The Real Problem Isn’t Conspiracy Theories

Josh Marshall has a members only post at Talking Points Memo that warns us not to think of QAnon as a conspiracy theory.

Q is not a “conspiracy theory”. The faked moon landing was a conspiracy theory. Perhaps birtherism was a conspiracy theory, though one with similarities to QAnon because of its strong ideological valence. But Q is not a conspiracy theory. It’s a fascistic political movement which predicts and advocates mass violence against liberals (and everyone else outside its definition of true Americans) in an imminent apocalyptic political reckoning. What we call the ‘conspiracy theories’ are simply the storylines and claims that justify that outcome. They could easily be replaced by others which serve the same purpose.

I think one way to understand this is that the fantastical stories that make up much of the Q phenomenon are not the source of the problem. The problem is that a whole lot of people are alienated and confused and fearful and enraged and, yes, bigoted, and the Q stories are a post-hoc explanation that justifies their feelings. As Josh Marshall says, another set of completely different stories would serve the purpose.

It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a form of aggression. Things like the Q phenomenon are just this aggression writ large. I say you’re a pedophile because it is itself an act of aggression but also because it dehumanizes you. It’s a storyline that makes hurting you or killing you make more sense and be more exciting.

In the several years now that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written many posts about how the U.S. right wing tends to “think” in symbols, archetypes, and allegories rather than rationally and conceptually. The most recent such post is from November 2020. In this, I quote a friend who points out that if you ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump, they don’t talk about policy or programs, at least not real ones. They talk either about how he makes them feel or who he is going to “own” or “get tough” with (e.g., nonwhites, libs, uppity women, elites, China).* Maybe they’ll claim he built the wall, even though he didn’t, but the only reason they want a wall is to lock out brown people. “While Democrats are calling, texting, trying to persuade—Trumpists just drive around waving his name and snarling,” my friend wrote. “Democrats are talking healthcare and Covid-19–Trumpists are driving around shouting ‘Hunter Biden!’ out their car windows.”

(*I have to note that I observed the same thing to be true of Ronald Reagan supporters in 1980. If you asked them why they were voting for Reagan, the answer was either some variation of how he made them feel, or else “He’s going to kick the bums off welfare!”)

And, of course, the Hunter Biden who lives in their heads is an archetype that represents something; they probably know next to nothing about the actual Hunter Biden. See also Why There Are Trump Trains, also from November 2020.

The social-psychological foundations of all this mess have been with us for a long time. And the Republican Party has been feeding this beast for a long time, because it helps them win elections without having to do anything useful for anybody who isn’t a wealthy capitalist. However, a wise person told me once that anything you feed will grow. Donald Trump didn’t create the beast, but he — on some instinctual level — recognized it and took it over from the party just as it had gotten too big for its cage. And now it’s his.

See also What’s Left Of The ‘Mainstream’ Republican Party Is Looking Around And Getting Nervous by Kate Riga at TPM. Republicans still in office are used to thinking of themselves as the “party of ideas,” even though I doubt they’ve had any new ideas since McKinley. See Lawrence Glickman, Boston Review, December 2020, How Did the GOP Become the Party of Ideas? Glickman writes that the GOP’s celebrated “ideas” from 1970s onward were just warmed-over anti-New Deal talking points. And now that those have run their course as serious governing principles, Republicans have nothing left. But there are a few in the GOP who aspire to be serious policy makers, and they’re looking at Marjorie Taylor Greene and thinking, What the hell happened?

Even if the spell breaks, and his supporters grasp that Trump is not a superhero but just a bumbling con man, I suspect most of them will easily fall behind some other cult leader rather than be restored to sense. The origins of the problem are older than Trump, and bigger than Trump.

Now, let’s move on to How Trump Unleashed a Domestic Terrorism Movement—And What Experts Say Must Be Done to Defeat It by Mark Follman at Mother Jones.

The mob assault on Congress that left five people dead, scores injured, the Capitol building desecrated, and American democracy deeply shaken was the culmination of a campaign of terrorism. It was led by the president of the United States.

