The Marriage That Conspiracy Killed.
The Marriage That Conspiracy Killed
Everyone remembers where they were when Trump won the election. Alex and Mary* remember it especially well. It was the night their relationship fell apart.
The evening of November 8th, 2016 was the culmination of years of ideological differences between the two. As state after state fell for Donald Trump, it became clear that the beginning of this new chapter in American history would mark the end of their marriage.
During the presidential campaign, Mary had become a dedicated conspiracy theorist, paving the way for her whole-hearted commitment to a group known as “Q anon”. With Trump and his allies amplifying the bizarre theories of Q anon, it has recently received an avalanche of media attention. But the catalysing elements of the movement have been brewing for decades.
For Alex, Trump’s election was the final straw.
“I had a nervous breakdown” says Alex. “By the time the election happened I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole Trump thing and all the weird stuff Mary was getting into. I just fell apart”.
Mary is unambiguous about the reason their marriage ended, “It is 100% my fault. I came into it is as one person and left as another”.
Alex and Mary moved from Sydney to Los Angeles in February, 2014. Alex had some work lined up and they decided to take the leap. He was pulling long days in the new job and Mary had a lot of time to kill, away from her family and friends. The internet allowed her to connect with people back home and it was a great way to find things to do in a new town.
Even before the move, Mary spent a lot of time online. She was a regular on the 4- chan message board, a place for alternative opinions from anti-vaccination and UFOs to animal rights and alternative medicine.
After a series of bungled health diagnoses, Mary had lost faith that the medical authorities were all they were cracked up to be. This distrust of authority quickly spread to the way she viewed all structures of power. She became a dedicated “anti-vaxxer,” vehemently opposed to the use of vaccines. 4-chan had vibrant communities for discussing these issues and more.
At the darker end of the 4-chan spectrum were several large communities dedicated to white supremacy groups, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and holocaust denial. 4-chan was a place to espouse fringe opinions and find others who shared them. Mary’s network of 4-chan friends became an increasingly important antidote to the sense of alienation she experienced in LA.
The 4-chan message board, later replaced by 8-chan (collectively referred to as“the chans”), was early to get on the Trump train. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and the boards lit up with messages of support.
While Mary’s husband jeered Trump’s orange skin and ridiculous hair, chided his clumsy vocabulary and rankled at his remarks, an avid following was growing across America and the world. In Trump, Mary saw someone who was finally going to shake up the establishment and put an end to the hegemony of the political elite. She liked the sound of that.
“I was praying and meditating for Trump to win” she says “that is where all of my consciousness was”.
Alex admits he didn’t take Mary’s Trump fascination seriously.
“If she brought up Trump with me, I just sort of tried to shut it down” he says ,“ I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to seriously believe in that guy’s bullshit”.
Further ostracised by the views of those around her, Mary’s online communities became more important. She began to seek out events where she could explore some of her new ideas and meet like- minded people. One day in the Autumn of 2016, Alex drove Mary out past the used car yards and fast food joints of South LA to a convention centre near the airport.
“I knew she had been doing some chanting or something with the Hare Krishnas and was also dabbling in some scientology”, says Alex. “So that is where I thought she was going with it all. It was her thing and I respected that. I just didn’t want to know about it”.
Mary wasn’t on her way to see a Hare Krishna group. She was going to see a day long presentation by David Icke, an English conspiracy theorist whose ideas include a marauding race of nefarious reptilians from a parallel dimension, anti-Semitism and holocaust denial, UFO invasions and shady deep state power structures, just to name a few. Icke has predicted the end of the world several times (incorrectly, thus far) and most of his predictions end with a cataclysmic showdown between good and evil. In 2019, the Australian Government rejected Icke’s visa application with
both sides of parliament agreeing to refuse him entry on grounds of character.
While an army of multi-dimensional lizard people may seem far- fetched, Public Policy Polling released a study in April, 2013 which showed that 4% of Americans believe lizard people control the world. That is more than 12 million people.
Mary describes how she felt after seeing Icke speak, “I came away smiling. I felt like everything was clear, like it all made sense”.
In October 2017, an anonymous blog post turned up on the message boards. It was posted by a mysterious member, named “Q”, who claimed to be a high level US government whistleblower with secrets to reveal.
Again, Mary felt like puzzle pieces were falling into place. “I had been waiting for this. I knew Q was coming” she says.
The early Q posts predicted that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested and had already been indicted. This was false, but the
excitement of the announcement inspired the imagination of conspiracy theorists and Trump fans alike.
Q followers often refer to “taking the red pill”, a reference to blockbuster film ‘The Matrix’. In the movie, Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, must choose between a red pill that will allow him to understand the truth of the world, or a blue pill which will see him cursed with eternal ignorance. With this frequent reference, modern conspiracy theorists across the internet reveal an arrogance. There is a belief that they alone have the answers and everyone who disagrees is a fool.
