How it Started
Greek mythology sought to explain humanity’s role in the world and the forces surrounding it. Two of Zeus’ sons, Apollo, representing reason, order and logic, and Dionysus, representing wine, fertility, emotion and chaos, encapsulate for me the basic struggle of man between his nature and pursuit of something beyond self, order vs. chaos, logic vs. emotion.
In Euripides’ The Bacchae, written sometime late 400s BC, a pissed-off Dionysus visits Thebes where he whips a group of women into a frenzied festival that turns violent, the women shred cows with their bare hands and lay waste to villages. Eventually, Dionysus disguises king Pentheus as a commoner and convinces him to consort with the women in their festivities. Pentheus’ own mother, Agave, in a kind of drunken rage, leads the group to tear Pentheus limb from limb and rip his head off, believing he’s a lion.
The play has been interpreted many ways over time but, for me, one thing is certain: a mob, untethered from reason, driven by unbounded passion, will easily descend to violence.
During the rise of radio, Sigmund Freud hypothesized that the human mind was divided into the id, super-ego and ego. The id was primal desire, Dionysus at his most base, the piece that drives the individual. The super-ego was the sense of moral-conscience, ethical guidance, and the ego the buddy standing between the two, negotiating a peace. Apollo would play the super-ego with the audience, the role of ego, ultimately deciding who to listen to.
Signal versus Noise, Volume versus Value
If shouting offensive stuff gets your thread bumped to the top, providing a shot of dopamine, people will keep shouting and other like-minded individuals will follow suit, drowning out objections. Shout back in opposition and you only make the noise louder, contributing to the hysteria.
“Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror.” -Euripides
As the Republican campaign of 2016 kicked off and Donald Trump emerged as a viable, though unlikely contender, a curious thing happened. A subreddit called r/theDonald, initially created as a joke mocking Trump as a candidate, quickly morphed into a community that seriously embraced him. It soon became a slightly less aggressive and offensive copy of 4chan’s virulently racist and misogynistic board /pol/, which backed Trump as well. The ironic inside joke had now become the inside not-a-joke.
What was also becoming clear, Politics as Entertainment had significant currency in the modern mass-media environment and Donald Trump was its master minter. Over the following four years, many establishment politicians who initially rejected and warned against the carnival-barking Trump now hitched their wagons to his. Likewise, freshmen politicians steeped in the chaotic river upon which the Charon-chaired boat sailed, joined Trump’s clown-armada with their own bedazzled, gun-toting, conspiracy-spreading personas. At some point, Apollo apparently drowned himself. No one could blame him.
“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” -Douglas MacArthur
When a person continues to invest in something even though failure seems inevitable, solely because they’re already invested in it, it’s referred to as the fallacy of sunk costs. Quitting means accepting that the time’s been wasted. Sadly, as the GOP began investing itself in the cult of Trump, they collectively bought into the fallacy. To date, only a handful of their elected leaders have had the courage to speak honestly to their constituents, choosing instead to stoke the flames in their own craven pursuits of power. Leadership demands honesty and history is unlikely to remember them well. I say all this as a one-time, uncertain, now-forever-former member of the party.
Celebrating the Absurd
During Trump’s presidency, an odd internet meme became coopted by some seriously dark groups. For many years on sites like 4chan and reddit, when the subject of a sequel to something came up, users would append “electric boogaloo” to the title as a humorous allusion to 1984’s Breakin’ sequel. This was largely innocuous with no meaning other than the silly, memorable phrase eliciting a laugh, “The Hobbit 2: Electric Boogaloo”.
Sometime around 2017 it grew dark. Like many internet-born subcultures, “boogaloo boys” can mean multiple things to different people, the common thread, however, being a fascination, fetish even, with guns and strong dislike of police. As of 2020, the dominant group, patches, Hawaiian shirts, stickers and all, declare a loyalty to Trump and belief that a second civil war is coming. This time however, like the movie Breakin’ 2, it will be completely different than its predecessor. The boogaloo ethos is heavily 4chan-esque. They wear Hawaiian shirts because boogaloo sounds similar to a luau, where whole pigs are roasted on an open fire, a not so subtle hint at their hatred of police. They also refurbish an alpha Pepe the frog for their fraternal circle-jerk.
Similarly are the three-percenters, gun-rights advocates who generally oppose the federal government and tend to oppose left-leaning movements like Black Lives Matter. Often affiliated with another similar group, the Oath Keepers, the three-percenters derive their name from the inaccurate and erroneous belief that it was only three percent of the colonialists that fought in the Revolution against the British, an insinuation our founding fathers would surely be pretty pissed-off about.
Likewise are the “Proud-Boys”, men driven by a kind of black and gold fashion sense who celebrate not Stonewall but polo shirts, fascist iconography, male chauvinism and anally inserting dildos to prove their heterosexual pride. Most began their descent as red-pillers, gamergate their Alamo. Always seen in tight groups with few women in sight, they convey a potent image of how an army of homeless men sprayed with Axe body spray might smell. What they want is elusive other than that they love Trump and want you to know it.
These groups, like many of the internet-rage-driven groups supporting Trump, also tend to follow the Qanon conspiracy theories like bored house-wives devouring dime-store novellas. Some may also subscribe to racist, white-nationalist views, desire for a fascist state and a potpourri of other aggressive, edge-lord styled opinions meant to draw focus away from their fear of a rapidly evolving world and toward the fabricated strength of their proto-militaristic cosplay. The broader group simultaneously seeks to piggy-back on a militarized police-force while rejecting police authority in favor of their own militarized militias. Mutually, they look past areas of disagreement, some may be Jewish or Black, while others are racist and anti-Semitic, Boogaloos alongside thin-blue-line flags, it’s all good as long as you follow Q.
