A new poll from Daily Kos/Civiqs tallied some dismaying results about belief in the 21st-century Satanic Panic that is the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The poll was mostly about Americans’ beliefs and expectations regarding the pandemic and their government’s failed response to it. But it also asked some 1,368 randomly selected American adults what they thought about QAnon’s claim that a secret cabal of Hollywood elites, politicians, Wall Street bankers, and pop singers runs an international child trafficking ring for cannibalistic pedophilia and Satanic rituals, funded from “dark shadows” by “The Jews,” and opposed only by the superhuman heroic efforts of the virtuous and omnicompetent Donald J. Trump.
One third of Republicans (33%) told pollsters that they believed this nonsense was “mostly true,” while another 23% said they believed it was “partly true.”
Poll questions like this do not measure what they attempt to measure. This question doesn’t provide us with any reliable data about what self-identified Republicans “really believe” about QAnon. What it gives us, rather, is data about what percentage of Republican voters are willing to offer bad-faith affirmations of outrageously ludicrous notions in the hopes of “owning the libs.”
In other words, this poll does not show that more than half of Republican voters “really believe” in QAnon. What it shows us, rather, is that more than half of Republicans regard polling as an opportunity to score partisan points by providing whatever answer to whatever question they are asked that they imagine would be most upsetting to the imaginary liberals they’re devoted to upsetting. In recent years, there have been a host of polls like this attempting to measure belief in some partisan ludicrous claim. These polls provide some value as a measurement of partisan polarization, but not any reliable measure of specific belief in specific ludicrous claims.
The danger, however, is that even such patently disingenuous bad-faith responses to pollsters, asserted purely in the hopes of point-scoring and owning the libs, involve a step in the direction of “real belief.” To make such a response, even when one does not “really believe” it, is to become slightly more invested in something closer to a “real belief.” The act of affirming something, even when it is only an act, makes it more real. The more times someone pretends to believe something, the more times they assert their willingness to act like they “really believe” it, the harder it becomes for them to remember what it is they do or do not “really believe.” The distinction between “really believing” and acting as though you really believed is always indistinct.
As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
I’ve used an annoying number of scare-quotes above with the phrase “really believe.” This is because it’s too slippery a term to trust without calling attention to that vagueness. What does it mean to “really believe” something? Is it some feeling in the bowels that we associate with some approximation of sincerity of feeling? Why is it that we imagine it is possible to act as though you really believe something without really believing it? Isn’t a correspondence between claims and actions the true measure of the sincerity or genuineness of any purported belief?
In the case of QAnon — as in every instance of Satanic baby-killer hysteria — we’re usually provided with three forms of action that we are asked to perceive as evidence demonstrating “real belief.” The first, which barely registers as “action” at all, is mere assertion. A “real believer” is someone who says that they are a real believer. The second form of action allegedly proving the sincerity of belief is a bit more tangible, but still not terribly convincing: the “real believer” demonstrates the reality of their belief by voting in accordance with that belief.
This is underwhelming. Such “action” — taken once every four years or, in cases of extraordinary devotion, every two years — hardly seems proportionate to the scope or the urgency of what it is they claim to “really believe.”
This massive disproportionality is not corrected by the third course of action — spending hours trolling people on the Internet or on IPSI (the Internet for People who are Scared of the Internet, also called “Facebook”). This “action” at least represents an appreciable investment of their time, but the demonstrable futility of it — the fact that this hobby is known to be such an ineffective investment of that time — diminishes whatever value it might have as evidence of “real belief.” If you “really believe” that thousands or millions of children are being kidnapped, tortured, sacrificed, and eaten, it would be foolish to waste hours of your time sniping at other people on IPSI because they do not also claim to “really believe” this.
Based on their own actions, it is simply not possible to believe that a third of all Republicans “really believe” the claims of the QAnon variant of Satanic baby-killerism. Their own actions — the overwhelming entirety of their own sad lives — make any such claim of “real belief” not credible. If “real belief” is to refer to anything real at all, then — based on their own actions and lives — very, very few people “really believe” in any such thing.
One of the very rare people who even attempted to “really believe” it was Edgar Madison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, who is currently serving a four-year sentence in federal prison.
In 2016, millions of Americans claimed to believe in “PizzaGate” — a Satanic baby-killer fantasy that alleged liberal elites were raping, murdering, and consuming the bodies of small children in secret tunnels beneath a Washington, DC, pizza shop. Those millions of people demonstrated their commitment to “really believing” this staggering foolishness via the three woefully inadequate actions described above. They said they “really believed” it; they voted according to this belief; and they spent hours trolling “libs” on the Internet and IPSI.