David Singh Grewal is Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. He has written extensively on the effects of globalisation and has published research on the dynamics of conspiracies. He says the roots of conspiracy theory can be found “partly in the negative effects of the liquidation of certain classes by globalisation”.
“There is a desire to be seen as part of an oppressed group, but also as the victor” Grewal explains.
If an over-simplified enemy can be presented, then followers of conspiracies can imagine themselves as “the one good cop that takes down the bad guys and makes America great again” he says. He defines this transition between powerlessness and superiority as a “quick psychological reversal that takes place in narcissistic grandiosity”.
Grewal goes on to point out that coordination among elites regularly occurs in full view of the public and does not require hidden conspiracy. He cites the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, where the rich and powerful get together to influence public policy.
“The informed critic, staring hard in the face of the realities of these long inherited structures of capital may indeed feel very insignificant” says Grewal, “whereas the conspiracy theory gives
some feeling of empowerment to the person who believes in it. They feel they have all the answers”.
Rather than being one specific conspiracy theory, Q anon is better thought of as a constellation of conspiracy theories. At the core of this ever expanding galaxy of conspiratorial solar systems is the idea that a shady cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles are working in the shadows to bring down Donald Trump’s presidency. Q anon followers believe this cadre includes Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, the Bush family and many other notable figures. The narrative takes a sharp turn into anti-Semitism with relentless attacks on billionaire philanthropist George Soros and other high profile Jewish people.
This anti-semitic invective is linked to a document that dates back to the early 20th century called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which purports to be the outline of a secret Jewish plan to take over the world. In reality, the document was a piece of disinformation created by the Russian empire in 1901 and later became a foundational part of the Nazi doctrine. David Icke has feverishly promoted this document as authentic.
This is just one of the many dangerous, baseless ideas that begin to emerge under the umbrella of Q anon, along with: Hillary Clinton harvesting the blood of babies so she can drink it, Barrack Obama faking his birth certificate and being a foreign agent (an idea connected to well-worn racist tropes), Trump being an angel from heaven and a cannibalistic Luciferian child sex cult somehow controlling every single government in the world. Predictably, the traumatic effects of the Covid pandemic are also dragged into the fray, casting government health measures as authoritarian population control.
Five thousand odd messages after the original post, Q anon content is now a rambling mish-mash of obtuse references and over- complicated “drops” of clues. Despite Q claiming access to damning classified material, every post is just a regurgitation of
publicly available information organised into a dramatic narrative concocted to keep millions of followers coming back for more.
At a recent press conference, Trump was asked about Q anon .
“I don’t know much about the movement but I have heard that it is gaining popularity…they do supposedly like me very much” he intoned.
A reporter asks the president a follow-up question.
“Parts of the Q theory believe that you are saving the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals, do you agree?”
Trump puffs up and responds, “Well, is that supposed to be a bad thing? If I can help save the world I am willing to do it”.
Aside from Q being a high level of security clearance at the US Department of Energy, no one can agree on who Q actually is.
Mary says it is a group of people rather than an individual. She believes them to be military officials and she is adamant they are working closely with Trump. Other theories of the q identity include the founder of the 8-chan message board, Jim Watkins, and some suggest that the whole thing could be a counter-intelligence operation being run by the Russian government. Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories.
The genius of Q is that it remains non-specific. Just about anyone can find a version of truth that suits their palate. For Mary, it was distrust in the medical system and disgust at child abuse. Others have been motivated by changing racial demographics, feminism, gun rights, corona, 5G towers – you name it. BYO fears and grievances.
The baseless rhetoric of conspiracy theory blooms in the hothouse of uncertainty and things are getting more uncertain by the day. The alarming volume of conspiracy theories running rampant across social media are beginning to bleed into the mainstream media, blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Anyone can be forgiven for getting depressed and overwhelmed by global events. The world is confusing and distressing at the best of times. Human brains are designed to find patterns, search for reason, work out why and how things happen. When people get confused and upset it is tempting to cling to one umbrella theory that explains it all.
Alex says he doesn’t think he could have changed Mary’s mind but he is philosophical about the way society criticises and engages with conspiracy theories.
“I just couldn’t get past taking the piss out of it” he says. “But I think that is the problem with Q and this whole Trump thing. Everyone on the left just spends too much time making jokes”.
Obama hilariously roasted Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner and the audience laughed along as Trump sat hunched over, fuming at his table. The humiliation of that night is often cited as the moment that fuelled Trump’s commitment to win the presidency by any means necessary. Whether or not that is true, one thing is for certain: ridicule and alienation of these dangerous conspiracy theories is no longer the way forward. Trump is not a joke and Q anon is not a punchline.
Asked if she thinks the web of Q anon conspiracies might all be bullshit, Mary pauses for a moment.
“Well, I guess it could be. But it’s a great story if it is”.
* Alex and Mary’s names were changed for this article.
** An edited version of this article was first published by The Guardian.