January 7, 2021

At just about the time that America’s Congress was scheduled to recognise Joe Biden as the winner of the Electoral College’s vote, the Senate dais was occupied by the stunningly athletic figure known as Q Shaman. A known figure in the online conspiracy network QAnon, this man wore a horned fur helmet, and his bearded face was painted in a pastiche of the American flag. His torso, not unlike the one Brad Pitt achieved in Fight Club, covered in tattoos. Q Shaman’s mates took photos of him on the Senate floor, as they shouted, “Where’s Pence? Show yourself!”

This scene was broadcast across the globe — and I imagine many people looked upon it with a certain kind of awe, as I have looked upon footage of the botched Gullenist coup in Turkey in 2016, or the live-streamed terrorist attacks around Paris in 2015. This is history, live. A state is being challenged. But this time the world got to see it happening in the most important country in the world, the United States. The added frisson must have been delectable. Not only “this is history”, but perhaps, this is a symbol of a changing world order. Or, maybe, this is a fate richly deserved, comeuppance for a puffed-up hegemon who arrogantly elected an obnoxious oaf as the leader of the free world.

Every which way it was gripping to watch; the whole ragtag look enjoyably daft. And the world learned: this is what the world’s superpower looks like right now. The most powerful country on earth can see its Senate dispersed, its election results delayed, and its Vice President fleeing for protection from a relatively small rabble that was entirely unarmed, save for their memes.

One could say that Q Shaman and his friends had been sent to the Senate by Donald Trump himself, to hunt out the Vice President. In the day before these events, Trump had taken his White House pressure campaign public. Having failed to uncover evidence of voter fraud, the Trump campaign had tried to disqualify votes or whole states from the 2020 presidential election with bizarre legal theories. Maybe the election violated American civil rights, or wasn’t scrutinising mail-in ballots differently at least? American courts, many of them staffed with judges Trump appointed, rejected these theories.

The latest idea, one that had been circulating widely among conspiracy theory social media accounts associated with QAnon, focused on the Vice President. The Queueties held that Mike Pence had the power to keep Trump as president. The 12th Amendment specifies that the President of the Senate — the Vice President — counts the certified votes of the Electoral College. Pence, they believed, could simply refuse to count the votes from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and so on. Technically, the sitting Vice President could annul all 50 states and disenfranchise 150 million or more voters. Couldn’t he? Trump warmed to the theory.

It’s not even clear whether Constitutional interpretation interests QAnon. For those who don’t know the conspiracy theory, Q holds that Donald Trump is confronting the malevolent people — many of them paedophiles — who want to politically enslave us, and that he is succeeding. Most of the news is just a shadow of the real events: the pandemic, the death of a GOP Congressman from Covid-19, and the harassment of Senator Josh Hawley were all planned volleys in this ongoing shadow war between good and evil. In this black and white moral battle, Mike Pence was the only character whose ultimate loyalties were unknown. One could tally the evidence up either way. Stay tuned!

Donald Trump spoke about Mike Pence exactly this way at the pre-riot rally, emphasising the forthcoming turn of the plot and heightening the drama. “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election… ” Trump said: “All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people.”

Pence released a letter confirming that he obviously did not have constitutional powers to overrule the people in an election. Within a few hours, he would be rushed out of the Senate chamber for his safety. And Trump tweeted:

The American public is in many ways inured to Trump, having long internalised his generally high level of bullshit. But in a day of many strange happenings, the president publicly accusing the Vice President of participating in the overthrow of the American form of government has to rank in history somewhere.

Most of the MAGA occupiers were not violent. They simply walked into the Capitol building after the initial violent wave caused the overmatched Capitol police to retreat.  Many were unlikely to know the stranger menagerie of second and third-tier internet rabble rousers who strolled into Congressional offices with them. Legislative staffers who remained in their offices boarded up their doors, waiting for an all-clear from the police. In an affray near the Senate Chamber, a young woman was shot and killed by Capitol police; Trumpers are now echoing their BLM counterparts with demands to “say her name”.

Her name was Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt. She was 35 years old and a veteran of the Air Force. Three others died of medical complications in the melee.

Here I must admit that, like several other contrarians, I believed that the danger for America was likelier to come in the form of resistance to Trump, rather than from Trump himself. I read the many prestige publications fantasising about “toppling” Trump as child-like fantasies, the liberal inteligentsia’s vain hope for the villain to finally reveal the depth of his wickedness at the culmination of the story. By doing so, Trump would justify not just his removal, but discredit all his supporters forever.

And forgive me but I still believe it.

Had Trump narrowly prevailed in the Electoral College, I believe hundreds of thousands of the resistance would have gathered in Washington DC and a reprise of the summer’s unrest would have flamed out across the country. This demonstration would have sought to provoke the kind of precipitating events that led to a government losing “moral legitimacy”. The sentiments of this resistance would have had the backing of the powers and principalities in American life. As bad as the brief reign of Q Shaman was, I still think that this Wednesday’s ragtag farce of an insurrection was easier to put down than the alternative.

And yet, the bedlam in Washington D.C. cannot be unseen. A relatively small rabble quickly seized the Capitol from retreating law enforcement. They ran wild in the offices of our elected government. If any rival power was lucky enough to have a capable operative and a thumb drive in DC today, our Congress got pwned today. America’s friends, frenemies and rivals saw these events. You think Angela Merkel is having any second thoughts about the investment agreement with China after this? I don’t.

And then there is Q Shaman himself, and what he represents. Q types will simply present their followers little snippets and clips of the news in a slightly twisted context. The story of the congressman who died of Covid and the story of a protest — maybe an Antifa mob‚ at Senator Josh Hawley’s house are linked to events like the Electoral College certification. And the human mind, talented at pattern formation, will fill in the gaps, and construct for itself the impression that there is a shadowy war between the forces aligned with Trump and the forces that oppose him, with real drama and real casualties.

What Q is doing is just intensifying and slightly re-shaping the common experience of social media, where snippets of outrage and fear are torn slightly out of context and linked together across the most addictive parts of the platforms like Instagram “stories”. Our pattern-making minds work on this constant stimulus, leading us to ever-more adamantine convictions, unshakable suspicions and disquieting fears.

Perhaps my own belief that a liberal insurrection would have been worse than this is one of these confected convictions, imprinted on me by the collision of my biases with the overstimulation of internet media. I can’t discount that possibility.

No one should forget the disgrace and danger that President Trump inflicted on America yesterday. But the thing that will keep me up at night is the knowledge that, in an instant, these confected beliefs and lurid fantasies can leap out of Facebook and Instagram and cause my countrymen to simulate the overthrow of my government. This is a psychological weapon, and somebody is going to learn to use it more effectively. Q Shaman reigned for an instant, and I’ll always wonder if he’s coming back.