Fails to describe what it is: On yesterday morning's Meet the Press, Chuck Todd teased his closing segment with a reference to a movement called QAnon:
TODD (8/16/20): ...Traditionally, the economy trumps all other issues. But that may not be the case in a year when voters blame the president for doing a poor job in controlling a pandemic.A commercial break followed. When Todd returned, he introduced his final segment in the manner shown:
When we come back, those fringe believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory: Are they really on the fringe anymore?
TODD: Welcome back. This week, we saw the rise of something called QAnon. If you're not familiar with it, for viewers, it is a really fringey conspiracy theory that sort of lumps all conspiracy theories together, claims some one weird "Deep State" thing, one person's pulling the levers.With that, Todd played tape of the Trump Q-and-A we ourselves featured on Saturday. To review our report, click here.
It's very popular on the extreme right these days. And an adherent named Marjorie Taylor Greene won a Republican runoff in a Georgia congressional district. She is likely to end up in Congress as the first sort of known conspiracy theorist of this QAnon thing. Here's what the president had to say about her victory.
In the part of the tape Todd played, Trump refused to answer a question about "QAnon and [Taylor Greene's] decision to embrace that conspiracy theory." Todd then introduced his program's final segment like this:
TODD: Jeh Johnson, the president refused to ever answer that question. He's refused to answer that question millions of times. He's never said he believes in it, but he always seems to do a wink and a nod by not saying anything in either direction. How dangerous is this, is this QAnon? Is this a virus inside the Republican party?What the heck is QAnon? What do its adherents believe?
So far, Todd hadn't quite explained. He'd suggested that it was a dangerous virus. But he still hadn't explained what QAnon adherents believe.
He'd said that it's "a really fringey conspiracy theory that sort of lumps all conspiracy theories together." He'd said that it claims some one weird "Deep State" thing, one person's pulling the levers."
He'd suggested that it was a dangerous virus. But he still hadn't made any real attempt to explain what adherents believe.
What is this fringey conspiracy theory? What do its believers believe? So far, Todd hadn't explained—and now, neither did Johnson, to whom the first question had gone:
JOHNSON (continuing directly): I'm afraid it could be, Chuck.We agree with everything Johnson said. But what do QAnon believers believe? So far, no one had said!
Chuck, QAnon and movements like it gain currency because of the way in which Americans receive their news and receive their information on social media. Not enough organizations have standards, have journalistic standards, and people therefore are drawn to sources of information that reaffirm their own biases, their own prejudices, their own conspiracy theories.
And that is the environment in which we live, and in which Americans have to be much, much more skeptical about what they read and see. And that's how a group like this gains traction, to the point where somebody can win a primary.
As this Meet the Press segment continued, Todd directed questions to Carol Lee and Kasie Hunt, his other two panelists. This was the start of Lee's statement:
LEE: When it comes to QAnon, Chuck, you know, the president clearly sees this as something where he doesn't want to alienate any of his supporters. And it's worth noting that the president has retweeted and promoted multiple times things that QAnon supporters and believers have posted. So he's not just not denouncing this. In some ways, he's embracing it.Lee went on from there a bit. She said that Trump has promoted multiple things that QAnon supporters have posted, but she never specifically said what these conspiracy theories are.
And even, one of his campaign aides criticized a Republican lawmaker for speaking out against QAnon, saying, you know, "Why don't you focus on Democrat conspiracy theories?" So this is another instance where people around the president and those that I have spoken to said that the president, you know, they don't want him to give oxygen to this, but at the same time, they think people have the right to be wrong.
Hunt was the last panelist to speak. She suggested that QAnon is indeed moving out of the fringe, as Todd had originally suggested. But she too declined to describe what its adherents believe:
HUNT: Well, and, Chuck, I think it's very important that we underscore here that this conspiracy theory, (A), is starting to move out of just the fringe. We've seen celebrities struggling to deal with it in their Instagram and Twitter comments.According to Hunt, there have been incidents involving violence or the threat of violence. The FBI has issued a warning about these people.
We have also seen a series of incidents in real life, many of which involve violence or the threat of violence, to the point that you have this FBI warning about these people. So I think it's very important when we talk about how we cover this, it is not just a matter of people being free to believe what they want in a political way or say what they want. This is leading to actual acts in real life that are threatening people and their livelihoods. And so I think that's what's at stake when we hear Republicans say, "Okay, fine. You know, come on in. Join the party." This is much more than that.
Indeed, "these people" may vene include some celebrities, but what the heck do "these people" believe? So far, no one had said—and Hunt's presentation ended the segment and with it the Meet the Press program.
We were struck by the way the Meet the Press gang avoided describing the beliefs of this group—a group which was important enough to merit one full segment on this weekly program.
What do QAnon believers really believe? What makes these people worth discussing? As he'd handed the floor to Hunt, Todd had used an intriguing word:
TODD: And, Kasie Hunt, it seems as if the leadership on the Republican side, they've had some words perhaps about Marjorie Taylor Greene, but not much else. And here’s what her—Marjorie Taylor Greene is crazy. Or at least, so her (Republican) opponent said.
Her runoff opponent described her this way. This is what Dr. John Cowan, who was running as more of the mainstream conservative candidate, he described her this way, Kasie. "She's the antithesis of the Republican Party, and she is not conservative. She's crazy. She deserves a YouTube channel, not a seat in Congress. She's a circus act." Kevin McCarthy's going to welcome her in, apparently, and seat her on committees.
In our view, that's a basically sensible assessment, given the norms of our language. QAnon continues a trend of the past several decades—a trend in which American politics is driven by claims and beliefs which, in the colloquial sense, can be sensibly described as "crazy."
These crazy beliefs have been around for a good long time. They date at least to the crazy theories about the many murders the Clintons (plural) had supposedly committed.
These "theories" were spread around by the Reverend Falwell and were widely tolerated by the cowering mainstream press.
Increasingly, we have The Crazy in our discourse—but we also have The Misinformed, Stupid and Wrong. All these elements swirl out of the whirlwind known as the "democratization of media," in which every crackpot, nut and kook can spread his or her crazy ideas around.
Also, everyone has the power to spread ideas and claims which are dumb, unhelpful, highly selective, stupid, self-flattering and/or wrong.
Johnson fingered "social media" as the source of this latest conspiracy theory. Before that, we had talk radio, and we had the "Clinton Chronicles" videotapes hawked by the Reverend Falwell, one of our holiest men, generally for $43.
After that came "cable news" in its current configuration. Also, social media.
New technologies have produced a democratization, in which every person, no matter how crazy or lacking in insight, can spread his or her ideas all around. Along the way, we've learned an important new fact:
We humans have a very hard time spotting The Crazy and even The Wrong. That's true Over Here within our own tribe, and it's very much true Over There.
Yesterday, Meet the press warned the world about QAnon, but no one explained what its adherents believe. On balance, that strikes us as an unhelpful news judgment.
A deep anthropology lesson unfolds as we discuss those adherents' crazy beliefs. Ancient claims about our species are given the lie in this process.
The Crazy is spreading quite fast Over There. Is our tribe widely sunk in The Wrong?
Tomorrow: Explaining what QAnon says
Coming: If it feels good, repeat it