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November 3, 2020

Worth a Reminder: QAnon is just an iteration of what we’ve seen before

By Camden Gilreath | For The Post

A merica has been overwrought with anxiety and fear leading up to the 2020 election on every side of the aisle. Fear drives people to irrational ends, not just in the psyche but in action as well. Some may classify the QAnon conspiracy theory, a once obscure online supposition that has ballooned to meteoric popularity among right-wing groups across the country, as a product of irrational fear that came about as sort of an accident. Really, how could such an absurd premise not be the culmination of anything other than unmatched levels of paranoia stoked by a president who propagates more falsity than truth on a daily basis?

As easy as it is to cast it off that way, paranoia and fear are only part of the equation. The other ingredients for such a radical phenomenon entering the mainstream market of ideas has been in the blueprint for years, and QAnon has followed its steps to a T. The modern equivalent of this blueprint, the most prominent movement that this resurgence in right-wing conspiracy talk can be drawn back to McCarthyism.

McCarthyism is an ideology that promulgated anti-communist rhetoric, aggressively spread fear of a communist takeover in the U.S. and portrayed the communist revolution of the Bolsheviks in Russia and other examples as an existential threat to the American way of life. Colloquially known as the second Red Scare, the ideas were reintroduced into policy after World War II, spearheaded by the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin.

McCarthy was ruthless, calculated and highly persuasive in his agenda to deracinate the support of the Soviet Union from within the U.S. government, a premise that he assured was real and dangerous. He gained a mountain of support from equally fierce opponents of the enemy, such as J. Edgar Hoover, who infamously labeled Martin Luther King, Jr. a communist in his attempt to dismantle the civil rights movement.

The impact of anti-communist propaganda in this time period has endured into the present day, as this rhetoric was repeated over and over to the American public and imparted on the youth in school curriculums. Today, President Donald Trump has strategized his re-election campaign to accuse his Democratic opponent of being a communist puppet, eager to sell the country to China. In the process, he’s been asked many times his thoughts on QAnon, which has become relevant enough to warrant the president’s attention since its enigmatic origin in 2017. While he hasn’t endorsed the conspiracy theory in full, he hasn’t denounced it either, and playing it down the middle was the smartest route for him to take.

So, what is QAnon, and how has it reared its head to impact this election? The crux is that President Trump has been a messiah-like character during his four years in office, hellbent on a mission to uncover and dismantle a secret child sex-trafficking ring run by the Democratic Party. The believers in this theory have branded an ostensibly agreeable motto: save the children. This is where the similarities between this movement and the rampant anti-communist movements of the past begin.

Both touted their beliefs with a veneer of something fundamentally benevolent and universally accepted: traitors cannot be trusted in power, and kidnapped children must be rescued from their captors. This makes it manipulative to the average person who isn't scouring everything they come across for covert messaging, especially in the age of the internet. QAnon first began to cultivate its base of support via YouTube advertising, where it targeted uncertain individuals in a time of conflicting media and misinformation.

McCarthyism and QAnon both involve a hero complex, where a sacrosanct leader heads the charge to defeat the innumerous enemy. McCarthyism had a plan to mobilize, took action to commit terrorism in the name of preserving democracy and held large government influence. QAnon, at first a nebulous cause that was little more than a vendetta against George Soros, now has a plan to mobilize, has taken action to commit terrorism in the name of saving children and holds minor government influence.

The largest separators between the two conspiracies are likely the most consequential. McCarthyism was more effectively marketed as a goal to fortify U.S. national security, which is an easy position to support electorally. It was also founded on tangible evidence of international events, and the dangers were not completely baseless. QAnon does not have the same buttress of substantiated evidence and has yet to present a compelling appeal for most Americans to jump on, which has limited it to a relatively small nucleus of passionate support. McCarthy and his allies were able to successfully advance their agenda, and even though Republican candidates for Congress have openly subscribed to QAnon, no such legislation has been proposed citing the theory’s suppositions.

QAnon gets points for creativity but not originality. This type of fear mongering for political expedience has been used before, and it happened on a larger scale. Despite being just another iteration of moral panic, it will be interesting to follow the evolution of the movement that has gained significant momentum just months before President Trump could be out of office. What will happen if he doesn’t get re-elected? Will the theory’s fervent support intensify even more? Will it rebrand itself in another form in the near future? Only time will tell.

Camden Gilreath is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Camden know by tweeting him @camgilreath23.

AUTHOR: Camden Gilreath
EDITOR: Mikayla Rochelle
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger