In Our Own Backyard: QAnon, Cults, and Conspirituality (part 4: Theatre, Grift, or Passionate Belief?)
[This is a five-part series based on a couple of hours of interview for community radio. The aired version will obviously be much shorter, but I thought the content was interesting enough to warrant an unabridged text version. Each part will include an Index (at the end) to the whole series.]
PART FOUR: Theatre, Grift, or Passionate Belief?
DE: Did you see the defence Alex Jones put up in, I think it’s a child custody case? It was asserted that his behaviour online showed that he was, you know, not good parent material — I forget all the details, but the defence was very interesting. The defence was that his online persona was completely artificial, that he was a performing artist and he should not be judged on his online persona any more than a professional actor should be judged by the part that they play in a movie. So there’s Alex Jones telling people, “I am telling you the Truth. I am your only reliable source of information,” and then there’s Alex Jones in court — saying “My entire shtick is an act, and I am a professional actor.”
ALEX: Right, and something similar with Tucker Carlson when somebody sued him for libel — the defence was that nobody should take his program sincerely, because it’s obviously it’s just a performance, it’s a mockery. And yet it’s presented on the Nightly News as this pundit telling the truth.
DE: That sounds suspiciously like the old-time old excuse for making a racist or misogynist joke — saying oh, well, it’s just a joke. It’s such an easy out. But I do think it raises that question of the grifter again. Are they aware that it’s a performance, or do they really believe it? And it turns out in court, Alex Jones is a performance.
ALEX: Yeah, it’s a good question, the grifting — with QAnon — and certainly there are grifters there. I think the fundamental individuals who are pushing QAnon — Q himself/herself their self — are aware of the grift. I think QAnon as an entity is this organic thing, everybody’s fooling one another into this gigantic delusion; but I think at its core, there is a grift where the individuals are well aware that there are fundamental lies being popped into the equation here and there, to spread, for a reason, but we won’t know that really until a bit more revelation about Q comes out.
DE: Until somebody writes their memoir or otherwise does some history.
DE: But the question that raises for me — as so often with these things like bubbles and fads and long con games — is this: how many QAnon participants do you think are ironic rather than sincere? I’ve also heard people making connections between QAnon and multi-level marketing, also between QAnon and what I would call various kinds of grifts or scams or con games… and can we can we kind of stray into that territory for a bit? How many of them actually know that they’re playing, and this is a game and it’s funny, and how many are just passionately sincere?
DARSHAN: So I think that this the way that I would frame this is that people have a part of them that is all in and 100% passionate. Like I said before when they engage in real life with what’s happening, there’s a dissonance and an incongruence that happens, and that’s sort of uncomfortable. So it’s easier to be congruent when you’re online and you’re in your… persona, almost like your avatar. So I think that there isn’t really anyone that is doing it in an ironic way — apart from the grifters — but …
DE: Well yes, that was where I was going, because it’s one of the questions people always ask about charismatic cult leaders: does this guy really believe that he’s the psychic channel for the super beings from Venus, or does he really believe that this is a story that enough fools will believe that he can collect their life savings?
DARSHAN: Both! It’s the same sort of question with so many cult leaders. It’s like, are they aware of how messed up what they’re doing, is or has their narcissism really blinded them to their delusions of grandeur. So with these people in these positions, they often have the kind of personality where they act like the Messiah, and that’s what their followers believe of them. So do they really believe that about themselves? or are they 100% in it for the grift and realize that cultivating that persona is what enables them to continue having a following? My belief is that it varies, leader to leader, but I think that usually it’s a combination of both; so it kind of gets into that idea again that we all have different parts of us. So a really great example is Keith Ranieri of the NXIVM cult. That’s really popular right now. He’s someone to look at that is, I think, most of the way there with understanding what he’s doing and the position of power that he’s in, but I suspect sometimes he does cross over into this alternate persona, this place of really or partly believing that he is a superhuman figure.
ALEX: Yeah, a lot of cult researchers suggest that when we are in a cult, there’s a part of our mind that operates in the cult mind mode, but we still always retain our essential self.
DARSHAN: So there’s like the cult self and the authentic self.
ALEX: Yeah, and when cult ideas or information comes into play, that cult aspect of the mind takes over — takes over the stage show of the body, and is the one that’s communicating and blocking information or expounding on this or that. But always somewhere behind all that, there’s this other part of them that goes about the day-to-day and remembers what life was like before they believed things like this; and we can have a communication with that side, or we can bump up against the cult personality. So I think to a large degree, a lot of the people who are in QAnon, does all of them wholeheartedly believe it? No, I don’t think so, but I think they have a part, a personality within them that’s just absolutely all in and trying to drown out the doubt of the other parts of them.
