children who had been kidnapped. Eventually an absurd and baseless conspiracy theory developed that the Clintons were part of an international Satanic cult that kidnapped, sexually abused, and even killed and ate young children.
Subsequently this story was picked up and weaponized by Alex Jones, the host of the far-right fake news website and talk show InfoWars. Jones claimed that words such as “pizza” or “pasta” in Podesta’s e-mail messages instead referred to “girls” or “young boys.” Despite the complete lack of even a single fact to corroborate this fantastic yarn, the conspiracy theory was expanded. Eventually, it included among co-conspirators all Democrats in Congress and many Republicans; the international banking community (this brought in anti-Semites, as the focus was on the Rothschild family and George Soros); wealthy elites (e.g., Soros again, Bill Clinton, Jeff Bezos); and all of Hollywood.
This fringe conspiracy theory was subsequently converted to a full-blown psy-op program through cryptic social media posts from individuals who maintained anonymity but claimed to have inside information on top secret government plans. One or more of these anonymous posters were referred to as “Q,” based on the assumption that they possessed top-secret military clearance, known as “Q-clearance.” It is not known whether Q is a single individual or several, a domestic or foreign influencer, a politician or a propagandist or a recruiter for a right-wing paramilitary outfit, a prankster or a conspiracy nut. But along with various other anonymous posters – FBIAnon (claiming to be a “high level analyst and strategist”), HLIAnon (for “high level insider anonymous blogger”), CIAAnon, CIA Intern, and various Q “interpreters” – Q has promoted Donald Trump as the savior to rid the world of the alleged international cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who presently control both American political parties, the mainstream media, the international monetary system, and Hollywood.
The psy-op interpretation of QAnon, as “an intentional online cult movement aimed at recruiting and indoctrinating people into an all-or-nothing, us-vs.-them, good-vs.-evil frame,” has been emphasized by Steven Hassan, the founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, which helps to extricate people from cults. In common with the more usual military use of psy-ops, QAnon aims to influence the state of mind of a large group of people via non-combative means. But this time the target is not the “enemy,” but rather politically like-minded, or at least susceptible, individuals.
Social media turn out to provide the most efficient technique ever invented for brainwashing. Not only do they offer an easily accessible forum for the wide dissemination of absurdities by anonymous posters, on an equal footing with truth, but the business models of most social media giants furthermore favor the advertiser clicks gained by preferentially feeding to each individual those posts that confirm that individual’s biases. Thus, individuals who are naturally suspicious of government and of Democrats seek out, and are often force-fed, QAnon posts that reinforce those suspicions. The strength of their belief is amplified when they are told – whether it is true or not – that information is being provided by resistance-promoting government insiders, even though that information is nonsensical and never accurate, as has been the case with QAnon. Once an effective piece of disinformation has been implanted in social media, it tends to spread virally, requiring only occasional reinforcement from the original instigators.
For example, on October 28, 2017 a blogger subsequently called “Q” posted the following statement of alleged insider information on the anonymous imageboard 4chan: “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.” The post claimed that Hillary Clinton (HRC) would be arrested and jailed on October 30. Her fellow conspirators would also be arrested, or they would attempt to flee the country. The operation would be carried out by the Marines (US M’s) and the National Guard (NG) would be activated. The combination of absurdly precise details and the heavy use of acronyms made consumers of this post feel that they belonged to a select tribe in possession of high-level secrets.
Of course, no such events took place. On October 30, Q posted another cryptic message on 4chan, ending with the following: ”Do you believe HRC, Soros, Obama etc have more power than Trump? Fantasy. Whoever controls the office of the Presidency controls this great land. They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control. This is not a R v D battle. Why did Soros donate all his money recently? Why would he place all his funds in a RC? Mockingbird 10.30.17 God bless fellow Patriots.”
Over time the Q conspiracy posts have coalesced into a set of assertions about the world, and a set of predictions of coming events (none of which have materialized), called The Plan. According to the Plan, the world was run until Fall 2016 by an international cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, whose membership was defined to attract and unify a wide coalition of QAnon adherents, including haters of liberals, wealthy elites, Jews, and the Clintons. Satan was invoked to attract Christians to QAnon. The cabal members were labeled as pedophiles — adopting the baseless Pizzagate origin story – to excite emotional revulsion and radicalize the QAnon adherents, to instill the willingness to fight for a righteous cause. All U.S. Presidents prior to Donald Trump were said to be members of this cabal, or else they were controlled by it. However, as a wealthy outsider, Donald Trump was not a member of the cabal and could not be controlled by them. The past few years have been characterized by QAnon adherents as a massive struggle between Donald Trump and his followers (aka the “white hats”) vs. the Satanic elites (the “black hats”).
