In recent weeks the groups have moved offline and into the real world, using their Facebook pages to organize in-person rallies outside tourist attractions like the Big Red Wagon in Spokane, Washington, and the state capitol building in Salem, Oregon. The believers hold signs that say things like “#SavetheChildren” and “Stop Child Trafficking.” They’re often accompanied by their children, wearing T-shirts and onesies that read “I am not for sale.”
At first glance they seem innocuous, like petitioners for a non-profit or an inoffensive social cause. But there are giveaways. Some of the signs bear images of pizza slices, a reference to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that held that Hillary Clinton was operating a pedophilia ring out of a gimmicky Washington DC pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. Sometimes the rally-goers wear T-shirts bearing the acronym “WWG1WGA,” which stands for “Where we go one we go all,” a fist-pumping slogan for adherents of the elaborate and baseless online conspiracy theory called QAnon.
The QAnon conspiracy theory is vast, complicated and ever changing, and its adherents are constantly folding new events and personalities into its master narrative. But the gist of it is that national Democrats, aided by Hollywood and a group of “global elites”, are running a massive ring devoted to the abduction, trafficking, torture, sexual abuse and cannibalization of children, all with the purpose of fulfilling the rituals of their Satanic faith. Donald Trump, according to this fantasy, is the only person willing and able to mount an attack against them.
The conspiracy theory began on 4chan, a digital cesspool of hate speech and conspiracy theorizing, and adherents derive their beliefs from the cryptic postings of Q, an anonymous commenter who they believe to be a highly credentialed member of the Trump administration who is assisting Donald Trump in his heroic fight against the Satanic pedophile Democrats. The conspiracy has spread widely during the pandemic, migrating out of the dark shadows of the internet and on to Facebook, where it is now spreading among an audience of frightened and credulous parents.
If the stories spun by QAnon conspiracists strike you as inventive or creatively bizarre, that they are not. The fictions of QAnon are mostly regurgitations of other disproven conspiracy theories. The idea of a secret, all-powerful “cabal” of sadistic Satanists preying on children is not a new one. In that part of its lore, the QAnon conspiracy theory borrows heavily from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a strange phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of otherwise reasonable Americans became convinced that secret cadres of Satanists were operating out of daycare centers, torturing and molesting children for rituals. Meanwhile, the QAnon assertion that Satanist Democrats are farming children underground in order to harvest and drink their blood harkens back to an even older conspiracy theory, the antisemitic blood libel, a medieval fiction that posited that Jewish people stole and murdered Christian children in order to use their blood to make matzah. QAnon may seem detailed and weird in its fantasies, but it is a deeply derivative conspiracy theory, remixing old lies more often than it conjures new ones.
Why do conservatives periodically become fixated on elaborate conspiracy theories involving the rape and torture of children? The details of the QAnon narrative don’t bear any relation to the way that child sexual abuse actually happens. The Q believers are correct that the sexual abuse of minors is much more common than many assume, but any relation between their beliefs and fact ends there.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse sometime in childhood – an alarmingly high number. A sizable minority of those abuses are committed by other children. The prevalence of children being sexually abused by adults is about one in nine girls and one in 53 boys, according to Rainn – a lower but still alarming number. By and large, the adults who sexually abuse children are not strangers or traffickers (or national Democratic politicians). Instead, they tend to be men – and overwhelmingly it is men who sexually abuse children – whom the abused child knows. Ninety-three per-cent of child molesters are known to their victims. fifty-nine per-cent are acquaintances or family friends, and 34% are family members.
This reality does not lend itself to splashy headlines. It does not suggest a predator lurking in the shadows, let alone a dark network of nefarious liberals waiting to steal your children. It is less sensational, and it is also sadder. Acknowledging the real ways that children are sexually abused would mean confronting the ways that families and communities can keep dark secrets and enable harm to the most vulnerable. It would mean confronting the fact that for those it happens to, child sexual abuse is not only a matter of sexual violation but also of betrayal by someone they trusted.
None of these facts are helpful for conservatives, so they disregard them. But that does not change the psychological purpose that QAnon serves for its adherents. When conservatives take up the mantle of child sexual abuse with conspiracy theories and disinformation, they are assuming a moral position that is usually occupied by liberals: defending the powerless, the voiceless, the disenfranchised. It’s not dissimilar to the psychological function of conservative opposition to abortion rights – it’s about conservatives’ need to see themselves not as the inflictors of pain and needless suffering, but as defenders of the innocent. But like in the abortion debate, the innocent victims in the QAnon conspiracy theory only exist in conservatives’ minds.
QAnon is an elaborate fiction dreamed up by Trump fans to meet the psychological needs of those who cannot allow themselves to admit what is plain as day to everyone else: that the man they voted for and support is mendacious, narcissistic, incompetent, corrupt and horrifically unfit, both morally and intellectually, for his office. He is so ostentatiously unfit to be president that the only way even his most ardent supporters can justify his position is to elevate their own denial into a baroque theology in which his opponents are Satanic pedophiles, and he is the defender of the children.
This delusion has already endangered innocent people and taken lives: one supporter of QAnon famously arrived at Comet Ping Pong with a rifle that he shot into the air, and another QAnon believer assassinated an alleged mob boss on Staten Island whom he reportedly believed was involved in the pedophile ring. If the delusion continues to fester and spread, the violence is sure to continue.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist