Home/Rod Dreher/The Lost Souls Of MAGA & QAnon

The Lost Souls Of MAGA & QAnon

January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This blog has been chronicling over the years the takeover of the progressive mind by the cult of Woke. Because the world I live in is predominantly an intellectual one, I am more in touch with conservatives who work and move within institutions like media, academia, and corporate America. The cult of Wokeness is very real to me, because of what my friends and contacts report. What this cult has done to the minds of those who have given themselves over to it is horrifying.

But in the past few days I am realizing that I did not know how far the Trump cult had gone into conquering the minds of its adherents. I mentioned that over the weekend, I spoke with a friend who completely believes that the MAGA riot on Capitol Hill was actually an Antifa operation, and, of course, that Trump obviously won the election in a landslide. Nothing anyone can say can falsify what this friend believes.

Well, this letter came in from a reader just now:

I’ve been talking with friends who are Trump supporters and I’m genuinely disturbed by the stuff they’ve been saying. So much so, I had to delete many of the messages because it was like reading the texts of some ancient Satanic cult or something. I’m not being facetious, either – the delusion has set in and it’s consumed them.
They really believe this election was stolen. They really believe that Trump won by a landslide. They believe any judge who ruled against Trump, doesn’t agree with Trump’s version of events, even if they’re dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, is in on the fix, a liar, traitor, what have you. I mean, how can Trump be telling the truth 100% time, anyway?
But, the worst part of all, they think what happened at the Capitol wasn’t only understandable, but legitimate, going as far as to say they should’ve seized and occupied the building! I really can’t say any more than that – it’s all crazy talk and, as much as I want to share what they said, in the principle of honor, I still want to protect their identities.
However, it absolutely crushes me that these people, who just a year or two ago, were some of the most clear-headed, insightful, knowledgeable, and sober-minded thinkers, have succumbed to this madness. One person went from predicting Trump would lose the 2020 election to winning it for sure, with no clear linkage on how they got from point ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ Nothing I say can get them to see reason. They continue to insist this isn’t about Trump, but about the nation. Yet, if that were truly the case, why are they throwing their whole weight behind Trump, as opposed to some platform or principle? These people are doing and saying things they would’ve never otherwise if Trump didn’t put them up to it. They can’t or won’t see the damage he’s done to conservatism, the nation, and the republic, yet he’s still the hill they want to die on.
Strangely, the radical right and the left have become unified on one principle — this country’s damaged beyond repair and a revolution’s the only thing that can bring deliverance to the country. Because it won the election, the left will, at least in the near term, utilize legitimate means to impose what they consider necessary change on the country. This also means the right will resort to increasingly illegitimate means to force change. We may begin to see large-scale, violent protests become as ubiquitous of a strategy on the right as it is on the left. But the right’s protests will be met with counter-protests on the left, as we saw in Pacific Beach, San Diego over the weekend. This sort of thing will intensify and repeat itself over and over and the authorities will be largely powerless to prevent it.
When history judges these events, I think there’s no way to do so without strongly factoring in COVID and the associated lockdowns. The pandemic and the economic crisis that was inflicted de-stabilized society in ways that still haven’t become entirely obvious to many, particularly in elite circles. I told you before that extremists cannot prevail in stable societies. They also cannot prevail in stable economies. People are just too busy to indulge in such fantasies, even if they might talk about this stuff at home over a beer. I don’t know how many people in MAGA-land are unemployed or underemployed, but I think COVID, the lockdowns, and the George Floyd protests had a catastrophic impact on the way they viewed their country and the world. It’s very possible they came to believe that their country was crashing down around them and it drove them mad. Trump’s irresponsible actions and rhetoric, combined with the Democrats delivering an equally catastrophic political defeat, only accentuated that point.
As if that wasn’t bad enough already, look at what Gov. Cuomo said earlier today:
We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.