Trump himself may recognize the QAnon narrative as absurd, but he has been eager to exploit it. As a growing fraction of the supporters who show up at his rallies have sported Q t-shirts, sweatshirts, and paraphernalia, he has embraced the narrative to engage a rag-tag army that would promote his desperate attempt to retain power. When people suspicious of government are “instructed” by a government leader that their suspicions are fully justified, as Trump has done, they resonate and place great faith in that leader. Trump has exploited that faith, assuring his followers often in the months preceding the November 2020 election that he could only lose the Presidency if the election were “rigged.” In the aftermath of actually losing the vote, he has persistently pushed the phony narrative that the election was stolen from him, despite his actually winning by a landslide. During the two months following the election, courts found absolutely no remotely convincing evidence or sensible legal arguments to back up claims of a “steal” in more than 60 cases filed in various states, and in the Supreme Court, by Trump lawyers.
Nonetheless, Trump cultists, prominently including the QAnon adherents, bought hook, line and sinker into Trump’s delusions and adopted them as rallying cries. Trump convinced them that all the court losses and reports of an absence of evidence were part of a vast conspiracy against him and his supporters. Their sense of victimhood was confirmed, making them dig their heels in even further. When he summoned his followers to D.C. for a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, to disrupt and overturn the Congressional counting of electoral votes – and thereby to engage in the textbook definition of sedition— many QAnon believers had visions that this event would be the long-predicted QAnon “Storm:” they would converge in an army to help Trump defeat the Satanic cabal once and for all, and be viewed as heroes that “saved America.”
When their insurrection failed to terminate, or even postpone, the declaration of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th President, many of them continued to believe that Trump would soon declare martial law, arrest or execute all of his nemeses, and initiate the Storm before Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20. Now that Biden has been inaugurated, while Trump has slinked off to his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago property (perhaps now better labeled as Maga-LaLa), many of the QAnon true believers are understandably dazed and confused. We will come back in Section IV to consider what may become of them with a greatly reduced presence of their cult leader.
The Spread of QAnon:
There are no official membership lists for the QAnon cult. But recent Pew survey results shown in Fig. III.1 reveal that knowledge of QAnon grew quite rapidly in the U.S. throughout 2020. The growth is attributable in part to increased media coverage of the conspiracy theory. But the fact that many people spent a significant part of the year sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic most likely led as well to a rapid increase in the number of person-hours spent on the internet and social media, where QAnon had a growing presence. Indeed, the conspiracy theory grew to incorporate myths that the coronavirus itself is a hoax perpetrated by the same group of secret elites intent on global control. And QAnon interest thus spread as well overseas, especially in Europe and Latin America, after the pandemic hit hard in those areas (see Fig. III.2). Adherents in the United Kingdom were especially attracted by claims that the new 5G mobile phone masts cause cancer. In Germany, the appeal was to right-wing groups invested in neo-Nazi partisanship.
The most worrisome aspect of Fig. III.1 is that, within the U.S., 41% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents, and 20% of all respondents, who know something about QAnon consider the conspiracy theories “good for the country”! This result is confirmed by a Dec. 30 NPR/Ipsos poll, in which 17% of all adult respondents indicated they believe the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
While QAnon has thus become a major influence on the Republican Party base, it is important to put these numbers in the proper perspective. The voter-eligible population of the U.S. is about 240 million. Of these, only about 25%, or 60 million, are registered Republicans. The Pew survey indicates that, as of September 2020, about 40% of Republicans, or 24 million, knew something about QAnon. And 41%, or about 10 million, of these consider QAnon a healthy influence. That is still a disturbingly large number, but it should be recognized as only a few percent of Americans.
