By Ken Mondschein
A look at QAnon as a millennial movement – one of many that have sprung up since the Middle Ages.
Nothing about the post-truth online movement called QAnon is particularly new, but we’re at somewhat of a loss to figure out what, exactly it is. It’s been compared to a video game that plays the players and online vigilante investigations.
A brief precis: QAnon supporters believe that former president Donald Trump is the secret leader of a resistance movement against an international conspiracy of pedophile, blood-drinking Satan worshippers whose members include President Biden, Hollywood stars, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and senior Democratic politicians. It began on message boards such as 4Chan with anonymous posts from the eponymous “Q,” who claimed to have the inside scoop on Trump, for his part, encouraged the attention.
Q’s insistence on secret pedophile vampire rituals is similar to the medieval blood-libel, in which Jews were falsely accused of killing Christian children. It is also similar to the early modern witch panic, in which thousands of innocent women (and some men) were accused of devil worship and tortured to death. These phenomena are not new to the United States, either, from the Salem witch trials to the McMartin Preschool case (part of the 1980s “Satanic panic” that also brought us “Dark Dungeons”) to the 1993 West Memphis Three. Law enforcement is, alas, only too eager to believe such ill-founded and fantastic conspiracy theories.
What QAnon seems to me, though, is a good, old-fashioned millennial movement. (I’m not the first to note this connection: see The Atlantic here.) In this, it’s hardly unique in American—or Western—history. After all, the narrative is hard-coded into Christianity, just like the equality of all believers and Last Judgment: The world is sinful, ruled by dark powers. The innocent are persecuted, but at the eleventh hour, a savior will come. The wicked will be punished, and the innocent will enjoy heaven on earth. The same narrative runs directly from the Book of Revelation to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate to 4Chan message boards.
The Middle Ages had no shortage of millennial movements, and their wording is not unfamiliar to modern ears. The theme was income inequality: “then will end the tyranny of kings and the injustice and rapine of reeves and their cunning and unjust judgments and wiles. Then shall those who rejoiced and were glad in this life groan and lament. Then shall their mead, wine, and beer be turned into thirst for them,” wrote the eleventh-century author of Byrhtferth’s Manual. Five centuries earlier, the False Christ of Bourges led an army of bandits through the Frankish countryside, redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, until he was assassinated by the henchmen of Bishop Aurilius of Puy. Three centuries after, John Ball, the renegade priest who lent spiritual credibility to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (which has been likened to the attack on the Capitol) preached, “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The similarities with the modern-day do not end there: As in the evangelical movement, women often played a prominent role as co-prophets and amplifiers.
Such movements have long had the effect of not just looking for the world to come, but of upending the present order of the world. Just as “responsible” politicians have discounted the “lies” of QAnon, St. Augustine—the same Church Father who Joe Biden quoted in his inaugural address—banished such speculation from Christian thought. But the apocalyptic urge remained, and remains, strong.
What happens when millennial movements get discredited? First they move the timeline forward: the Q arrests were going to come while Trump was challenging the election; then at the inauguration. Then Trump leaving the White House was part of the plan. Then they become institutionalized: John Ball begot the proto-Protestant Lollards, and then the English Reformation. Well-established modern sects such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses began as millennial cults. We can expect the same from QAnon, which is only the latest iteration of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
Like it or not, QAnon is a symptom, not a cause, of our present-day ills. It is, as Marx said of religion, “at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering … the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And, if history is any guide, it, and the dissatisfaction it expresses, is here, in one form or another, to stay.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Images: John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler and rebels in 1389. British Library MS Royal 18 E. I f.165v / A Q Anon flag – photo by Anthony Crider / Wikimedia Commons