The violent rise of QAnon is an anthropological, not historical, phenomenon
There’s currently a “lively debate,” as the euphemism has it, in the American press over whether or not the abortive march on the Capitol last week proves Trump displays fascist tendencies, and whether the global hegemon is undergoing a period of “Weimarisation.”
Hitler’s rise and fall has become the founding myth of liberal democracy, but the relentless focus on 12 years of European history at the exclusion of all else obscures far more than it reveals. In many ways, America’s politics is better understood though analogy with colonial or post-colonial societies than through comparisons with prewar Europe, and the QAnon phenomenon driving much of the recent revolutionary mobilisation is a perfect example.
Consider the basic building blocks of the Q cosmology: a secret entity in possession of hidden knowledge passes messages, in coded form, to its devoted followers; according to Q’s wisdom, Trump’s term of office has not been marked by failure, but by fantastic (secret) success, with Trump the central figure in an ongoing war of good against evil, victory in which will cast out the usurpers of the corrupt regime from power, and restore America to a time of happiness and plenty. This is not politics as we understand it, but religion: it is, in fact, what anthropologists call a revitalisation movement, or crisis cult.
These movements take root in societies and ethnic groups undergoing a period of great and traumatic change, a time when “society appears to be disintegrating, social bonds dissolving, and chaos appears imminent,” when “ordered, structured reality is disrupted, and the collective self-esteem shattered.” At such times, in the right circumstances, a charismatic leader appears, in possession of occult knowledge, who promises to cast out the evil of the new regime — evil often linked with demographic change — and lead his followers to a utopian future, often through militarised mobilisation against the new order.
The Ghost Dance movement of the Plains Indians is the classic example from which the concept derives, but the pattern exists across all societies. Instead of Nazi Germany, we may be better off comparing Q to the Holy Spirit Movement of 1980s Uganda.
In 1986, the ethnic Acholi peasant woman Alice Auma became possessed by a series of spirits, primarily one called Lakwena, who instructed her followers, through a series of cryptic instructions, to mobilise and overthrow the Ugandan state, and restore Acholi society to a state of peaceful cohesion. Politically defeated and dispossessed, the Acholi were ripe for mobilisation: following Lakwena’s guidance, they marched on the capital Kampala, and were massacred by the state’s security forces.
America has a rich tradition of millenarian religious cult formation in a way Europe has not for many centuries. Instead of returning again and again to Nazi Germany — and LARPing the 1930s in the streets and in the comment pages as both liberal and authoritarian activists seem compelled to — perhaps by looking for less worn-out analogies American commentators can understand their political crisis better, and avoid reworking Europe’s great tragedy as their own farce — and circumvent a novel tragedy of their own.