DARSHAN: And getting access to the part that has the doubt is very difficult, and pretty much everyone that comes out of a cult says “There was a part of me that really doubted all along.” But there are very specific techniques that cults use to make sure that people don’t listen to that part. Like phobia indoctrination, we mentioned that before, and another one is thought stopping techniques. So if you come up to someone who’s in QAnon and you say, “You know, this is not true because of ABCDEF, how many failed predictions are there going to be before you start thinking that maybe this isn’t true?” It’s like these thought stopping techniques kick in — this is true when we get confronted in general, as human beings, with something that we don’t like: we become defensive. We’re not operating with a normal willingness or capacity to look at different perspectives. And it’s especially true when people are really in what they call a sealed social system of control — like mind control situations. So when we try to address people directly with facts and figures and you know, “How on earth did you become a Trump supporter?” it’s not going to work, because you’re engaging with their cult persona. So you have to try to engage with the part of them that is their authentic self, that you knew before they got into the cult. You have to start to ask them questions where they think for themselves. As soon as you can see them starting to think themselves, that’s what’s going to actually create change and help… even if you’re just planting tiny little seeds. But you have to do it in this way. That’s very non-defensive — and it’s very difficult to do this.
DARSHAN: There are different kinds of cults; and I think a lot of cult experts consider MLM to be like a Business Cult. So I actually grew up in a family that did MLM, so I have quite a lot of familiarity with that way of thinking. And I tried to do it for a while, and the way that it impacted me was very much similar to stories that I hear of people who are in cults. There’s a lot of blaming yourself if you don’t do well in the business, so there’s never any sense of accountability for the organization itself — or in the case of a cult with a leader, there’s never any accountability for the leader. It’s always something wrong with the participant. But that’s not really what you were asking… I would say yes, the grift element is there with QAnon. We just recently found a website that was called Red Pill Living, that we thought was pretty apropos. So, I think it’s an MLM. They’re selling all kinds of nutritional supplements based on like… getting red-pills. So, you know, they have like a melatonin product that they call Sleepy Joe Biden or Sleepy Joe or something like that. And all the different products are based on all this language around QAnon —
ALEX: — and there’s a lot of individuals who are promoting books and whatnot, who are obviously wanting the QAnon myth to survive and working hard after the explosions of January 6 — where a lot of people left the camp — needing to keep it alive, trying to find other stories in order to sell their books. But I think a lot of the grift really is in self-promotion more than merchandising. We have this new phenomenon where with Instagram and whatnot, you need a certain number of followers in order to be making some money off of those platforms. And using the tag lines from QAnon like “where we go one we go all” —
DARSHAN: — or “save the children” —
ALEX: — or The Great Awakening… you put those hashtags on there and all of a sudden —
DARSHAN: — you go from like, you know, 500 followers to like 20,000 followers. It’s very tempting for a lot of people to start adding that on; and then as we know as human beings when things are going well for us, it’s more incentive for us to start believing also in what we’re teaching. So some people might be doing it just for the grift at first, but then a lot of them probably start believing what they’re selling. But I would say yes, the influencing side of it would be more the real grift than selling merch for example, although that is a thing too. They make money off of merch.
DE: Right. There’s hats, there’s t-shirts. It’s like any trade show. There’s this swag that you can buy with the logos on it.
ALEX: But I think that the primary grift really here, when it comes down to who ever has been currently role-playing as Q, is a political one — driving driving us to the right, making fascism palatable.
DARSHAN: Making Fascism Palatable; I’d say that would be the tagline for QAnon.
DE: So this is not the first time that religion and politics have tangled by a long shot. But it sounds like this is a little bit unusual, in that it’s almost the tailoring and weaponizing of the cult phenomenon or the cult tendency, with a very specific political agenda.
ALEX: For political purposes. A lot of other Cults have been apolitical; most of the big cults tend to support right-wing leaders, but it’s only because the politics of the right tend to be more permissive towards churches, and not taxing the churches, and allowing for religious freedoms and whatnot. But this is one where the actual intent of the cult was to empower a particular leader in mainstream secular politics, so it’s different in that way.
DARSHAN: In general the alt-right seems to be a lot better at weaponizing this kind of disinformation campaign in order to manipulate people to come on side. The left is not as good at it and don’t seem as willing to do it. So right now a great example is, people aren’t really talking about the insurrection so much because they’re too busy talking about Dr. Seuss. So when Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax, about when people were getting concerned about environmental concerns, then the conservative right was basically like let’s cancel Dr Seuss! They couldn’t stop demonizing Dr Seuss when he was a tree hugger. But now as soon as Dr. Seuss Enterprises wants to pull a few obscure books that had racist tropes in them, the right goes nuts about censorship and cancel culture. They will take something that normally you wouldn’t even think about too much, not a big deal. But they’ll take it and they’ll sensationalize it and they’ll make it huge in order to create a diversion away from some of the more extreme things that are going on right now… such as looking at some of the information that’s coming out about the Insurrection.
DE: Wave-the-red-flag distraction tactics are getting quite sophisticated at this point.
