This article is written by Dr. Susan McWilliams Barndt of Ponoma College, and she is one of the regular contributors to The Constitutionalist. To read more about McWilliams Barndt, visit our Regular Contributors page.
Even with all the crazy things that have marked the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it seems hard to beat the crazy of QAnon.
QAnon, as you probably know, is the story that the United States is run by a gang of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. These Satan-worshipping pedophiles—who dominate the Democratic party, the “deep state,” and Hollywood—use their positions of power to run a global child sex-trafficking ring. In more colorful versions of this story, the Satan-worshipping pedophiles also torture children to harvest a hormone called “adrenochrome.” The pedophilic leaders ingest this hormone, maybe just to hallucinate but maybe to achieve immortality.
According to QAnon lore, President Trump is the hero who, with the backing of the American military, is fighting this cabal and will bring it to justice. QAnoners know this on the authority of “Q,” a shadowy figure who purports to be a high-level government official and posts cryptic messages online.
Lots of people—probably millions of people—believe this, including two women recently elected to the United States House of Representatives.
But why do they believe this? How could anyone believe this?
Spoiler alert/Content warning/TLDR: I’m going to tell you that I think lots of people could believe this, without being crazy.
A few weeks ago, I grabbed my seven-year-old’s computer to do a quick internet news search. Google produced in response a pornographic image, an image that seemed even more pornographic set against the cartoon animals my child had chosen for a background screen.
I am not a cultural innocent, but still: Oh, reader, this made me so mad. It made me mad at the pandemic that pushed all our lives onto the Internet; mad at the online schooling that compelled me to buy a seven-year-old a computer; mad at public officials who prioritized opening bars over opening schools; mad at tech companies whose fancy algorithms still cannot filter dick pics out of news searches; mad at the Internet that has made me complicit in bringing pornography—much of it violent, much of it involving children—into our home.
The adherents of QAnon aren’t making everything up. They certainly aren’t making up the feelings of rage and humiliation that come from living in a world where our children, every day, are subject to new kinds of sexual exposure and exploitation. And they aren’t making up the fact that we live in a world where people in positions of power seem to be overlooking, if not directly enabling that exploitation.
I’m not just talking about Jeffrey Epstein here. Last year, The New York Times published a series about what its writers called the “epidemic” of images of child sexual abuse on the Internet. The series described a legal and governmental system that is unequipped to slow an exponentially growing flood of horrific pictures and videos, tech companies that have failed to combat criminal use of their platforms, organized underworld networks that have become ever more sophisticated at distributing pedophilic content while evading capture, and gaming and social media outlets with chat features that make children easy targets for sexual predators.
(Last month, my daughter wanted to join friends in playing the cute and cartoonish online game “Among Us.” Within hours of learning how to play, she was getting chatted up by strangers: “How old r u?” “R u a girl?”)
Thinking about this, how can anyone fail to understand the impulses of helicopter parents who hover over the shoulders of their children? And how can anyone fail to understand the real anxieties that would attract parents to the QAnon story, which promises that at least somebody in power is on the case?
Most accounts of the ways in which digital technology has disrupted American life focus on the formal economy. They center on jobs, and in particular on jobs in male-dominated industries. Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People is a good example. In the first part of his book, Yang does an exceptional job in laying out the ways in which technology has eviscerated manufacturing jobs, creating a disproportionate impact on the men who held them, or would have held them in a previous generation. Many have talked about the feelings of dispossession that have beset white working-class men in particular, and the way those feelings of dispossession found an outlet in Trumpism.
But as important as such stories of technological disruption are (and I’ve written my own versions of that story), they have overshadowed another important feature of our time: the ways in which digital technologies have disrupted American life outside the formal economy—and particular, in the realm of raising kids.
For those of us, mostly women, who are primary caregivers to children, digital technologies have provided parenting challenges that no previous generation of caregivers has faced: How do you keep your kids safe online? Is it safer to give your kids a phone or not? How do you talk to your child about “sexting,” and when is the right time to do so? What do you do when your child is targeted or bullied or victimized online? Who has will be there for you when that happens? Who will help you protect your kids?
In survey after survey, the vast majority of parents say that parenting is harder today than it ever has been – mostly due to technology. And the vast majority of parents worry that their children are not safe on the Internet.
It is not only working-class white men who feel dispossessed in the Internet age and are enraged by this dispossession. And yet few mainstream journalists and few political leaders are speaking to the rage of American mothers.
You know who is speaking to that rage? Q is speaking to that rage.
Note that the two QAnon believers soon to join Congress—Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia)—have something important in common. They are both women with multiple school-aged children.
Meanwhile, in The New York Times, a writer notices that women seem prevalent in QAnon. She quotes female QAnoners who say things like: Nobody else prioritizes “saving our children.”
The writer then shoos those words away. She assures us that the predominance of females in QAnon is unrelated to “the actual content of the theory itself.” Instead, she says, it’s about the structure of digital networks. Women apparently are great at posting on Facebook and Instagram, and at getting other women to follow them when they do it.
