QAnon Filled the Void Left by Trump’s Nihilism
Without the right words, there can be no true reality — QAnon exploited Trump’s lies to create an alternate universe.
We all know the story by now. According to the mysterious Q, Donald Trump was waging a secret war against a global cult of Satanic Democratic paedophiles. One day, the Storm would happen, the day of reckoning. Trump would reveal the truth to the world, perpetrators would be arrested and executed, and he would rule America forever as a benevolent dictator.
“How could anyone believe this nonsense,” you’re asking yourself the question right now, aren’t you? I know I do. Whenever I read anything about the QAnon conspiracy theory, I roll my eyes in disbelief. Yet, millions of people adhere to this deranged narrative. Five per cent of registered voters are Q-believers. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert, two GOP freshwomen representatives, are openly supporting the conspiracy.
In the face of such widespread acceptance, we cannot be satisfied with the explanation that all these people are stupid or uneducated. A glance at the r/qanoncasualties subreddit tells us many of the cult’s victims are well-read and respectable people. They come from all walks of life and backgrounds.
There is something more profound and fundamental going on; something that talks to people the world over, whatever their life experiences and creeds. It has to do with language and rhetoric; it has to do with our deep-rooted need for meaning and purpose.
More specifically, the success and rise of QAnon are inextricably linked to the emptiness of Donald Trump’s political discourse, his constant spewing of lies, and his depraved nihilism and narcissism. Trump didn’t create QAnon, but his behaviour and words as president turned it into the mass-phenomenon it is today.
When people look up to their political leaders, it is to find sense and guidance in their discourse and actions. Leaders lead from the top-down, they lead by example, and the one Donald Trump has set is deceitful, selfish, and perverted.
It is no wonder that faced with an empty lying amoral suit, people turned to something else to make sense of the world. They turned to what was readily available: social media and their groups of friends and acquaintances.
And there, they met Q.
Without the right words, there can be no true reality.
Human beings have a deeply ingrained need for meaning and purpose. It is in our nature to look for patterns, even where there is none. We look for a reason behind every event because there must be a reason. We seek causality and, if we find none, we imagine it. We have to know and understand why.
Some can achieve this alone, through philosophy and introspection. Most people look for strong leadership to remind them of where they’re going and why. These needs for guidance and validation gave birth to all religions, who are nothing but attempts to explain the unexplainable and provide an ethical path. They also gave rise to politics, parties, and ideologies, which all try to make sense of the world’s complexity.
Religion is based on faith and beliefs, while politics is grounded in truth and facts. Or rather, I should say “should be grounded,” as the past five years have demonstrated nothing of the sort.
The day after he took his oath of office, Donald Trump’s first action as president was to lie about the most mundane of all topics: his inauguration crowd. Back then, we were still a bit naive about Trump. Some of us felt that the US had entered a dangerous era that could lead it to fascism; others dismissed Trump as a powerless clown that would be “tamed by D.C.”
I never believed Trump could be tamed. I feared him for what he was and still is: a nihilist without values or ethics, a selfish, entitled lunatic whose only goal is his enrichment, an incompetent lying fascist whose public discourse would poison American society for decades. Because, as Trump proved by the negative, words have meaning. More importantly, words create meaning. They make the reality we live in, and without the right words, there can be no true reality.
For words to carry meaning, we must believe in the authenticity of the speaker.
In linguistics, this is called linguistic determinism, the idea that “language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought.” Research conducted since the beginning of the 20th century tends to demonstrate that, indeed, our ability to verbalise them limit our thoughts. Amazonian tribes who have no numbers in their language tend to perform poorly at arithmetic tasks. Aboriginal tribes from Australia who rely on a cardinal direction system have far greater situational awareness.
In politics and communication, advertising and propaganda are two forms of linguistic determinism. Why do you think companies and political parties strive to develop original slogans, brand names, and neologisms? They are trying to create their vocabulary and grammar. In turn, those will create specific mindsets. Linguistic determinism also plays a role in what Hitler called the Big lie (große Lüge), “a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” The Big lie relies on repetition ad nauseam of a few keywords and concepts. Quoting Hitler once again, “all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
The creation or appropriation of a specific vocabulary is at the root of most fascist and extreme movements. At the onset of Trump’s one term, we, unfortunately, discovered the alt-right and its dialect. Attaching new meanings to existing words or creating new ones altogether is a way to organise and orient your followers' thought processes. It differentiates between those in the movement and those outside of it, to create a community.
