How the QAnon Cult Stormed the Capitol

Perhaps the strangest thing about the media coverage of the Capitol Hill rally was how little of it focused on the visible presence of QAnon. What’s behind the Q cult, and how can we confront it?

A pro-Trump mob confronts the US Capitol Police outside the Senate chamber of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Perhaps the strangest thing about the media coverage of the Capitol Hill rally was how little of it focused on the visible and disproportionate representation of QAnon, an online community of conspiracy theorists that started in October 2017 when an anonymous 4chan post foretold the impending arrest of Hillary Clinton.

According to the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, who was reporting on the ground, the rally consisted not only of Trump-supporting, straight-ticket Republicans, but a visibly high number of Q true believers. In fact, Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was shot to death by Capitol Police, was an ardent member of the Q faithful, as was Rosanne Boyland, who was reportedly trampled to death during the conflagration.

Q adherents come from an increasingly eclectic set of backgrounds: you’ll find NEETS, police officers, military veterans, service workers, computer programmers, successful business owners, unsuccessful business owners, stay-at-home moms, and regular working stiffs. QAnon-ers also hail from a number of identity groups, uniting straight cis white men with women and racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and religious minorities. You’ll even find immigrants, visibly represented by the bright South Vietnamese flags seen flying at the rally. The movement boasts Zoomers, boomers, and everyone in between.

Even aesthetically, QAnon offers the dedicated paranoiac manifold subcultures and aesthetics from which to choose. Soldier of Fortune may have published its last issue in 2016, but Q provides a space for the militia-chic crowd to talk guns, ammo, and tactical gear with fellow enthusiasts. If you’re more of a yoga mom influencer, “Pastel Q” offers a decidedly feminine, New Age approach to the Ministry of MAGA, complete with crystals. There are at least a few military officers; Babbitt, ironically, was part of the Air National Guard’s “Capital Guardians,” which is charged with protecting Washington, DC.

Aside from what appears to be a conspicuous absence of middle-class professionals, Q has space for everyone. As Chapo Trap House’s Felix Biederman has remarked, “this is why Q is successful. You can have a guy in there who’s thing is, ‘I’m a black guy against affirmative action,’ or you can have a guy in there who’s fully antisemitic, or you can just have some drunk woman.” It’s a true Rainbow Coalition.

The movement’s idiosyncratic demographics reflect its idiosyncratic ideology. Babbitt, for example, boasted on Twitter about voting for and supporting Barack Obama throughout his presidency, saying he did “great things,” before declaring that in 2016 she just couldn’t vote for Hillary and thus had to support Trump. As Babbitt’s comments suggest, not only have a fair number of QAnon-ers radicalized relatively recently, but many don’t hail from the traditional Trump or conservative base. Some, like Babbitt, were formerly liberals. Some were even Bernie Sanders supporters.

Another exceptional feature that distinguishes the contemporary iteration of QAnon from the traditional right-wing base is a palpable antipathy toward the Republican Party. Their objections and grievances toward the GOP run the gamut. Some Qanon-ers believe all institutional politicians — including almost all Republicans — are in a pedophile cabal. Some Q rail against the party’s capitulations to “cultural Marxism,” which means something different to every single one of them. Some dust off that old antisemitic chestnut about the (((rootless cosmopolitans))) who run the government, media, and banks. Many Q even vehemently oppose Republican collaborations with Big Tech and/or the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, one pervasive and popular Q conspiracy is that Trump will forgive the medical debt of all Americans.

At a QAnon rally in April of 2018, for instance, Sommer interviewed one protester dying of cancer, who believed a cure had been discovered long ago, but that the “cabal” (meaning the satanic, pedophile politicians and moneymen) were hiding it from the people. He told Sommer not to worry about him, though; Trump would release it soon enough. Another woman at the same rally, upset that her young son wasn’t receiving the special education support he needed in school, insisted that Trump would deliver the similarly repressed cure for his Down Syndrome.

And here we see how Q became one of the most successful phenomena of the Trump era, despite the fact that its adherents don’t share economic interests, culture, or even a political program. Rather, many people joined Q because of their alienation and disconnection from a system they view as illegitimate. To provide their ever-more precarious lives with meaning and an explanation for American decline, Q adherents congealed under a series of bizarre Internet conspiracy theories that unite a right-wing, anti-elitist, but nevertheless authoritarian sensibility that is organized around narratives that link pedophilic cabals, racism, antisemitism, fears of “cultural Marxism,” Satanism, and, of course, absolute faith in the singular, salvific, and millenarian figure of President Donald J. Trump.

