Leading up to the Nov. 3 election in the United States, there were major concerns that President Donald Trump’s posture and rhetoric and the consistent social polarization he had engendered in the country since taking office would bubble to the surface, leading to major attacks or sustained violence on the streets. However, aside from a few incidents, largely related to protests, and despite Trump encouraging his supporters not to accept the results of the election, there has been a marked absence of election-related violence. This is, of course, good news and most analysts are happy to have been wrong thus far.
Uncovering reasons for why something didn’t happen is always a very difficult exercise, but based on my own research on far-right and QAnon content on Telegram and Parler, there’s at least one reason that is worth highlighting: the peculiar ability of some conspiracy theories to mitigate violent mobilization.
This is the opposite of what we are used to reading about conspiracy theories. Study after study has shown that people who deeply believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to vote, less likely to vaccinate their children, have dwindling levels of trust in government and expert systems, and are generally unlikely to donate money or volunteer.
In recent years, studies on the broader societal impacts of conspiracy theories have come to include evidence of their ability to inspire violence. The QAnon movement in particular has mobilized several individuals to engage in violence, kidnapping plots, and vandalism. This is largely because, unlike conspiracy theories about the moon landing or the assassination of JFK, QAnon ideology is largely rooted in its adherents’ conception of social justice and a moral urgency to save children from a sinister cabal of satanic pedophiles. After all, if any one of us truly believed that thousands of children were being held hostage and trafficked by powerful elites, it would mobilize us as well. There is a particular moral component to QAnon ideas, largely absent from many other conspiracies I have studied, that makes it more conducive to become a social movement, instead of a nebulous set of ideas floating in cyberspace.
Linked to this is the QAnon idea that Donald Trump is a kind of holy warrior, fighting this deep state cabal from inside the White House, and that he needs all the help he can get. QAnon ideas have also started to seep into the broader pro-Trump movement, and the robustness of the ideology has made QAnon nimble enough to be seamlessly integrated into different groups harboring varying grievances.
Many experts, then, were justifiably worried leading up to the election about what a Trump loss might mean, and how these individuals might react. Two weeks after the election, I participated in a global forum organized by the RESOLVE network, a global consortium of extremism researchers, on what violent extremism might look like in 2021, and the potential for fringe conspiracies to produce violence was one of the main issues we discussed. Every terrorism researcher was worried about it.
Then something surprising happened. The very conspiratorial bubbles these individuals lived in, the future-oriented ideas they consumed, and Trump’s own conspiracism around the electoral result had the opposite effect: They stood by and waited. Then, Trump played golf. Shortly after QAnon follower posted a video of Trump golfing on Telegram and wrote, “does he seem worried to you?” Another posted an article about Trump spending the weekend golfing and wrote, “this is how you know the president isn’t worried about a so-called Biden win.”
This notion that Trump “has a plan,” a sentiment deeply engrained in QAnon lore, kept these individuals glued to their seats. As one QAnon supporter wrote on Telegram, “Right now, Trump is sitting on a stack of Trump cards that he is just waiting to lay down like a Royal Flush. … Things are falling into place. He knows he won and they cheated. He gave them the chance to fix things. They chose not to. Now they all go down.”
But while the level to which these individuals trust in Trump has deterred them from taking matters into their own hands, sentiments like these are also dangerous because, at some point, it will become painfully obvious that there is no plan, that Trump is not playing three-dimensional chess, that he really is just golfing because he doesn’t want to do anything else.
As one QAnon follower wrote on Telegram, “You aren’t a great country if you accept Biden to be inaugurated. You have firearms,” noting that other countries have sparked revolutions without having similar gun rights. This is now the question we need to contend with: Will these conspiracy theories, and their endless future-oriented mental gymnastics, keep these individuals subdued and busy, waiting for the “plan” to eventually play out, or will they come to believe that they themselves must urgently do something?
As Joe Biden is inaugurated, and as Trump boards the helicopter and gives a Nixon-esque wave for the last time, there is no telling how some of them might respond. These conspiracy theories themselves seem to have, surprisingly, kicked the election-violence can down the road. Let’s hope they never find it.