The description of Trump as a terrorist leader is neither metaphor nor hyperbole—it is the assessment of veteran national security experts. Trump, those experts say, adopted a method known as stochastic terrorism, a process of incitement where the instigator provokes extremist violence under the guise of plausible deniability. Although the exact location, timing, and source of the violence may not be predictable, its occurrence is all but inevitable. When pressed about the incitement, the instigator typically responds with equivocal denials and muted denunciations of violence, or claims to have been “joking,” as Trump and those speaking on his behalf routinely made.

Do read the article linked in the quote above on stochastic terrorism, a term I just learned. And as Follman writes, addressing this problem, shrinking the beast, is going to take a lot more than law enforcement functions. It’s going to take a whole-government, whole-society approach. And as it’s been festering for a long time, it’s going to take a long time to tone it down.

I also want to call your attention to Movie at the Ellipse: A Study in Fascist Propaganda by Jason Stanley at Just Security. This is an analysis of a slickly produced video shown at the January 5 rally on the Ellipse, before the mob stormed the Capitol. The article begins:

On January 6, Trump supporters gathered at a rally at Washington DC’s Ellipse Park, regaled by various figures from Trump world, including Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani. Directly following Giuliani’s speech, the organizers played a video. To a scholar of fascist propaganda, well-versed in the history of the National Socialist’s pioneering use of videos in political propaganda, it was clear, watching it, what dangers it portended. In it, we see themes and tactics that history warns pose a violent threat to liberal democracy. Given the aims of fascist propaganda – to incite and mobilize – the events that followed were predictable.

Before decoding what the video presents, it is important to take a step back and discuss the structure of fascist ideology and how it can mobilize its most strident supporters to take violent actions.

I’ll let the article speak for itself. It’s very good, and very disturbing.

There’s still a lot about what happened January 6 that needs to be investigated and exposed. I trust the Biden Department of Justice will not drop that ball. But yes, the real problem is that we’ve got a large fascistic political movement on our hands.

A woman holds a QAnon flag as protesters gather outside Governor Kate Brown’s residence in Salem, Ore., on April 25, 2020, calling for novel coronavirus restrictions to be lifted so that people can get back to work. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

13 thoughts on “The Real Problem Isn’t Conspiracy Theories

  1. The RepubliKKKLANS (or, GQP {sic}, from now on) ARE, and have for a while been, the party of ideas!

    It's just that those ideas not only do absolutely no good for anyone who's not already obscenely wealthy and/or immensely powerful, but they're barely legal because they try their best to discriminate against someone; anyone; everyone – except said rich and powerful.

    And "Q" will now become the term to use when you want to describe tRUMP-infused Fascism.

    Mussolini had his "Black Shirts."

    And Hitler had his "Brown Shirts."

    tRUMP could make a fortune by calling for his followers to wear Quiana, and become "Quiana Shirts!"

    "Q-shirts" for short!

    The way shit's going, I might not give a shit if I go early!

    😉 KIDDIN'!!!!!


  2. I don't remember when/where I read the term "stochastic terrorist" but it's been around for a few years. Rush Limbaugh is a stochastic terrorist. Enjoy this shiny new and useful concept.

    Trump perfected plausible deniability over the years. Michael Cohen talked about it – how Trump talked in code, and how his subordinates learned to pick up on what Trump wanted them to do.

    IMO Marjorie Taylor Greene is mini-Trump, auditioning for the role, and who managed to get herself into the halls of power. She clearly enjoys being a Trump protege, clearly enjoys being outrageous and the center of attention. She has Sarah Palin's sexual charisma with ten times the outrage, and maybe a few more brain cells.

    Whether you agree with this or not, Bill Maher, an atheist, drew a parallel with QAnon’s fantastic stories / apocalyptic view with the stories in the Book of Revelation. I don’t know to what degree QAnon followers overlap with Evangelical Christians, but there are a lot of a parallels.

    I’ve often thought QAnon is a brilliant device cooked up by the Russians, a toxic virus specifically designed for the less-than-bright, disgruntled people in the US.

