By Paul V. DeMarco
In the early fall of 2012, I was part of group organizing free community health screenings. Out of the blue, a physician who was a stranger to me called and asked if he could volunteer for our weekly outings. I was glad for the help, and over the next year or so, he and I supervised several screenings together.
After a screening in the months before the 2012 general election, he came into my office looking concerned. He asked if I had seen a YouTube video made by a man claiming to have had cocaine-fueled sex in a limousine with President Obama. He knew that I was planning on voting for Obama and asked plaintively, “What are we going to do? This is going to ruin his chances for re-election.”
When I watched the video (which is still online and currently has fewer than 7,000 views) I was unmoved. Despite my reassurances, my colleague was convinced that the video would derail Obama’s campaign. This was my first brush with the conspiracy mindset. Here was a man both intelligent enough to practice medicine and generous enough to give away his time who lacked a needed skepticism. I found out later that he was a loner who was estranged from his family. He died of a preventable cancer, perhaps another manifestation of his inability to properly weigh information.
I’ve also had a younger co-worker who was a true conspiracy theorist. He sported a bumper sticker that said “9/11 was an inside job” and published multiple books, the titles of which I will not list to spare him the embarrassment – he has taken another job and has grown out of his conspiracy phase. He was socially adept, polite but formal with me and an enjoyable conversationalist for the staff in his generation. He kept his banter light; I never once heard him voice any of the ideas about which he wrote so fluently.
Which brings me to QAnon, the absurd theory that (and this next phrase pains me to write) Hilary Clinton is the leader of a Satan-worshipping cabal of pedophiles that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including government, Hollywood, and the media. QAnon has gotten more press than it deserves, in part due to Jake Angeli, the “QAnon shaman,” who became the face of the January 6th attack. He was one of the handful of rioters who penetrated the Senate chamber and left a note on Vice-President Pence’s desk that read “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming.”
The most current polling on QAnon from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) produced this eye-popping New York Times headline: “41 million Americans are QAnon believers, survey finds.” I am going to venture that this is a vast overestimate of the true sway of QAnon. The PRRI polls of approximately 20,000 Americans showed that 16% “completely agree” or “mostly agree” with QAnon’s pedophilia claim (16% of the US adult population (258 million) equals 41 million).
However, looking at the numbers more closely, only 5% completely agree (about 13 million). Many fewer participate actively in QAnon activities and fewer still participated in the January 6th attack. My guess is that if most of the 5% who “completely agree” were asked on penalty of perjury if they truly believe the conspiracy theory they would say “no.” And if the answer was “yes,” when asked to produce any credible evidence, they would fail.
QAnon’s success can be attributed to its being allowed to fester for several years without much public notice on a racist and misogynistic website called 8-chan. Now that January 6th has subjected it to scrutiny, it will shrivel. All of Q’s major predictions have failed to come to pass and the shaman and his fellow rioters are in jail.
About the only people in power who are courting QAnon are folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, Donald Trump, who recently introduced a Q-associated anthem as background music for one his rallies and posted an image of himself wearing a Q lapel pin. The fact that he must overtly court Q supporters can only be interpreted as a sign of Trump’s waning popularity.
The best approach to Q is not to engage. Don’t bicker with Q followers on social media and please don’t lose any sleep over the movement. Yes, a very few supporters have been violent. But most adherents are harmless. Based on my limited experience with conspiracy theorists, it is possible for them to harbor fantastic beliefs while being good at their jobs, funny, and kind.
It is undeniably taxing to engage a conspiracy theorist who is trying to prove he is right. I would recommend listening carefully and asking curious questions for as long as you can stand. You will probably walk away shaking your head. But what a conspiracy theorist most needs is to get out of his echo chamber. If you provide an alternative perspective offered in a respectful way that can be heard, you may help him back toward reality.
A version of this column appeared in the Oct. 5 edition of the Florence Morning News.