Trump appropriated the alt-right vocabulary and created his own on top of it. But something strange happened on the way, something that can only be explained by his very nature.
For words to carry meaning, we must believe in the authenticity of the speaker. We must assume and accept that person talking intends to share value with its audience; their words, the signifiers, are attached to chosen meanings, the signified. With Trump, however, this was never obvious. Sometimes, people could interpret his words as irony, and they would know that the true meaning was the opposite of what was said. Most of the time, however, it looked like Trump was speaking without a purpose. He uttered words without meaning.
Trump’s speech is something with which the human brain isn’t prepared to deal. Humans are wired to look for patterns, even where there are none. We want to find causality between unrelated events; we look for the common threads; we seek an explanation. Trump couldn’t merely be an amoral nihilist idiot. He had to have a purpose. According to his supporters, he was continually playing “4D chess” with us mere mortals.
Being the president imbued Trump with renewed moral authority. Synecdochally, we transfer the quality of the Office onto its holder. People look up to the president for meaning and purpose, because they are the leader; it is their job to guide us through thick and thin. They must have had good intentions to seek the highest, most demanding office in the land. We must follow and, if we disagree, we must give them a chance to prove themselves.
This attitude led people to look up to Trump as their guide, as their leader. Trump had already developed a macho, vulgar, and anti-intellectual rhetoric that resonated with the most brutish of citizens during the campaign. Once instilled with the dignity of the Office, his rhetoric took on another dimension. Trump was talking to the world; he was speaking for History. His followers listened to every word as Gospel.
Instead of salvation, they got lies—lots of them. In four years in the Oval Office, Trump told 30,573 lies, 50% of which in 2020 alone. Think about it for a minute. It comes down to roughly 40 lies a day at a time when the country is going through its worst crisis in a century.
Unsurprisingly, online QAnon activities boomed in 2020. Caught in the worst year of their lives, people desperate for meaning and purpose turned to Trump and the government for aid and solace. They were met with selfishness and deceit. No direction would come from the White House; no support or guidance. They then turned to their favourite news sources (Fox, Infowars, OANN, Newsmax) who all redirected them to Q.
Q explained the world in simple, Manichean terms to them. It provided them with a plan. After all, one of the most infamous slogans of the conspiracy is “trust the plan.” Q provided these lost souls with a sense of community, once again enshrined in a motto: WWG1WGA, “where we go one, we go all.”
Q provided meaning to millions of people who, having sought it from their political leaders, had found nothing but lies and greed. QAnon also provided them with the bliss of cognitive dissonance: Trump was acting selfishly as a cover. The truth was, he was working in secret to bring the satanic cabal down. Followers didn’t have to doubt their leader and themselves. He wasn’t authentic because he was hiding his real purpose.
Suddenly, and in a twisted way, all was right in the world.
The Storm never came. The conspiracy theorists were not vindicated, and now Trump is gone from the White House, from Twitter and, hopefully, from our minds. But QAnon lives on. Like all conspiracies, QAnon is based on irrefutable claims. When something doesn’t happen as planned, the theory adapts its narrative to fit the new reality. This way, it never dies. It’s actually growing. The conspiracy has gone global, gaining traction in Germany and Japan.
All over the world, people face the harshest years of their lives and, in the face of political incompetence, negligence, or disdain, they turn to something that provides them with meaning and purpose. In the same way that all cults operate, QAnon preys on the weak and the fragile. It provides a path towards redemption to those who wander and cannot grasp the world's complexity and its leaders' hypocrisy.
Trump and the GOP are the most blatant example of this trend, but there are Trumps, Cruz and McConnells all over the planet, in power or soon-to-be. These people have seen how gullible millions are and how easy it is to instrumentalise them. Savvy political operators are starting to understand that politics in the 21st century isn’t a game of debate and rhetoric anymore: it is a game of vocabulary and grammar.