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What to Do with Q: How can Nietzsche help us understand QAnon?

Why do conspiracy theories like QAnon gain such a massive following? How can Nietzsche’s philosophy help us understand QAnon?

QAnon’s (failed) Storm

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but over the past decade conspiracy theories have morphed from fringe narratives to fanatical, cult-like networks. And during the Trump Administration, one conspiracy stood out for its ability to radicalize people like few before it: QAnon.

In a nutshell, QAnon purports that our planet is ruled by pedophilic elites, and that Donald Trump is our savior who will expose these elites’ dastardly deeds. The day when Trump will expose these elites is called “the Storm” and was supposed to have happened before Joe Biden’s inauguration. But the Storm didn’t happen. Because QAnon’s fantasy isn’t true. 

Though the Storm never happened, there are still QAnoners, and many of them should know better. As of now, there are two Representatives in the House who are open QAnoners, and I’ve known teachers, lawyers, and even a Stanford graduate who excitedly told me about the pending Storm in 2020. Since Biden’s inauguration, we’ve heard talk about deradicalizing people who have fallen prey to “Trumpism,” of which QAnon is one manifestation. This process has yet to be clearly defined, and until it is, we will continue to see QAnoners cling to new pet theories (such as Trump acting as Shadow President) and non-QAnoners (both left- and right-wing) deriding QAnoners as hopeless and ignorant.

It would be easy to end the QAnon story there. We could look back at how QAnon convinced thousands of gullible Americans into believing this political fairytale and we could laugh at QAnoners until the next big conspiracy theory hits our culture. But dismissing QAnon with derision and laughter would be to ignore the larger issue: why people believed QAnon and why some still believe it. Furthermore, how do we reintegrate QAnoners into mainstream, rational society? We could continue to vilify and ridicule them, but this would only alienate them further. To reach these people, we need to stop combatting QAnon with facts and arguments, and instead address QAnon as a cultural and emotional phenomenon. 

Nietzsche and QAnoners

In The Antichrist (1895), Friedrich Nietzsche paints a portrait of early Christianity which I think parallels the QAnon movement. Whereas early Christians (according to Nietzsche) valued pity and mercy, the Romans valued ideals such as courage and strength. These opposing value systems fostered resentment within early Christians toward their Pagan Roman rulers, and in response, the Christians developed their own narratives (Gospels) which positioned their moral system above that of the Romans. Though Nietzsche uses this narrative to highlight the differences between what he called “slave morality” and “master morality,” it’s nevertheless a useful model for understanding the emotional roots of movements like QAnon. At heart, Nietzsche’s narrative is one about antipathy, resentment, and people who feel their beliefs and values are subordinated by the dominant culture’s.

If we compare QAnoners to Nietzsche’s early Christians, some similarities stand out. QAnoners, by and large, subscribe to many reactionary beliefs of the Alt-Right, and we could say that this “Alt-Right morality” is opposed to the “conventional morality” shared by non-QAnoners (both liberal and conservative). And as a conspiracy theory, QAnon subscribes to an alternate version of the truth. Ideas such as “white genocide” and globalist takeovers, while dismissed by the conventional morality of non-QAnoners, have been appropriated by QAnoners into a framework which justifies their exclusionary, reactionary beliefs. 

Just as Nietzsche’s early Christians vilified Pagan Romans as violent and debaucherous, QAnoners have created a mythos in which the “elite liberals” they resented in the past are now child predators. And just as the early Christians used the figure of Jesus to exemplify what Nietzsche calls ‘slave morality”, QAnoners have elevated Trump to a mythic savior who exemplifies Alt-Right morality. Both QAnoners and Nietzsche’s early Christians feel cast-out by the dominant culture, whether that culture be a shadowy group of elites or the Roman Empire. As a result, they’ve clung to an alternative moral system and have created a new version of the truth. In this version of the truth, the elites are demonized and Trump is hailed as a saving grace. 

This framework allows us to understand QAnon as an emotional and cultural phenomenon, but does it offer any solutions? One limitation of Nietzsche’s slave v. master distinction is that he portrays these moralities as exclusionary: they can’t coexist in the same society. Nietzsche’s schema of moral systems is one of conquest and replacement, which, in a representative republic like the modern-day United States, just isn’t practical. Those of us who subscribe to conventional morality can’t persecute or make martyrs of QAnoners in good conscience, and we of course don’t want to be replaced or conquered by QAnoners. Instead, we need to deradicalize these people from their Alt-Right morality while paying special attention to their emotional needs. 

Toward Deradicalization

If early Christians and Pagan Romans had the Internet, how would history have unfolded? Would a Roman have rolled her eyes at her Christian cousin’s blog posts about the Second Coming and dismissed him as a crank, or would she have engaged with him and attempted to understand the basis for his beliefs?

This example is of course a fantasy, but today we have the means to engage in these kinds of dialogues. Conversations between QAnoners and non-QAnoners (especially those which take place online) may be the only long-term, practical solutions for deradicalizing and reintegrating QAnoners. Trying to dispel QAnon via logic and facts is like trying to defeat a brick wall at a game of tennis. As evidenced by the new slew of theories which have cropped up after the first Storm failed to deliver, logic and rationality have been ineffective tools against a culture which is largely motivated by resentment and fear. Non-QAnoners need to reach out to the QAnoners in their lives and sincerely ask them why they feel this way. Their Alt-Right morality is born from fear of a rapidly transforming social landscape defined by greater diversity and globalization, and many of these individuals feel they are being thrown aside as the world continues to evolve. 

Empathy may be our greatest tool here. 2020 dealt many of us an uncertain hand, and it was a year in which access to food, shelter, employment, and even toilet paper were suddenly unknown variables. We questioned whether our local and federal governments had our best interests in mind, and we finally had a taste of the distrust and fear which fuels the minds of conspiracy theorists. This shared experience can be the common ground on which we can open dialogues about fear and insecurity. From there, the false ideas can slowly but surely fall away.

Afterward, when we finally lay QAnon to rest, it will benefit us to remind ourselves of Nietzsche’s attitude toward shame. Earlier I stated that non-QAnoners won’t help anyone by ridiculing or shaming QAnoners, and the same applies to how we should treat ex-QAnoners in the future. Nietzsche acknowledges that history has its share of ugly and shameful periods, but wallowing in shame or collective guilt does little to benefit the individual or collective society. The same principle can be applied to personal history. At certain times in our life, under certain circumstances, we’re more susceptible to believing far-flung ideas. Whether these beliefs are Santa Claus, a cult, or a conspiracy theory, each of us has the potential to believe irrational things. 

Moving forward, ex-QAnoners should understand that the conspiracy quagmire they fell in is one anybody could have fallen in. To believe against our better judgment is an innate human quality, and should thus be accepted rather than shunned. Any of us could have been QAnoners, and as we work toward deradicalization, we need to remember this. 

Lane Chasek

Lane is currently an editor for Jokes Literary Review and is the founding editor of Warp 10 Lit. Lane is interested in folklore, the evolution of conspiracy theories, and online subcultures.