Sunday, February 7, 2021

Sunday Long Read: How America Went Q-Q

The New Republic's Melissa Gira Grant takes a deep dive into how the far right used conspiracy theories to leave a broken, ungovernable political class in its wake, realizing their demographic end meant that if that the country couldn't be ruled by the white male theocracy, it could never be ruled by anyone.

“I think that the TNT is about to go off.” An Oregon woman named Jo Rae Perkins was livestreaming to Facebook at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, sipping occasionally from a metal water bottle so as not to be interrupted and told to put on her mask, as Covid-19 protocols there now mandate. “I want you guys to please be alert, please be aware—please be prepared.”

Perkins was dressed in a chartreuse mock neck top, with matching chartreuse dangling crystal earrings and thickish lines of cobalt drawn on her upper lash line. She was reflecting on the attempted occupation of the Capitol the day before, January 6, 2021. “All you-know-what is going to break loose. We are not going to lose our country.” A young child’s voice floated over the stream as Perkins greeted some people who just logged on at a rapid clip. “Hello Amy, hey Jeff, Tina, and Darren.” She asked for prayers, and then predicted: “Do not be surprised if martial law happens in the next few days.” Now is the time to gather food and water, Perkins advised, and don’t be surprised if social media goes down. “After yesterday, with Mrs. Babbitt being murdered, that was the shot heard around the world for the second American Revolution.”

About two months before declaring from Sea-Tac that the revolution was here, Perkins won 912,814 votes in her race to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate. That was close to the total number of votes Trump received in the state. Perkins had stunned national political observers earlier in 2020, when she won the Republican primary, beating out three other candidates. That result perhaps gives a more clear sign of her hard-core base of support: 178,004, just below 50 percent of the GOP primary vote. What had shocked whatever remains of the Republican establishment was Perkins’s avowed, enthusiastic support for the right-wing conspiracy cult QAnon, which places Donald Trump and select government insiders at the center of a crusade against pedophiles and sex traffickers imagined to secretly wield power over America. “Together, we can save the Republic,” Perkins pledged to her supporters after her primary victory. She called her opponent, Senator Jeff Merkley, a “traitor.” The lines were drawn in ways that would become only more clear as the year wore on.

At the time of Perkins’s upset primary win, in May, it seemed unlikely that a believer in QAnon’s constellation of antisemitic and increasingly apocalyptic conspiracy theories could be elected to Congress. Yet she was one of two dozen or so QAnon-affiliated candidates who would appear on the ballot on November 3. (Two, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Burgess Owens of Utah, are now sitting members of the House of Representatives.)

The gradual fusion of Q paranoia and standard Republican political organizing was a leitmotif of the Perkins campaign. In September, a Perkins for Senate fundraiser at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon, doubled as a QAnon road show. Under a smoky sky, from wildfires days before, around 50 people paid between $20 and $100 each, as Tess Riski reported for Willamette Week, to hear Perkins speak, alongside Shady Grooove, a host of the since-removed YouTube channel InTheMatrixxx, popular with QAnon followers, and Captain Roy Davis, author of the books QAnon and the Great Awakening and White Hats, Swamp Creatures and QAnon: A Who’s Who of Spygate. When the Marion County GOP advertised the event on its website, party publicists called Davis “a best-selling author closely associated with QAnon,” with the word “QAnon” linking to a New York Times story titled “G.O.P. Voters Back QAnon Conspiracy Promoter for U.S. Senate.”

“Grooove wasted no time telling the audience that QAnon was a nameless, faceless organization that would protect its ‘digital soldiers,’ as civil unrest escalated after Election Day,” wrote Riski. With words echoing the usual QAnon liturgy about the sacred cause of liberty and the patriots rising up in its defense, Grooove told the people at the fundraiser, “I am one of those people who would be willing to go anywhere Donald Trump sent me because I believe this man is fighting for us.” Grooove claimed, in the tradition of prophecy, that a great reckoning loomed: “This is not gonna end on Nov. 3. And I’m here to tell you this, and I want to prepare you for it. It’s not going to end on Nov. 3. It’s going to continue. How long it continues? It’s up to us.”

QAnon influencers such as Shady Grooove have helped bring the movement’s theology to a far broader audience. Before he was stumping for a congressional candidate, he had built a burgeoning following on Twitter and YouTube. He and other social media brand names spread the messages attributed to Q—the apocryphal highly placed government official at the center of all the unhinged intrigue—from lesser-known image boards like 8kun. They posted musings on the meaning of bread crumbs (as followers have dubbed these gnomic dispatches from Q) to their own social media platforms, putting them in front of yet more followers, who can chew them over and share them again. QAnon takes every platitude about the internet democratizing the media and marries it to the far more instrumental cult of the personal brand. It generates more “truths” than can be true—and, for a few, a kind of celebrity.

Perkins participates in this media and meaning-making, too. Her airport call, soberly alerting Q believers to the next phase of the storm (as the Q faithful term the coming reckoning), no doubt struck many of her viewers as another telltale realization of a prophecy. In reality, of course, it was simply another installment in the same rolling con, one that stretches far back in the tradition of American prophecy belief: foretelling, envisioning, and then stalling for the judgment day that is always right around the corner, just out of view
Part pyramid scheme, part political messiah movement, part viral social media, and all violence against anyone who isn't white, Christian, and conservative, these Q-balls are walking time bombs. Unless they are defused, they will explode and take thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands or more, with them when they detonate. 

We'll need the bomb squad for decades to deprogram these cultists.

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