In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies faced a daunting task. Not only had the war had a devastating impact on Germany’s industrial and economic might – since mangling the German industrial machine was essential to defeating its military – but the Allies were faced with a territory that had undergone years of intense propagandizing. Stationed for many years in Berlin, CBS journalist William Shirer would later write in his seminal work The Rise and Fall of Third Reich, “No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”
Germany by no means had a monopoly on propaganda. Every nation on either side of World War II produced some degree of propaganda, hopeful that it could maintain social order and high morale throughout the war by convincing the public that it was on the right side. Americans stressed that the Soviets were now friends and allies, the Japanese proclaimed that all Asian races would be united as one family under Japanese hegemony, the collaborationist French insisted that Germany had the best interests of Europe at heart, the British declared that the tenacity of the British people was stronger than any other and could survive any hardship. But the Germans had been subject to government messaging long before the start of the war in a way that almost no other country had, except maybe the Soviet Union – where all messaging was government messaging, of course – but even there, pre-war propaganda tended to focus on the need to eliminate bourgeois elements like religion and fine art from daily life.
German propaganda had been hard-hitting from the start. German media was censored in 1933 and the government approved news stories before they could be published or broadcast. Control of the truth was essential. Whereas Soviet propaganda sought to impact truth, so facts could be reported freely because the facts would support Soviet ideology, Nazi propaganda sought to distort the facts to support their own goals. If the Soviets wanted to broadcast that they built ten new factories, they would declare that factory-building was the perfect job for the good communist man and push workers to build the factories or face social ostracism. If the Nazis wanted to broadcast they built ten new factories, they just would – whether the factories existed or not.
Denazification, undertaken by the Allies after the war, would be a long and arduous process. The first step was to identify who had been an ardent Nazi, who had been a passive Nazi, and who had been an everyday German. The next step was to determine what was to happen to each of those groups, and the hardest was the everyday Germans. They were not so culpable as the others but they were also not blameless, and they had been indoctrinated with an ideology that encouraged violence and racial discrimination. They might not be as cognizant as the others because they were never Nazis per se, but the Nazification of Germany was inescapable.
“Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence…”William Shirer
As many as 45 million Germans, or 2 in 3, were directly involved in the operation of the Nazi Party or the German state by 1945. For the allies, it wasn’t even clear that Germany should continue to exist at all. It might require decades of occupation to bring the country into the liberalism that western Europe enjoyed, and perhaps – after two world wars – Germany shouldn’t be allowed to be a country anymore, period.
The first Q post was made on October 4, 2017, on the website 4chan. It asked a number of questions, encouraging readers of 4chan’s politics board to do their own research (although the poster doesn’t use the phrase “do your own research,” this would become a common defense for followers, who would use it to explain away any criticism of their views as being unresearched, no matter who the critic was. Q followers looked things up and read them and so they felt they had properly and thoroughly researched the topic of, well, there are a lot of topics).
The first posts referenced the Uniform Code of Military Justice, billionaire George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and “Mockingbird,” and ended with a date, October 30, 2017. It would be the first of many dates asserted to have some kind of meaning, and the first of many dates that would pass by uneventfully.
The identity of the poster was never clear. It was asserted they had Q clearance, which is a high-level (but by no means the highest-level) security clearance in the U.S. Department of Energy. While little of the information the poster claimed to have was relevant to the Department of Energy, this didn’t matter to those who saw their posts as proof that Donald Trump was the right candidate to have supported in 2016.
So was born QAnon, a conspiracy theory that engulfed any other conspiracy theory it saw. The bones of QAnon were that Donald Trump was aware of the corruption in the United States government, much of it by Democrats although the original QAnon posts indicated it was “not a R v D battle” and that Trump was above both parties. As time progressed, it became understood in the QAnon community that Trump was planning to take down the enemies of the United States in an event known as “the Storm,” which was pulled from a nonsensical Trump tweet that followers insisted was actually a cryptic message.
QAnon was distinct from pro-conservative media but the pairing of them was extremely dangerous. QAnon promoted that its followers should look for hidden messages while conservative media attempted to portray Donald Trump as an extremely smart and talented politician and businessman despite his business failures and his first year in office, which while probably the best of his four years still included some political blunders. As conservative media tried to paint Trump as a brilliant tactician, QAnon followers looked for ways in which his gaffes could be interpreted as a codes about The Storm. Covfefe was an Arabic phrase, not a mistype by a man tweeting from his bathroom in the early morning hours. Anything could be a secret code.
The Storm was promised to come November 3, 2017. The date changed again and again as each day came and went with no Storm to speak of. The most recent date, January 20, 2021, was predicted to preclude Joe Biden’s inauguration. But Joe Biden is the 46th and current President of the United States. No Storm ever came.
“Thousands of Germans who live near these places were led through the camps to see with their own eyes which crimes were committed in their name. But it is not possible for most Germans to view a [concentration camp]. This pictorial report is intended for them.”
The Allies distributed photos and pamphlets detailing the horrors of the concentration camps to the German people as part of the process of denazification in the late 1940s. Sidney Bernstein, who helmed the Allied Psychological Warfare Division, said the goal of the Allies was “to shake and humiliate the Germans and prove to them beyond any possible challenge that these German crimes against humanity were committed and that the German people – and not just the Nazis and SS – bore responsibility.”
But the process of denazification was by no means instantaneous. The images of the horrors of the Holocaust worked, and by 1948 the vast majority of Germans – 85% – said that Jewish Germans should have the same rights as non-Jewish Germans. As late as 1952, though, 1 in 5 Germans thought Hitler was good leader and 10% of Germans believed Hitler would be redeemed by history. For many of these people, true denazification would only come – if it ever came – through the economic recovery of Germany and a prosperous liberal German state.
The Wirtschaftswunder was exactly that. Funded in large part by aid from the U.S., the German economy rebuilt in the 1950s and became a centerpiece of the European market. Germans took pride in their new liberal society and economy, and a consensus emerged that such progress would have been unthinkable in the Nazi era. Germans also guarded their society more carefully, creating the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to monitor political groups that advocated for the dismantling of civil liberties and democracy. To be German was to be an advocate for human rights, a stark change from the decades before.
In modern Germany, there is a populist right-wing party that some fear is trying to pull the country back towards demagoguery, and it will certainly take resolve to keep that from happening. One has to look at the history of Germany over the latter twentieth century and hope that the lessons learned can be kept.
But can those lessons work elsewhere?
Despite all the talk about America as a nation of ideals and of laws, a new ideology for America has emerged on the right. In this ideology, the Constitution is not a document you can read, it is a spirit that you feel. The words of the Constitution don’t matter. It derives, one supposes, partially from Evangelical Christianity, where the words of the Bible are often less important than the way you feel about the Bible and your supposed personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In this new Evangelical Constitutionalism, the Constitution is an emotion. You feel like the Constitution prohibits something, and so it does. You feel like it allows something, and so it does. Whether the text of the document supports your views, or even says anything about them at all, is unnecessary.
This is what allows so many supporters of Donald Trump to believe the core of QAnon, which would have you believe that the separation of powers does not exist. The president is all-powerful and runs each branch of the government, says QAnon. He can dismiss Congress if he wants. He can ignore elections, or even cancel them altogether. He can remain in power indefinitely in the name of the Constitution even if the Constitution expressly prohibits him from doing so.
One could hope that simply getting QAnon followers to read the Constitution would be enough. But even scholars of the Constitution dispute its language and interpretations are as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Merely comprehending it can be a challenge. Consider the Sixth Amendment:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
There are lot of commas in this single sentence, which outlines that (a) you have the right to a speedy trial, (b) you have the right to a jury trial, (c) trials have to occur in the place where your alleged crime was committed, (d) you have the right to know what you are on trial for, (e) you have the right to confront [or, generally, your lawyer has the right to confront] the witnesses who testify against you, (f) you have the right to subpoena witnesses who could testify in your favor, and (g) you have the right to an attorney.
That last part wasn’t applied to all criminal trials until 1963. Prior to 1963, “the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence” was only applied to federal criminal trials, not state ones. What we know understand to be a fundamental Constitutional right is not as old as Taco Bell.
Even so, QAnon lore is laden with claims that The Storm will bring secret jury-free trials with secret witnesses and no lawyers for the accused, who are – of course – guilty and will be executed immediately. That all this violates the Sixth Amendment – plus a couple others – is meaningless, because the Constitution is a belief and not a real document you can read.
Often, we look to explain QAnon as a product of the parts of America that are being left behind. Invest in these communities and conspiracy theories will fall apart. To some extent, I think that’s true.