The sources of the illegitimacy that drive QAnon are vast and well known to readers of Jacobin: the financial collapse of 2008–9, the pointless imperialist wars, the ever-more grotesque inequality between the wealthy and everyone else, bad trade deals and globalization, and a feeling of impotence in a political system that was supposed to be a democracy. All of these anxieties, of course, have been recently compounded and exacerbated by a pandemic, lockdown, and an economic recession that predictably witnessed an explosion in QAnon proselytes.

Therefore, to combat the appeal of QAnon, you have to understand that you’re not dealing with a political movement, but with a cult. As members of an ecstatic and Evangelical movement — many of them, in fact, are literal Evangelicals — QAnon-ers embrace conspiracy theories because unlike the Republican or Democrat narratives, the stories they tell provide meaning in dislocated lives. In essence, QAnon tells people who believe in America that a cabal has stolen their country from them, and that faith in a charismatic leader is the only way to redeem it (and, ultimately, redeem themselves).

In this way, QAnon’ers share a view of America with many liberals. In Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen declares patriotically, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people.” Or to make a comparison that QAnon-ers might find less appealing: like Hillary Clinton, they believe America is already great.

What Is Q Capable Of?

Many in the media, including writers in Jacobin, have identified the Capitol riots as a “coup.” This is wrong, and an accurate diagnosis is neither academic nor pedantic. Were this merely a coup from a very small number of committed reactionaries, then a hyper-militarist response might be a workable solution to QAnon. But throwing the rioters, whose sentiments embody the feelings of manifold Americans, in jail will not solve the fundamental problems of dislocation, alienation, and resentment that impelled them. Just ask Hitler, whose stint in prison failed to stave off the Nazis’ rise.

If we want to actually address the problem posed by QAnon, we have to understand what it actually is and what its members actually want. Otherwise, we risk empowering the security state while ignoring and exacerbating the conditions that enabled the Q conspiracy to take hold.

Trump supporters enter the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

First, a “coup” refers to the overthrow of a government. Not only did QAnon-ers not come close to achieving this goal, this wasn’t even their goal. Instead, many, if not most adherents, insisted that they were the defenders of the democratic system, which they believe elected Trump legitimately. To paint QAnon as antidemocratic is beside the point, as it misunderstands their motivations and sense of mission.

Second, and more important, describing the events of January 6 as a coup winds up portraying a fundamentally religious movement as a fundamentally political one. As became clear once QAnon-ers entered the Capitol, they had no genuine strategy and no genuine program, instead relying on a millenarian faith that Trump would deliver them from the rule of elite pedophiles, heal the sick, comfort the poor, and establish a New Jerusalem.

Put simply, QAnon is not a properly political movement. Instead, the cultist collection of ideas in the Q eschatology are frenetic, adaptive, and have little connection to political strategy or even reality. Q-Kremlinology is therefore not only unnecessary — Q-Anon zealots pretty much post their every move in full view of the public — but practically pointless.

What the riot does reveal, however, is what QAnon-ers are, and are not, capable of.

Very clearly, they can’t overturn an election. Despite an alarming number of veterans and police officers, they have nowhere near the numbers to prevent security services from murdering them (at the very least, the elites who control American violence are not on board with Q).

Q also can’t — and does not aspire — to woo either the Republican Party or the deep state, neither of which want any competition, especially from a delusional mob that believes all non-Trump elites are satanic pedophiles. On the Republican side, Senator Ben Sasse has called QAnon-ers “nuts”; Representative Liz Cheney has referred to the conspiracy as “dangerous lunacy”; and Karl Rove has lambasted Q as a “group of nuts and kooks.”

And while the initial success of a few Q-associated political campaigns should be monitored, it’s unlikely that Q has the ability to act as a “ginger group” that pushes the Republican Party into a similarly paranoid and potentially dangerous fantasia from the inside, as the Tea Party supposedly did. The fact of the matter is that most dedicated Q members have no interest in working with either party, which they correctly identify as decayed, sclerotic, and hopelessly corrupt.

New congressional representative Lauren Boebert’s commitment to Q has been largely overstated, with the connection hinging mostly on a QAnon radio appearance and a lukewarm Q-curiosity expressed in remarks like, “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real.” In fact, Boebert reeled back her tacit support for the group, having already been disciplined by a visit from Republican Party officials, the details of which are presently unknown. New representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is a more serious QAnon-er, though she has been with the group for years, having endorsed the conspiracies when the movement was still largely comprised of small business owners like herself. Put another way, Greene belongs to the traditional conservative base and has genuine class interests that she will work to achieve. Whatever bizarre things she might utter, or even believe, her loyalty to capital is not really in doubt.

Additionally, QAnon is incapable of “uniting the Right,” as so many have tried before. After Charlottesville, the tenuous coalitions that united the far right collapsed, resulting in numerous splits and splinter groups. In many ways, Q became the lint trap of these fractures, collecting the orphans of more genuinely political movements, along with culture warriors and the hopelessly online. At this point even Pizzagate godfather Alex Jones has disabused himself of QAnon, and Ariel Pink isn’t exactly a militiaman.

So, like any broad tent that benefits from ecumenism, QAnon thankfully also suffers from sectarianism.

While all follow the Prophet (in this case, Trump), there are profound disagreements about who is preaching his True Word. Some Q are obsessed with Russiagate, others obsess over Pizzagate, and still others form into subcults centered on charismatic leaders like Austin Steinbart. The only glue that holds this collection of malcontents together is a faith in and adoration for Trump: not ideology, not politics, and not even a shared understanding of reality.

Considering the large number of security service services that have likely infiltrated their ranks, one might assume it would be easy enough to sow suspicions among them and fracture the group. They are, after all, a group predicated on paranoia. However, it would appear that QAnon is less susceptible to COINTELPRO than one might hope. But, at least for the moment, they’re more Burning Man than burn-it-all down.

Furthermore, Q has neither the direction, means, nor ability to coordinate the networks required to overtake the American state, nor do they seem especially interested in governing. What they really want is the True King to remain in power. Were there a coup, the deep state wouldn’t trust such a bag of mixed nuts with any real responsibility.

And perhaps most important for those who hope to deprogram and rehabilitate a Q-pilled loved one, there are limits to their faith. At the level of the group, it appears few QAnon-ers are willing to make martyrs of themselves in dramatic moments of violent self-sacrifice.

What Q is capable of is nonetheless significant. As the Capitol assault reveals, they’re willing to attack, and even kill, police officers. They’re also clearly able to organize mass events with a myriad of disaffected people who are willing to put themselves at risk of arrest and imprisonment.

Given historical precedent, this is nonetheless concerning. The Silver Shirts were a mystical, New Age nationalist cult with which no “respectable” fascist group initially wanted to associate. However, over time, more coordinated far-right groups began to identify the Silver Shirts as potential useful idiots, a viable secret militia that they could encourage to use violence while keeping their own hands clean.

It’s possible that the trained among the Q could be used as a militia on behalf of the conservative right or as tools in a Business Plot–style power grab by capital.

But, judging by the combat-readiness of the Q ranks of January 6, this overestimates their present capabilities.

However, even if most QAnon-ers are not inclined toward radical violence, mass events like the one we witnessed on January 6 provide both camouflage and an excuse for exceptionally violent people to act on their twisted fantasies. Whether a protest or a parade, large, boisterous events provide convenient chaos for a dangerous person to hide in plain sight, though this is true regardless of the agenda of the larger crowd.

Liberals and conservatives alike are well aware of the potential violence and threat to the legitimacy of the general order posed by crowds and mass politics. In fact, since the middle of the twentieth century, it’s been liberals who often take the lead on anti-populist politics. Much of modern liberalism is premised on finding reasons to ensure ordinary people don’t really shape most important government decisions.

As such, instead of transforming the conditions that engendered the angry crowds, which is what the left position must be, liberals lambast the idea of the crowd itself, which was well evidenced in the media coverage of the events of January 6.

This brings us to the most significant, and unintended, potential consequence of QAnon’s agitation: the response from a bourgeois security state that for decades has been shoring up its capabilities and winning the hearts and minds of Americans terrified of communists/Islamists/China as well as political and social collapse.

Barbarians at the Gates

Even as the events of January 6 were unfolding, the liberal media’s coverage was subsumed by their horror. Instead of simply reporting on the riots, pundits like Anderson Cooper derided the protesters as “unpatriotic” “terrorists,” “insurrectionists,” and “anarchists” — terms, of course, often used to malign leftists. Cooper also played the “barbarians at the gates” number, highlighting the uncouth, unsophisticated, and tacky American consumption patterns of the QAnon-ers, the Vanderbilt heir sneering at their penchant for Olive Garden and habitation of low-rent hotels.

To Cooper, the real problem with QAnon-ers isn’t their reactionary politics, delusional worldview, or blind adherence to a charismatic leader, but their antiauthoritarianism, lack of respect for and obedience toward the American state and its ruling class, and general vulgarity.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jon Cherry / Getty Images)

Politicians haven’t been much help either. There is, of course, the (second) impeachment campaign, which does not prevent another Trump from emerging and which has the potential to legitimize a corrupt and dysfunctional political system. For a United States experiencing mass death and economic collapse, the spectacle of impeachment, while potentially symbolically powerful, will do little to address the actual concerns of a growing mass of desperate and suffering people.