    • I appreciate that reference to Cohen…So true. Another thing Cohen said was essentially that, If you follow Trump, you're going to be where I am. Either in prison or on their way.

      I think of that warning every time another dupe gets arrested or destroyed by following after Trump. When I think of the insurrectionist knowing that their lives are about to be flipped while Trump goes on his merry way stuffing their donation money into his coffers I kinda feel sorry for them. I'm hearing now that the DOJ is currently charging them with petty ante charges solely to put a prosecutorial hook in them, and sedition charges will be forthcoming once the DOJ has rounded up all that they feel is necessary for them to move forward with prosecutions. Those Trump patriots might sneer at a minor trespass charge now, but I think a sedition charge will give them cause for introspection.

  3. There's a mindset that emerged about the time of Clint Eastwood's movie, Dirty Harry. Charles Bronson's Death Wish built on the theme. Cowboy movies long had the white hat -good guy, black hat – bad guy theme. But Eastwood and Bronson introduce the idea that f you are the good guy, you can do anything. Torture, murder is OK as long as you are slaying the evil-doer. 

    Now look at Q mythology. All the liberals are part of a child abuse ring. Pedophiles of the worst sort. Member of Q are universally white hats. Anything goes. This is the pervasive mentality – we are good. They are evil. Anything goes, A sweet lady I worked with at the post office for a decade is completely comfortable posting lies on FB. Standard rules of honesty and fair play do not apply if you are puttin' a hit on a liberal. 

    It was great comedy in the Blues Brothers, "We're on a mission from God." All mayhem was committed (and nobody got hurt despite a gazillion police car crashes) but nobody took that seriously. But the Trumpsters think they have a duty to stamp out communism and godlessness. The fury and self-righteousness is real. I'm drawing from personal experience, not any article.

    The arrests from the Jan 6 riot are a good start – I wish federal courts televised their trials. These people are goobstruck that they have been arrested and are being held responsible for crimes when they are the good guys!  

    Maha schooled me a few months ago when I said that culturally, the German people moved way past fascism and joined the family of nations. She pointed out that the Germans were beaten in WWII. We fire-bombed the shit out of German cities and slaughtered civilians. The pictures of the concentration camps and the  heaps of bodies shattered the arrogance. Then they were ready to learn.

    The psychology is the same. How we do it is the question. 

  4. It's strange how the human ear can pick up on just a few notes in a melody and signal to the brain that I've heard that sequence of notes before, even if all the other notes surrounding that sequence don't align to form an exact recollection. It's with that understanding in mind that yesterdays statement by Marjorie Taylor Greene saying that Trump is the Republican party, he controls it and owns it, and now the Republican party is the party of Trump. They are one in the same.

    Upon hearing what she said I automatically picked up on the sense that I've heard that tune before in a different context. My recollection brought me back to a speech delivered in a political rally by Joseph Goebbels, Reich minister for propaganda for Nazi Germany in which he said, Hitler is the party, and the party is Hitler. Another variation of that twisted melody was uttered by Rudolph Hess in the Triumph of Wills wherein he said :  "The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany as Germany is Hitler!" 

    All which leads me to believe that somebody has a problem on their hands.. Whose problem? I can't exactly say who is going to get the lions share.

  5. Well that just bowls me over.  What I am reading is that there is more than a conspiracy theory more like a super conspiracy theory running amuck.  Well why not?  Today is the day that companies line up to spend five million dollars a spot to conspire to bilk you out of your hard earned dollars.  With the aid of celebrities and masters of persuasion they will gobble for your attention and make promise of a near nirvana life if you favor their product or services.  Many will be influenced and some will suffer from buyer's remorse.  Few will find anything close to nirvana, but some will find a good deal and a beneficial product or service.  Many people are aware of the conspiracy and the underlying capitalistic tenets.   Enough companies are rich enough and have belief enough that the spots are sold out.  They spend this money on a theory, a theory that you will be influenced and in the long run they will recoup their investment and more.  They do this without guarantee of  economic success but for at least a show of success or product status or dominance.  It is super conspiracy Sunday for a well supported theory of capitalism with an established group of super conspirators.  Their will be winners and losers.

    Now we have Q conspiring to rule the Republican Party at least and in the long run who knows.  Q seems the political arm, with two House representative positions acquired in the last election.  One of these is on the radar screen on a regular basis.  The other not so much.  Groups such as the Proud Boys,  the Oath Keepers, and KKKlan like associates may have ties to members, but not in the overt way Q has managed in well gerrymandered  safe districts of the Republican party. 1/6/21 showed evidence of collaboration and collusion of these groups with major actors present which included the infamous, recently pardoned Roger Stone.  Systemic power of this fascist wing is being shown with overt sanctions of those who like Liz Cheney who voted in favor of impeachment.  The hypocrisy of it all is overwhelming, with cries of freedom and patriotism paired with actions of repression and sedition.  Yes Q is evidently more than a conspiricy theory, at least a super conspiracy theory with supporting evidence that should bowl a person over.  

    You can use some words far apart in a sentence but not close together.  Otherwise you cross a bridge too far.  The fascist right seems to have crossed a bridge to far with the big lie.  Huge lawsuits by companies with major damages associated with the big lie of election fraud might be better able to solve this rising problem in a big way.  I don't think it is going to take an expensive ad for them to convert support and status for their cause.  I read that the Mr, Pillow guy got a big disclaimer in front of his "documentary" about how the election was fixed for Biden by one of the new ultra right media outlets.  Well that is just super.  When faced with the prospect of a big mandatory donation to the giant tip bowl, the wise take precautions.   This is as things should be.


  6. That distinction is on the money: A conspiracy theory is a loony alternative explanation for something that even the people who adhere to it accept actually happened. Qanon is just an excuse to kill people. And they're going to.

  7. … if you ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump, they don’t talk about policy or programs, at least not real ones.

    And if you had asked an Obama-hater 5 (or 6 or 10) years ago why they hated Obama, you would have seen something similar. It was all "tan suits" and "bowing to foreigners," and the criticism of policy was "Obamaphones." Which really were "Reaganphones" but good luck trying to explain that. You'd get slammed for "condescending to" your interlocutor by pointing out easily-discovered facts. I lost one of my few friends this way.

  8. –>The GOP decided long ago that policies and politics do not have to match at all.

    They have freed themselves to govern one way, and to do political campaigns in another completely different way. Democrats look at this, scratch their heads, and wonder how they manage to get elected.

    The secret is that the GOP campaigns on emotions. Mostly anger, probably because anger is such a strong motivator. I'm rather sure that decisions like that are purposeful, for the people who set up all the straw men. People like Rove, Atwater, Aisles, etc. (While Trump is not at all purposeful, it just so happened that he's a supremely angry man and that makes him a viable Republican)

    Emotions trump reason. And since most Americans are not too well informed, when it's election time and one candidate is proposing complex plans for things that need doing, and the other is promising Strength and Patriotism, it's easier to go with the latter, you just know it in your gut, and you don't need to do any analysis or learn about things for which you don't have time, expertise or interest in.

    Republicans are confident that their voters will rarely connect the tax cuts for the rich with why the highway bridges are collapsing. But when they need to, that can be blamed on the godless socialistic Democrats and the evil labor unions… Good vs. Evil.

    It's always good & evil. This presentation resonates especially with Evangelicals, who so obviously love the GOP and Donald Trump. Democrats are puzzled about evangelical support for Trump and it breaks the same way. It's emotion vs. logic, and at least for the GOP, they go with their gut every time, while Democrats are left scratching their heads.



  9. if you ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump, they don’t talk about policy or programs, at least not real ones. They talk either about how he makes them feel or who he is going to “own” or “get tough” with

    I had a student who was all fired up about Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. Maga gear and all.. I asked him "How is Trump going to make America great again?" Answer: "By restoring its greatness!"

    Completely circular.

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