The conclusion of the article is: Don’t be distracted by the fact that so many of these people are mothers.
It’s as if the female followers of QAnon never spoke, as if their concerns are not legitimate, as if they don’t know their own minds and realities, as if the child-sex-abuse-on-the Internet stories the Times had published just months before had no connection to any of this.
The New York Times explains it all for you, in a way that means you don’t need to listen to those crankpot ladies or acknowledge their legitimate feelings of loss and rage.
One of the most arresting parts of Tommy Orange’s 2019 novel There There lies in the book’s insight that the Internet, for whatever else it has done, has imposed the moral conditions of urban life – its scale, its anonymity, its indifference, its constant din – to the entire planet. Now every home is part of a city that never sleeps.
It should be needless to say, though I’ve been looking in vain for someone who’s said it, that for this reason alone the Internet has been far more disruptive to rural communities than it has been to cities. For all the Americans who grew up in – and/or had hoped to raise their children in – smaller, scaled-down communities, that dream is pretty much dead.
I guess you could go full-scale resistance and secret yourself in some kind of Benedict-option commune. I guess you could forego an at-home internet connection. But those possibilities are not readily available to most of us.
When I see the urban/rural divide on the 2020 election maps, this is the kind of thing I wish we talked about more. Rural America is suffering, not just because jobs are gone, but because the moral and social conditions of rural life are being obliterated.
(Note that the idea to bring more Internet to more of rural America – a favorite policy proposal of both Republicans and Democrats and, presumably, the tech industry – may well help ease the “digital divide” between rural and urban America, as its adherents promise. But it may well exacerbate the political divide between the same, adding to the sense of dispossession among Americans in small towns and rural places.)
When Richard Hofstader set out to write about the “paranoid style in American politics” in the 1960s, he argued that conspiracy narratives in the United States have often emerged to explain or rationalize people’s feelings of dispossession, of being left out of the political process or left behind in a time of political change. So much of QAnon, in that sense, is: Meet the new conspiracy theory—same as the old conspiracy theory.
President Trump has an ear for that paranoid style. However else he has been erratic in his behavior and his tweeting, Trump has been absolutely consistent in saying: “That sense of dispossession you feel? It’s legitimate. It’s real. And I’m angry about it, too.” He thus cast himself in the role of hero for whatever conspiracy theories might arise in our time. And while so much of what he says is indisputably racist and sexist, Trump speaks to feelings of rage and dispossession that are not exclusively the terrain of white men.
For their part, Democrats have for more than a generation downplayed the real, everyday indignities and impositions of recent technological development. They have downplayed the pervasive dispossession of the age. Bill Clinton set the template for the “New Democrats” by swearing that freer markets and technological advances would bring freer democracies around the world. If you believed Clinton, as so many Americans did, the twenty-first century was supposed to be the time when everyone in the world got flying cars and liberal democracy.
Needless to say, the Clintonian promise did not pan out. Economic inequality grew in the Clinton era—not to mention all sorts of political and technological disruptions that have made it harder for most Americans to pay for college, buy a house, save for retirement, and overall feel in control of the arc of their lives.
One of my friends—like myself a child of the Clinton era—has a longstanding shtick wherein he proposes t-shirt slogans to speak to the political turns of our lifetime: I was promised the end of history…and all I got was this lousy 9/11; I was promised the end of history…and all I got was this lousy government shutdown; I was promised the end of history…and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.
I was promised the end of history…and all I got was this lousy QAnon.
Don’t get me do wrong: I do not think that followers of QAnon have their facts right, and I do worry that their wrong facts have led and may lead to violence. But I do think that QAnon-sters have their feelings right. And feelings are real as a matter of power and force in democratic politics.
If Democrats and Republicans are to have any hope of quashing or redirecting the QAnon movement, they will have to find ways to speak and respond to the underlying feelings of dispossession and frustration that have given QAnon traction in the first place. This will not be easy, given the decline in trust of public institutions that has marked recent decades that corresponds with a decline in responsive national government (a decline largely engineered by anti-government activists who sought elective office in order to do damage to elective office).
Almost 20 years ago, my father wrote that:
“[Americans] worry that no one is in charge: Trust in democratic institutions is low and falling, and not only because our leaders are so apt to be knaves and psychological teenagers. We worry that government—or republican government—may be largely irrelevant, more and more an epiphenomenon, forced to shape itself in the image of global forces. At the same time, in its dealings with us as individuals, we fear government’s strength, suspecting that it may be the creature of great and hostile interests.”
Those words are perhaps truer now than they were in 2004 and more worrying because they remain so true.
Yet it is worth noting that, even in this era when so many Americans think that so much of our government is suspect, the QAnon faithful are able to believe that their prophet—their Q—is himself a government employee. If followers of Q feel disappointed by the failures of American governance in recent years, they have some faith that government retains the possibility to right the wrongs of the age. The leaders of this republic would do well to justify this faith, doing visible work to acknowledge and maybe even address the rages of our time—rages that, even when expressed in falsehood, tell us something true.