Then there are the gestures of “liberal capital,” which appear designed to do little more than antagonize increasingly hostile Trump supporters. Twitter has finally responded to Kamala Harris’s call to suspend Trump’s account, but of course @Jack didn’t stop there, suspending and banning accounts of people tweeting even mildly in support of Trump or the demonstrations. Twitter even banned Ben Garrison, a libertarian political cartoonist that draws Trump as a bestriding Adonis with rippling muscles, a sharp jawline, and a never-ending desire to own the libs. More seriously, Twitter and other platforms have also begun to ban anti-Trump users for making fairly obvious parody accounts to mock Trump. It’s not fearmongering to worry that critical voices on the Left might soon be subject to similar measures.

Another dangerous potential effect of the protests is the re-legitimization and strengthening of the national security state. The inklings of what is likely to come are already evident in president-elect Joe Biden’s assertion that the rioters were “domestic terrorists,” a phrase that indicates the new Democratic administration will bring the strategies of the “war on terror” home by cracking down even more on civil liberties, increasing the militarization of domestic security forces, and surveilling masses of people without a warrant. Before the riots gave them cover for their plans, the incoming administration already promised as much.

In the wake of the riots, Congress members like Elissa Slotkin have begun the arguments that “the single greatest national security threat right now is our internal division. It’s the threat of domestic terrorism. It’s that polarization that threatens our democracy.” As the Intercept has noted, such calls are likely to encourage those who advocate the passage of a domestic terror statute that would provide the government with the capacities to go after domestic terrorist groups in a manner similar to how it attacks foreign terrorist groups. The problem with this, as the Intercept makes clear, is that such a law could establish “broad and vague powers that could be used to go after activists or religious minorities.” In fact, after the storming of the Capitol, Republican lawmakers in Florida, Mississippi, and Indiana introduced bills that essentially criminalize protest. Again it is worth remembering that despite their declared aims, the House Un-American Activities Committee was always more invested in prosecuting Communists than Nazis.

And herein lies the danger of misdiagnosing QAnon as the source of, rather than a symptom of, the chaos borne of economic immiseration and rapid American decline. Not only will the move to repress QAnon further justify the repression of left-wing dissent in both legal authority and public opinion; it will do nothing to deprogram the dedicated cultists or curb the reactionary resentments and conspiracies worming their ways through brains across America. In fact, it’s likely to make it worse. That’s how cults work.

The Nature of the Threat

What is to be done about the cult of Q?

There are already online communities comprised of recovering QAnon believers, which tend to operate as both sympathetic support groups and as spaces for sophisticated discussions about Q and its appeal. On these message boards, people tell their life stories, try to understand why they joined QAnon (and how they got out), and offer advice to people who have lost someone they love to Q.

Posters tend to be insightful about the factors that left them vulnerable to such a stark break with reality. In particular, they highlight the significance of economic instability and poverty, general feelings of powerlessness, a broad disillusionment with politics, mental illness and depression, and boredom and loneliness. The pandemic lockdowns are often pointed to as a major factor in the group’s explosion, with many former QAnon-ers stating they had never even heard of the group until COVID-19, when they had little to do with their days except sit at home, alone, on the Internet.

Much of the energy that these former QAnon-ers once dedicated to divining the meaning of cryptic Trump utterances and anonymous Q posts is now directed toward a different kind of search for answers, not only to questions of politics and the economy, but to questions of the psychological and sociological conditions under which we all live. The success of Q, in fact, underlines what the late Michael Brooks emphasized in his work: that people need not only arguments, but spiritual and social connection, to make meaning of their lives.

Most former QAnon-ers recognize the group as a cult, and as such often read and discuss books about the psychology and sociology of indoctrination, refer to James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente’s Stages of Change, post videos of talks given by former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper, and host AMAs with people like Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control. Notably, none of the materials discussed seem to have been adopted with the same fevered conviction as the QAnon-ers’ former beliefs; the goal is not to replace one absolute truth with another, but rather to foster a healthy intellectual curiosity, provide compassion and insight that might help others leave or prevent their indoctrination in the first place, and make peace with the uncertainty of life under capitalism.

