A small but perplexing flock of cultists marched down my sidewalk this weekend, carrying signs and hollering about saving the children. The group represents the local contingent of globally affiliated ding dongs who ascribe to the demented and dangerous belief that, among other things, Donald Trump is here to rid the world of cannibalistic deep state pedophiles. I assume they were on the sidewalk because there aren’t enough of them to take to the streets; much like their well-publicized appearances at Palm Beach city council meetings and Georgia congressional primaries, they tend to be scant in numbers but too obnoxious to ignore.
Much has been made of the advent of Qanon, thanks in no small part to Trump legitimizing them and Trump’s sycophants in the legislative branch being too ethically compromised to disavow them. These are not harmless conspiracists—they’re vocal science deniers who proudly commit acts of violence, kidnapping, and public harassment. The FBI considers them a terror threat. They are a sad reflection of the psychic void that is left when an orange megalomaniac lets rampant disease and economic devastation sweep the land and his abandoned constituents have nothing to do but scrape the polyp-riddled bowels of Facebook and YouTube for a sense of meaning and human connection.
A woman who went viral on Twitter this summer for destroying a mask display in a Target has since admitted that her tantrum was heavily influenced by her recent radicalization into the ideology. She was struggling mightily with her mental health in the wake of COVID-related unemployment and found herself gradually pulled into the conspiracy’s online communities. Qanon gave her something to do with her time, gave her a singular rationale for her collective miseries, and readily fueled her sense of white rage and entitlement—you know, that most insidious of currents roiling through the American consciousness.
She regrets it all now, she told a reporter who interviewed her. Of course she does. Her life is ruined. She’s presumably abandoned the belief that some insane deep state cabal created the pandemic to advance a nefarious bid for control of the sheeple, but in the meantime, a real life person lost her real life business, her marriage, and her mind, and finds herself now even worse off than she was the day she first began doomscrolling.
Sad as this all is, I haven’t got any tears left for privileged caucasians who elect to destroy themselves with paranoia; I save my grief for the real tragedies unfolding in our nation right now in the lives of people who didn’t willingly sign on for the agony.
I do reserve a sliver of rueful empathy for the person who would rather believe it’s all one big conspiracy. The thing about cults and conspiracies is that they give the vast and incomprehensible fuckery of modern life a tidy and comforting narrative, which is quite appealing when the situation in this country is simply too awful for words. As of this writing, the US has endured more than three Vietnam Wars’ worth of pandemic-related death in six months, and there is still no coherent national effort to manage the disease. Eviction courts and foreclosure filings are dumping citizens onto the streets. Schoolteachers are writing their wills. The hunger is at dustbowl levels, with food bank lines stretching upwards of a half mile in some neighborhoods. A goodly vein of California is in flames and a pair of hurricanes are set to converge on the Gulf Coast in the next few days.
So, sure. It would be a lot easier to think it’s all part of some bigger plan. The notion that this endless disaster is just the preventable outcome of Jared Kushner holding a security clearance is, quite understandably, too much for the human psyche to bear.
I watched the passing Hairy Qrishnas until they faded from view, and then I returned to a list of a few hundred swing voters I’m responsible for contacting ahead of the election to help them plan for getting to the polls. I’ve struggled this summer to find the ways to keep going and not give up hope—and at this moment, voter mobilization gives me one of the few bright points of light I can look to. But like everything else these days: taking to the streets, donating, writing angry letters to my congressman, begging people to vote, it all feels like it just ain’t enough.
We are riding a tidal flood of collective trauma at this moment, and some of us have found tree branches to cling to and others of us have found snakes. The only thing we have in common? A desperate wish to find ourselves in a different world.