Still, the combination of gerrymandered Congressional districts and the American primary election system have allowed these few percent to have an outsized influence on today’s Republican Party, threatening the continuing health of America’s two-party system. At least two of the incoming class of newly elected Republican members of Congress in 2020 – Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia – have publicly expressed their support for QAnon. Indeed, one of many inflammatory Facebook posts and YouTube videos posted by Greene offers a case study into the mindset of conspiracy theory true believers and the ease with which they connect random dots to build a baseless, distorted illusion of reality. In this particular post, Greene weaves a long, meandering thread from disparate observations to suggest that the devastating 2018 Camp fire in California was intentionally started by a conspiracy among Rothschild, Inc. bankers, California Governor Jerry Brown, Pacific Gas & Electric, and a host of other players. She suggests that these alleged co-conspirators used space solar generators to shoot laser-like beams of light into the forest to start the fire, apparently to make space for a high-speed rail system. Bonkers!
A clear majority of Republican Representatives, loathe to earn the wrath of the Trump cultists, voted on Jan. 6 – even after the Capitol insurrection – against accepting the Presidential electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania, because they either believed or cynically pretended to believe the Trumpian lie that the election was stolen from him. In the lead-up to Jan. 6, the Arizona Republican Party tweeted on two occasions that “supporters should be willing ‘to die for something’ or ‘give my life for this fight.’” Donald Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn posted a video that showed his family and friends containing the QAnon catchphrase “Where we go one, we go all.”
Dale Hartley, a retired Professor of Business and Psychology, has offered a useful analysis of the rapid spread of the QAnon memes in a blog post on the Psychology Today site:
“I think the disease model is helpful in understanding how such outlandish and unverifiable beliefs gained such a wide following. It’s likely that QAnon’s first adopters were those most gullible and susceptible. In my opinion, this easily persuaded group constituted the first wave in the viral spread of QAnon. These early converts then became carriers, spreading the meme to others—either people who are likewise gullible (but perhaps to a lesser degree), or to those who are more discerning but whose doubts and resistance was gradually overcome via exposure to one or more true believers. This latter group—not highly gullible but eventually converted via repeated contact with QAnon super-spreaders—may represent the phenomenon of shared psychosis… When a delusional person’s bizarre beliefs spread to otherwise mentally healthy individuals via repeated contact with the abnormal person, the result is a shared psychotic disorder. The delusion contaminates others as if it were a contagion.”
Do QAnon Believers Share a Psychotic Disorder?
How should we think about the psychological state of QAnon adherents? And what might those thoughts suggest about the future of the cult, in light of the following recent developments? (1) The “Storm” has not materialized. (2) Donald Trump has vacated the Presidency, disgraced by a second impeachment. (3) The loss of the bully pulpit and the banning of his various social media accounts has greatly limited Trump’s avenues for communicating broadly with his followers. (4) Several QAnon believers died during the Jan. 6 rally and insurrection, and others have lost their jobs and/or been arrested for their participation in the mob assault on the Capitol – prominently including the self-anointed “QAnon Shaman” pictured in Fig. III.3 – without receiving requested pardons during Trump’s last days as President. (5) Posts from Q have grown rare over the past several months.
There is no clear consensus among psychologists and psychiatrists whether members of a cult that may carry out violent acts encouraged by their leader share a psychotic disorder or, rather, extreme overvalued beliefs (EOBs) that are aberrant and resistant to change in the face of contradictory evidence, but fall short of obsessive or paranoid delusions. The distinction is meant to be helpful to courts in distinguishing the relevance of insanity pleas for violent cult crimes. But that end may be distinct from the goal of understanding how best to prevent violent crimes carried out in the name of either EOBs or shared delusions. The EOB characterization seems appropriate for the members of the paramilitary groups profiled in Part I of this post. But the psychological state of QAnon adherents is less clear and probably spans a spectrum of conditions. Some along that spectrum are likely to be more easily weaned from the cult than others.
The absence of professional psychiatric consensus is reflected in changes of relevant listings between the 4th (DSM IV-TR) and 5th (DSM-5) editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The 4th edition listed the following criteria to define a “shared psychotic disorder:”
“A. A delusion develops in an individual in the context of a close relationship with another person(s), who has an already established delusion.
B. The delusion is similar in content to that of the person who already has the established delusion.
C. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another psychotic disorder (e.g., schizophrenia) or a mood disorder with psychotic features and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition.”
