In the wake of the pandemic, QAnon has morphed into a cult, an ersatz religion, a great narrative that gives meaning to an increasingly disconcerting reality.
Those of us who, in the late 1980s and 1990s, frequently traveled in the United States might recall being approached by young men, dressed for business in suits and ties, at major airports. They distributed tracts and asked for contributions. No, they were not Mormons but followers of Lyndon LaRouche, one of the most eccentric figures on the American radical right. A perennial candidate for the American presidency, LaRouche was the head of a political cult that subscribed to the notion that current events were orchestrated and manipulated by dark forces, most notably by the queen of England (charged with presiding over the international drug trade) and the “Zionist British aristocratic oligarchy.” Among other things, he was a great proponent of fusion power, a legacy that continues to inspire his admirers.
Lyndon LaRouche might be dismissed as a nutjob. He was, and at the same time he was far from it. LaRouche was not only the only presidential candidate to campaign for the presidency “with a platform that included his own version of quantum theory.” He was also the only candidate to evoke Plato. In the words of a leading expert on conspiracy theories, LaRouche was convinced that “history is a war between the Platonists (the good guys) and the evil Aristotelians. Anyone who has taken Philosophy 101 can follow the drift: Platonists believe in standards, an absolute truth that can be divined by philosopher kings like Mr. LaRouche. To the Aristotelians everything is relative.”
While Platonists seek to use technology and classical music to the benefit of humanity, Aristotelians are out to thwart them. “With their bag of brainwashing techniques” — such as sex, rock music and environmentalism — “they hope to trick civilization into destroying itself, bringing on a ‘’new dark ages’’ in which the world’s riches will be firmly in the hands of the oligarchy.”
Brilliant or Unhinged?
A few years ago, such ruminations might have been dismissed as the delusional musings of a brilliant yet unhinged mind, gone off the deep end. Today, it appears that LaRouche was way ahead of his time. LaRouche, who passed away in 2019 at the ripe age of 96, presumably would have a field day were he still alive today, delighting in the fact that in the first years of the Trump presidency, the “Platonists” have finally come into their own, having made significant gains in the struggle for gaining the upper hand in the quest for cultural hegemony.
The terms originated with the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci as a heuristic construct to explain why Italian workers acted against their objective interests. For Gramsci, cultural hegemony is strongest when subordinate classes “come to believe that the economic and social conditions of their society are natural and inevitable, rather than created by people with a vested interest in particular social, economic, and political orders.”
The struggle over cultural hegemony is a war of position, a slow process of creating and diffusing alternative narratives capable of subverting the hegemonic ones. Success in the struggle over cultural memory means being able to define concepts and fill them with meaning, seductive enough to appeal to a significant portion of the population. This is what has happened in the United States over the past several decades, reflected in what has come to be known as the culture war. In 2016, Donald Trump promoted himself as an “aggressive culture warrior” ready to take on the establishment.
Central to this strategy was coming to the defense of the white Christian (both Protestant and Catholic) communities, who increasingly saw themselves as strangers in their own land, their values and beliefs ridiculed and disparaged, their voice marginalized and ignored, more often than not drowned out by minorities, such as gays, lesbians and transgender people, whom they consider immoral.
Central to any religion is the notion that there is an absolute truth, which can only be grasped by faith. You either believe that human beings were created some 10,000 years ago — as a third of the American population seem to believe — or you don’t. You either believe that today’s natural catastrophes are part of a grand divine scheme, heralding the beginning of “the end times” ushering in the return of Christ, or you don’t. You either believe that you are among the few lucky ones who will be spared, via rapture, from having to live through the times of great tribulations, or you don’t. Surveys suggest that a growing number of Americans don’t. As a result, true believers feel even more beleaguered, victimized by a society increasingly not only slowly but inexorably “de-Christianizing” but more and more hostile to their beliefs and way of life.
In 2016, Barna, a leading Christian pollster, revealed that a large majority of Americans viewed Christianity as “extremist.” For instance, more than 80% of respondents considered it extreme if a service provider refused to serve a customer (as has happened to gay customers ordering a wedding cake for their wedding) because “the customer’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs.”
These results are only one indication that America’s Platonists, to stay with the LaRouchian frame, are on the verge of losing some of the major gains they made in the initial phase of the Trump presidency. In fact, in recent months, a number of Trump’s “culture war allies” have defected; his advisers have warned that with COVID-19 and the uproar over police brutality, the world is fundamentally different from 2016. This does not mean, however, that the conflict identified by LaRouche has abated. It has only moved to a different plane — the realm of conspiracy theory, the most famous one these days being QAnon.