It’s of course not clear if the sort of ex-Q who posts about their journey was the same stripe of Q who would storm the Capitol, or even how many posters are authentic. For obvious reasons, contributors to these online groups are anonymous, and there is careful moderation to ensure the integrity of what is inevitably a vulnerable therapeutic and intellectual space. Still, a few ex-Q have graciously agreed to speak with or be profiled by journalists.

In late 2020, for instance, Jitarth Jadeja spoke candidly with Rolling Stone and the Washington Post about his indoctrination into Q and the devastating realization that he had believed a series of deranged and cruel lies:

“If I didn’t have family that loved me I probably would have committed suicide,” Jadeja remarked. “It was really a terrible feeling to know that you are this stupid and this wrong.”

And therein lies the rub: loss of faith is often very painful.

Q makes people feel good. We don’t mean merely that it makes them “feel good” by delivering the dopamine jolts that come from the embrace of a community, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of enlightenment, and the comfort of a worldview that brings hope, though QAnon does provide all of that. What we mean is that it makes them feel “Good,” as in righteous, heroic, noble, and benevolent. So why would a QAnon-er stop believing, especially given that a return to a pre-Q worldview likely invites back all the pre-Q fear, confusion, and feelings of powerlessness that engendered an individual’s turn to QAnon in the first place, only this time there’s the added pain of shame and the shattering of one’s self-image as a wise and virtuous person.

Friends and family members of the indoctrinated are often in the difficult position of trying to take away a belief system from someone who has finally found an intellectual framework that appears to make sense of the world and allows them to feel in control of what is likely to be an increasingly — and objectively — disenfranchised life.

There are different perspectives on how to break the spell of QAnon, but there are a few relatively consistent tips that sociologists, psychologists, and former cult members themselves recommend adopting at the interpersonal level.

First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that cult membership will not be solved by facts and logic. QAnon-ers, like members of all cults, have embraced a different ontology, a different view of reality, and attempting to “demystify” this new worldview is likely to be construed as naivete, hostility, or perhaps even collaboration with the evil cabal. Relatedly, berating, punishing, or shunning a cult member will probably do little but shore up their belief in the conspiracy theory and possibly direct their paranoia on you.

Instead, the best way to deal with someone who has embraced a conspiracy theory is to show your concern for them. An honest “I’m worried about you” or “This seems to take up a lot of your time and energy” reminds them that you are on their side. With time and luck, this can encourage QAnon-ers to open up about their beliefs. Questioning their claims and asking them to consider alternative explanations requires patience and actively listening to their concerns, getting to the root of the discontent that animates the byzantine collection of conspiracies to which they have subscribed. These are people trying to make sense of a frightening and precarious world, and if they believe the exit from Q requires them to again feel confused, powerless, and terrified, they are unlikely to leave the comfort of their delusions.

Presenting oneself as the sole authority of truth is generally counterproductive. One, you’re not, and two, an air of superiority ensures that a friend or relative will not confide in such a person should they begin to have doubts. The idea is to be patient and leave the door open for when cracks of skepticism emerge. No one likes feeling ashamed, and no one seeks a confidante who is likely to tell them, “I told you so.”

Finally, deriding QAnon-ers’ feelings of insecurity and outrage or writing them off as irrational or “privileged” does nothing. To reverse a quote by one of the United States’ dumbest minds, “feelings don’t care about your facts.” Indeed, be sure to make clear that you understand that their motives are “Good,” as in righteous, heroic, noble, and benevolent.

However, not only should one not overestimate their power to deprogram a QAnon-er; such a case-by-case approach swats at flies. Cults tend to recruit from the already lost and lonely, and both generate and exacerbate preexisting and pervasive antisocial insularity, isolating members from the people best equipped to help them. Moreover, individually deprogramming QAnon-ers does nothing to alleviate the conditions that produced the Q mindset, conditions that will only be addressed by transforming the world that allowed the conspiracy to take hold in the minds of so many.

QAnon-ers are correct about a lot of things. Recent revelations like those surrounding the Jeffrey Epstein scandal indicate that a lot of wealthy elites are, in fact, members of a pedophilic cabal. More broadly, though, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realize that much of the world has gotten worse for millions of people as a direct result of forces beyond their control.

Socialists have some big advantages over an anonymous 4chan account; not only do we have explanations and a political program that addresses QAnon-ers’ legitimate concerns, but we also have reality and the honesty and humility to admit that, while we don’t have all the answers, we aspire to build a system that is democratic and just, that is honest, and that cultivates the better angels of our nature, so that our world, and indeed humanity itself, can become Good.

End Mark

About the Author

Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and co-host of the Chapo Trap House podcast. She is currently completing her first book, on the rise of social-democratic politics post-2008 financial crisis.

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