However, DSM-5 deleted any specific listing for “shared psychotic disorder.” But the newer edition does include, within a category labeled as “other specified dissociative disorder” the following classification with cult implications:
“Identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion: Individuals who have been subjected to intense coercive persuasion (e.g., brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while captive, torture, long-term political imprisonment, recruitment by sects/cults or by terror organizations) may present with prolonged changes in, or conscious questions of, their identity.”
There are numerous diagnosed cases of shared psychosis. The most common and widely acknowledged form of shared psychotic disorder is “folie à deux” (madness for two), a shared set of delusions between two people who generally live together. One example, characteristic of a subclass known as folie imposée, is provided by the Moors Murders by the British couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. In this case, Brady had the dominant delusions, which he imposed on Hindley. According to the account in Wikipedia, “Hindley came, through her relationship with Brady, to believe his racist philosophy that included a fascination with Hitler and fascism,” and together they sexually assaulted and murdered five children between 1963 and 1965, in and around Manchester, England.A second subclass of folie simultanée, wherein two people morbidly predisposed to delusional psychosis mutually trigger symptoms in each other, is exemplified by a 1954 murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 16-year old Pauline Parker and her very close 15-year old friend Juliet Hulme murdered Parker’s mother. A psychiatrist who advised on the case judged that “each acted on the other as a resonator increasing the pitch of their narcissism.”
Three sisters accused of serious crimes in South Carolina were found not guilty by reason of insanity, based on a folie à trois shared psychosis plea. The sisters, each in their early 20s, lived and intensely prayed together. Each was charged with burglary, assault and battery with intent to kill, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and resisting arrest, when they attempted to enter and take over a house that one of the sisters believed God wanted her to have, and further when they assaulted sheriff’s deputies after their incarceration. The sister who had the visions and convinced her siblings of it was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, while the delusions of the other two sisters resolved, after separation, without antipsychotic medication. It is often true in cases of folie imposée that delusions in the person(s) with induced beliefs resolve without the need for medication once they are separated from the inducer.
Possible cases of delusions shared by many, or folie à beaucoup, have generally been connected with episodes of mass hysteria, “a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population and society as a result of rumors and fear.” That definition would certainly seem to apply to the QAnon phenomenon. The most famous historical cases of mass hysteria in the U.S., both involving far fewer people than QAnon, are the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 and the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. In the former case, fits experienced by four adolescent girls in Salem led to a series of witch trials, resulting in the execution of 20 citizens and the death of five others. In the latter case, Orson Welles’ radio play convinced thousands of Americans to panic in the streets as a result of what they believed was an actual Martian attack. These were both relatively short-lived delusions, though the former led to deadly consequences.
Sometimes, the hysteria is associated with shared symptoms of disease or ailments and is then referred to as “mass psychogenic illness.” An example is the so-called Great June Bug Epidemic of 1962, in which 62 employees of a dressmaking department in a U.S. textile factory came down, one by one, with sometimes severe symptoms including numbness, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Most of the sufferers attributed the disease to bites by a mysterious bug present in the factory. But no evidence was ever found for a bug that could cause those flu-like symptoms, nor was there evidence of an actual viral or bacterial infection. 50 of the cases occurred during two days following the first media reports highlighting the effects. The U.S. Communicable Disease Center concluded it was a case of hysterical contagion, probably caused by anxiety.
The distinction between shared psychotic disorder and “extreme cultural beliefs” is a controversial one when it comes to cult membership. For example, the WebMD entry on shared psychotic disorder suggests that folie à beaucoup can characterize a cult “if the leader is psychotic and their followers take on their delusions.” But forensic psychiatrists Rahman, Resnick and Harry at the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law invoke extreme overvalued beliefs, as opposed to psychosis, to account for the actions of both lone wolf killers and violent true believers “committed to an ideology or belief system that advances homicide and suicide as a legitimate means to further a particular goal.” That latter group includes, among many others, the 909 inhabitants (including 304 children) of Jonestown, Guyana who followed Jim Jones’ lead to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in 1978 (see Fig. III.4). The attorney for the QAnon Shaman of Fig. III.3 has compared “the president’s supporters who stormed the Capitol to the Jonestown cult members who committed mass suicide at their settlement in Guyana in 1978: ‘You know the only thing different here? There’s no Kool-Aid.’” Another difference is that most of the Trump cultists have not yet followed their leader into death. Some may serve prison time, but they still have an opportunity to escape the cult.
