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Credit: Darron Birgenheier/flickr

At long last, mainstream reporters are starting to take the QAnon conspiracy cult seriously. With at least one QAnon devotee about to be elected to Congress, millions of online followers and several big stories in major publications, the cult has come into its own. Pushback against it has come too little, too late. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok only recently started deactivating major QAnon promoters and groups, even as those accounts engage in coordinated ban evasion and continue to peddle lies on other platforms.

I (as others have) use the word “cult” here very intentionally. QAnon is not a political movement centered around an ideology or policy platform: it is a freewheeling grab bag of mostly far-right but also non-partisan conspiracy theories from flat-earthers to believers in lizard people to those who believe that JFK Jr is still alive and coordinating the arrests of a massive global pedophile and Satanic child sacrifice ring. Its adherents demand not allegiance to a specific orthodoxy, but only blind faith in the leader: an anonymous online figure nicknamed “Q” who began posting on 4chan during the early days of the Trump Administration, claiming to be a member of the administration with top “Q” level security clearance. Members spend countless hours analyzing specific “drops” from Q, using numerology and other hokey deep reading techniques to parse misspelling in Trump tweets for hidden messages and patterns, fitting them into bizarre and hopelessly complicated “calendars” and “clocks.”

The key catchphrases of the movement are typical of cultic in-groups with political overtones. “Trust the Plan.” “Patriots Are in Control.” “Where We Go One We Go All.” It provides a built-in community of fellow believers, and a chiliastic all-encompassing spiritual battle against both human and supernatural enemies. As with an adventist cult, Q followers are supposed to be essential team members laying the groundwork for the exposure of the “truth”: a giant global ring of child-eating Satanist pedophiles restricting access to free energy, debt jubilees and world peace. Central to all of this is the figure of Donald Trump, who will supposedly one day bring “the pain”: the mass arrest and summary execution of all the cult’s enemies, ranging from standard right-wing targets like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to celebrities like Tom Hanks and Chrissy Teigen. (The fact that President Trump, leader of the Executive Branch of the United States, has supposedly allowed this ring to exist unhampered for nearly four years while an anonymous 8chan user spreads the gospel is dismissed as a minor inconvenience.) All of it is overlaid on existing white supremacist and anti-semitic themes, as the enemy is supposed to be a “globalist” cabal using minorities to overwhelm majority-white Christian nations.

QAnon followers are also suffering the same sorts of social isolation and estrangement from family and friends that is typical of new cult members. QAnon leaders, for their part, offer a substitute family for them in replacement. As QAnon influencer Martin Geddes once tweeted before his account was suspended:

Part of the struggle of being “awake(ish)” is that many of your normal sources of support become flimsy or even can attack. Your preacher, teacher, therapist, mother, lover etc can be under the spell of false narratives or devious doctrines. Requires building a whole new network.”

This is not a political movement. It is a novel form of online religion enabled by social media algorithms. And it is deeply dangerous, not just because of its capacity for catapulting all sorts of misinformation but also because of its natural tendency toward political violence. After all, if you believed that such things were true and such people existed, what would you do to stop them?

One would think that the Republican Party would see the danger of this phenomenon and try to nip it in the bud, as surely as any political entity would try to quell a cult growing like a cancer within it. But it hasn’t. House GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has come under fire for not doing enough to stop QAnon within Republican circles and hewing too close to Trump, but he is unlikely to be seriously threatened for leadership. Trump himself refuses to try to squelch the conspiracy group, seeing any supporter as a good supporter.

The problem is that Republican Party has been relying on only slightly milder forms of conspiratorial politics for years now. It’s staggering to ponder the implications of modern Republican ideology all at once, but consider a few examples. To be a modern Republican you have to believe that thousands of climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to falsify data for grant money, while oil executives are victims trying to expose the truth. You have to believe that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are engaged in coordinated voter impersonation fraud, abetted by hundreds of local elections officials in both blue and red areas, and no one has ever leaked it or been caught. You have to believe in a massively coordinated effort to take away guns not to protect children from being shot in schools and movie theaters, but to leave white people defenseless in a race war or implement a Stalinist state tyranny. You have to believe that social services are a racket to keep racial minorities voting for Democrats, rather than an attempt to mitigate the inequities of brutal capital markets in a society riddled with horrific structural racism. And so on.

These (among others) are truly bizarre beliefs, but they are preached from the Fox News pulpit 24-hours-a-day on America’s most-watched cable news network. They have become part of our daily political existence, such that we barely stop to remark anymore on just how outlandish and nonsensical they are when given a moment’s thought. It’s a deeply conspiratorial worldview that depends on its adherents remaining ensconced in a bubble of alternative misinformation.

So it’s not a huge logical leap from these conspiracy theories into even more fantastical QAnon territory. It’s not a big step, for instance, from ridiculously claiming that climate scientists are all lying for grant money–which lacks real credibility as a motive–to speculating that they’re lying for deeper, more nefarious ends. In some ways the Republican tropes actually gain more credibility the more villainous the opponents’ motives are claimed to be. If you’re going to claim that Democrats want to offer universal childcare as an evil scheme to gain power to do vague unspecified things, why not go all the way to claiming that they want to keep patriots subdued so they can harvest babies for adrenochrome? If you’re going to vilify your enemies with absurd claims and keep your followers in a tightly controlled information bubble, why stop at a partially enraptured cable news/AM radio audience? Why not go all the way?

This is why the GOP can’t control QAnon. Once the Republican Party handed over control of its messaging to cable news and radio hosts, and once it began to depend on an alternative universe of conspiracy theories promulgated on social media to prop itself up, it was only a matter of time before these things started to take on a life of their own.

Now we are all paying the price as this toxic cult threatens to infuse American politics with even more extremism, misinformation and violence. But it was the “mainstream” Republican Party and its allies that laid all the groundwork for it.

Note: the original version of this article stated that “Q” level security clearance does not exist. It is actually a Department of Energy clearance level.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.