But Welch recognized that to “really believe” Pizzagate’s claims about the ongoing murder of children in a known location ought to entail a more substantial and concrete course of action in accordance with that belief. So he announced that he was going to take his ginormous fungun — an AR-15 rifle — and head up there to rescue those poor children from their cruel captivity, torment, and certain death in that Washington pizza shop.
Welch had several friends who also claimed to “really believe” in Pizzagate, and he invited them to go with him, but none of them did. So he went alone.
He drove hundreds of miles to the capital, entered the restaurant, waved his rifle around, and ordered everybody out while he set about “inspecting” the place, looking for evidence of the secret tunnels, the rivers of blood, the Satanic altars, etc. He shot the lock off of a locked closet and found it was just a closet. He realized that there was no secret basement, no secret tunnels, no torture rooms or death chambers. Then the cops arrived and he was arrested.
In his letter to the court, Welch apologized for terrifying and endangering the restaurant patrons and workers, explaining that he had done what he did “with the intent of helping people.”
That’s not quite accurate. “Helping people” — rescuing children from eeeeevil Satanic baby-killers — was clearly a secondary motive for Welch. It was, for him, a means to the end of his primary motive, which was to be hailed as a hero and a valiant champion of the forces of good. What he did was stupid and wrong, and it was all driven by an ugly eagerness to believe the very worst imaginable things about millions of his neighbors despite an utter lack of supporting evidence and despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. He was thus a man who, in C.S. Lewis’ phrase, was far along the “process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”
But while Edgar Madison Welch made a fool out of himself on a national stage, winding up in prison because of it, his doing so brought him closer to the possibility of redemption than those who are quietly and privately making fools of themselves by striving to convince themselves that they “really believe” in the same Satanic baby-killer folly without ever having enough conviction to act on that belief — to “really believe” in the way that Welch seems to have really believed.
This is a tricky thing to talk about because it is hard to discuss without risking some deluded fool interpreting it as a dare or a challenge. I worried about that when I wrote about other “true believers” and deranged terrorists like Paul Hill, Scott Roeder, and Eric Rudolph — all of whom committed lethal violence mainly as a desperate attempt to convince themselves that they “really believed” the absurd Satanic baby-killer lies they longed to deceive themselves into “really believing.” This is why I’ve tended to write about this elliptically, by discussing, say, Kyle Chandler in Early Edition instead.
The danger of potentially being perceived as daring an alleged “real believer” to act in accordance with their belief is heightened because such would-be “real believers” are already spending much of their time obsessively daring themselves to do so. This is why even such drastic forms of action cannot serve as evidence of “real belief.” That’s not how cause and effect works for such people. They do not “really believe” X and therefore take action in a manner consistent with that belief. What happens, rather, is that they persistently fail to convince even themselves that they “really believe” X and so they lash out in the hopes that doing something dramatic and violent and irrevocable will somehow shock themselves into finally “really believing” the thing that they know and have always known was impossible to “really believe.”
It’s one part Macbeth and two parts Raskolnikov. The tormented antihero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment desperately wanted to “really believe” in his warped theories about ubermenschen like Napoleon who could transcend and therefore transgress morality. He desperately wanted to believe this because it would make him special. But no matter how obsessively Raskolnikov committed himself to “really believing” it, he was never wholly able to convince himself of it. So he chose, in a kind of perverse twist on virtue ethics, to force himself to “really believe” it by acting as if he was truly convinced of it. If he violently acted as if he “really believed” then he might finally force himself to come around to “really believing.” He’d have no choice but to “really believe” because he would be “in blood Stepped in so far that should he wade no more returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Perhaps then he could at last experience that elusive feeling in the bowels that he hoped would signal the transformation of fantastical pretense into “real belief.”
And so foolish, deluded, incompletely self-deceived Raskolnikov commits to his fantasy by murdering an old woman and her disabled daughter with an axe. He did not do this because he “really believed” his absurd theories, but because he wanted to “really believe” them and yet was never able to do so.
I think the same dynamic is as close to “real belief” as it is possible for anyone to come to “really believing” in QAnon, or in Pizzagate, or in abortion-is-murderism, or in black Sabbaths in the Salem woods, or in Christian blood in Passover matzoh, or in any other expression of the impossible-to-believe nonsense of Satanic baby-killerism in any of its many other forms.
Ultimately, it’s pointless to attempt to identify any correspondence between what such people “really believe” and how they really live and act. They have severed any such potential connection by attempting the impossibility of choosing their flattering fantasies over what they can never escape knowing to be reality. They have made themselves, really, unbelievable.