Rahman, et al. lump conspiracy believers together with terrorists and mass shooters motivated by EOBs: “Justifying their behavior through narratives from online and other propaganda sources, terrorists, mass shooters, and conspiracy believers possess a sense of moral superiority to justify their violent acts. Anders Breivik [right-wing terrorist perpetrator of two mass murders in Norway in 2011], the 9/11 attackers, the Unabomber (Ted Kacynski), the Oklahoma City bombers, and ISIS militants all possessed belief systems in which their respective view of moral superiority justified agentic action. Extremist propaganda invokes narratives that utilize moral superiority in arguments calling for violence against innocents.”
Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University, one of the nation’s leading forensic psychiatrists, argues that the possibility of individual choice in joining a cult or executing its leader’s commands “is as close as anyone is likely to get to summing up the difference between a psychiatric disorder and an insane-seeming religious belief.” One could argue that the adults at Jonestown had insane-seeming religious beliefs, but it is hard to make a case that the 304 children among the dead had individual freedom to join or leave the cult. The emphasis on religious belief, by the way, relies on the fact that religious doctrine, even if truly bizarre, is generally not falsifiable, so the believers can’t be confronted with factual evidence denying their belief.
In the case of Trump’s election fraud claims, contrary factual evidence can be, and has been, widely presented, but his cultists simply reject that evidence, with the aid of Trump-supporting right-wing “news” outlets. So, their belief becomes “quasi-religious,” as is often the case for conspiracy theists. Indeed, Trump himself professes a quasi-religious belief in his own delusions, in the sense that he invokes the “shift the burden of proof” logical fallacy upon which conspiracy theists usually rely. Witness the “claim” in the defense brief filed by Trump’s lawyers for his 2nd impeachment trial, suggesting that Trump is fully justified in arguing that the election results were suspect: “Insufficient evidence exists upon which a reasonable jurist could conclude that the 45th President’s statements were accurate or not, and he therefore denies they were false.” In other words, “anything I claim is true, with or without evidence, remains true if you can’t prove it false to my satisfaction,” invoking an entitlement of unfalsifiability. The QAnon adherents for whom belief is quasi-religious are likely to be harder to extract from the cult than those for whom it is a temporarily imposed delusion, a folie imposée.
Cult expert Steven Hassan, who did himself successfully escape from the Moonies, remains optimistic “that QAnon will disintegrate in the United States over time if effective measures are taken if and when Trump is defeated… once people see that Trump hasn’t been re-elected and that there never was a secret pedophile cabal that Trump would be willing or able to break up, they will come to realize that their leader is, in actuality, totally untrustworthy and just using them.” But Hassan stresses that in working to reduce transmission of the QAnon mind virus, “It is important to understand that QAnon believers think they are heroes and believe they are aligned with a righteous cause.” We will explore in Section IV what may constitute effective measures to help some of these believers escape this destructive cult and regain their pre-cult identities.
IV. the post-trump future
With Trump as cult leader, disparate groups have coalesced into a cult of personality with common cause. It includes different militia with distinct goals, often led by megalomaniacs who are not eager to collaborate if it’s not in the service of a common uber-leader. And it includes QAnon conspiracy theists, many of whom are a different breed altogether. With Trump receding from the scene, it is not clear that the coalition will hold. We are already beginning to see signs of splintering in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
A January 15 NBC News report indicated rising tensions between militias and QAnon supporters: “Users on forums that openly helped coordinate the Jan. 6 riot and called for insurrection, including 4chan and TheDonald, have become increasingly agitated with QAnon supporters, who are largely still in denial that President Donald Trump will no longer be in the Oval Office after Jan. 20. QAnon adherents…falsely think he will force a 10-day, countrywide blackout that ends in the mass execution of his political enemies and a second Trump term…According to researchers who study the real-life effects of the QAnon movement, the false belief in a secret plan for Jan. 20 is irking militant pro-Trump and anti-government groups, who believe the magical thinking is counterproductive to future insurrections.” In fact, armed protests in D.C. and all state Capitols, originally planned for Jan. 17-20 largely fizzled out, with scant attendance generally dwarfed by National Guard presence.
