Trump, Violence, and QAnon

President Donald Trump in Tampa, Florida, July 31, 2018.

President Donald Trump is leading the United States down a dangerous authoritarian path. Dangerous for the nation, and dangerous for members of the press who he attacks mercilessly and ceaselessly. I wrote about this earlier in the week, but the president and his followers hit a new low Tuesday night in a rally in Tampa, Florida, when CNN’s Jim Acosta — who Trump frequently attacks as representative of “fake news” — was abused and heckled by Trump supporters. Videos — seen here and here as posted by Acosta— show the crowd chanting “CNN sucks” and with middle fingers hoisted as Acosta tries to report the news. 

Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted the “CNN sucks” video with the hashtag #Truth @Acosta, which the president retweeted. This is downright scary: The president and his son are encouraging Trump supporters to demonstrate their rage at reporters and to actively abuse working journalists. With the president promising to stump for his favorite Republican candidates this fall — “I am going to work very hard,” he said, “I’ll go six or seven days a week” — opportunities for something dreadful to happen will be numerous. Acosta is worried “the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt.”

Part of the crowd at the Tampa, Florida, rally July 31, 2018, holding “We are Q” signs.

Even more frightening than the Acosta-posted videos was the presence at the Tampa rally of followers of a cult called QAnon. (Members wore T-shirts with the symbol “Q,” and signs appeared emblazoned with the slogan, “We are Q.”) The latest in a string of conspiratorial ideas to afflict the public mind in times of dizzying change and social stress, QAnon is a popular movement that has been operating in the dark recesses of the Internet. Tampa represented the coming-out party for the leaderless movement whose followers are prepared to believe almost anything, no matter how far-fetched and outlandish. The Washington Post’s headline accurately depicted QAnon as “a deranged conspiracy cult.”

The aftermath of the Pizzagate shooting,

To believers, Q is a pseudonymous highly placed U.S. government official who doles out bits of information — called “bread crumbs” — in online posts. Q’s messages appear on such anonymous websites as 4chan, a place where outré ideas flourish. Q’s followers have a fixation on pedophilia, an outgrowth of the #Pizzagate nonsense that flourished shortly before the 2016 election. That viral Internet phenomenon did not end well when a gunman shot up a D.C. pizza restaurant in a search for children he wrongly believed Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair John Podesta were trafficking from the restaurant’s basement. 

George Soros

Pedophilia is only one kind of conspiracy favored by followers of Q, assuming there is really a Q. No one knows. But, one way or another, conspiracy theories are flooding Internet message boards, and self-styled members of QAnon trade in such delusions as the belief that Trump only feigned collusion with Russia so as to hire special counsel Robert Mueller who is really a “white hat” out to expose such Democrats and progressives as President Barack Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and George Soros, who are planning a coup when not, of course, trafficking children. 

In the world of QAnon, anti-Trump politicians such as Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Clinton aide Huma Abedin wear ankle monitors tracking their every movement. The Rothschilds loom large in QAnon fantasies, a favorite anti-Semitic trope for those believing Jewish bankers control the world (that is, when they are not communists bent on world revolution). Many in QAnon believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is wise to satanic influences trying to undermine world stability. (I know, above I said followers believe there was no collusion between Trump and Russia. Do not expect consistency here. We are in the realm of delusions.)

Barack Obama’s birth certificate from Honolulu, Hawaii.

QAnon trades in many more absurdities, but one point should be clear: The convergence of this cult and Donald Trump is no accident. Trump believes in outlandish conspiracies. His political career dates from the racist assertion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Trump charged, without providing any evidence (because there was none) that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Trump peddled the notion that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular election in 2016. And, he associated the father of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

The Paranoid Style in American Politics — the title of a seminal book written by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964 — is not a new phenomenon. In the 18th century, fear of the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati — a group formed to propagate the teachings of the Enlightenment — merged with reaction to Free Masonry, giving rise to the anti-Masonic movement characterized by vigorous opposition to the French Revolution and Jeffersonian democracy. Conspiracy believers in the early 19th century thought the Illuminati and Masons opposed republican government. Later in that century, the Catholic Church became the focus of conspiracy theories, leading to the growth of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, which flourished briefly in the 1850s. In the 1890s, pro-silver advocates viewed their opponents as conspiratorial members of a cabal trying to keep gold as the money standard and thus impoverish the vast majority of Americans. And, of course, the Red Scares of the last century provided grist for conspiracy buffs.  

The difference between earlier manifestations of paranoia and QAnon is the arrival of the Internet. Conspiracy theories incubate on the web, and the most absurd notions go viral at warp speed. The craziest conspiracy theories find a home in the minds of those looking for simplistic answers to complex problems. It matters little to consumers of Q’s missives whether they are true. “Reading and diving into Q had me occupied for many hours,” says a QAnon follower. “Definitively better than watching mindless TV programs. Even if it was all a lie, the entertainment value is real :)” Another devotee, who compiles Q’s messages, writes: “It is clear that whoever Q may be, his statements, questions and/or insinuations paint a compelling picture [of] a world out to be set free from the grip of a global cabal that includes CIA, FBI, banker families and royal dynasties.”

Trump gives license to the nuttiness of QAnon. Believers in QAnon now have shown up at a Trump rally, and the president’s predilection to incite the wrath of crowds has merged with a cult whose followers have a tenuous grip on reality at best. That is a recipe for violence, and Acosta is justified in his concern. This will not end well.

Posted August 3, 2018 

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