On October 22, 2020, the US saw the largest reporting of new Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Over 77,000 new cases were reported. In the Presidential debate that same evening, Trump once again repeated the falsehood that American had “turned the corner” on the virus. It was pure and supremely dangerous nonsense. Over the following days the Covid-19 cases continued to mount.
In the midst of the Pandemic, belief in the “QAnon” conspiracy theory is markedly rising. QAnon also promotes a bundle of total, yet dangerous nonsense. A number of GOP candidates are running under a QAnon banner. Some polls suggested that some 50% of Republicans actually believe in the basic QAnon theory—that the government is riddled with liberals who are pedophiles and cannibals.
Is there any precedent for this level of hate driven kind of fiction?
There is indeed, but you have to go all the way back to the Middle Ages to find it. You need to especially focus on the great pandemic of the Middle Ages—the Black Death—to find it in such full flower.
The lurid fantasies promoted by the QAnon conspiracy movement are just a retread of what is typically called the “Blood Libel.” For detailed information on this ugly historical phenomenon you can consult the long Wikipedia entry on the matter. Put simply however, the blood libel was a major feature of Anti-Semitism in early Christian Europe. It was the general accusation that Jews kidnapped Christian children and abused and or/killed them in various kinds of sick, quasi-religious rituals. It is interesting, however, that this same accusation was extended to two other groups of reviled people during that time— Gypsies and witches, in other words, to almost any group that lay outside the commonly accepted Christian mainstream.
The historical data suggests that there was no factual basis to these fantasies. In fact, they have no more substance or factual grounding than many of the falsehoods that Donald Trump magically produces in a given news cycle. It seems rather that they were typical of a typical in-group/out-group psychological dynamic. In this process members of one (usually majority) group project all their fears on to some “other” (usually a minority group). The “other” group is typically accused of every dastardly deed imaginable.
Essentially then, as noted above, the current QAnon movement is merely a revival of the medieval blood libel. The word ‘merely’ is not meant to belittle the danger that lies in it, only to suggest that there is nothing new in it.
It is worth looking a little more closely in what the groups demonized by the blood libel had in common. Jews and Gypsies were both communities that had their own very specific organizations and social practices. To a large extent, they stayed apart from the mainstream and liked it that way. Perhaps because of their community solidarity, both communities sometimes tended to prosper in the midst of otherwise dire economic conditions. Both had ways of moving funds around the world—these were the early forms of international banking. Even a passage from the famous “Robin Hood” stories, where Robin encounters the “King of the Tinkers” (who is carrying a large amount of cash) suggests the hidden wealth of the Gypsy community. Gypsies often worked as, and were described as, tinkers or peddlers—marginal outcasts. They were, in fact, simply members of a different and distinct culture.
Witches represented another suspect group in a patriarchal society—independent women. Many historians believe that the widespread belief in witchcraft in the middle ages actually represented the folk survival of more ancient pre-Christian traditions—the ancient Druidic religion of the Celts and other fertility-oriented sects of ancient times. Whatever the details, there is hardly any doubt that the suspicion of witchcraft was primarily leveled against strong, independent women—spinsters and widows who were getting along fine without men. If they had a gift for gardening, midwifery, and the healing arts they were even more suspect (in fact, they were playing at the edges of what we would today call science).
Above all, the three groups I have just mentioned were vulnerable minorities—minorities with substantial assets that were a temptation to the perpetually aggrieved majority. Then came the episode of the suppression of the “Knights Templar.” I am citing the basic Wikipedia page here with a few edits:
The Templars, were a respected Catholic military order founded in 1119. They became famous during the crusades…The Templars became a favored charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. They were prominent in Christian finance..(they) were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who made up as much as 90% of their members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.
… Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremonies created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312 under pressure from King Philip.
It is pretty obvious what happened with the Templars. First, it was all about money and power, but it was enabled by the blood libel deployed for the first time for purely political purposes–strikingly similar to the QAnon movement today. The Templars (although they were bona-fide Christian Crusaders), were accused of all the horrific crimes associated with that old blood libel trope of European anti-Semitism. They were accused of being secretly Jewish, Muslim, or Satanist, of being homosexuals, of kidnapping and abusing and killing and even eating Christian children in their satanic rituals. Their real offense was that (like the Jews, Gypsies and women accused of witchcraft) they had money and other assets that made them easy victims for powerful political opponents. It really didn’t matter that a lot of them were French; their long connection with “foreigners” just helped their opponents smear and victimize them.
Just a few decades after the suppression of the Templar Order, the big pandemic of the Middle Ages broke out in Europe. Once again, the blood libel came to life. In addition to all the old charges, Jews, Gypsies, and foreigners were accused of spreading the plague and poisoning wells. Horrific crimes against humanity were committed on the basis of these false charges.
It is hard now to reimagine the impact of the Black Death on European society. Barbara Tuchman’s classic “A Distant Mirror” is a place to start if you care to try. She details how the countryside was decimated. In settled agricultural parts of France, the death rate was so high that whole districts, villages and stretches of farmland were reclaimed by wilderness, not to be resettled until the mid 18th century. The traditional bonds that linked the peasants with their feudal lords and the land they worked were broken. Peasants took to the road to sell their precious labor to the highest bidder. Townspeople fled the cities for the country and vice-versa. Faith in god and the church and other sources of ineffectual authority waned. Some people began marching while scourging themselves with whips and chains. Others embraced outbreaks of orgiastic hedonism. Such is the impact of a lethal pandemic on an ill-prepared population. In response the old blood libel was again deployed to justify mass atrocities against the Jews.
Of course, children did disappear—after all, they were sent to tend sheep on lonely mountainsides and to gather wood in wild, wolf-infested forests. Christian leaders even let thousands of them march away to enslavement in the ill-fated “Children’s Crusade.” Furthermore, the highly racialized “peculiar institution” of American slavery tends to blind us to the fact that in most of what we think of as the “Western World” slavery was commonplace. From the Greeks, to the Romans, to all the Germanic and Nordic tribes we count as our forbearers, slavery was a major source of revenue. The very word “slave” became synonymous with the Slavic people who were captured by Turks and then sold off on slave trading routes that ran as far west as Spain. Russian serfs were little better than slaves, and French and English girls could be raped by their feudal lords on the day of their weddings in a practice known as “droit du seigneur.” In this kind of context, all kinds of greedy people might kidnap a wandering child. They were worth a good deal of money.
Overall, there were a lot of reasons for grievance and anger in the ancient world. There was also probably a great desire to project all that evil on someone else. That, it seems to me, is what Trump’s politics in general, and QAnon in particular are mostly about.
I think the episodes of the Black Death are what lead me to believe that QAnon is just a retread of the blood libel. Pandemics cause widespread fear and social disruption. The scars that Covid-19 will leave on our American society are hard to assess. In fact, historians a hundred years from now may still be arguing over them. One thing is probably certain— the fact that this pandemic is coinciding with the resurgence of the authoritarian, racist populism promoted by President Trump is truly cause for concern. There are likeminded movements in Europe as well.
The fear, xenophobia, racism, sectarianism, and political division of the Trump supporters makes our culture a natural breeding place for vicious, viral, conspiracy theories like those spewed forth by QAnon. These fantasies are especially hard to quell precisely because they have no basis in fact—they are matters born of pure fear, emotionalism, and angst. These forces run rampant during the fear that goes with a pandemic.
What is particularly interesting about the blood libel and similar QAnon ideas is how they displace the guilt onto the victims. From any rational standpoint, Jews, Gypsies, witches, Templars, and slaves were all victims. The blood libel made them all vulnerable to attack. In a similar way QAnon fantasies help move the guilt away from real and plausible pedophiles and sexual predators (like Jeffrey Epstein and possibly Donald Trump) onto highly unlike people. Any sane person has a bit of trouble envisaging Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden in that kind of role. Of course, we all know how the blood libel and other anti-Semitic tropes remerged in the Fascist movement of the 20th century. It wasn’t just Jews who perished in the Holocaust— gypsies, Moslems, gays, and leftists died as well.
It is also striking how the blood libel was deployed against people like the Jews, the Gypsies, and the Templars, who had wealth to steal. The women accused of witchcraft, if not wealthy, often had means and skills of their own—perhaps also the attraction of sexual favors they could confer. But what explains the resurgence of this fantasy as an attack on minorities and liberals? I think the answer is obvious.
These groups may not have obvious wealth, but they do have some very real power. They can vote! And keeping them from voting is money in the bank to the rightwing folks who promote fantasies like QAnon.
So, the QAnon version of the blood libel one of the ugliest tropes of old European anti-Semitism, is now deployed to suppress American people of color and their liberal allies. People might ask why, given the demographics which will inevitably overwhelm this strategy, the right-wing endorses it so strongly. I think the answer is simple. These right-wing folks who embrace QAnon simply don’t care about the nation or its future. They are in it for profits they can take to the bank right now. Every year that they can work the system in order to stay in power is worth billions of dollars. Every year they can defer racial justice or a transition from oil to renewable energy is worth billions to them and their families.
Isn’t odd that the same people who vigorously support separating brown children from their parents at the border can also talk about the “rights of unborn children” because they care so much about “rights” (and life is so precious)? Isn’t it odd that the same people also run groups that pay desperate women in eastern Europe to provide white children they can easily adopt? If you dig a little deeper, you may even find that proponents of this kind of specious nonsense marry mail-order eastern European or Asian wives and bring them to the US where the “husbands” (their sponsors) can easily push them around (because they don’t know the system and maybe don’t speak the language well). Doesn’t it even seem that that may exactly the situation our first lady Melania might be in? Isn’t it simply a new reiteration of slavery?
We like to say we live in a new “information age.” It seems truer to say we live in an age of misinformation (wrong facts) and disinformation (intentionally wrong facts). The re-emergence of the blood libel under the flag of the QAnon movement leads me to believe we need a new word to represent the ugly ideas they put forth. I think we might use the word “sinformation” for this kind of “idea” that is so ugly in its substance, so unfairly slanderous, and so vile in terms of the intention behind it, that promoting or passing such “sinformation” on is a moral and ethical crime.
Overall, given Trump’s propensity for lying, racism, misogyny, sexual impropriety, habits of projecting his own failings onto others, and support for white supremacy, his winks and nods to QAnon should come as no surprise. QAnon represents a set of mal-formed allegations and beliefs that turns the truth upside down and blames the victims. It is a set of ideas that are so nasty, vile and reprehensible that they would have been dismissed out of hand in any more stable time. In short, QAnon is Trumpism down to the bone.