According to a Politico report monitoring traffic on white supremacist channels of the encrypted messaging service Telegram, QAnon supporters, in turn, “lashed out at militia groups, claiming they were part of the deep-state plot to undermine Trump and that the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill were part of an elaborate coup attempt, either by parts of the federal government, Black Lives Matter campaigners or, bizarrely, China.” Another source of tension has been the false claim, originated by various Trump loyalists but then picked up by many QAnon posters, that most of the rioters on Jan. 6 were really members of the Antifa movement, masquerading as Trump supporters as part of a “false flag” operation. Not only was this claim rapidly and thoroughly debunked by the FBI, but it was also decried by right-wing militia members who craved the credit, self-aggrandizement and recruiting advantages for having staged the insurrection.
There are also indications now of dissension between and within the various right-wing militias that participated in the planning and execution of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Some of these groups are dominated by explicit neo-fascist, anti-semitic white supremacists. The Proud Boys – the male-only group Donald Trump advised to “stand back and stand by” when he was asked to denounce white supremacist groups during the first 2020 Presidential debate – believe that Western culture and men, in particular, are under siege, and are committed to using violence to restore their proper position of superiority. The Boogaloo Bois are explicitly devoted to fighting a second American Civil War (the so-called “boogaloo”), to restore white supremacy. On the other hand, the Oath Keepers – one of whose leaders, Thomas Edward Caldwell, has now been charged with conspiracy to plan and coordinate the Jan. 6 Capitol assault – are focused on gun rights, land use rights, and liberals whom they see as leading the nation on a slippery slope toward tyranny. In a prescient article for the November 2020 issue of the Atlantic magazine, foreshadowing the attempt to overthrow election results, Mike Giglio profiled the Oath Keepers’ main leader, Stewart Rhodes of Montana. “’We’re not fucking white nationalists,’ Rhodes said, pointing out that the Oath Keepers have disavowed the Proud Boys and that their vice president is Black.”
The Oath Keepers are of special concern because they focus on recruiting police, military members, first responders and veterans (including women) to their organization, and on bringing military-style tactics to their plans. 30-40 of them showed up in D.C. on Jan. 6 and were filmed entering the Capitol in an organized fashion and in full paramilitary gear (see Fig. IV.1), in the midst of the otherwise chaotic mob riot. They were instructed by their leadership to execute citizen’s arrests of members of Congress for acts of treason, associated with the falsely alleged steal of the Presidential election. But even within this well-organized paramilitary organization, there are signs of discontent. Caldwell indicated displeasure with leader Rhodes in communications with his co-conspirators before Jan. 6: “I don’t know if Stewie has even gotten out his call to arms but its a little friggin late. This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina crew.” The FBI charging document pointed out that the 66-year old Caldwell tooted his own horn, like a proud teenager, on the evening of Jan. 6, when he sent a photo of the riot to a friend on Facebook Messenger, adding “Us storming the castle…I am such an instigator! We need to do this at the local level. Lets storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!”
In the wake of Jan. 6, many in right-wing militias have felt betrayed by and disillusioned with Donald Trump himself. He had promised to join his followers in the march to the Capitol on the 6th, but chose instead to watch the developing siege on TV from the safety of the White House. In the aftermath, Trump was convinced by others to put out a video belatedly condemning the siege he had instigated: “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy. To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country.” Messages seen on Telegram in response accused Trump of throwing his supporters “under the bus.” One post, for example, urged neo-Nazis to “not forget this great betrayal. Destroy the Republican Party.” Another amplified the point: “President Trump takes the coward’s way out and disavows his supporters who stormed Capitol Hill after he whipped them into a frenzy… We need a real leader on the right, someone who will be the Cesar [sic] we need.”
Trump’s many pardons granted just before he left the White House caused even more consternation among his cult members. One Telegram message summed up the “betrayal:” “So just to recap: Trump will pardon Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, high profile Jewish fraudsters … No pardons for middle class whites who risked their livelihoods by going to ‘war’ for Trump.” Extremist posters admonished naïve QAnon adherents, for example: “Let this be a wake-up call for QAnon followers and normies. No one is coming to save you. No one man can defeat this evil marxist machine.” Another poster on TheDonald.win message board told QAnon believers: “It’s all been a con from the start. Promises made and not kept. You sat on your butt waiting for someone else to do what everyone should have taken care of themselves.”