Unified Under a Banner of Banality
Their unifying mantra is “where we gone one, we go all”, it’s just none of them know where to actually go. That’s because they’re following a phantom, a fake, it was all a ruse to begin with, just another shit-post that got out of hand. They fell for something that started as a joke, was used by others to increase YouTube views and finally exploited by an orange clown trying to avoid criminal prosecution. Now, after storming the capital and killing a cop, some of these beta-cum-latelys are likely to serve actual prison terms. The internet is not a fantasy land and the LARP got markedly cringe-inducing.
Like so many else, they were really just seeking community and commonality, a group of frightened sailors, flung from their ship, grasping desperately to the same raft for dear life. Human evolution has not prepared us for the modern moment and it all moves so fast, it’s easy to understand their unease.
“Q drops” gave them a crudely drawn map. It’s a not-so-perfectly crafted tapestry of internet propaganda, with enough gaps and allusions to allow the follower flexibility when a prediction doesn’t pan out. It largely worked by asking questions rather than making statements so followers fill in the holes and eventually the “conversation” takes on a life all its own, riling up the riff-raff just like their barking emperor-king did. It was crafted for the chaotic and juvenile nature of 4chan. Unironically, the first attributed post, made Nov 1, 2017 on 4chan was titled “Bread Crumbs — Q Clearance Patriot”. Bread crumbs are usually used for either marking a trail so the trekker doesn’t get lost or to simply feed the birds.
There were at least two unattributed posts preceding the above that suggested a storm was coming and alluded to Trump taking action against Clinton, Obama and others. Grandiose and highly-charged, yet vague, claims, told as though from an insider, have long been common on conspiracy threads. The formula is very well-worn. You’d see a steady stream of some similar variation every day. On an anonymous site like 4chan it could be some fourteen-year-old repeating what had been posted a week prior. Still, once the original posts drew attention from enough anons, the first official Q posts appeared and began garnering a following.
Made up of incels, furries, cops, firemen, militiamen, three-percenters, boogaloos, klan, nazis, lawyers, bikers, Oath-keepers, anarcho-capitalists, Kekistanians and more it’s a whole bizarre revelry brought together by the belief that a former Reality TV host and faux-businessman is leading the charge to free victims of human trafficking and bring its perpetrators to justice. There’s also some absurd speculation about babies being eaten. All this despite the fact Trump has a curious history with known human traffickers and of being accused of such behavior himself. Incidentally, groups that actually do work for the benefit of trafficked children are nonplussed by Qanon groups and their bizarre beliefs. Turns out, much like the hunt for Bin Laden, reality is a tad more nuanced and complicated than a conspiracy theory can explain.
Unfortunately, some people are more prone to believe conspiracy theories over more obvious, mundane explanations, especially in an environment like Qanon where ideas get continually reamplified via group confirmation bias. Even worse, falling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories sometimes leads to severe mental illness with potentially fatal implications.
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” -Thomas Paine
Much speculation has been made as to the identity of the person or persons behind Q. An analysis of the known posts assessed that at least two people were likely behind them. Much like the insider language of 4chan, Q-followers bind together with a series of similar refrains, “hold the line”, “trust the plan”, simple digestible phrases that serve to maintain group cohesion without refuting the glaring truth that there is no wizard behind the curtain.
There was to be two important moments, “The Storm” and “The Great Awakening”. The Storm would have been a violent reckoning with the supposed cabal of pedophiles and baby-eaters arrested, killed and torn apart much like Agave‘s hoard did to Pentheus. It’s followed by the awakening, where “normies”, another 4chanism glibly referencing “normal people”, those that didn’t worship Trump, will awaken to the truth and start smoking the same crack they do. It’s all born of that amorphous alpha vs. beta struggle. Perpetually on the other end of the bell-curve, this is their chance to prove they were actually the smart ones all along.
By month’s end, stating that 4chan had been “infiltrated” (whatever that means), Q posts moved to 8chan, Brennan’s site now in the control of James Watkins. In November 2019, 8chan’s host suspended service after multiple mass-shooters were associated to the site. Three months later, the site finally reemerged as 8kun on a different host. Remarkably, Q began posting again as though nothing had happened. More critically, despite the change of domains and hosts, the Watkins were able to confirm the “authenticity” of Q and no one asked how. Presumably the “salt” hash used to generate tripcodes would be different between platforms. Then again the tripcodes had changed a few times already without raising any alarms so why bother using logic now.
Someone bears responsibility for the Q delusion. Whether it’s one person or more, whether people like Roger Stone aided and abetted the effort, someone paid the barker to lead the entire town to gather in the square and drink the poisonous Jones-aid. And as layers are peeled away from the onion and it is eventually revealed that there is no core, no kernel of truth, no “Q”, who will the mob turn their rage on then?
Will they continue to stick with Dionysus, emotion, chaos and self-indulgence or will they follow Apollo, logic, reason and restraint. It likely depends on what their leaders do and say.
The good news is American institutions didn’t fail. A small group of obnoxiously loud people lost their collective minds but in the end, our Institutions held strong. Activity that previously existed in physical spaces with the requisite checks of peer disapproval had shifted to dark, digital spheres where bad behavior was encouraged instead of being rejected. As criminal charges are levied at the insurrectionists, we may see some people finally take a breath, reflect and wake from their delusional slumber.