Even as Donald Trump’s administration sinks into history, the country is still smarting from January’s seditious violence waged in his name. Some of our most duplicitous politicians have tried to pin the Capitol riots on anti-Trump activists, but smoky photographs of QAnon flags and, increasingly, detailed indictments give a clear picture of the rebels’ far-right allegiances. Among those treasonous banners, one can’t help but notice crosses and a hint of idolatry: “Jesus 2020,” “Trump is My Savior.” It’s not surprising, then, that commentators have begun to see QAnon conspiracism as a religious movement. In the New Yorker, Michael Luo catalogs Evangelical iconography at the insurrection and documents “the American church’s role in bringing the country to this dangerous moment.” In a cover story for the Atlantic last summer, Adrienne LaFrance calls QAnon a “mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values,” ultimately “not just a conspiracy theory but…a new religion.”
This isn’t the first time American critics have viewed conspiratorial thinking as a kind of irrational religiosity. Undergirding more recent works like Susan Jacoby’s 2008 The Age of American Unreason is Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s landmark book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter details a Manichaean mode of thinking, principally on the far right, whose followers do “not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised [because] what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil.” This “apocalypticism” takes up “similar themes in Christianity” by seeing mundane politics as a literal crusade against unpatriotic infidels.
Looking at those crosses on January 6, we might follow Hofstadter and his intellectual descendants by coupling American fundamentalist fervor with our newest fringe politics. But we run a risk by broadly framing QAnon as a form of faith: we imply that its adherents might be redeemed by turning to an ardent secularism that follows the facts, crunches the data, and ditches the mythologies. But dispassionate logic, by itself, can’t salvage our democratic culture, chiefly because not one of us actually embodies “reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values” as much as we would like. As American writers from a century ago observed, the ever-growing complexity of the modern world has turned cool rationality into the tallest of tall orders. Especially in our era of virus variants and alchemic cryptocurrencies, QAnon’s cardinal transgression is not faith exactly. Instead, QAnon embodies our era’s worst kind of pride—the arrogance of presuming to have figured it all out.