The civil war fantasized by some of these militias has now broken out, but within the Republican Party. A number of Republicans in Congress have experienced revulsion in the light of Trump’s behavior leading up to the Capitol siege and have urged the Party to break away from Trump’s domination. Among these are ten Republican Representatives, including leadership member Liz Cheney, who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment. Some Republican Senators have indicated an openness to convict Trump of incitement of insurrection. Even Conservative firebrand and former Trump supporter Ann Coulter has tweeted “Dear GOP Senators: Please vote to convict.” A number of corporations have stated that they will no longer donate to campaign funds for Republican members of Congress who voted on Jan. 6 to decertify Electoral College results.
But many others, continuing their sycophantic allegiance to Trump, still insist the election was stolen, are attempting to purge Liz Cheney from House Republican leadership, are censuring Republicans who have failed to follow Trump religiously, and are promising to run right-wing candidates in primaries against the Quisling Republicans. And two ambitious Republican Senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, are jockeying to be the next Presidential candidate who believes they can appease, marshal and control the unruly forces within the paramilitary fringe of their Party. Meanwhile, many other Senate Republicans are trying to do everything they can to short-circuit the Senate impeachment trial, so they don’t have to cast an up-or-down vote on Trump’s conviction that puts them in the middle of this internecine warfare. And that avoidance also implies that the Republican Party as a whole is failing to confront, or to help overcome, the widespread belief in absurdities within their political base, and even within their Congressional caucus.
Many Republican lawmakers seem resigned to remain hostages to the lies they helped spread, to the anger they helped stoke, to the monster they helped create. They are joined in hostagehood by right-wing media outlets that supported all those efforts. Fox News relearned the lesson that their viewers only want information that confirms their biases, when they lost significant viewer share following their early (and ultimately correct) call on Nov. 3 that Trump was the election loser in the state of Arizona. Many Fox viewers switched to the further right-wing outlets Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN). In the aftermath, Fox News has taken a hard right turn. They cut back on news programming and increased prime time hours for commentary, adding an hour for the rabidly pro-Trump Maria Bartiromo. They fired the head of their highly regarded election analysis team, who had been part of the effort to call the election in Arizona and other states. Meanwhile, Newsmax and OANN have doubled down on pro-Trump coverage.
But the need to satisfy their viewers’ confirmation bias often collides with reality. Fox News, along with three of its commentary hosts, has now been sued for defamation, to the tune of $2.7 billion (!), by election technology company Smartmatic. With the aid of Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell, the Fox hosts repeatedly accused Smartmatic security software of subverting votes in states where the software was not even in use – an easy fact-check the Fox hosts failed to even consider. $2.7 billion is a large enough sum to get the attention of Rupert Murdoch, and the day after the suit was filed, Fox summarily canceled the show of Lou Dobbs, one of the three hosts named and Trump’s personal favorite. Threatened defamation suits against Newsmax and Fox News by both Smartmatic and voting machine company Dominion have led both outlets to air segments explaining that fraud claims they had previously aired had no evidence to support them — see the Newsmax “retraction” video below.
The QAnon believers have mostly expressed confusion and despair in the aftermath of Biden’s inauguration. This is reflected in the tone of the post-inauguration messages among the 128,000 subscribers to the QAnon-linked Telegram channel. One said “We were promised arrests, exposures, military regime, classified documents. where is it????????“. Another: “I’m scared, feeling sick in my stomach, but I am holding the line still.” And another: “Well babies are still being raped and eaten, any f**kin minute now GOD.” Some chose out of desperation to extend the fictional timeline to their envisioned “Great Awakening,” claiming, for example, that Biden was merely a puppet with Trump still pulling the strings: “Anything that happens in the next 4 years is actually President Trumps doing.”
Still other QAnon adherents have admitted it was time to return to reality from lies and a hoax. The lawyer for Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman seen in Fig. III.3, says that his client “regrets very, very much having…been duped by the president… having not just been duped by the President, but by being in a position where he allowed that duping to put him in a position to make decisions he should not have made.” One Telegram poster put it this way: “Biden is our president. It’s time to get off our devices and get back to reality. If something happens then something happens, but for now I’m logging out of all social media. It’s been fun guys but it’s unfortunately over.” And the unkindest cut of all for many QAnon believers came from Ron Watkins, whose father controls the imageboard website 8chan used by many of them, and who many believe is himself, or at least knows, the real “Q.” Watkins announced on Telegram that he was quitting the movement: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best as we are able. We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution.”
