Badham, V. 2021. QAnon and on: A short and shocking history of internet conspiracy cults. Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 469p.1
I cannot remember where I heard about this book initially, but a Facebook post by Van Badham instigated its acquisition as I trawled around compiling my Christmas list of books. I have had a great deal of interest in this QAnon phenomenon and other wacky conspiracies ever since I learnt of them some years ago, and have written a few items about them, in Australia2, 3, and in the US4.
Q is an unknown person who has posted turbid stuff on some unmoderated social media sites (e.g. 4chan) that followers try to decipher. The story put about at the time was that Q was a person inside the US federal government with a high-level security clearance.
Apart from the initial explanation of how the book began its journey, it really begins in Australia with what Badham terms a ‘disturbing article’ in the Guardian in 2019. This was in reference to then Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mate, who was then referred to exclusively by his Twitter handle (@BurnedSpy34) but later turned out to be Tim Stewart, whose family is close to the Morrison family. Badham relates how Stewart’s wacky beliefs have torn his extended family apart, which seems to be a common theme among those who jump on the QAnon bandwagon. What could possess a person to do that? Facts seem to have no impact on him. I suspect it is no accident that Stewart and his wife are of the same evangelical persuasion as the Morrison family. The only other people I know who are followers of this Q fantasy are also Christians, and I suspect are of the evangelical variety. Belief, or faith, as it is often termed, is looked upon as a virtue. This clearly demonstrates that it isn’t.
Badham then wades into the Gamergate fiasco, in which some boys were aghast at the possibility that some women could have the gall to think they could get into the gamer ‘community’. This, according to Badham, was a ‘gateway drug’ that was a sign of things to come, as it quickly descended from simple misogyny into anti-semitism, nazism and all sorts of personal abuse and threats against these women.
The next sojourn into the mind of the terminally gullible was the hilarious Pizzagate story. The upshot of this was that in December 2016, one Maddison Welch drove an assortment of guns from North Carolina to Washington D.C. to a pizza restaurant which he was convinced was a front for Hillary Clinton’s use of the restaurant’s basement to eat children. There was one problem with this; the restaurant did not have a basement, but it did have a door Welch could not open, so he shot that up. It was a small storeroom. He was the primary carer for his two daughters and in the middle of 2017 was sentenced to 4 years in prison. It is almost impossible to imagine the thought processes which caused him to drive many kilometres to shoot up a cupboard.
After this hilarity, Badham gets into the nitty gritty and begins the QAnon story which commenced with an October 20, 2017, post on 4chan which stated that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested or, in case she did a bunk, to be extradited from wherever she bunked off to. It was also stated that there would be massive riots organised in defiance, with others also likely doing a bunk. The fact that this stuff never happened doesn’t seem to have made an impact on the QAnon believers; they had seemingly moved on to the next prediction. As Badham notes, on 4chan, there is a tradition of live action role playing (LARPing), and while some people believed that this Q stuff was simply LARPing, others did not; they fell for it hook, line and sinker. The believers were convinced that Donald Trump was fighting a war against all these Satan-worshipping paedophiles and that his tactics were so sophisticated that they likened it to Trump playing 4-dimensional chess to outsmart the paedophiles. To believe the vacant Trump could undertake anything sophisticated in any way is hilarious, and shows how gullible these people are.
Badham then begins to analyse how the QAnon conspiracies work; how the ‘crumbs’ left by Q are ‘studied’ and mulled over by ‘bakers’ who come to a conclusion as to what the next fantasy is. She also covers the tendency towards increasing violence in the actions of the gullible followers, and how this has spread to other countries. Perhaps the saddest part of the book was the case studies of two young women who imbibed the Qool-aid, alienated their families and ended up dead in the January 6th insurrection. That insurrection was replete with QAnon gullibles and QAnon iconography. This section also detailed how Fox News and others tried to shift the blame for January 6th onto ‘fascist Antifa’ (?), such are the fantasies of the Murdoch media.
While I had been interested enough to follow bits and pieces of the QAnon idiocy well before reading this book, I found the detailed story fascinating and unputdownable. However, the most psychologically interesting was the suggested reasons why these QAnon fantasies have appealed to so many. This appeal is despite every prediction made by Q and those who interpret the more turbid items, being incorrect; from the arrest of Hillary Clinton, to the supposed return of the centenarian John Fitzgerald Kennedy. One wonders how long it will take for some of the gullibles to catch on that they have been had.
One of the extraordinary features to come out of the study of the insurrectionists who were of the QAnon cult, was that they came from all walks of life and were not all poorly educated, unemployed, or with criminality in their history; some were highly educated, employed and with no criminal history. Just like many Trump supporters have been labelled with the ‘boomer-rube’ stereotype (rube being the American term for redneck bumpkins), those who follow Q were initially considered to be part of the ‘lumpenroletariat’ (to use the terminology of Marx) which includes the “unemployed, underemployed, the rootless and the criminal”. Further analyses indicated that this was likely inaccurate, with only about 9 percent of the insurrectionists being unemployed, and many being business owners or white-collar workers.
While many of the people the QAnon followers “rubbed shoulders” with on January 6th were white supremacists and neonazis, the QAnons are not so much concerned with genetic suremacy as with cultural supremacy. The counties where it has taken off, the US, UK, Canada and Australia belong to a “predominantly white, Christian, patriarchal, heteronormative, property-owning and xenophobic” tradition. The QAnon followers look upon the rapidly changing world as an existential threat to this culture. There are numerous other factors at play, but to wade through them all would spoil the ending of Badham’s astonishingly wonderful book. In addition, the proposed solution to this madness was unlike anything I could have imagined.
I have read many books in the last few years and this is, by some distance, the best written, most engrossing book I have read in all that time. I can do nothing but recommend it as a superb explanation and documentation of one of the most profoundly ridiculous cultural phenomena of the last few decades.