This morning, BuzzFeed News published an article with the headline “It’s Looking Extremely Likely That QAnon Is A Leftist Prank On Trump Supporters.” Its subject is a right-wing conspiracy theory that has been bubbling online for the last 10 months, which gained new mainstream media attention when its believers turned out en masse at Donald Trump rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania last week. QAnon is a troubling development, no doubt. But the answer for liberals and other rational people should not be to explain it away with conspiracy theories of our own, which is exactly what the BuzzFeed piece attempts to do.
The QAnon theory holds that many politicians, celebrities, and vaguely defined “deep state” actors are pedophiles; that Trump and Robert Mueller are secretly working together to stop them; and that a high-placed person or persons in the government have been posting on the message boards 4chan and 8chan under the pseudonym ‘Q’ to help make this information public. Possibly Q is JFK Jr., who supposedly faked his own death in 1999. Plenty of people evidently believe in these stories, some of whom are happy to talk to CNN reporters about it. In June, a QAnon supporter at the Hoover Dam got into an armed standoff with police.
The BuzzFeed piece begins with a few paragraphs of measured analysis of the QAnon phenomenon, then takes a strange turn. Reporter Ryan Broderick takes note of an Italian novel entitled Q, published in 1999 by a quartet of leftist activists under the pen name Luther Blisset. Q tells the story of a radical religious figure traveling 16th-century Europe to participate in various social upheavals, who is pursued by an anonymous government agent. The agent sends dispatches to the public that he signs with only the letter Q, just like in QAnon.
The Luther Blisset writers, who have since ditched that name and now call themselves the Wu Ming Foundation, have said that they intended for the book to serve as “an ‘operations manual’ for cultural disruption.” On Twitter in June, they speculated that the QAnon conspiracy theory could be the work of someone “using our novel Q and the Luther Blisset playbook in order to…take the piss out of the alt-right?” For Broderick, that is enough proof to assert that “it’s looking more and more likely that QAnon is actually a prank by leftists or anarchists to make the far-right look deranged.” “One of the most popular theories in the QAnon community is that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death in 1999 and became QAnon, which is also the year Q was first published,” the piece continues, leaving you to fill in what that ominous coincidence might mean.
Maybe QAnon really is an elaborate prank intended to skewer those who believe in it. But a few superficial similarities to the plot of a novel are not nearly enough to prove it. The evidence is no more solid than the anonymous 4chan posts that QAnon believers treat as gospel. Even if the original 4chan posts were a hoax, the movement that sprung up after them is not. And the core tenets of the QAnon theory—both the shadowy cabal of elite liberals that supposedly runs the world and the fixation on nonexistent child sex crimes—have been firmly entrenched in the paranoid right-wing imagination since long before Q arrived on the scene.
Conspiracy theories seek to reduce complex and possibly frightening phenomena to simple and compelling narratives that confirm believers’ existing biases, with clearly identifiable actors, causes, and effects. It’s easier, and more satisfying, for QAnon supporters to believe that the liberal establishment opposes Trump because they are pedophiles and he is out to bring them down, than it is for them to seriously consider why so many people might find his presidency so abhorrent. It’s also easier and more satisfying for us to believe that QAnon supporters have been duped by intellectually superior Trump opponents than it is for us to seriously reckon with why they believe what they do, and how they came to believe it.
Like the rabid audiences for Eric Garland’s game theory and Louise Mensch’s declarations that Steve Bannon will face execution for treason, this theory on the origins of QAnon is more evidence that conservatives are not the only Americans susceptible to conspiracy-minded thinking. As America becomes increasingly unrecognizable to liberals and leftists, you can expect to see more of it on our side, too.