If anyone thinks this is a good move on his part, they’re sadly mistaken. This contradicts the narrative that we’re in the midst of fierce “second wave” that’s got no end in sight. The damage done to the economy already also means that you can’t just open things back up and expect things to return to normal. More relevant to the point, MAGA will use this as evidence that the lockdowns were entirely motivated by politics. Now that Trump’s out of office, the Democrats are changing their tune on the lockdowns, hoping the economy will recover, and it’ll cement their political power for at least the next two election cycles.
I don’t believe either will happen. The economy will continue to suffer and this sort of move will breed cynicism and resentment on the right that’ll only add fuel to an already raging inferno.
The other day, a different reader wrote to me this letter, which I have slightly edited to protect him and his parents:
I have never been particularly enthusiastic about the fact that I am an American, which is not to say that I have ever been antagonistic about it, but rather that it never really factored into my view of self or the world. At most, it rose to the level of embarrassment, as it is all too easy to see how the American way of life openly and proudly conflicts with one’s Christian faith (simpler times): war-like, materialistic, and generally godless. The events of the past week have shown me just how much more I valued this American order than I realized.
I am writing from the living room of my parents house. Why do I mention that? I mention it because they are Qanon’ers. That is a charge I do not level lightly. In fact, I rejected it for the longest time. Right-winger? Clearly. Trump supporters? Without hesitation. A touch on the radical side? One could say so. It has, however, accelerated over the last year. When they left their church in the town in which they live to begin attending [an Evangelical megachurch pastored by a celebrity preacher associated with Trump], I began to worry. Then, my sister shared with me the full extent of the abomination, and they are in the tank. As it turns out, the reason they have shielded my from it is because, according to my sister paraphrasing my mother, “I am just not going to listen,” to what they have to say. Pardon my language, but you’re g*ddamned right I’m not going to listen. I give heresy no quarter.
My field is mental health, and what I see is mass psychosis, perhaps some sort of stress-induced schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is characterized by the individual essentially occupying two worlds: the physical world of reality, and the much darker and more terrifying world of their own imagining. Let it be known, I know a few people who spent their careers in military intelligence, so I have learned, to the extent that a civilian can be told, just how dark and dangerous the world is. For instance, one such person into whose hands I would entrust my life, has told me that the CIA makes the KGB look like a collection of “pre-pubescent choir boys”. I have been told, with a twinkle in this person’s eye, that, “Accidents happen every day.” The world is a dark and dangerous place, but at its worst it does not approach the everyday delusions of this disturbing (and growing) rabble.
In a sense, it is understandable to see how an individual might come to this low mental place. If they had spent the last decade obsessively watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh and his much louder counterpart Mark Levin, it’s only reasonable that before long they would be in a state of immense emotional duress, perhaps even to the level of existential crisis. When the media you watch is curated to promote the belief that a monster lurks under every bed and around every corner, and that only by watching the next segment after a series of “Buy gold!” and My Pillow commercials, you are going to be frayed, particularly if you do not have an adequate spiritual counterweight. To that end, our churches — some more so than others — bear some responsibility for this disaster.
When your entire religious foundation is built on the slogan, “Jesus is all I need!”, then when you are met with an overwhelming worldly darkness, suddenly you are left wanting. If Jesus was all that I needed, then why does it feel like I am drowning? By removing the value and unavoidable reality of suffering from our sermons, by preaching a watered down, emotive gospel where one’s feeling is the only arbiter of truth, we have set up our congregations for exactly this shit. If “Jesus is enough!”, and a strongman like Trump comes along, well, maybe Trump is Jesus’ chosen one. Brilliant! Were Solzhenitsyn to give his Harvard Address today, he would be killed before exiting the stage from which he spoke.
This lunatic Right is, in large part, a reaction to the lunatic Left. Now that elements of that Left are about to assume the full authority of government, they are going to push their boundaries to an obscene distance. We all know that this will only motivate the Right to move even further to their respective boundaries. Have you every tried stretching a rubber band to your full wingspan? It snaps, and is no longer functional. What do we think will happen as society continues its march to either extreme? If history has taught us one single lesson, it is that no society is invincible (interestingly, and I say this as an unapologetic monarchist (that’s right), the British Monarchy, for all the reduction in global influence felt over the last two centuries, has nonetheless been more or less stable for a very long time. Something to think about).
