Rod Dreher

QAnon & Living By Lies

Detail from cover of forthcoming Dreher book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents

I’m very pleased to be able to share with you all the cover for my next book, which will be published on September 29. You can pre-order it in hardcover here, and in Kindle format here. My editor Bria Sandford and I are very pleased with the design provided by the art department at Sentinel. We had suggested the Soviet-era constructivist aesthetic, which seemed subversive, given that the stories in the book are from people who resisted the Soviets. The cover conveys the urgency and dynamism of the book’s content, I think. I wish I knew the name of the designer so I could praise him or her publicly:

As you regular readers know, this book is about the creeping “soft totalitarianism” in our society, and what Christian dissidents who lived under Soviet bloc communism can tell us about how to recognize it and resist it. In its most simple definition, “totalitarianism” is a word used to describe a state in which all things are politicized. The key difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is in the first, the state only seeks a monopoly on political action, whereas in the latter, the state wants to command all aspects of life, and — this is key — to compel not only obedience, but internal assent. As Winston Smith was told, you must learn to love Big Brother.

The word was invented in fascist Italy, but has been applied both to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and its vassals. One consistent story that we have heard from anti-communist dissidents is that the entire system was built on lies — that is, on the willingness of people to assent to lies. Vaclav Havel (who was not a Christian) said that the only resistance available to people under communism, where it was impossible to build political opposition, was to seek to “live in truth” — that is, to refuse to participate in lies. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was even more emphatic on this point. The title of my book is taken from his final message to the Soviet people in 1974, on the eve of his expulsion from the country. That essay, “Live Not By Lies,” 

urged readers to engage in passive resistance to the regime of lies: that is, to refuse to say, or to appear to say, something that they believe is untrue, just to keep the peace. Solzhenitsyn wrote:

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries. …

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul—don’t let him be proud of his “progressive” views, don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a merited figure, or a general—let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and warm.

That is the spirit in which this book was written, and its content. I will be saying a lot more about it as we get closer to the publication date, September 29.

The stories I tell in the second half of the book are really moving — testimonies from people who survived communism, explaining with they did and how they did it — but they would strike readers as merely inspirational stories without the first half of the book to give context. The first part of the book is a cultural and historical analysis that attempts to explain why we are today in a pre-totalitarian environment, and the ways in which progressives are taking advantage of that to push a soft version of total control. I will explain that in much greater detail as we get closer to the publication date.

Totalitarianism isn’t just a left-wing or a right-wing thing, though. Hannah Arendt, in her 1950s study The Origins of Totalitarianism, examined the similarities between both the Nazi and the Communist version of it. I do not believe that we are in serious danger in the United States of a right-wing version of soft totalitarianism, for various reasons. The danger from the right is authoritarianism — which is a bad thing, but a different thing. As you’ll see in the book, the main reasons I believe the real threat comes from the left has to do with the fact that the values of the progressive left are dominant in Americans under 40 (meaning that the future is on the left); the fact that the institutional elites are heavily dominated by cultural progressives; that progressivism is illiberal, and will not tolerate dissent; and that our society has become one in which the masses want nothing more than comfort and happiness. We are preparing for a soft Huxleyan totalitarianism, not a hard Orwellian one.

Now, that said, there is plenty of evidence on the right as well as the left that America is in a pre-totalitarian state. In the first part of my book, I talk about Arendt’s criteria for determining this. They include mass loneliness and social atomization above all. They also include a passion for transgression in the culture, and the increasing politicization of everyday life. Also, an eagerness to believe only the things that fit your pre-determined ideology. You can see why Havel, Solzhenitsyn, and others taught that the totalitarian system that held their nations captive depended on assent to lies.

Another thing I found in trying to understand what led to the Bolshevik revolution and the imposition of Soviet totalitarianism was that pre-revolutionary Russia was a place where apocalypticism ran rampant. People sensed that big change was coming; the Bolsheviks were an atheistic political millenarian cult that both helped create a sense of apocalypticism, and exploit it. The point I want to make here is that people in pre-totalitarian Russia and pre-totalitarian Germany were living under cultural conditions in which apocalypticism, the collapse of faith in institutions, and a willingness to believe anything, however outrageous, that confirmed their view of the world. These things helped prepare them for totalitarian dictatorship.

Which brings us to QAnon.

If you haven’t read the Atlantic piece about the rise of QAnon, holy cow, people, you’ve gotta. QAnon (pronounced “cue-anon”) is a Trump-era conspiracy theory that you might have heard about, but which has not drawn much mainstream attention. It emerged in 2017, out of the Internet; “Q” is an anonymous person claiming to be embedded deep within the intelligence community. He writes cryptically about the international cabal of politicians, corporate titans, celebrities and other elites who are part of a secret child-abusing satanic cult that rules the world. Donald Trump’s election threatens this cult’s power. Eventually Trump will force a final confrontation with the cult, arresting the cult’s leaders in an event QAnon calls “the Storm,” and put an end once and for all to their evil. This is classic apocalyptic millenarianism, in a new form. Adrienne LaFrance, in her Atlantic piece, writes about how the QAnon community interprets Covid-19:

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

The power of the internet was understood early on, but the full nature of that power—its ability to shatter any semblance of shared reality, undermining civil society and democratic governance in the process—was not. The internet also enabled unknown individuals to reach masses of people, at a scale Marshall McLuhan never dreamed of. The warping of shared reality leads a man with an AR-15 rifle to invade a pizza shop. It brings online forums into being where people colorfully imagine the assassination of a former secretary of state. It offers the promise of a Great Awakening, in which the elites will be routed and the truth will be revealed. It causes chat sites to come alive with commentary speculating that the coronavirus pandemic may be the moment QAnon has been waiting for. None of this could have been imagined as recently as the turn of the century.

QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them. But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.

One of the most fascinating things about QAnon is how protean it is. As you read in the piece, anything can be made to fit into its precepts. Though it makes no theological or metaphysical claims, it is unfalsifiable. It doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it feels right. Conservatives have been watching this kind of thing on the social justice left for a while. Interestingly, someone tells LaFrance that though QAnon focuses on Trump, it would be a mistake to consider it a far-right thing:

QAnon isn’t a far-right conspiracy, the way it’s often described, Uscinski went on, despite its obviously pro-Trump narrative. And that’s because Trump isn’t a typical far-right politician. Q appeals to people with the greatest attraction to conspiracy thinking of any kind, and that appeal crosses ideological lines.

QAnon carries on a tradition of apocalyptic thinking that has spanned thousands of years. It offers a polemic to empower those who feel adrift.

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. Conspiracy thinking is at once a cause and a consequence of what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 famously described as “the paranoid style” in American politics. But do not make the mistake of thinking that conspiracy theories are scribbled only in the marginalia of American history. They color every major news event: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, 9/11. They have helped sustain consequential eruptions, such as McCarthyism in the 1950s and anti-Semitism at any moment you choose. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.

Read the whole thing. It’s important. Donald Trump clearly knows all about QAnon; I believe he retweets QAnon memes and language simply to stir up chaos. It is beyond belief than an American president would behave this way, but Trump is a trailblazer in so many ways.

If Trump loses the election in November, it will be fascinating to watch what happens to QAnon. It seems unlikely that its followers will conclude that the whole thing was a hoax. ill they believe that the cult took Trump out? If so, how will they react? Will they turn to violence? LaFrance’s piece talks about how a member of the Broward County (Florida) SWAT team met with Vice President Pence while wearing QAnon insignia (you can see the photo at the QAnon Wikipedia page). How deeply does this conspiracy go in the police and the armed forces, if at all?

Now, I believe the religion of Social Justice is by far the more powerful secular religion of our era. It is more powerful than something like QAnon because it is so widespread among institutional elites.  As crackpot as QAnon is, it offers no coherent ideology, and will not have staying power. I don’t mean to downplay QAnon’s significance as a phenomenon, especially as a political phenomenon. We should take it seriously, and fight it. I simply want to remind you that both QAnon and the Social Justice phenomenon are manifestations of apocalyptic millenarianism, and flourish in a culture that Arendt identified as pre-totalitarian. The pseudo-religion of Social Justice (the brilliant piece to which I linked interpreting the phenomenon as a new religion is by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna) flourishes among elites and among ordinary people within bourgeois institutions: politics, media, Hollywood, academia, progressive churches, and so forth. That’s why it’s a much greater threat than QAnon. I will be talking about that in greater detail later on.

However, I do not say that in any way as a form of “whataboutism” to distract critical attention from QAnon. Like the radical but far more respectable religion of Social Justice, QAnon is a manifestation of our decadent society reaching a moment of real crisis. QAnon is a sign of the times. As Arendt has written, when a society reaches the state in which masses of people cease to care if something is true or not, and judge its truth by the degree to which it affirms a narrative that they prefer to believe, that society is in a world of trouble. A person for whom “truth” is “whatever feels right” is a person without the ability to defend himself against a system built on lies. LaFrance asks a QAnon follower to substantiate one of his wild beliefs:

When I asked Harger whether there’s any evidence to support the assassination claim, he flipped my question around: “Is there any evidence not to?”

Boom!

Anyway, I hope you’ll pre-order Live Not By Lies, in either Kindle or hardcover (the cover art isn’t up on the hardcover Amazon page yet; don’t worry, that cover won’t be the dull gray placeholder there now).

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