What is crucial is less why someone believes than what that belief allows them to do
Ask a nonbeliever to describe the QAnon conspiracy theory, and they almost immediately reach for metaphors of madness: batshit insane, fucking crazy, bonkers, etc. Bracketing the real question of stigma attached to these metaphors, the point the speakers are making is the great gap in perception between those who believe in the conspiracy and those who don’t. That which is hard to imagine, outside the bounds of normal mental contexts, is insane.
For instance, it makes no sense that this very American conspiracy theory is going global:
The resilience of QAnon narratives after the election shows just how far and deep this made-in-America conspiracy has spread — and hints at its staying power around the globe.
Yet the Washington Post, the source of the quote above, has an entire article about QAnon conspiracy theorists reacting in wild—wild—ways from New Zealand to Canada to Germany. But while most of the commentary focuses on the why of the phenomenon, it can be a lot more clarifying to focus on the what: not why do these people believe this, but what does believing it allow them to do that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Put simply, extreme beliefs allow for the breaking of social norms. More complexly, the emergence of apocalyptic modes of thinking—social or theological—reflect the attempt to suture cultural fractures that are hard or impossible to express within that culture. So, in a conspiracy theory that believes that political leadership of more than half of a nation is really just a pedophile protection racket, the point is not the content, but the implication. If it is true, then any action one takes to stop it is justified. Inserting any sufficiently extreme belief into the equation will do, so long as it allows the believer both the emotional and rational (at least, if the first premise is true) ability to act in particular ways.
The best analogy—and structurally it is probably not strictly an analogy at all—is with religious eschatological movements throughout the last millennia. In times of social crises, millennarianism tends to thrive. Of course, if the apocalypse is mere days away, then much of social life is rendered obsolete. Payment of debts and saving of money, work and family obligations, sexual propriety, all of these things not only become irrelevant, they become actively opposed to the demands on the moment.
It is this latter part that is probably necessary, that social norms suddenly become actively opposed to proper behavior. On its face, cutting ties with one’s everyday life would seem to be much easier than showing up at Thanksgiving and telling your daughter that you believe she’s voting for pedophiles and that fact has been communicated to her in code to you via random internet posts.
But is it really? We are deeply social creatures, and we were deeply social before we were even human. We can forgive Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other early philosophers of the social contract their fantasies of the lonely individual in the wilderness, who makes a rational choice to join with others of his own kind. They didn’t have paleoanthropology or ancient DNA or a theory of evolution at their disposal. But even judging by human social bonds alone, between religious conversion and the clean break, the religious conversion is by far the easier path for the individual to revolutionize their social relationships. (The first two chapters of Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of The Unconscious are an elegant testimony to this fact, from demonic possession in Enlightenment Europe to spiritual healing practices in non-Western cultures.)
Obviously, this moment can be purely individual, something between a self-deception and a delusion. But what the radical conversion allows—secular or religious—is a way to pivot within the social, to selectively trim certain forms of social identification while preserving others. In this sense, such end-of-days efflorescences clue us in to deeper cultural currents that most of us might be unable to see. When such a belief begins to concatenate large swathes of an existing culture, it evinces a deeper break in the symbolic order, a gap across which one group can no longer communicate with another group, no longer shares the same truths or moral grounding, an epistemological rupture. But what is causing that rupture? What is its structure?
After first recognizing it’s not why people believe but what believing allows them to do, the question then is precisely that: what does this particular belief enable that another does not. In brief, it seems that QAnon enables two principles: democratic delegitimization and leader purification. The latter is simpler: it allows believers to deflect criticism of the charismatic figure their movement has organized itself around, in this case Trump as the quilting point for their ideological grievances. This is fairly standard, and operates just as the state of being in love does, where the lover identifies so intensely with the object of their love that they can, in such a state, do no wrong.
The democratic delegitimization aspect is ultimately more troubling, because its mechanisms are deeper and more complex. Briefly, we can speculate that it combines a willingness to sanction political violence (Trump will execute his political enemies in this fantasy) with a paranoid concern for social purity (figured by the image of the innocent child exploited). While the desire for violence is the most immediately concerning, the deeper currents are contained within the image of the innocent child exploited. What does it mean? Is it, at one remove, a nostalgia for white supremacy via repressed fear of miscegenation? A primal cry of Rust Belt-esque loss as a generation migrates away (“our children are leaving” is a common lament in cities like Buffalo, NY)? Or just a general directionless feeling that, behind the scenes, elites are stealing something vital from them?
The point of this essay is not to answer that question, though of course to some degree the answer is obvious: it’s all of them, and none. It’s vagueness is precisely what allows for such overdetermination: it can mean all of these things at once to one or many people. But the point here is to say, focusing on the why of these beliefs won’t get you any closer to understanding. But if you look at the question sideways and ask what it permits people who believe it to do, a lot begins to fall in to place. A conspiracy theory is a psychological tool, a weapon even—a secular form of religious extremism. It provides the moral justification for breaking with existing social norms, and the psychological room to do so. When it begins to draw in an ever larger number of people, the spread of the belief outlines the contours of a cultural break. And when it is as strange and febrile as QAnon, it is an ominous sign that a very deep cleavage in the social is emerging. Otherwise, it would have taken more traditional American forms: appeal to a lost pass or a lost cause, religious revivalism, good ol’ white supremacy, or some 1980s-style glorification of capitalism. That it has emerged out of many of these but chosen none of them expresses as clearly as anything a deep-seated well of cultural sentiment that needs to find some way to express itself, but that none of the existing languages we have for such angst will suffice.