It was Plato who said that oligarchy turns into democracy. In a democracy, Plato said, freedom is the supreme good, but also the slave master. Because man is free to do as he so desires, any semblance of social cohesion or unity eventually degenerates. My desires become the highest good, and society must conform to them, because I am an individual, and we know for a fact society exists to promote individual freedom. Now, multiply such selfish sentiments by 329,000,000. Plato goes on to say that once freedom (selfishness) hits critical mass, it further devolves into tyranny. No one possesses any real sense of discipline, and all falls into chaos. Democracy is taken over the the desire for freedom, power must be seized to maintain control, a champion will come along and experience power, and will become a tyrant.
What we saw in the Capitol Insurrection — and insurrection is clearly was, if words hold any meaning anymore — was the first public step into true, verifiable, chaotic tyranny.
I am a great admirer of Prof. Jordan Peterson (and am grateful that he is now well on his way back to health after a harrowing 18-month bout with benzo withdrawal), and one of the cornerstones of his program is that meaning is the antithesis and antidote for chaos. Conversely, a lack of meaning will lead to chaos. His teaching focuses on the individual level, but it’s easy enough to expand outward. How does one find meaning, then? The commonly accepted answer is through the fulfillment and exercise of our rights. Bullshit, Peterson says. Rights, rights, rights is all we hear, and look where we are because of it. Rights do not exist without another R-word: responsibility. One of Peterson’s “rules” is to set your own life in order before setting out to change the world. This is where his whole, “Make your bed” thing comes into play: if you cannot be so bothered as to attend to the least responsibilities in your life, why should you be entrusted with anything greater? To go to the Gospels, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.” (Lk. 12.48).
Why do I bring this up? Because those who bear the responsibility are being given cover. Ashli Babbitt is a martyr! She was just a peaceful protester and was murdered in cold blood! Actually, no. She was part of a violent mob, a mob which has killed at least one Capitol police officer, and at the moment she was shot, she was actively climbing through a broken window in an effort to further storm into the House Chamber. That sounds like criminal trespassing to me, and the fact that she was one of dozens at that particular scene only adds to the justification of the use of force. Capitol Police, Secret Service, etc. have one single job: to protect the U.S. government. You cannot attack the government — its servants or its buildings — and not expect to be met with equal or greater force. My point, though, is that no one is taking responsibility for this. That mob wasn’t MAGA, or even Qanon, the Right says. No, it was Antifa, obviously, because false flag and deep state and pedophilia and good Lord give me a break from this garbage.
Because of Covid, I have been unable to find a new job (though I am close to a couple). As a result, at the end of this month, I am going to have to — temporarily — move in with my parents. Me, a Catholic, mental health professional Dead Head who loves mindfulness, reading, writing, and playing guitar, will lay my head at night 50-60 feet from two people who, despite our close physical proximity, no longer occupy the same confines of reality. It’s heartbreaking and, if I am being perfectly honest, more than a little concerning. My parents are good, decent, hard working people, but I have seen their winds warped to such a radical, previously unthinkable degree. Where will they be in a year? I fear for their safety.
It is clear to me now that the United States is in much deeper trouble than I realized even a week ago. In Live Not By Lies, I write about how closely the US today resembles Hannah Arendt’s portrait of a pre-totalitarian society. I focused on the ideology that the progressive Left believes, and is putting into place in the institutions where they dominate. The mainstream media don’t see this, because they are part of it. But it’s real, and it’s happening.
However, as I’ve said here in the past few days, and as I repeat again, the depth of the ideological capture of the Right by a parallel insanity is becoming clearer to me. It troubles me not because I think these people have any chance at taking and exercising power — remember, Trump, for all his bluster, did not change much — but because in their willingness to live by lies, they not only can mount no effective defense against the much more powerful Left, but they also will act to give that same Left — which controls the infrastructure of the United States — reasons to lean more heavily into soft totalitarianism. From Live Not By Lies:

