As the tragic events of January 6th, 2021 played out in glaring clarity on our televisions, laptops, and phones, it became remarkably obvious how disparate the goals were of the separate groups involved. Some of the insurrectionists seemed more than happy to wave TRUMP 2020 flags and snap selfies in the Capitol, while others carried out what appeared to be paramilitary maneuvers and, in their communications, were disturbingly organized and focused in carrying out murderous attacks.
Among them were adherents of the conspiracy theory phenomenon QAnon, an online movement that has grown exponentially in reach and influence, to the point of being tacitly endorsed by former President Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a sitting member of Congress who has championed a wide swath of bizarre beliefs. Their tenets are almost incomprehensible because of the decentralized nature of the constantly expanding narrative. As members have been encouraged to scour the news and media for hidden symbols that serve as “proof” of a larger conspiracy, the plot has twisted and, depending upon the teller, includes an international plan to abuse children, control politics and economics, enslave humankind, serve alien invasions, involve malevolent time travel, and a building apocalyptic war in which the forces of Good and Evil would finally clash to determine the future.
If these narratives sound familiar, they should. The QAnon community and movement, with its disparate universe of posters, shows, and ever-evolving content, has become a medium for multiple conspiracy theories, religious mythologies, and paranoid concerns that have been around for centuries to converge and synthesize. It is a postmodern stew and a side-effect of new technologies we are still navigating. And just because the stories are absurd on their face doesn’t mean QAnon won’t have major effects on the future of our politics and culture.
Any dive into QAnon must begin with the birth pangs of so-called “Western Civilization”. Near the turn of the 2nd century, The Book of Revelation was penned by an author that would come to be known as John of Patmos. Like the mysterious “Q” that began the QAnon craze on the anonymous web forum 4chan, John of Patmos claimed to be the recipient of special, hidden knowledge, in this case, on loan from God.
Revelation is a text brimming with metaphorical, mysterious language. This, it has been speculated, is because it was meant as a concealed warning against the influence of the Roman Empire, but the clandestine nature of the prose has inspired generation after generation to “read between the lines” and “look for patterns,” just as QAnon’s community of “Bakers” have obsessed over Q’s cryptic drops. Even today, millennia later, true believers still parse through the news for “signs and wonders” that the End of the World is nigh and Satan is busy corrupting the world.
Though the text focused on the behaviors of Roman emperors like Nero – some scholars have argued the number 666 that still frightens and concerns Revelation-hunters to this day was a numeric representation of the Mad Emperor’s name—the apocalyptic tone and tenor of the narrative continues to affect society. Just like conspiracy theories, apocalypticism is the consequence of feelings of powerlessness in the face of societal and political change. It tells a story of a world fallen into chaos and warns that a failure to change course—and listen to the revelator and their special knowledge—will result in disaster. The only recourse—and stop me if this sounds familiar—is to accept there is an invisible threat on faith alone, reconstruct society based on the whims of the holder of the special knowledge, and militarize in the face of looming spiritual battle.
Thanks to these beliefs, and their militant monotheism, Roman culture despised early Christians and saw them as disruptive. Rome’s diverse society hinged on a polytheistic structure where disparate peoples’ gods could mingle and influence one another. Because of this, Christians were persecuted and driven to the edges of society. Their rituals, held in secret, were the subject of paranoid speculation.
Conversely, Romans held their own QAnon-like conspiracy theories about the Christians as rumors swirled that, in the dark, as Robert Louis Wilken documented in his 2003 book The Christians As The Romans Saw Them, Christians were sacrificing babies, drinking their blood “with thirsty lips,” and engaging in orgiastic ceremonies “with unspeakable lust.”
Following Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the efforts of future Christian emperors, the faith would come to dominate Roman culture and become the official state religion. Once in control, they realized the power of the paranoid charges of child sacrifice and used them to discriminate against another population: the Jews. These rumors that circulated via Christian priests and writers, called blood libel, claimed Jews were conducting bizarre rituals and using babies as a means of obtaining evil, supernatural powers. These charges empowered Christians to terrorize the Jews, destroy their temples, attack their leaders, and plunder their possessions, all made to appear moral by the invisible threat.
Blood libel continued into the Middle Ages and led to unthinkable horrors. Entire towns and communities in what’s now Germany were slaughtered and destroyed. Families were rounded up together, tortured, beaten, and slain. In the case of the Crusades, traveling bands of Christian warriors used these Jewish communities as a stopping-over point to practice their cruelty while stealing the goods and resources necessary to go and “liberate” the Holy Land from Muslims.
When past pandemics hit, it was once more Jews who were blamed. The Black Death, which lay waste to Europe and furthered mistrust of its institutions as they were unable to stave off the tragedy, was eventually laid at the feet of the Jews. Rumors spread throughout the continent that they had engaged in a continent-wide conspiracy to poison Christians. The plot supposedly hinged on dropping diseased bodies in community water supplies and was yet another battle in the ongoing war between Good and Evil.
In response, the Jews were again assaulted, persecuted, and murdered, their homes, property, and wealth stolen from them. A conspiracy theory had been used to legitimize the oppression of a vulnerable population, and it would be far from the last time this would happen.
As kingdoms and territories coalesced into nations in the Middle Ages, the continued mistrust and persecution of the Jews took a new form. In a world where borders and peoples were more defined, they represented a “state within a state.”
You may know this as “the Deep State,” or by its earlier incarnation “the New World Order.” These conspiracy theories, all predicated on the lie that traitors within a nation are working to undermine, and ultimately destroy, the societal order, are all descendents and retellings of the same antisemitic narratives that coursed through Europe and eventually became the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion that played an integral role in anti-Jewish fascism.
This framing has proved effective in many incarnations and targets groups that have differed from the prevailing population by labeling them as traitors. With the conflict of the Reformation playing out across Western Civilization, this meant Catholic-dominated countries considered Protestants a “state within a state.” Protestant nations considered Catholics a “state within a state.” In almost every case, this legitimized and inspired widespread paranoia and violence.
In France, it set off the Wars of Religion that raged for three decades and saw the mass slaughter of Protestants and the assassination of King Henry IV.
England experienced an incredibly QAnon-like phenomenon with the “Popish Plot” in the late 17th century. Con artist Titus Oates and his co-conspirator Israel Tonge manufactured a conspiracy theory, involving secret knowledge, clandestine messages, and even a weaponized, unsolved murder, that the Pope was conspiring with Catholics in the country to assassinate King Charles II and destroy England. A conspirator warned of “a most Hellish Plot of the Papists against the King’s life, our Religion, and Government, and to enslave us to a foreign power,” playing off existing anti-Catholic paranoia that had blamed the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666 on traitorous “papists” who were rumored to have brought disease and committed arson for the intention of destroying England from the inside out.
Amazingly, Oates and Tonge’s claims found their way to the king and to Parliament, who declared that the conspiracy was real in 1678, announcing “there hath been, and still is, a damnable and hellish plot, contrived and carried on by the popish recusants, for assassinating the king, for subverting the government, and for rooting out and destroying the protestant religion.”
As the Popish Plot conspiracy theory found favor, Oates and Tonge were treated as celebrities, wined and dined, and became influential figures in Britain. Like all of these grifters, though, Oates could not help himself and eventually claimed the queen was part of the plot. His grift came unglued. The conspirators were arrested, pilloried, humiliated, and punished.
The Popish Plot was proven false, a historical oddity, but it had long-lasting consequences. For years anti-Catholic paranoia simmered and brewed, eventually playing a role in the Revolution of 1688, wherein nobility in England would write William of Orange of the Netherlands, the husband of King James II’s daughter and Dutch royalty, and invite him to invade and take over the kingdom. A reason they welcomed the conquering was the continued trafficking in conspiracy theories that the king himself was conspiring with the pope and operating a state within a state.
These stories have echoed throughout history and inspired murderous movements, including the rise of Fascism in the 20th century, a movement powered by blood libel and a reiteration of the conspiracy known as “The Knife in the Back,” the paranoid Red Scare eras in the United States that saw widespread persecution of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community, and more recently, in the era of rising globalism, with the New World Order narrative and now the Deep State and QAnon.
What we have seen is that this paranoia is unbelievably powerful and potent with an ability to reframe reality and make political change more possible. In post-World War II America, the John Birch Society, a radical Right Wing conspiracy-minded group, became a force for misinformation in the post-war era. Its paranoid, Cold War-era propaganda claimed that the country was under attack by hidden conspirators, the populace manipulated by communists constructing a state within a state with the help of liberal traitors in undermining capitalism and our government and used people of color as pawns, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who was continually portrayed as an undercover communist agent.
The Birchers were largely written off by mainstream politicians and pundits, but their effect was massive. The paranoia they peddled, the conspiracy theories they trafficked in, were absorbed into the political discourse and society at large, poisoning and ultimately destroying objective, shared reality, while dismantling the New Deal coalition and targeting African Americans, women, the LGBTQ+ population, as well as Jews. Though they were laughed at and ridiculed, the Birchers were able to change reality as we knew it and inspire the Right Wing of the United States to embrace one bizarre belief after another, particularly on the back of the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and his influence on the development of late-20th century Republicans.
When considering the long term effects of QAnon, it is unlikely its believers will be successful in creating their fabled “Great Awakening,” but if its predecessors are any indication, the mythology will affect politics for years to come. Polls now show that at least 30% of Republicans believe the QAnon theory, an alarming number on its own, but even more disturbing when paired with the fact that a solid majority of Republicans believe the 2020 Election was stolen, a conspiracy theory that oftentimes either intertwines with QAnon narratives or functions alongside them.
The QAnon conspiracy theory is possibly the initial phase of a much larger and consequential trend. As our history rolls on, the name itself might fade from memory—a possibility that seems even more likely as the fabled Q drops have advised believers to stop explicitly using the name to avoid stigma or social media bans—only to be remembered alongside oddities like the Popish Plot and the Birchers, but its effects could alter the world in ways we could have never imagined.
Jared Yates Sexton is the author of American Rule: How A Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People, currently serves as an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University, and can be found at JaredYatesSexton.Substack.com.