There’s a photo from the riots at the U.S. Capitol of a man in a fur headdress and full warpaint, presiding over the dais on the congressional floor. The man is named Jake Angeli, and he is an aspiring actor from Arizona, but he is perhaps best known as the “QAnon Shaman,” one of the most prominent believers in the far-right extremist conspiracy theory QAnon, who regularly shows up at pro-Trump rallies in full-on regalia. QAnon is the belief that an anonymous figure with top security clearance is posting secrets about the government on the internet, including the idea that high-ranking Democrats are involved in a child sex trafficking ring and that Trump is lying in wait to arrest and execute them.
The significance of the photo was not lost on many who have spent decades tracking the rise of online extremism, watching with horror as the bizarro threads of disparate narratives — adrenochrome-harvesting, baby-eating, the resurrection of deceased presidential progeny — furl together, culminating into real-life violence. “QAnon motivated and led the charge for this dark day,” tweeted Travis View, the cohost of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, accompanied by the photo of Angeli proudly standing over the evacuated Senate floor, shirtless and deranged, biceps flexed in a show of triumph. New York Times reporter Kevin Roose echoed this sentiment, pointing out that while not everyone storming the capitol was necessarily an adherent of the conspiracy theory, “this wouldn’t have happened without QAnon, the politicians and partisan media figures who cynically embraced it, and the platforms that amplified it for years.”
Now, the image of Angeli, a man who had previously been dismissed as a lone wackjob clinging to an inane conspiracy theory, was going viral on these very platforms, for taking one of the most powerful offices in the country by force and quite literally presiding over it. If nothing else, the photo was proof (to everyone except QAnon supporters themselves, who predictably claimed that the pro-QAnon messaging at the rally was the work of antifa) that we had dismissed Angeli and his ilk as fringe extremists at our peril. With the bolstering of a lax security force; platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which have been criticized for years for failing to take action against conspiracy theories; and the President himself, who overtly encouraged the uprising during his speech at the pro-Trump rally on Wednesday, Angeli was showing millions of aghast Americans that it was his world — we were just living in it.
Since surfacing out of the remnants of the far-right extremist theory Pizzagate in late 2017, QAnon has undergone an eye-popping evolution, to the degree that some have referred to it within the context of not a conspiracy theory, but a new religion. That is in part due to the pandemic isolating people within their homes, the social platforms’ refusal to remove misinformation with any semblance of expediency, and the mainstreaming of QAnon in the form of the #SaveTheChildren movement earlier this year, an anti-child trafficking hashtag that was promptly coopted by conspiracy theorists. But it can also be attributed to President Donald Trump himself and his repeated refusal to condemn the conspiracy theory, amplifying QAnon influencers by retweeting them on social media and promoting congressional candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has openly espoused it.
In the days following the election, as the results increasingly looked to be unfavorable to Trump, many wondered whether QAnon supporters, whose belief is predicated on the idea that Trump will remain in office to destroy leftist evils, would finally become disillusioned and turn their backs on the theory. But the exact opposite appears to have happened, thanks in no small part to Trump himself repeatedly and stalwartly promoting the patently false idea that the election was illegitimate. To co-opt the language of QAnon supporters, who frequently refer to themselves as shedding light on deeply concealed societal evils, when faced with the blinding beams of reality, far-right extremists chose not to turn toward it, but ran further away into the darkness, and Trump himself has played no small role in goading them to do so.
In the aftermath of the events of today, much blame will be cast on various parties: the crypto-fascist extremist group the Proud Boys, whose leader was arrested on Monday; the police at the Capitol, who many social media commentators correctly pointed out would likely have been far quicker to employ crowd control tactics on BLM protesters; and of course, the president himself, whose immediate reaction to the violent uprising was milquetoast at best. “Go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens, you’ve seen how others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace,” he told the rioters, as if he was a suburban dad gently chiding them not to TP his house.
But the real blame lies with not an individual group or person, but with an idea; specifically, the notion that dismissing erroneous beliefs as toothless murmurings in shadowy internet echo chambers does not make them so. For years, as QAnon festered in these corners, there was a belief among some members of the media that openly discussing it would provide adherents with a platform and lend credence to their beliefs; better, they thought, to let it quietly wither on the vine, as most bad ideas on the internet do. But just because an idea is bad doesn’t mean it will go silently into the night, or that it won’t inspire people to kidnap their children, or storm the Hoover Dam, or stand on the dais in a government building as congress cowers in their offices. When it comes to whether we have the luxury of ignoring bad ideas like QAnon, that horse is well out of the barn, and in this case, we let it run wild enough for so long that it stampeded straight onto the senate floor. Trump may only have 14 days left in office, but he has issued a chilling warning that he will use his waning power to the best of his ability. It was only a matter of time before Angeli, and people like him, heeded the call.
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