The modern economy has moved further and further away from rural communities in particularly. Rural industry is almost exclusively resource extraction, like coal mining, timbering, or natural gas production. Even these are not guaranteed. The demand for coal has plummeted in the U.S., for example. Jobs in technology are often clustered around cities. Even manufacturing jobs are more likely to be in suburban areas than rural ones.
Like the Wirtschaftswunder, a period of robust economic growth in rural America could help Americans to see the value of a liberal society that protects civil liberties and promotes individual and group accomplishment alike. But it isn’t so certain that it would really impact conspiracy theories like QAnon.
Nearly 1 in 5 participants in the January 6th Capitol Riot were affiliated with the U.S. military. As reporters dug into others involved, they uncovered a number of middle-class, white-collar professionals. Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Adam Serwer remarked, “They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.” Though QAnon certainly attracts the downtrodden, it is a powerful beacon for those who fear that their grip on power is falling away.
They are the ones who are the most likely to believe that the Constitution, surely, protects their status in society. They don’t need to read it to know that it must have provisions to ensure that their favored son, Donald Trump, is entitled to the presidency-for-life. If that isn’t the case, then perhaps America is truly a land of opportunity where anyone can become the president, and perhaps Trump’s presidency is not an act of fate to bring about The Storm but a fluke of politics and populism. If that’s the case than maybe they, too, are nothing but a fluke, or the product of wealth and power that came before them.
QAnon followers proclaim that Democrats are elites, but in the 2020 presidential election the loser was the one who attended an Ivy League university and married a supermodel. The winner went to a publicly-funded school, and his wife’s doctorate is on the challenges of educating at the community college level. Though the Hollywood elites seek to control America, Biden spent his life in public service while Trump appeared in films and television programs and had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In many ways, of course, it mirrors the claims that Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer and graduate of Harvard Law, did not understand the Constitution. Hell, QAnon asserts that Hillary Clinton, who championed the largest expansion of health insurance to children in the history of the United States, is part of a child trafficking ring to – well. We have to talk about this part.
QAnon also asserts that Democrats are actual vampires.
For many people, this is the part where QAnon truly goes off the rails. Followers believe that adrenochrome, which is a byproduct of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline, it’s the main component of many asthma and allergy treatments), can keep you alive forever, and that Democrats harvest it from children in a Satanic ritual. This isn’t actually a new belief, mind you. The Nazis promoted the idea that Jews drank the blood of children, and the Jewish billionaire George Soros is often invoked in discussions about vampiric child-preying Democrats.
It truly ought to go without saying that there is no evidence that consuming the adrenaline of children will keep you alive forever or that anyone has ever done it. This isn’t a thing one should have to say. But to proceed with the deqification of the United States, it is essential to leave no stone unturned.
The lack of evidence is, in many conspiracy theories, proof that the conspiracy is genuine. The evidence is covered up, followers say, though they also say that if you “do your own research” you’ll find the evidence, perhaps in the form of cryptic clues. Followers are always looking for clues. They have been trained to do so from the very first Q post.
Perhaps the answer to deqification is not to parade QAnon followers in front of photos of the shattered Capitol, though the events of January 6 certainly pushed some away from that community. The very inauguration of Joe Biden seems to have shaken the foundation of QAnon, as it provided perhaps the strongest proof yet that The Storm could never come. Biden’s inauguration made “no sense” to QAnon adherents, because it was only possible if there was no Storm. For some, that was enough. There is no Storm, it was all a ruse.
Others still believe. For them, the answer to deqificiation will likely come not from the continuing lack of a Storm. They must be broken from their belief that every message no matter how inane contains a hidden meaning. This is essential, and it is something that must be broken in all of us.
The convenience of QAnon is its power. If its true, it means that adherents are on the right side of history, and it must be true because any message from the right people can be construed as a supportive, coded communication. This idea must be shattered, not just because it encourages them to mistake incompetence for a masterful plan but because it allows the very elites they rail against to hide among them as allies, since QAnon presents an ideological battle of Evangelical Constitutionalism versus a purported anti-constitutional liberalism.
“They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.”Adam Serwer
There are no answers here as to what to do. Many others have written about the QAnon phenomenon and come to the same conclusion: the penchant for code-seeking must be broken, somehow. Maybe it can be broken through personal interventions. Maybe it can be broken some other way. But for the sake of our democracy, and for the sake of our real Constitution, it must be broken.
Cover photo by Johnny Silvercloud. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.