4 Reasons We Can't Laugh Away Stupid Conspiracy Theories In 2021
If you're a believer in QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is fighting a shadow war against a global cabal of elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles comprised of everyone from Barack Obama to Tom Hanks, then 2021 is shaping up to be a big year for you. Not only will you have to spend a lot of time screaming at exhausted Subway employees about how the election was stolen, but you'll have a chance to attend the For God & Country Victory Cruise! Departing on April 17, it will take a boatload of QAnon believers from New York City to Bermuda, where revelers will presumably harvest the powers of the Bermuda Triangle itself to battle the necromantic corpse of Hugo Chavez or whatever.
You can check out QAnon's failed predictions if you need a nervous laugh, but it's hard to read the sentence "Our President and country have been through so much, so what better way to celebrate this new chapter than at sea with your patriot family?" without wondering if they've jumped a shark secretly employed by the Trilateral Commission. It's quite the feat of cognitive dissonance to believe that you're enlightened enough to be witnessing a battle for the soul of humanity and respond to this ongoing revelation by drinking daiquiris and playing shuffleboard aboard the S.S. Elections Aren't Real.
On one level, it's all very silly. The promise that you'll "have the opportunity to hear from some of your favorite patriots and digital soldiers" sounds like a coffee klatsch with the V.R. Troopers. And let's look at the credentials of these defenders of America -- illustrious speakers include a salon owner who had a kerfuffle with Nancy Pelosi, a man whose entire personality revolves around having been banned from Twitter, and a grifter who sells $1,000 courses on how to overcome your anxiety with "badassery" yet is apparently still oppressed by the deep state.
You'll also be able to hear the musical stylings of J.T. Wilde, whose songs like "WWG1WGA" and "You Are Lightening" (you may think that's a typo, but spelling at a fifth-grade level is just what George Soros wants you sheeple to do) are available wherever you go to torture your ears. It's all so silly, in fact, that it's easy to forget a QAnon believer murdered a guy way back in the faraway year of 2019.
Our First Instinct Is To Treat These Groups As Outliers
And not just any guy -- we're talking about an alleged mob boss.
On Staten Island in March 2019, suspected acting boss of the Gambino crime family Frank Cali was shot dead by 24-year-old Anthony Comello, who believed Cali was part of the nefarious deep state that worked tirelessly against Trump by making him ignore basic responsibilities and play golf all day. If you're wondering why we're bringing it back up now, that's because A) the story was drowned out amid the 500 other scandals unfolding at the time, B) all pre-COVID news fell down a memory hole, and C) it's bonkers.
Comello tried to perform a citizen's arrest of Cali outside of Cali's home, having previously failed to get close enough to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and two members of Congress. When Cali understandably objected, Comello switched to a good old-fashioned police arrest and shot Cali dead. He was later found unfit to stand trial, which may have had something to do with his sincere belief that Trump would endorse his actions, or maybe all the QAnon phrases he scrawled over himself before his first court appearance. He also used Instagram to lionize Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, the textbook demonstration of insanity.
Cali's death, the highest profile mob murder in decades, initially sparked concerns of a gang war. Hell, the Mafia launched their own investigation, and who can blame them? But no, Cali was killed by second-hand internet poisoning. The whole affair was like if Tony Soprano had been abruptly gunned down by some weirdo who got banned from Friendster because he thought Paulie Walnuts helped Dick Cheney plan 9/11.
And back in 2019, the media was still coming to terms with QAnon, so the overall reaction was one of "come on people, what is this shit." The New York Times called the details "so outlandish that they appeared specially designed for these viral times" and said Comello would present "a novel defense." NBC said the deep state conspiracy had "picked up steam in recent years," and Rolling Stone interviewed a legal expert who called it an "utterly bizarre political motivation."
The motivation doesn't look too bizarre today, given that Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene was recently elected to Congress by embracing QAnon.
QAnon Is Gaining Policymaking Power
Greene has called George Soros, who survived the Holocaust, a Nazi collaborator. She wrote for a conspiracy theory website, accused Hillary Clinton of ordering assassinations, called Muslim representatives "an Islamic invasion of Congress," denied that the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, called the murder of a counter-protester at a white power rally a false flag attack meant to "further the agenda of the elites," said that QAnon was "worth listening to," and referred to Trump's Presidency as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out."
There's much more, but if you really want to bum yourself out have a look at what her opponent went through.
While it must be a bit awkward to work alongside someone who's accused you and your colleagues of raping and murdering children in pizzeria basements, Greene's election also shows how mundane the conspiracy about all-consuming global evil has become. We've gone from treating believers as eccentrics, akin to yesteryear's moon landing deniers, to actually seeing them gain wield federal power that has real consequences.
