Plot twisted
QAnon would be easier to refute if it didn’t draw oxygen from real cases of abuse

A protester holds a QAnon sign in Munich, Germany, in September 2020. Image © ZUMA Press / Alamy

Defining QAnon is like describing clouds on a windy day. But I’ll try: born in the rankest swamps of the internet, the floridly paranoid and now alarmingly popular conspiracy theory argues that a “deep state” of paedophilic liberals are destroying freedom and trafficking children. Basically. It can also include the belief that mobile phone towers transmit coronavirus, or that the coronavirus doesn’t exist at all. Some believe Satanism and cannibalism are involved.

Central, though, is the global “cabal” of sex criminals (largely comprised of US Democrats and Hollywood folk), and the claim that years ago Donald Trump was secretly asked by military generals to lead the world’s repulsion of them. Today, tens of thousands of keyboard detectives selectively knit the detritus of the web together into a “coherent” and supportive whole – helped by the planting of hoax artefacts on the web. Think of them as explosive Easter eggs.

You might laugh, but the FBI has warned that QAnon is a domestic terror threat, a believer has all but been elected to the US Congress, and the anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne are heavily influenced by it.

Perfectly described as a “collaborative fiction”, QAnon also resembles a modern revival of the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated document that ostensibly detailed Jewish plots for world domination. It was later cited by Hitler and promoted by Henry Ford. But here’s the thing: QAnon might be easier to refute if there weren’t so many examples of the powerful concealing sex crimes.

For decades, Jimmy Savile was one of Britain’s most famous men: famous for entertaining children, then posthumously infamous for having serially abused them. The author Dan Davies believes Savile’s crimes were camouflaged by his own eccentricity – that is, that no behaviour could seem suspicious when he was so insistently odd – but Savile was also aided by the winks and nods of an era laughingly indifferent to the sexualisation (and abuse) of children. You might call it a conspiracy of silence.

Then there’s Harvey Weinstein. Vulgar, tyrannical and predatory, the apex producer personally won two Academy Awards, while his companies produced or distributed films that collected more than 80. As he accrued distinction and power, Weinstein also accrued a dark reputation that was left unchallenged by those who had the power to do so. When rescinding Weinstein’s membership, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a statement: “The era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”

But Hollywood’s silence wasn’t the extent of the broader complicity. A serial rapist, Weinstein employed mercenary intelligence agents to surveil and intimidate victims, and he conscripted tabloids to slander them. He functioned as a gangster, and many aides and sycophants traced his orbit.

For decades all over the world, the Catholic Church produced and protected paedophiles. It is impossible to finely calculate the sum of injury and death caused by the abuse, but it would be bleakly colossal. Complainants were intimidated, crimes were rationalised as sins, and institutional reputation was prioritised over the protection of children. It was a long, industrial-scale conspiracy.

But perhaps no man in recent history has been so unwittingly useful to QAnon as the late Jeffrey Epstein. A billionaire financier, and an assiduous cultivator of the elite, Epstein loaned Bill Clinton his private jet to fly to Africa in 2002 for his anti-AIDS tour. Epstein’s other mates have included President Trump and Prince Andrew.

In 2008, Epstein was convicted of soliciting sex from an under-age girl. His conviction followed a deal in which he pled guilty to two charges pertaining to one girl, though federal prosecutors had identified 36 possible victims. Epstein was then leniently sentenced, spending only 13 months in prison, and a year at home on special release.

Last year, Epstein was arrested for sexually trafficking dozens of children. A month later, and after a failed attempt, he was found hanged in his cell. Medical officials ruled it a suicide, but his death spawned conspiratorial speculation – not without rationality, even if the egregious negligence of prison officials might seem the frontrunner for culpability.

This year, Ghislaine Maxwell, his long-term girlfriend, fixer and alleged pimp was arrested on charges that she’d facilitated this “vast network” of trafficked children. The details of the indictment sheets are repellant and allege Maxwell’s well-practised gift for grooming kids. One alleged beneficiary of this “network” is their old friend Prince Andrew, who scandalised himself last year in a pathetically strained attempt to address allegations that he had slept with a teenage girl, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was procured by his friends.

Legal documents from a 2015 civil claim made by Giuffre against Epstein and Maxwell – and released this year – allege that Epstein procured girls for very powerful people so that he might “ingratiate himself with them for business, personal, political and financial gain, as well as to obtain potential blackmail information”, and that these people include “numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister, and other world leaders”.

Jeffrey Epstein’s relationship with President Trump might, you think, be hard to reconcile for QAnon adherents who believe Trump to be the supreme figure battling the paedophile cabal in the great shadow war. But the conspiratorial mind is infinitely flexible, and their relationship is now understood as proof of Trump’s years of “undercover” work. Which is grimly hilarious: the belief that such a boastful and impulsive man could discreetly lead an organised, decades-long battle against incorporated evil.

The QAnon theory is dangerous, illogical and reeks of prejudice. But sustainable conspiracy theories borrow from reality. Given what we’ve learnt about the organised concealment of sex crimes and the soullessly transactional nature of power, there’s plenty to borrow from.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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