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Bad Information: QAnon is a Social Problem, Not a Cognitive One

Like picture day at school, the January 6 march on the Capitol was about wearing your best outfit. For the rank-and-file, the uniform would do—heavy-duty workwear and a MAGA cap—but the more exuberant went for superhero costumes, Roman togas, animal pelts, or ghillie suits. The optics were all the more important because not much else was at stake. In the absence of any clear agenda and organizational capacity, posing inevitably took the place of politics: it was all about showing up and showing off. Only violence saved the bravado from complete ridicule. When the clueless mob moved in to take the country back by force, all it was able to get its hands on were a stolen pulpit and other memorabilia of parliamentary procedure. The real trophies of the day were the selfies.

The star of the event was a shirtless man wearing a headdress of coyote fur with buffalo horns, his faced painted the colors of the American flag, his chest adorned with neo-pagan tattoos. A magnet for camera objectives, he was ubiquitous in the media coverage of the day: flexing his biceps on the dais of the Senate Chamber, wielding a spear, roaming the empty halls of power, inspecting a desk still strewn with the leftovers of a hasty evacuation, addressing perplexed police officers He instantly went viral and triggered analogies ranging from British pop singer Jamiroquai to Star Wars’s Chewbacca. A few days after the riot, you could buy his action figure from a maker of collectible dolls in Argentina. He inspired copycats: in April, during a protest against restaurant shutdowns in Rome, a former tanning lamps salesman who owned a pizzeria in Modena paraded in the midst of the riot, complete with horns and fur, the tricolore smeared on his face.

This icon of January 6 was Jacob Chansley, a thirty-three-year-old Trump supporter from Phoenix, Arizona, better known as the “Q Shaman” after the QAnon conspiracy theory—a theory popular with the extreme right, according to which the world is governed by a global cabal of pedophiles. Before becoming the public face of the riot, Chansley’s political theatrics and sense of attire had already earned him the attention of the local press. In 2019 and 2020 he regularly appeared at Trump rallies and occasionally could be found pacing in front of the Arizona Capitol while dispensing the wisdom of QAnon—a rambunctious performance punctuated by the beats of a shamanic drum. Following the January 6 riot and Chansley’s arrest, a few details surfaced about an otherwise unremarkable life. He lived with his mother after being evicted from his apartment. In college he had studied religion, psychology, and ceramics. There was a stint in the Navy as supply clerk apprentice on an aircraft carrier. There was a failed attempt at an acting career. And two books: an essay and a novel, both self-published and available on demand through Amazon. Written under the pen name Jacob Angeli, One Mind at a Time distills in a stream-of-consciousness style Chansley’s views about the world. It also contains a few further nuggets of biographical information. As a teenager, he saw himself as a George W. Bush patriot, unconcerned by environmental issues, supportive of the invasion of Iraq and convinced that the United States had a right to export freedom at the point of cruise missiles—until he stopped believing the mainstream media and saw the light, thanks in particular to “several boundary dissolving experiences . . . with psychedelic plants.” Since then, Chansley has considered himself a healer and a practitioner of shamanism.

Chansley’s devotion to QAnon and his participation in the January 6 riot have shaped how we understand him politically. Some commentators have pointed out that his tattoos are symbols of Norse mythology that have long been coopted by white supremacist groups. And if this may seem to clash with shamanic paraphernalia and an outfit that suggests a Fortnite hangover more than a sartorial penchant for the Waffen-SS, it is also true that the early Ku Klux Klan looked like a carnival gone wrong, complete with cosplay and kazoos, before settling for what James Thurber once described as “bedsheet regalia.” 

As much as it is tempting to cast Chansley as just another fascist, however, the reductio ad Hitlerum can only go so far. There is no doubt that Chansley’s rants reflect the conspiracist views of the extreme right. “Q,” he claimed in an interview, “is about taking back the country from globalists and from communists . . . [who] have infiltrated the news. . . . the entertainment. . . . the politics.” Yet by paying attention only to what is reminiscent of the fascisms of the past, it is easy to miss what is new and distinctive—and more immediately relevant. Reporting on the events of January 6 for the New Yorker, Luke Mogelson observed that many participants who had been to previous anti-lockdown protests “saw themselves as upholding the tradition of the civil-rights movement,” some even comparing themselves to Rosa Parks. Some QAnon followers were former centrists or liberals who had become disillusioned: some had voted for Obama, others came from households of Hillary or Bernie supporters. That may not be Chansley’s case, but some of his beliefs have a progressive pedigree. In One Mind at a Time, he describes the world that will emerge once the “militarized corporate fascism” of the Deep State is defeated: prisons would be “phased out” and the death penalty would be abolished; borders would disappear and everyone would be able to move freely; there would be “plenty of money for teachers to be paid more, for health care to be covered for all citizens, for homeless people to have homes, and for no human or animal to go hungry or neglected.” Not to mention that hemp would replace wood and the bee colonies of the Amazon would be spared the evils of deforestation.

It is easy to dismiss all this as the bloviations of a confused mind—and in part, that’s what they are. But what looks like an incoherent ideological bricolage cobbling together rabid rants against globalism and ideas that seem to be lifted from Black Lives Matter (“defund the police”) or Bernie Sanders campaign material also reflects the capacity of the alt-right to absorb progressive or countercultural motives and channel them in a reactionary direction. If fascism must be invoked, it is not so much as an external attack on liberalism or democracy, but as a pathological development internal to them; not an ideology codified in the past but a movement that preempts and defuses the need for social and economic change in favor of the status quo—a movement of industrial magnates and laid-off factory workers, casino moguls and janitors, slumlords and evicted tenants, a movement that found in a real estate crook the best possible poster boy. What truly matters is not so much whether we can hear echoes of 1930s beer halls in Chansley’s pronouncements, but why a New Age eco-warrior from Arizona supporting universal health care can participate in a parody of putsch along with Neo-Nazis and soccer moms, casting himself as the global face of gonzo fascism in the twenty-first century. Part of the answer, it seems, has to do with conspiracy theories.

Read entire article at Boston Review