To grasp the threat of totalitarianism, it’s important to understand the difference between it and simple authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control. That is mere dictatorship—bad, certainly, but totalitarianism is much worse. According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

This is what the two readers above are talking about with the QAnon/MAGA-ists in their circles. They have given themselves over to an ideology that seeks to define and control reality. Wokeness is the same kind of thing. As a conservative, and as a more or less normal person, I no more want to be ruled by QAnon/MAGA loonies than I want to be ruled by the Woke. But you see the totalitarian temptation on both sides.

Arendt wrote, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (quoted in Live Not By Lies):

What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world, is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.

With reference to the first reader’s observation that both the radicalized Left and the radicalized Right have united themselves on the view that America is beyond repair, here’s a clip from Live Not By Lies:

Americans’ loss of faith in institutions and hierarchies began in the 1960s. In Europe, though, it started in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Surveying the political scene in Germany during the 1920s, Arendt noted a “terrifying negative solidarity” among people from diverse classes, united in their belief that all political parties were populated by fools.

I want to point out one more thing that Arendt saw as pre-totalitarian: the desire to transgress. I cited it in Live Not By Lies to talk about how liberal elites are willing to tolerate the total transgression of liberal norms of free speech, fair play, and so forth, for the sake of so-called “social justice.” The justification by conservatives — not necessarily elites, but any conservative — of transgressing the Capitol for the sake of Trump, shows how deeply the rot has gone on our side too. In LNBL, I wrote:

Her point was that these authors did not avail themselves of respectable intellectual theories to justify their transgressiveness. They immersed themselves in what is basest in human nature and regarded doing so as acts of liberation. Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. 

The Left has been doing this for years now, in slow motion, throughout institutions. This is what the capitulation of university presidents and editors-in-chief to new illiberal norms means. But let’s be honest: Can we not now say that far too many conservatives do not object to paying a price — the destruction of our democracy and its norms — for the fun of seeing how the Deplorables forced themselves into the Capitol?

I am sorry to keep quoting my own book here — it’s in poor taste, I know — but I want to help readers understand how serious the situation is, and how events of the past week have revealed the corruption of the mind of the Right in a new way, at least to me. From Live Not By Lies:

Heda Margolius Kovály, a disillusioned Czech communist whose husband was executed after a 1952 show trial, reflects on the willingness of people to turn their backs on the truth for the sake of an ideological cause.

It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant. Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of “understood necessity,” for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth. Slowly, drop by drop, your life begins to ooze away just as surely as if you had slashed your wrists; you have voluntarily condemned yourself to helplessness.

You can surrender your moral responsibility to be honest out of misplaced idealism. You can also surrender it by hating others more than you love truth. In pre-totalitarian states, Arendt writes, hating “respectable society” was so narcotic, that elites were willing to accept “monstrous forgeries in historiography” for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had “excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.” For example, many who didn’t really accept Marx’s revisionist take on history—that it is a manifestation of class struggle—were willing to affirm it because it was a useful tool to punish those they despised.

I have written an entire book explaining how this exists and works on the contemporary Left, and within the institutions under its cultural domination (again, including corporate America). Now, though, we see that so many people on the Right — the parents of the second letter writer, and the friends of the first — are willing to relinquish their moral responsibility by surrendering to conspiracy theories. They hate the Left, and enemies of Donald Trump (on the Right as well) more than they love the truth. If you missed The Atlantic‘s long piece about QAnon last May, by all means read it now. 

Dark days are here. Get ready. One of the hardest things ahead for all of us, no matter where we come down on the political spectrum, is going to be keeping a clear head and a clean heart.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I’m reading Carl Trueman’s book right now–amazing book–and what’s mind-blowing (and depressing) is how his book describes EVERYBODY.  The history it traces is leftist history: Rousseau to the English Romantics to Nietzsche/ Marx/ Darwin to Freud and on down to the proponents of intersectionality, etc.  But what the last few years have shown me–distilled into the last few days most potently–is how all of this stuff applies to the right as well.  The therapeutic, feelings as fact culture is not just the province of activists and intersectionality scholars.