The confusion and despair imply that the allegiance of many QAnon theists is “up for grabs.” Many among the extremist militias are currently trying to recruit them to join movements committed to more violence. But it must also be seen as the opportune moment for interventions to try to extricate as many of the adherents as possible from what has been a controlling cult based on complete fictions and absurdities. In this effort, it pays to rely on the experience of people who have successfully returned members of other cults to their former identities. One of these, Steven Hassan, writes:
“…while QAnon promoters are currently being removed from the internet platforms they use to spread their propaganda and interact with adherents, as they should be, this approach will only temporarily disrupt and slow down new recruits, rather than help anyone exit. In fact, these moves can validate followers’ beliefs that they are being persecuted, while a large percentage of cult members will simply be directed to alternative platforms… Instead, cult leaders and former top insiders are the ones most typically responsible for ending a cult. I know from my work helping people get out of cults — and from what it took to remove myself from the Moonies — that this is effective.
“If we want to end QAnon, we also need to out the recruiters and movies and other technology, like an addictive alternate-reality gaming structure, that most people consume to get sucked in. Those who escaped this way of thinking need to help followers revisit this content and see it’s not valid. Because the recruiters’ goal is to recruit, rather than promote any specific beliefs, the group’s ideology is bent to have wider appeal. So many ardent QAnon supporters lower down the totem pole who actually do have deeply held beliefs will be surprised as they start to learn the identities, criminal records and past political affiliations of those who have conned them into the cult… And there are millions of former cult members from a wide variety of similar cults who can offer antibodies to those affected by the [mind] virus. They do this by sharing their stories and educating people about what brainwashing and mind control is.”
Hassan has started a movement called #IGotOut to recruit cult survivors and celebrities to join the deprogramming effort, to “normalize and destigmatize having been deceived and manipulated by a cult or narcissistic psychopath.” Such efforts have some promise to help extract some adherents from the QAnon rabbit hole. But other QAnon enthusiasts and the paramilitary right-wing groups will not go away so easily, because for their members the belief that the U.S. government is moving steadily toward tyranny, or that the natural superiority of white Christians is being undermined, is quasi-religious. The paramilitary groups, in particular, are committed to violent overthrow, not to democracy. These groups had not blindly followed Trump, but rather entered into a symbiotic relationship of convenience. Trump needed them to provide “muscle” to support his delusions. And they supported Trump because, as Mike Giglio wrote in his Atlantic profile of Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, “In Trump, the Patriot movement believed it had an ally in the White House for the first time… When Trump warned of the potential for civil war at the start of the [first] impeachment inquiry last fall, Rhodes voiced his assent on Twitter. ‘This is the truth,’ he wrote. ‘This is where we are.’”
Now, these extreme right-wing militias are willing to give up on Trump. They may go underground for a while, in recognition of mass arrests of their members and an increased military presence at the U.S. and state Capitols, following the Jan. 6 siege. They may see turnover in their membership and leadership, growing even more militant as time goes on. But they will likely need a new “Trump” or “Caesar,” as one of them put it, to motivate the sort of collaboration among competing organizations they would need to launch their aspirational “race war.” In the meantime, they may sponsor and carry out individual acts of domestic terrorism, not unlike the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the aborted 2020 kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer that was (poorly) planned by Michigan militia members.
On Jan. 27, the Department of Homeland Security under the Biden administration has issued a public warning of a heightened threat from groups promoting violent domestic extremism. In order to deal with these groups effectively, the U.S. government will need intensive FBI surveillance, infiltration and the passage of new, strict domestic terrorism laws. Militia members or sympathizers will have to be weeded out of the active military and police forces. State governments will have to enforce their laws prohibiting private paramilitary activity. Governments can no longer afford to tolerate cheering, or even benign neglect, from leaders like Trump for such precursor events as the invasion of armed militia members in the Michigan State Capitol last April. Violent domestic extremism is on the rise within America and many western democracies, and the threat must be taken seriously.
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