Just Ask Q
A recent poll revealed that around 55% of Republicans believe that QAnon is mostly or partly true. Against that, more than 70% of Democrats agreed with the statement that QAnon is not true at all. For those not familiar with QAnon, it is a conspiracy theory that holds that Donald Trump is fighting a globally operating secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, consisting of liberal politicians, “deep-state” government officials and their fellow travelers in finance, the media, higher education and the entertainment industry — i.e., the liberal elite. QAnon might sound absurd and abstruse, yet it has, over the past several months, found a rapidly growing number of adherents and supporters, not only in the United States, but also on the other side of the Atlantic, from Italy to Switzerland, from France to the far corners of central Europe.
In recent demonstrations against the measures put forward by Angela Merkel’s government in Germany designed to slow down the spread of COVID-19, most notably the obligation to wear a mask, a number of demonstrators identified themselves as QAnon adherents, wearing T-shirts displaying the slogan “Save the Children.”
Save the children is the relatively more benign side of QAnon — as far as conspiracy theories go. It explains, for instance, why in the United States women have been particularly attracted to it. As Annie Kelly recently wrote in The New York Times, it is motherly love that draws women to the “theory,” with “concerned mothers taking a stand for child sex abuse victims.” Saving children, however, only one facet of Q, and arguably of lesser importance. The reality is that QAnon serves to a large extent as an empty signifier, a term devoid of meaning in and of itself, and as such in a position to accommodate each and every conspiracy theory, folding them “into its own master narrative.”
A prominent example are anti-vaccination activists, the anti-vaxxers, one of the groups participating in the anti-mask demonstrations that have been held in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Their argument is not only that vaccinations pose dangers, but that vaccinations are part of an insidious, evil plot hatched at the headquarters of the global satanic elite. Its supreme villain is Bill Gates, the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of Q’s imagination.
A German video posted on YouTube and produced by a relatively unknown former radio show host quickly went viral. The author’s claim: COVID-19 is part of a conspiracy conceived by Bill and Melinda Gates, aimed at drastically reducing humanity via mass vaccinations laced with sterilization molecules. So far, the video has been seen by more than 3 million viewers, and its author has been the subject of discussion in Germany’s leading media.
In Italy, a former deputy of the Five Star Movement managed to expound the “theory” in parliament. In justification of her opposition to proposed anti-COVID-19 emergency measures, she charged Bill Gates with having, for ages, devised plans to reduce the world population and establish a “dictatorial hold on global politics” designed to gain “control over agriculture, technology and energy.” For years now, the deputy charged, Bill Gates had argued that vaccinations and reproductive health would reduce the world population by 10% to 15% and, more importantly, “only genocide could save the world.”
QAnon started out as an obscure internet-based conspiracy theory. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it has morphed into a cult, an ersatz religion, a great narrative that gives sense and meaning to an increasingly disconcerting, if not frightening reality. In LaRouchian terms, it is the ultimate Platonists’ dream. QAnon is true because common sense says it is true. It is true because a substantial number of ordinary people believe it is true. It is true because some celebrities of newly acquired internet fame, who got their degree from the “University of Google,” say so. It is true because it can be found on social media.
In a world where truth claims are subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny, QAnon would easily be debunked as utter nonsense. In today’s chaotic world, however, any attempt to unmask Q not only appears to strengthen the resolve of the theory’s adherents but also attracts new converts. In the process, it has turned into a movement “united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values,” as Adrienne LaFrance has put it in The Atlantic.
The example of the Moldovan Orthodox Church provides an illustration of the far reach of the movement. In May, the church released a statement charging that the “global anti-Christian system wants to introduce microchips into people’s bodies with whose help they can control them, through 5G technology.” Vaccination, developed and promoted by Bill Gates the church stated, “introduces nanoparticles into the body that react to the waves transmitted by 5G technology and allow the system to control humans remotely.”
Given widespread public skepticism toward scientific knowledge, if not outright rejection of it, it seems QAnon is the perfect narrative for all those who live in an alternative reality where Donald Trump is the white knight In shining armor indefatigably laboring to thwart the diabolical plots of satanic avatars and their deep-state allies — Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Tom Hanks and Jane Fonda. The list is long, and anybody can add to it.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that QAnon has had a particular resonance among white evangelicals, who generally “exhibit the strongest correlation, among any faith group, between religiosity and either climate science denial or a general anti-science bias.” At the same time, white evangelicals are the voting bloc most committed to Donald Trump, a constituency he cannot afford to lose. This might explain why Trump has refused to reject QAnon out of hand, instead expressing his appreciation of the fact that its adherents “like me very much” and “love our country.”
Evangelicals are LaRouche’s ideal Platonists. When belief clashes with scientific knowledge — as it does on evolution — they invariably side with faith as the ultimate source of truth. Unfortunately, these days, in the face of a devastating pandemic, a seemingly never-ending series of environmental catastrophes and mounting global tensions, evangelicals are hardly alone in seeking refuge in an all-encompassing “theory” that provides answers, comfort in the knowledge not to be alone and, most frighteningly, a rationale for violent action. These are chilling prospects, given the upcoming US presidential election. Whatever happens, tensions are bound to rise, with potentially devastating consequences.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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