They Merely Want To Protect Themselves and What’s Theirs

This is by an NBC News reporter, Ben Collins, who jokes that he works the “dystopia beat”:

What people say on Facebook and in comments sections is what they actually mean. The comments section may be our id, but social media networks exclusively target our id with a nonstop barrage of fear and hatred. . . .

I did this story over the summer about two women who became minor celebrities because of viral QAnon tirades. . . . Before the pandemic, they weren’t particularly political. By the summer, they were throwing masks on the ground at Target or calling their county commissioners pedophiles who needed to be executed.

. . . During the pandemic, some people lost their jobs. Others lost their ritualized social lives, real-life brunches or bowling leagues or church. . . So with the time they used to spend at work or church or with their family, they filled it with Instagram and Facebook. Extremist movements from QAnon to anti-vaxxers had been waiting for this precise moment for years and they pounced.

Algorithms catered to our worst fears, and “otherized” anyone who didn’t look and think exactly like you to the point of literal demonization. By demonization, I mean your newsfeed was telling you that Democrats are literal, child-eating Satanists.

In turn, social media created a world you could control: Bad guys were creating the pandemic, shutting down the economy, and you had secret knowledge that could stop it. It fed you autonomy and identity . . .

It was extremely alluring to so many people, and people in power winked at it for months. [Many of us] know someone who overtly believes this stuff. Many other entertained it, or believe pieces or variations of it. They brought it to the ballot box with them.

The QAnon Karen who destroyed [a display of masks at] Target realizes she was a victim of social media brainwashing, and she’s trying to stop it. But . . . she had a multi-million person intervention on Twitter. As our parents or friends or siblings get radicalized in less public ways, there’s no one there to step in.

I’m inundated with people asking for help, saying their family members need resources for someone in their life who has recently become divorced from reality and militant because of extraordinarily comforting lies on social media.

They want to know why people aren’t taking this more seriously and why we can’t quantify these things. Well, we can’t quantify these things because social media networks don’t want people to know how bad this problem is . . .

There are so many people out there earnestly struggling right now . . . They are being fed lies for power and profit. Its no wonder they believe them. . . . We need to take their emotions as seriously as the people manipulating them have been for the last ten years.

Unquote.

Of course, there are millions of people struggling who aren’t tempted by bizarre right-wing conspiracy theories, or conspiracy theories at all. What might distinguish the people who are?

John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, published a book this year called The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Txxxx’s Base. This is from the publisher’s site:

The Authoritarian Personality, . . . published by Theordor Adorno and a set of colleagues in the 1950s, was the first broad-based empirical attempt to explain why certain individuals are attracted to the authoritarian, even fascist, leaders that dominated the political scene in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, the concept has been applied to leaders ranging from Txxxx to Viktor Orban to Rodrigo Duterte. But is it really accurate to label Txxxx supporters as authoritarians?

In The Securitarian Personality, John R. Hibbing argues that an intense desire for authority is not central to those constituting Txxxx’s base. Drawing from participant observation, focus groups, and especially an original, nationwide survey of the American public that included over 1,000 ardent Txxxx supporters, Hibbing demonstrates that what Txxxx’s base really craves is actually a specific form of security.

His supporters do not strive for security in the face of all threats, such as climate change, Covid-19, and economic inequality, but rather only from those threats they perceive to be emanating from human outsiders, defined broadly to include welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries. The central objective of these “securitarians” is to strive for protection for themselves, their families, and their dominant cultural group from these embodied outsider threats.

Unquote.

The publisher could have said they strive for protection from outsider threats, real or imaginary. The point is that they feel threatened by those they view as outsiders, those who have been “otherized” (using the NBC reporter’s term). And once you view your fellow citizens as outsiders, it’s easy to mistrust everything they say and do. The standard Democratic rhetoric about us all being in this together and providing opportunity for everybody sounds like an attack to them.

Thus, we hear from an older couple who live in Mason, Texas, 50 miles east of Austin. They’re deeply concerned about immigrants and protesters, as if their isolated town with a population of 2,000 is on the frontlines of the culture wars:

Ms. Smith, 67, and her husband, Dennis, 69, tied their unequivocal support for the president — even in defeat — to larger cultural concerns.

Like Mr. Biden and his supporters, the Smiths saw this election as a battle for the country’s soul. To unify with Mr. Biden would be an admission that the battle is lost, and that the multicultural tide powering his victory will continue its ascension.

“Everything I worked for, Biden wants to give to the immigrants to help them live, when they don’t do nothing but sit on their butts,” Mr. Smith said.

