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QAnon and Conspiracy theories: a new phenomenon? Understanding the relationship between Conspiracy Theories and Nationalism in the information age

Written by: Marcus Woodcock/Edited by: Emanuela Lipari

The storming of the Capital in the United States may have surprised many, but it is the paroxysm of a political phenomenon which has been metastasising subliminally. Egged on by Donald Trump, the rioters acted on the belief that the election was stolen in a conspiracy orchestrated by the nefarious forces of the ‘deep state’. This belief is part of a wider set of ideas encompassed within the QAnon conspiracy theory. Its tenets can be understood as follows: a cabal of powerful individuals, participating in activities of cannibalism and paedophilia, control all political, financial, intelligence, media, and entertainment institutions and will stop at nothing to preserve their power. QAnon, an insider of the deep state, divulges clues about this conspiracy online through ‘breadcrumbs’. Trump is a messianic figure who will topple the deep state on a ‘day of reckoning’ where all shall be revealed, while chat users on Reddit and 4chan attempt to make sense of these clues, to predict the activities of the cabal. 

What has this to do with nationalism and identity? Despite the belief that the ‘Age of Conspiracy’ is a product of the internet, conspiracy theories stretch far back and have an almost ontological dimension. As Hofstader notes in his seminal text the Paranoid style in American Politics, America has a sinuous relationship with conspiracy theories. Tropes such as Freemasonry, Illuminati and Jews were present as far back as the 1790s in American politics. Clinical psychologists have attempted to discern the undergirding pathological conditions that characterise ‘conspiracy theorists’; according to scholars such as Joshua Hart, schizotypal personalities are susceptible to believe in conspiracy theories. Fortunately, all those who believe that the US election was stolen are not psychologically impaired, and mass belief in conspiracy theories suggests that political factors are also significant. 

Defining a conspiracy theory is a contentious process. Studies of conspiracy theories generally focus on the logic which underpin them, namely their unverifiability. Though an important component, this does not distinguish a conspiracy theory from a real conspiracy, which if sophisticated enough, could also be unverifiable. Using the prism of nationalism and identity provides an alternative understanding of the causes and mechanisms at play, by identifying the distinctive identity claims that conspiracy theories make. This article will shed light on the events of the Capitol by identifying nationalist discourse within conspiracy theories, to understand in turn how conspiracy theories are instrumentalised by nationalists.

Understanding nationalism in conspiracy theories

Just as nationalist discourse relies on the fear of an external threat to the nation, conspiracy theories are predicated on the fear of an internal one. Like nationalism, conspiracy theories involve designating a predatory ‘other’ and imputing upon it all the unacceptable and repressed aspects of the self. Conspiracy theories regularly refer to tropes of homosexuality, femininity, and paedophilia. Members of the QAnon cabal are described as sensual, powerful and luxury loving. It is no coincidence that Alex Jones, the figurehead of 21st century conspiracy theorising (totalling over 1.4 billion views on YouTube) projects himself as the sincere, masculine, authentic man fighting against perverse, sycophantic, and hidden forces. The idea of ‘purifying’ the nation is regularly referred to in his videos. Conspiracy theories are about belonging, not only to a nation, but to a select and enlightened community of true patriots, whose task it is to save the nation from itself. As such, QAnon could be understood as a form of ‘hyper-nationalism’, which is paradoxically willing to destroy the state to save the integrity of the nation. Escaping the epistemological entrapments of conspiracy theories is thus complicated by the perception of ‘betraying a community’. Signaling belonging to the group creates a vested interest in the validation of conspiracy theories. When the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, promoted by Adolf Hitler, was revealed to be a fabrication, Nazi theories of a Jewish cabal did not lose their popularity: the fundamental idea of participating in a common struggle against evil is compelling enough to overlook genuine evidence. The failure of the storming of the Capital and the collapse of the eschatological ‘grand awakening’ is unlikely to deter QAnon’s followers. 

This leads us to the main difference between Conspiracy theories and Nationalism. In Conspiracy theories, the ‘other’ is a transcendent force with almost total agency over world events. Conspiracy theories project the limits of one’s control of world events onto the ‘other’, be it the deep state, the Jews, or the Freemasons. This makes them particularly appealing in periods of uncertainty, such as epidemics and economic crises, where simple heuristic tools are needed to make sense of radical changes. 

Understanding conspiracy theories in nationalism 

This difference between conspiracy theories and mainstream nationalist discourse is precisely what makes nationalists so amenable to them. Just as Trump’s desperation drove him to pander to QAnon, Conspiracy theories have been leveraged by autocrats from time immemorial to navigate febrile political climates. When the Great Fire of Rome broke out in 64 AD, Nero was out of town. Rumours rapidly swirled that he had instigated the fires to impose drastic reforms. When he returned his reaction was simple: he started his own conspiracy theory, blaming the Christians for having orchestrated the fire. This led to a crucifixion campaign on an unprecedented scale. 

Recent examples illustrate the potentially violent outcome of this process. For example, conspiracies theories contributed to the Rwandan genocide. Hutu leaders fabricated Tutsi machinations through fake documents such as the ‘Tutsi Colonisation plan’, which fed resentment and ethnic hatred. Similarly, during the Yugoslav crisis, from 1991 to 1995, Croats relayed conspiracies about a Muslim plot to remove Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina to establish a Muslim caliphate, while Serbians portrayed themselves as the victims of a global conspiracy orchestrated by external powers, including Freemasons, the United States, Jewish lobbies, and Turkey. Political and cultural elites provided them with a central place in the mainstream media to legitimise their military actions. This led to over 120,000 deaths and 5 million displaced. Flirting with conspiracy theories is a dangerous game, as certain politicians have recently discovered. If provided legitimacy, conspiracy theories exacerbate nationalism and populism, bringing them to their logical conclusions.

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