Even If Conspiracy Theorists Believe In Made-Up Bullshit, They Can Cause Actual Harm
If Congress is supposed to be a microcosm of America, surely you have to have both your crazy people who think healthcare is a universal right, and your crazy people who think vaccines are part of a tyrannical Democratic conspiracy to control us all with Bill Gates' magical microchips. That's just equal representation, right?
But the FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, probably because of all the domestic terrorism its acolytes have committed. Believers have blockaded a bridge with guns and an armored truck, plotted bombings, committed or attempted kidnappings (to save children from their legal guardians, who are Satanic pedophiles, you see), derailed a train near a hospital ship laden with COVID patients because they thought it had "an alternate purpose related to covid-19 or a government takeover," rammed a truck through the gates of Justin Trudeau's home, and threatened and harassed countless people, from public figures to random nobodies who just happened to end up in their crosshairs. In May 2019 they ruined a school fundraiser after deluding themselves into believing that James Comey used a tweet to secretly brag about an upcoming terror attack on the school, because we all know that good terrorists leave coded hints like they're goddamn Carmen Sandiego.
One man even livestreamed his pleas to Trump during a 20-mile police chase while his five children in the car begged him to stop, but I think the Oscar goes to the exotic dancer who rambled about seeing a video that showed Hilary Clinton murdering a child, then declared she was going to "take out" Joe Biden. The knife-laden woman was caught on a pier in New York City trying to board another hospital ship because QAnon thought it was a pedophile HQ. As she was arrested, she broke into tears and asked the cops, "Have you guys heard about the kids?" Every one of these stories is a Coen brothers film.
Far from everyone stepping onto that cruise ship of the damned we mentioned earlier is a potential murderer, unless we're talking about the death of good taste. But as long as QAnon hangs around it will have two sides. There will be the side that terrorizes cruise ship employees with demands for more patriotic buffets and bemoans their election loss over the dulcet tunes of a walking mid-life crisis's butt rock, and then there will be the side that fucking shoots people.
Like any belief system, few QAnon believers believe all of it. Polling people inclined to believe QAnon's most ludicrous claim -- that Trump cares about anyone but himself -- is tricky, but some believers haven't even heard of every claim. Pick any facet -- mass underground Satanism, an imminent arrest of Trump's many enemies, whatever -- and there's roughly a coin flip's odds that a Q fan believes it. It's just that there's so much crap now that someone can eventually believe enough to make shooting a man sound like a swell idea.
QAnon's mythos is so sprawling that perhaps its biggest unifying trait is a sense that something about life is wrong, and rather than engage in even a modicum of reflection on themselves or their culture, believers choose to scream, threaten, and occasionally shoot their way out of it. Greene walked back her most outlandish claims the moment she became a viable candidate, because obviously she doesn't really believe the things she spent years saying she believed. Now she's "only" saying that anyone opposed to Trump supports a Chinese takeover of America.
QAnon, of course, has lots to say about China. It's all fungible, just so long as there's always, always an ominous, mysterious other to blame all of your real or imagined ills on -- a shadowy, malicious them. And let's be honest, this kind of rhetoric is nothing new. Seriously, did high schools stop making students read Animal Farm or something?
Conspiracy Theories Like QAnon Are Cosplay To Distract From Real-World Problems
Conspiracy theories thrive amid institutional failure, because if you can't have the life you were promised you can claw back a modicum of control by reframing yourself as a hero struggling against a greater evil. And which of these narratives is more likely to imbue the average citizen with a sense of purpose and agency?
A) a sinister cabal of pencil mustache/white cargo van enthusiasts is secretly destroying America and only the rich brash guy who has been on TV for 40 years knows how to stop them; or ...
B) the United States is currently in the midst of a disorganized/indifferent/actively unhelpful executive response to a once-in-a-century pandemic that is killing 3,000+ Americans a day and leaving millions unemployed and in poverty and so many Americans didn't need to die from this and ... well, you get the idea.
And look, the idea of a deep state isn't revolutionary -- parts of QAnon crib from an anti-Semitic conspiracy that dates back to Czarist Russia -- it's just grown bigger and crazier during bigger and crazier years. But the thing about predicting that Donald Trump would arrest thousands of corrupt pedophiles is that he eventually had to, you know, do that. When it never happens, you can either quietly slink away, or you can make Judgment Day come to you. Some of the crimes above were committed by people frustrated that Trump's Great Reckoning hadn't been unleashed. It's terrorism fueled by conspiracy theorist blue balls.
So yeah, that's how you can have a cruise ship speaker described as "perhaps most notable for diving into the Satanic Pedophile Network that has been the true Hidden Enemy" on the same website that's extolling the benefits of a Caribbean day excursion. Sure, it's self-evident that participants are among the most oppressed people in human history, but that's no excuse not to have a little fun in the sun, right? But when you have people who will say anything to further their victim roleplay, understand that some people who listen to them have far less to lose. Remember that the next time someone calls QAnon wacky.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
Top image: Julian Leshay/Shutterstock