“And if those protesters come here, if they go tearing up stuff, I guarantee you they won’t be in this town very long,” he added. “We’ll string them up and send them out of here . . . 

As If the Future Wasn’t Scary Enough

The science fiction I used to read often depicted the future as very weird, culturally speaking. It was the kind of place where nutty celebrities would rise to high office and strange cults would be born. It was like the Sixties and Seventies but more so.

If you don’t find climate change or the next pandemic scary enough (or a visitation like what killed the dinosaurs), read this long article by Adrienne Lafrance in The Atlantic. It’s about QAnon, the conspiracy theory that now looks like a new religion. A few paragraphs:

If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. . . . You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Dxxxx Txxxx stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight.

You know all this because you believe in Q.

The origins of QAnon are recent, but even so, separating myth from reality can be hard. One place to begin is with Edgar Maddison Welch, a deeply religious father of two, who until Sunday, December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. That morning, Welch grabbed his cellphone, a box of shotgun shells, and three loaded guns . . . and hopped into his Toyota Prius. He drove 360 miles to . . . Northwest Washington, D.C.; parked his car; put the revolver in a holster at his hip; held the AR-15 rifle across his chest; and walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.

. . . As parents, children, and employees rushed outside, many still chewing, Welch began to move through the restaurant, at one point attempting to use a butter knife to pry open a locked door, before giving up and firing several rounds from his rifle into the lock. Behind the door was a small computer-storage closet. This was not what he was expecting.

Welch had traveled to Washington because of a conspiracy theory known, now famously, as Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. . . .

While Welch may have expressed regret, he gave no indication that he had stopped believing the underlying Pizzagate message: that a cabal of powerful elites was abusing children and getting away with it. Judging from a surge of activity on the internet, many others had found ways to move beyond the Comet Ping Pong episode and remain focused on what they saw as the larger truth. If you paid attention to the right voices on the right websites, you could see in real time how the core premises of Pizzagate were being recycled, revised, and reinterpreted. The millions of people paying attention to sites like 4chan and Reddit could continue to learn about that secretive and untouchable cabal; about its malign actions and intentions; about its ties to the left wing and specifically to Democrats and especially to Clinton; about its bloodlust and its moral degeneracy. You could also—and this would prove essential—read about a small but swelling band of underground American patriots fighting back.

All of this, taken together, defined a worldview that would soon have a name: QAnon, derived from a mysterious figure, “Q,” posting anonymously on 4chan. QAnon does not possess a physical location, but it has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising. It also displays other key qualities that Pizzagate lacked. In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it. . . . 

QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them. But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.

Unquote.

Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel in upstate New York. There are now more than 17 million Mormons. William Miller claimed Jesus would return in the 1840s. There are more than 20 million Seventh Day Adventists. America has done it before and can do it again.

One more paragraph from The Atlantic:

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

The president has spoken highly of QAnon and provides publicity on Twitter. All he claims to know is that they are patriots who “like him” a lot (that’s all that matters). It’s easy to imagine QAnon playing a bigger and bigger role in the Republican Party after a difficult election, with less crazy office-holders being replaced by crazier ones.

From Charlie Warzel in The New York Times:

For almost three years, I’ve wondered when the QAnon tipping point would arrive — the time when a critical mass of Americans would come to regard the sprawling pro-Txxxx conspiracy theory not merely as a sideshow, but as a legitimate threat to safety and even democracy.

There have been plenty of potential wake-up calls. Among them: a 2018 standoff at the Hoover Dam with a QAnon believer, the 2019 murder of a Gambino crime family boss by a QAnon supporter who believed the boss was part of a deep-state cabal, an August 2019 F.B.I. report that warned that QAnon could spur domestic terrorism, a West Point report calling the movement “a security threat in the making,” and the April arrest of a QAnon follower who was found with a dozen knives while driving to “take out” Joe Biden . . . 

Then, on Tuesday, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who has been vocal in her support of QAnon, won a primary runoff. (In recently uncovered blog posts, Ms. Greene said that Hillary Clinton had a “kill list” of political enemies and questioned whether the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting was orchestrated in a bid to overturn the Second Amendment.) Given the deeply Republican makeup of Ms. Greene’s district, she is widely expected to be elected to Congress in November.

This week’s news is a sign of QAnon’s increasing influence in American cultural and political life. What started as a niche web of disproved predictions by an anonymous individual has metastasized into a movement that is now too big to be ignored.