DARSHAN: And taking issues that are really non-issues… like I don’t care about having bathrooms that include trans folk. Like why would I care about that? Why would anyone care about that? Very few people would actually care about that, but it has become this huge talking point because it’s a way to sensationalize things. It’s kind of like the hijab effect in Quebec when they were putting all the attention on the hijab in order to distract us from other issues. These are things that people wouldn’t normally care about — because because progressives are really fighting for basic human rights. That’s mostly what progressive causes are about, and the alt-right and the conservative right, they want to stop a lot of that. So they’ll take things that really aren’t a big deal, make them huge. and then people will start getting really upset about cancel culture this and censorship that … and all of this kind of stuff even grabs people on the left and they start talking about it instead of looking at things that are actually real human rights violations, that the alt-right is perpetrating every day.
DE: I was thinking that actually, you know, Think For Yourself is one of the mantras that I hear from — well I don’t know that I actually know any QAnon people, or if I do I’m not aware of it at this time! But I do have contacts with people who are somewhat conspiratorial in their general thinking; and a lot of what I hear from them is “Well you have to do your own research, you have to think for yourself!” And yet they seem very susceptible to getting sucked into what is essentially a giant, hermetically sealed groupthink. So there’s a bit of dissonance there, between believing that you’re being independent and doing your own research, Thinking For Yourself, and yet getting plugged into a rather spectacularly conformist community of thought.
ALEX: Yeah, exactly that sort of the rallying cry: “Do your own research, think for yourself,” but I think it’s the easy way out. When you’re asking somebody who is Q-indoctrinated, you know, “Demonstrate to me that what you believe is is true,” generally they cannot do that. So it’s so much easier to say, “Well you’ve just got to do your own research. You know, go online and do what I did, spend thousands of hours and get yourself mesmerised and then you will believe.”
DARSHAN: I remember following this one writer who said that she asked so many people involved in QAnon “Just show me, just show me how I can know all the things that you’re saying are true, like how do you know?” And she said eventually what it came down to after asking all of these people was, “You just got to kind of like sit in it for a while, marinate in it for a long time. Until you believe it and follow the memes.” This is what she was told: follow the memes, that is the way to find evidence to support their their belief system.
DE: That sounds like a fairly modern technological translation of “Wait until the Spirit touches you.”
ALEX: Yeah, you’re right there.
DE: And I think that position itself can be contended with, because you can then say “Well if there is absolutely nothing that will make you change your mind, then you’re admitting to me that evidence and facts are actually irrelevant. So okay, now we know where we are.
ALEX: Yes. It’s a faith-based thing.
DE: And everybody knows you can’t argue about faith. But regarding failed prophecies: I don’t know if you know this history, but Seventh-Day Adventists have some, I don’t know 20 million members, something like that. They’re definitely an established, recognized faith group in the modern world, with significant assets and legitimacy. But their founder was a guy called Miller back in the eighteen hundreds and they were known then as Millerites. And Mr Miller prophesied the second coming, I think on three or four different dates around 1883, 1884, or was it 48? Anyway — sometime in the mid eighteen hundreds? And although he walked away eventually and came to the conclusion that his obsessive computations based on Biblical text had been mistaken, a hardcore group of his adherents did not, right? And that was the core and the nub of what is now The Seventh-Day Adventists, who are a well established variant Christian church. So a speculative question that I have is: do you think the QAnon phenomenon has the potential to get traction and actually become a globally significant religion of some kind? I know that’s a bit of a dystopian sci-fi question, but —
ALEX: — I feel like it already is —
DARSHAN: I feel like it already is too. Kind of what it is, a combination of a religion and a political cult.
ALEX: And I think it will evolve into something very different, and I think maybe yes, like Seventh-Day Adventists it will deny its origins and become something else. Already after January 6, or even earlier after the election, it kind of abandoned this whole narrative of Rescuing Children, and suddenly it was all about election fraud.
DARSHAN: Showing its true colors.
ALEX: So it just evolves and we’re already seeing so many of these people who were sharing all kinds of QAnon things online six months ago, now they are just doing the anti-vaxxer stuff now or.. Covid is a hoax, anti-mask, Deep State stuff. So it’s evolving, it’s changing, and they are now denying that they were ever part of QAnon and never believed that sort of thing.
DARSHAN: So QAnon used this narrative of the children to hook people in, and then it kind of abandoned that once it realized it didn’t really need it anymore. It’s now got all of these adherents and it can use all of these adherents to perpetuate all of these other alt-right messages like Covid is a hoax and anti-mask, anti-vax…
ALEX: So now the children in the tunnels will never be rescued.
Part One: What is QAnon? — cult? political movement? fad?
Part Two: The Narrative, and Susceptibility — what draws people in, and are some people more likely candidates than others?
Part Three: Among Our Friends — when it gets up close and personal; the grief of losing friends to madness; conspirituality; right-wing hippies? once down the rabbit hole, how hard is it to get out again?
Part Five: Why Worry? — why should we care any more about QAnon than any other eccentric contrarian belief cluster? (includes Resources for further reading)