Look at the language of the therapeutic, the language of feelings–so much of the talk of election conspiracies, theft, etc., is rooted in the language of feelings.  Most infamously is Metaxas’ take on how he doesn’t need any evidence because he KNOWS in his heart that this steal happened, but I feel–haha–like I’m seeing this kind of language more and more from conservatives in every area.  And look at some of the more craven responses to the events of last week.  I have a strong, solid evangelical friend who sort of engaged in a pro forma “yeah, this was bad, these guys should go to jail” but then started going off on “well, you can only push people so far and if you tell them they’re bigots for calling a she a she sooner or later they’ll punch back.”  I have seen this a lot—these people believe the election is being stolen, they don’t have a voice, blah blah blah.
Leaving aside that they believe this because in many cases they’ve been lied to and exploited (I know that sounds patronizing but it’s true), that is the argument of a CHILD.  “I had a bad day at school and Johnny picked on me and Mrs. Smith called ME out for talking instead of him so I threw my papers across the room!”  John Lewis got his skull bashed in and he ran for congress.  The Black marchers in the civil rights era, who endured about a million times worse than their preferred social media site being kicked off line, marched and organized and rallied.  These guys believe that because the rest of society isn’t respecting what they FEEL to be true, that they’re perfectly justified in smashing up the capital, beating up people, rioting, vandalizing–tell me how this is ANY different from the things the left got up to in May.  Except it’s worse because 1) the capitol is not some courthouse in Portland or a liquor store, 2) they were attempting to attack a building WHILE THE LEGISLATURE WAS IN IT, and 3) they beat a cop to death!
Now here I can hear people say “whoa whoa.  These guys aren’t “the right.”  These guys are the crazies.  Yeah–crazies who were egged on, summoned, and endorsed by literally the president of the United States of America.  And if we want to go that way, we have to be fair and allow that most of “the left” isn’t antifa.  It’s human nature to see the other side as a monolithic block of evil and your own as more nuanced and graded, but it’s also wrong and our duty as Christians, if that’s what we are, to push back against that.
This has gotten far afield–sorry.  The point isn’t to engage in whatabouttery or fruitless comparison, but to say that this culture of insulting my feelings equals attacking me, and I’m entitled to a universe that treats what I BELIEVE and FEEL as reality–that’s exactly, EXACTLY what this MAGA/ election steal/ riot/ anti-elite stuff is.  This is the world of liquid modernity and the therapeutic self, as Trueman says, and fundamentally, for all intents and purposes, the right lives in it as much as the left, and boy does last week show that in spades.
Also–have you ever thought about designing a course around your thought from the last few years?  I’ve been making a lot of connections through it and I bet some Christian college would love to have you teach a class virtually.  Like you’ve got BenOp and Live not by Lies, but all this ties into the things Trueman writes about (Rieff/ Taylor), the post-liberal thinkers (Deneen/ Legutko), and contemporary political conservatism and its internal and external critics (stuff like Carney, Arnade).  Might be cool.  The more I read the news, the more I feel like BenOp is your most important work here–the last year has revealed that the failure of the church to be the church and develop itself has paved the way for both pathologies of the right and left.  Seeing this in my own tradition is INCREDIBLY depressing.  We’ve got churches going full MAGA/Q, we’ve got churches going full SJW, we’ve got not that many churches just preaching the gospel and the ones that are are struggling with members that are far more animated by MAGA/Q or SJW/ BLM.
Carl Trueman’s fantastic book, The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self, is only $7.99 on Kindle today.
UPDATE.2: Reader EVW, who is an Evangelical, posted an interesting comment:

Does Christian Smith mention the long-term effects of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? This may be what we’re seeing, which oddly has overlap with Critical Theory of all types. Both philosophies are me-oriented, and MTD easily becomes victim-oriented like CRT when God doesn’t give me what I want. MTD states that if I’m good, God will give me what I want. If the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and I want change, God certainly must want that for me. And if I can’t get it, God must be blessing my fight to demand it.

I know it’s important for the David Frenches and Russell Moores of the evangelical world to write their vociferous denunciations of the acts at the Capitol. They are public figures and need to distance themselves as much as possible from all the crosses and Jesus signs and loud Christian music blaring on the mall. But I actually think they need to be exceedingly brief on the subject. Their denunciations are falling on very angry, deaf ears. Despite the similarities and shared experiences (like, say, their home church pew), they do not share the same faith with many of the people in their orbit. In fact, their denunciations will probably fan the flames. I wonder why the Frenches and Moores, who were quick to reach across the aisle for the BLM issue, are not doing the same with these conservatives. My guess is they erroneously think they’re on the same side. They aren’t.

I’m actually surprised to see that most of the people speaking about reaching across the aisle and building unity and trust are coming from secular liberals, not Christians. It’s very disconcerting because while I agree that we are better equipped to admonish our own “people”, we bridging the gap (where I thought Moore and French might fall) are also the best to help in the unity-building. But the lectures will only make that harder.

I listened to a podcast in which a journalist described going into the capitol with the rioters. This is a secular liberal who has been following the BLM protests and getting to know both Proud Boy members as well as Antifa. One of his main take-aways was that people are so desperate to be heard that they’re taking matters into their own hands. BLM at least has the media who will listen. This rabble on Wednesday does not. Having people supposedly from their side lecturing them will not be viewed as an admonition. It will just be a call to arms to try it again.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles