Trump is trying to clean up his reputation by relying on an ancient blame game

Donald Trump aims to ride a COVID conspiracy theory to reputational rehab. "Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus," the former president said.

It's unclear why a president who failed to protect us from a bioweapons attack, or who failed to respond to the fallout of a lab accident, would be more sympathetic than a president who was outmatched by an ordinary virus, but let's set that aside. Trumpian rhetoric is not about logic. It's about arousing prejudice and grievance. Trump is playing the ancient game of scapegoating. He believes that if he can convince his supporters that COVID is China's fault, they'll forget the parts that were his fault.

Epidemics and conspiracy theories go together like crops and fertilizer. The imagery varies according to the technologies and anxieties of the era, but the basic logic never changes. In the pre-modern era, you were more likely to hear about poison and black magic. The tropes have since shifted to bioweapons and lab accidents. Faced with the horror of an outbreak, even modern people tend to forget that epidemic diseases are a natural and depressingly predictable feature of human history and existence. The conspiracists always say this time is different. This time our enemy hurt us on purpose.

More even-handed conspiracy theorists often allow for the possibility that our enemy hurt us by accident, on account of being inept, dirty and irresponsible. Theories that posit without evidence that the latest plague was an accidental release of a bioweapon, or an innocent experiment gone awry, fall into this category. Granted, lab leaks have occasionally resulted in outbreaks, but if you're pushing a lab-leak theory without evidence, and your theory involves someone covering up said lab-leak, you're probably indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially if you're blaming an outsider for it.

There is no evidence that COVID was released from a lab. There is a mountain of evidence that animals infect humans with novel viruses all the time; that bats are a natural reservoir of numerous coronaviruses in the SARS family; that bats are constantly recombining them in their bodies; and that the wildlife trade is a vector for spreading them from bats to humans, often through an intermediate species.

After SARS, the question on every expert's mind was not: Will there be a more transmissible SARS? This pandemic was not just predicted. It was inevitable.

The idea that our enemies have caused the plagues that afflict us is one of the oldest propaganda tropes, much older than the germ theory of disease, let alone modern biolaboratory methods. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells. Europe saw multiple cholera riots during the 19th century, each independently sparked by rumors that the rich had deliberately poisoned the poor. (To their credit, the poor had correctly observed that the rich were less likely to die from cholera, but the killer was inequality, not poison.) During the great flu pandemic of 1918, Americans accused the Germans of releasing this viral scourge from U-boats, poisoning over-the-counter medicines, and other wiles—even though Germans were also dying from the flu. The AIDS epidemic spawned multiple sub-genres including a KGB-sponsored disinformation campaign code named "Operation Denver," claiming that HIV was an escaped US bioweapon. Historical records reveal that the goal of the disinformation campaign was to spread anti-American sentiment around the world and create controversy and division inside the United States.

When the original SARS coronavirus broke out in 2003, there was rampant speculation that SARS was a bioweapon. Foreign policy hawks blamed Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese activists pointed the finger at Washington. We later learned that humans caught SARS from trafficked palm civets in a live animal market, who caught it from bats. The civet connection was exposed relatively quickly but it took 15 years for scientists to find one cave that housed a colony of bats carrying between them all the genetic building blocks of SARS. They still haven't found a bat with a complete SARS virus in its body, but because bat roosts are such fertile environments for recombining new viruses from existing viruses, the discovery was strong enough to close the case.

When the MERS coronavirus hit in 2012, a now-familiar style of argument recurred: "Many of the features [of MERS] are paradoxical and cannot be explained by known principles of epidemiology," claimed a press release on behalf of an Australian professor who argued MERS could be a bioweapon. In other words, this is new. It's got features we've never seen before and can't readily explain, and it's scary. Ergo, it could be a bioweapon. Spoiler alert: It was camels, who probably caught it from bats.

In 2021, we're still battling the same knee-jerk assumption that if we don't fully understand something, it must have been created by someone we hate. Novel features of the COVID-19 virus are being cited as evidence of artificial origins. As soon as one potentially artificial feature is explained, the conspiracy mill generates a new one.

Scientists have yet to isolate COVID from an animal in the wild. Nevertheless, there's a huge body of evidence to support the idea that COVID-19 came from the same place the last two epidemics of deadly human coronavirus came from: From bats encroached upon by humans and their livestock, or from some intermediate host that was infected by a bat before being scooped up by a poacher and ferried to a big-city wildlife market.

It's now considered unlikely that COVID made the final jump from animal to human at the famous Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cases of COVID were observed, because the earliest known case had no connection to that market. But there's no particular reason that the jump would have had to have happened at the market in order for the virus to be zoonotic. And it's noteworthy that about two-thirds of the earliest known COVID cases were associated with either the Huanan Market, another market that sold live animals or another source of live or dead animals.

It's hard to accept that random mutations in lowly horseshoe bats upended human civilization for over a year. It's always easier, cognitively and emotionally, to blame our enemies for our woes. It's a trap any of us can fall into if we're not careful. And as usual, Trump is positioning himself to capitalize on human weakness.

Here's why Michael Flynn is desperately trying to cover up his call for a coup in the US

The second-most revered figure in the QAnon conspiracy firmament called for a military coup in the United States. Again. Retired three-star general and former Trump campaign national security advisor Mike Flynn called for the end of democracy during a question-and-answer session last weekend at a QAnon conference in Dallas.

"I'm a simple Marine," a grizzled audience member said, "I wanna know why what happened in Minamar (sic) can't happen here." The room erupted. Flynn waited for the cheering to subside and said, "No reason. I mean, it should happen here."

Flynn reportedly called the conference organizers to backtrack. He's now denying that he said what we all saw him say, but let's get one thing straight: Mike Flynn is a liar.

Trump fired him for lying to Mike Pence about Russia. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but he lied in his plea deal, so Trump had to pardon him. Now he's lying about how he called for a military coup in the United States. On video. This is nothing new for Flynn. After the 2020 election, Flynn privately urged then-president Donald Trump to send troops to "re-run" the election, an idea he'd previously floated in the media.

It's nothing new for QAnon either. QAnon supporters have been cheering on the coup in Myanmar since the military overthrew the democratically elected government in February. The junta has killed over 800 people, including more than 40 children, but QAnon supporters don't know anything about Myanmar's internal politics. They just like coups. After Trump's failed coup attempt on January 6, many of them found it comforting to know a military still could overthrow a democracy somewhere.

And why wouldn't they? The beating heart of QAnon's dark theology is The Storm, the military coup that is always right around the corner. The Storm is the day when Donald Trump and the armed forces liquidates QAnon's political enemies: Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, the media, and anyone who stands against them. The former president will retake his rightful place in the White House, democracy be damned.

According to a new poll, nearly a quarter of white evangelicals believe The Storm is coming to restore "rightful leaders." This mythology fits naturally with the Big Lie that Trump won the election. QAnon believers heard Donald Trump's call to come to Washington on January 6 as the coming of the storm. Many of them believed they were being summoned to take part in the long-awaited battle between good and evil.

Most normal people think of QAnon as the "pedo cabal" people. Indeed, QAnon talks a good game about saving the children from pedophiles. As disturbing as they sound, these child-abuse fantasies are good for recruiting unsuspecting converts. After all, everyone wants to prevent child abuse. QAnon has deep roots in evangelical Christianity and its most fervent proponents have thought long and hard—and written with uncharacteristic coherence—about how to best recruit. Attitude change begins with finding common ground. You can get almost anyone to agree that child abuse is a problem. That provides the common ground needed to begin a conversation in which the believer can plant seeds in the prospective convert's mind about other aspects of QAnon. This process is called "red-pilling," a reference to The Matrix, a movie during which the hero swallows the red pill to dissolve illusion and reveal ultimate reality.

The news media's focus on pedophilia obscures the core of QAnon's ideology, which is a longing for glorious, purifying and revelational violence. The pedophiles of QAnon mythology are the alter-egos of powerful Democratic politicians, Hollywood celebrities, journalists and Jewish financiers George Soros and the Rothschilds. These are the villains who will be purged by the military when The Storm is finally upon us.

Unfortunately for QAnon, normal people love democracy as much as they hate pedophilia. So recruiters don't open with talk of a coup. The faithful avoid talking about it to journalists. That's why Flynn is taking pains to walk back his comment. While The Storm is normal in QAnon circles, it's still taboo in the outside world.

Justice Stephen Breyer risks making a historic blunder

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is facing calls to retire before the 2022 congressional elections so that his successor can be confirmed while the Democrats have control of the United States Senate. The 82-year-old Breyer has signaled he's reluctant to retire because he doesn't want to be perceived as partisan.

But surely the principles that guide a judge on the bench are also relevant. Breyer's career can be defined by the defense of what he calls "active liberty," which boils down to democracy, the constitutional principle that the people should control government.

Breyer's judicial philosophy can be distilled to two key ideas. One, that the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve democracy and judges should interpret it in that light. Two that judges should take the practical consequences of their decisions into account. As a jurist, Breyer is often described as the most pragmatic justice. All of these are arguments for why the 82-year-old Breyer should retire immediately.

Breyer is famous for taking practical realities into account. In an ideal world, Supreme Court justices would have confidence that any president and any Senate would confirm a successor who would vote to uphold the basic norms of democracy. But we don't live in that world. In ours, one of the two institutional parties has rejected democracy.

Breyer is famous for saying justices shouldn't be "junior varsity politicians." But that's just the obvious truism that judges should decide cases on their legal merits, as opposed to fulfilling a policy wishlist for politicians who confirmed them, or imposing their own desired policies based on spurious arguments. For example, a judge shouldn't rule that a law is constitutional just because they like snowy owls or hate gambling. If the people elect legislators who seek to protect snowy owls or ban gambling, it's not for an unelected judge to second-guess that. It's the active liberty principle at work: People should be able to control the government through their elected legislators without worrying about unelected judges usurping that power.

Timing one's retirement at the age of 82 to secure one's judicial legacy, or indeed, to secure democracy itself, is the opposite of arbitrarily imposing one's policy preferences. A Supreme Court justice can step down for any reason. Surely, for Stephen Breyer, defending the active liberty of Americans would be a worthy reason.

Other modern Justices have more-or-less openly brokered their successors or implied it. Justice Anthony Kennedy tapped former clerk Brett Kavanaugh. Ruth Bader Ginsburg justified eking out a few more years by arguing that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016, implying that she planned to time her retirement accordingly.

Democracy is under assault by the Republican Party. Donald Trump was impeached for trying to overturn a free and fair election. The GOP is accelerating his anti-democratic ideology in his absence. Recognizing an anti-democratic movement isn't partisanship, it's pragmatism. David Atkins called the question in the Monthly this week: "What happens when Republicans simply refuse to certify Democratic wins?"

Joe Biden won the presidency with more than 81 million votes in what experts called the cleanest, smoothest election in American history, Atkins said. Trump tried to steal the 2020 election repeatedly, huddling with Republican state lawmakers, scheming to get GOP-controlled state legislatures to overturn the will of their voters, demanding that the Georgia Secretary of State find imaginary extra votes for him, and spreading outrageous lies about voter fraud. Trump finally called his supporters to Washington, DC, to disrupt certification of the electoral count. "It was a physical coup attempt designed to intimidate Congress into enforcing a legislative coup," Atkins said.

After the mob rampaged the Capitol, seven GOP senators voted for Trump's legislative coup. Forty-three GOP senators voted to acquit him for instigating the putsch. If Breyer doesn't retire soon, these people may end up confirming his successor.

The terrifying reality is that Republicans no longer feel compelled to acquiesce to election results. No matter how clean the contest, or how overwhelming the margin, there's always a conspiracy theory to explain why the GOP candidate is the winner. There doesn't even have to be a theory. Insinuation backed by a narrative of Democratic perfidy is enough. The fringe spreads lies and poisons faith in democracy, and more respectable Republicans are pointing to baseless fears as reason for saying that democracy must be further restricted to restore confidence in the process.

Trump is exiled to Mar-a-Lago, but his hold on the party remains unshakable. Leaders like Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy have made clear the party needs to toe the line in order to remain viable. And they're not wrong: Trump is holding the GOP hostage. He could destroy the GOP electorally by launching a third party.

Republicans who stand up for democracy are being systematically purged from the party. This week, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney will be ousted as conference chair by ambitious former moderate New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik who correctly sees the way to rise in today's GOP is to embrace Trump's Big Lie.

Time is of the essence. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Harris casting the deciding vote. A single death or resignation could tip the balance. What's more, the ruling party usually loses seats in the midterm elections. So Democratic control of the Senate is likely to be fleeting. And Democrats are at a permanent structural disadvantage to win the Senate back should they lose it. Republicans have also made it clear since the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat that they will never confirm a Democratic president's nominee as long as they control the Senate.

Many hoped that Republican anti-democratic extremism would ebb after Trump, but it only appears to be accelerating. If Republicans get to pick the next nominee, they will likely pick an even more extreme candidate. By stepping down, Breyer would not be playing politics. Rather, he'd be honoring values that have defined his judicial career.

The real reason right-wingers hate vaccines

"Go get vaccinated, America," the president urged the nation last Wednesday in his State of the Union address. Joe Biden had a lot of good news to report to the US Congress on the COVID vaccination effort: 220 million shots have been administered in his first 100 days in office, everyone over 16 is eligible and 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site. Vaccine manufacturing is booming. Supply will soon no longer be a limiting factor. Yet even as eligibility has expanded, demand has plateaued across the country and vaccination rates have dipped from their peak.

Time is of the essence. More transmissible variants of the virus mean a higher percentage of the population must be immunized to reach herd immunity. We're in a race between the finest that human civilization has to offer and venal dumbassery.

In one corner is science, bolstered by billions in public investment. Eighteen months ago, there were no vaccines for human coronaviruses. Today, there are multiple safe, highly-effective COVID shots. Better yet, thanks to wise public policy and all-hands-on-deck roll-out, they're available for free to any American adult. The president even announced tax credits to reimburse small- and mid-sized businesses that give their employees paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from vaccine side effects.

In the opposite corner are demagogues, clout-chasers and magical thinkers. These operators think they can gain political power, attention and, in some cases, money by undermining vaccinations against a disease that has killed more than 588,000 people.

Power-hungry Republicans like United States Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are positioning themselves as heirs to Donald Trump by opposing vaccinations. Johnson recently told a conservative radio host that distribution should have been limited to the truly vulnerable and he questioned the need for broad-based vaccination.

Johnson also attacked the civic-minded values behind the push for herd immunity. "What is it to you? You have got a vaccine and science is telling you it's very, very effective," Johnson asked, "So, why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?" The answer is obviously herd immunity, which offers protection for those who can't get vaccinated or whose immune systems can't respond to the vaccine.

It's a shrewd bet. Forty-two percent of Republicans say they probably or definitely wouldn't get a shot, even if it's shown to be safe. The "even if shown to be safe" proviso speaks volumes. Some Republicans claim to be against vaccination as a matter of personal liberty, but nobody's forcing them to get vaccinated. It's all rationalization.

Vaccine refusal is a tribal touchstone, even as vaccine hesitancy ebbs generally. Indeed, last summer's heavily armed anti-lockdown sieges of state legislatures were the dress rehearsals for the January 6 insurgency. Rejecting vaccines is about values, not facts. These right-wingers reject vaccines because vaccines represent science, the welfare state and the common good, which are antithetical to everything they hold dear.

Johnson isn't the only Republican riding anti-vaccine paranoia. Perhaps the perfect example of how vaccine denialism furthers extreme right-wing political ambition is Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano, who freely mixes anti-government and anti-vaccine sentiment. Mastriano beat the rush and came out against the COVID vaccine before it existed. He was also a central player in the bid to steal the election for Trump. (He actually had to be pulled out of a meeting with then-president Trump because he was found to be suffering from COVID.) But he recovered enough to organize bus transportation for the January 6 insurrection. Mastriano's antics have transformed him from an obscure legislator to a gubernatorial hopeful.

State legislators in 40 states have introduced bills that would undermine vaccine mandates. These bills are to legislating what vaccine denialism is to science. Few will become law, but they are potent messaging designed to further politicize vaccination.

Some entertainers are also milking COVID denialism for ratings and notoriety. Podcaster Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator better known for his takes on elk meat and DMT, and his willingness to host conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, opined that, "If you're, like, 21 years old, and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'll go no."

Rogan has 11 million listeners, many of them young. Predictably, Fox host Tucker Carlson defended Rogan's attempt to poison public understanding of vaccinations. Even Sean Hannity, who claims he's not anti-vaxx, flirted with vaccine denialism Tuesday, falsely suggesting there might not be any science behind the vaccine.

In a desperate bid to become Twitter's main character, a D-list Republican pundit gave the game away: "My primary reason for refusing the vaccine is much simpler: I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal. That, in turn, makes me happy." He's a troll, but he speaks the truth.

We're not just dealing with garden-variety vaccine hesitancy anymore. We're up against a cynical campaign to turn vaccination into a referendum on science, the welfare state and social solidarity. If that's how they want to play it, fine.

Vaccines are the greatest triumph of medicine. Public health is a crowning achievement of the welfare state. What we have done together to battle COVID is a testament to our love for ourselves, our neighbors and our country. Those are our values. The Republicans have called the question. Which side are you on?

Q is exposed. Will he face consequences?

A month before the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol on January 6, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the FBI for an updated assessment of the threat posed by QAnon. At a hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray assured the committee that the report would be available shortly.

A lot has happened since 2019, when the bureau flagged QAnon as a threat after a number of sensational QAnon-related crimes, including an armed assault on a pizzeria, a blockade of the bridge over the Hoover Dam and the murder of a mob boss. QAnon went on to back Donald Trump's Big Lie of a stolen election. Worse came to worst when insurgents in full Q regalia fought their way into the Capitol in a bid to throw out a free and fair election. Q hasn't been heard from since December 8, but the FBI has plenty of material to incorporate into its new QAnon threat assessment.

Another development in this sordid saga was the March release of Cullen Hoback's documentary Q: Into the Storm, which strongly suggests that the impresario of QAnon is Ron Watkins, the degenerate failson of the owner of the notorious 8kun message board. Which is … more or less what most knowledgeable observers thought all along.

The documentary lays out a strong circumstantial case that Watkins wrested control of QAnon by establishing his board, then known as 8chan, as Q's exclusive online home, booting the original Q, and assuming the old Q's digital identity. Hoback follows Watkins and his father Jim to the Capitol on January 6. The filmmaker shows how Watkins reinvented himself as a bogus "election security" expert and fomented voter fraud conspiracy theories on right-wing media. It was Watkins who seemed to bring down the curtain on Inauguration Day, urging the conspiracy's faithful to go back to their lives and focus on the "friends and happy memories" they'd made along the way.

What sets the documentary apart is that Hoback extracts the closest thing to a confession from Watkins that we're ever likely to get. Watkins tells Hoback that he's been anonymously posting on the QResearch message board for the last three years, teaching ordinary people to do intelligence work—which is exactly what Q did. Watkins hastily adds he never did so as Q. Hoback obviously doesn't believe him.

I leave it to the reader to decide if a "confession" from a professional liar is any more reliable than a denial from a professional liar. Either way, Q: Into the Storm has solidified the conventional wisdom that Ron Watkins is the main architect of Q.

The Watkins' main antagonist in the film, Frederick Brennan, is now calling for the arrest of Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins for their role in the QAnon conspiracy. United States Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, may have been inspired by the documentary when he asked Wray whether Watkins and his father could face charges for their role in promoting a conspiracy theory that inspired an insurrection against the United States and numerous acts of violence. To his credit, Wray said the FBI was focused on investigating violent plots, rather than policing speech online.

Even if it could be proven that Watkins is the ringleader of QAnon, he doesn't seem to have broken any laws. LARPing1 is not a crime, except perhaps against good taste.

The central theme of QAnon ideology is the glorification of political violence. The anons are awaiting "The Storm," a cleansing political purge in which the military will liquidate tens of thousands of Q's enemies and seize control of the government. As repellent and toxic as this belief is, it's legally protected speech. The First Amendment protects the right to wish that the military would overthrow the government someday.

A speaker only crosses the line if they're inciting imminent lawless action—i.e., telling people to violently overthrow the government right this minute. QAnon was crucial in popularizing the Big Lie that spurred the insurgency, but Q's writings are far too elliptical and non-directive to count as an concretely inciting. To put it more bluntly, they don't make enough sense. For the most part, Q spits out a bunch of riddles, acronyms and leading questions, and his fans read what they want into them.

A big part of running a site like 8kun is fielding requests from law enforcement to take down illegal content that users have posted, such as child porn and death threats, so Watkins probably has a solid grasp of the boundaries of free expression online.

The Watkins' nemesis, Frederick Brennan, argues that Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins should be arrested for impersonating federal agents. This legal argument seems far-fetched. Q certainly invited the inference that he was a national security big-shot, but Q was as vague about his fictional credentials as he was about everything else.

Moreover, the federal law against impersonating an officer of the United States is designed to be used against impostors who usurp the authority of the federal government to coerce their victims. Classic examples include the kidnapper who flashes a fake FBI badge to convince his victim she's under arrest, or the con artist who poses as an IRS auditor and demands a pensioner's Social Security number. Implying you're a government agent for internet clout probably doesn't cut it, even if said clout helps you raise money or sell ads. That's because the suckers are forking over that cash freely, and not because you ordered them to do so in the name of the state.

As satisfying as it would be to see Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins in handcuffs, it wouldn't solve the underlying problem, namely, that millions of Americans remain in the grip of right-wing conspiracy culture, including most of the GOP. Prosecuting the architects of this pathetic scheme would only validate their sense of persecution.

Glenn Greenwald grossly misfires in botched attempt to smear an intern

Brenna Smith, an investigations intern at USA Today, revealed over the weekend that various defendants awaiting trial for their role in the January 6 insurgency at the US Capitol are resorting to underhanded tactics to get around tech platforms' strict rules against transferring money to violent extremists. Smith and her colleagues—veteran reporters Jessica Guynn and Will Carless—conducted a meticulous investigation on a matter of great public interest. But no good deed goes unpunished. Not on Twitter.

"Congratulations on using your new journalistic platform to try to pressure tech companies to terminate the ability of impoverished criminal defendants to raise money for their legal defense from online donations," tweeted Glenn Greenwald, a pundit and frequent Tucker Carlson guest, directing his ire squarely at the young female intern, Brenna Smith, rather than at the ideas presented in her piece.

Greenwald offers no evidence that these defendants are indigent, as opposed to merely cheap, but let's assume they're unable to afford lawyers. If so, that's what public defenders are for. The right to counsel doesn't entitle you to ignore the terms of service set by private companies. There's no constitutional right to PayPal.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney, but not to any attorney you want, and certainly not the right to fundraise however you want to afford them. DC public defenders are known as some of the finest advocates available at any price, so it isn't even a sacrifice for an insurgent to accept a free lawyer if he qualifies for one.

Payment processors like PayPal and Stripe cracked down on hate groups after a right-wing extremist murdered an antifascist protester and injured dozens of others at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. PayPal's terms of service exclude those who promote "hate, violence or racial intolerance." The violence criterion alone disqualifies the Capitol defendants who, although innocent until proven guilty of the specific charges against them, promoted a violent effort to overturn an election.

Smith and her crew at USA Today reported on Sunday that some January 6 defendants who have been booted from crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe are resorting to deceit to keep their fundraising going. They are swapping out usernames and switching platforms in an attempt to keep the money spigot open. PayPal's hard line on hate groups is complicating the insurgents' lives, because the company also balks at processing credit and debit card transactions from independent crowdfunding sites.

The right to a criminal defense is a red herring. There's no rule against crowdfunding legal expenses, per se. Attempts to crowdfund the criminal defense of insurgents have not been labeled as violence in and of themselves. The bans apply to specific people who have been kicked off for prior bad behavior. These defendants gave PayPal et al. even more reason to ban them when they engaged in a campaign of subterfuge.

These technology companies are private entities. They can ignore, suppress, block or deplatform whomever they want for any reason. In this case, they're using that power wisely, and justly, to thwart extremist movements linked to a violent attack on our democracy. We shouldn't be complacent, however, and assume Big Tech will always act for good. But that's an argument for tougher regulation, or even for publicly-owned digital utilities to safeguard our freedoms online.

Greenwald's attack on Brenna Smith—who is an intern, I repeat an intern—shows now that he's opposed to the only other meaningful check on Big Tech, lieu of government regulation: A free press that scrutinizes its behavior and imposes reputational costs for bad behavior.

Smith's piece was straight reporting, not advocacy. The public deserves to know what the rules of Big Tech are, and whether they are being consistently enforced. People who disagree on the merits of PayPal's rules can still find value in accurate reporting about what they are, as long as they aren't blinded by ideology. Greenwald could cite Smiths' reporting to make his case that PayPal is committing an injustice against the MAGA chuds. It's telling that instead of thanking Smith and attacking PayPal, Greenwald chose to assail the intern instead of the billion-dollar company.

The Pulitzer-winning former top editor at The Intercept presents himself as a champion of free speech, but he demands that a young female journalist adopt a "stop snitching" ethic when it comes to insurgents fundraising online. The free press has no obligation to look the other way while insurgents hoodwink tech companies.

The link between Trumpland, QAnon, evangelical culture and child-sex predators

Ben Gibson, a failed Republican congressional candidate who shared QAnon content on social media, was arrested in December on four counts of child pornography. A few months earlier, Joshua Jennings was arrested on first-degree murder charges for allegedly killing his girlfriend's 10-month-old daughter. Investigators found that Jennings had plastered the QAnon associated #savethechildren hashtag all over his Facebook wall, interspersed with rants about killing pedophiles.

The central tenet of QAnon is that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls all major institutions that must be cleansed by Donald J. Trump in a wave of purifying violence. Given that, it's odd that the faithful are so tolerant of child sexual exploitation in Trumpland itself. Trump used to party with billionaire child sex criminal Jeffery Epstein, and in 2002 described the financier as "a terrific guy," adding: "It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side." George Nader, high-ranking diplomatic advisor to Donald Trump and QAnon favorite General Mike Flynn, is serving 10 years in prison for child pornography and trafficking a minor for sex. Ruben Verastigui, a senior digital strategist for the Trump campaign, was arrested in early February on federal child pornography charges. Trump's 2016 Oklahoma campaign chair and a Trump delegate from Kentucky are currently doing time for child trafficking.

4chan, a loosely moderated, anonymous imageboard dedicated to pushing the limits of free speech, will inevitably attract more than its share of unsavory characters.

QAnon's preoccupation with child porn is a result of overlapping themes in chan culture, conspiracy culture, Evangelical culture, and parenting/wellness culture. The theory gelled in poorly moderated spaces where actual child porn and jokes about it were a fact of life.

QAnon was born in the fetid swamps of 4chan imageboard, where the speech was free and child porn was available to those who knew where to look. Child porn was officially against the rules, but the chans were founded as forums for unbridled free speech, so their moderation protocols are purposefully lax. Pedophilia jokes and tropes fit 4chan's shock-jock ethos. The unofficial mascot of 4chan is a character known as Pedobear.

Needless to say, the vast majority of chan users are not pedophiles, but a loosely moderated, anonymous imageboard dedicated to pushing the limits of free speech will inevitably attract more than its share of unsavory characters.

Pizzagate, the forerunner to QAnon, came about because 4chan users read John Podesta's hacked emails and mistook Podesta's genuine love of food for a coded language that was already in circulation on 4chan.

"Pizzagate exists because 4chan users had slang for child porn, like 'cheese pizza' (derived from 'CP')," explains Q Origins, the anonymous researcher who pieces together the prehistory of QAnon on the Q Origins Project Twitter feed, "This is why those same people glommed on to the idea that pizza was pedophile slang."

The early QAnon evangelists brought the fledgling faith to the larger world, starting with YouTube and Alex Jones' InfoWars. This was a critical step in QAnon going mainstream.

"Q" of QAnon fame was one of many chan users ("anons") who posed as anonymous government insiders doling out cryptic clues for readers of 4chan's Politically Incorrect board, /pol/. This genre was so common that anons nicknamed it "LARPing" (a derisive comparison to "swords and shields" live action role-playing). LARPers like FBIAnon and MegaAnon explored many of the same themes as QAnon, but never went mainstream. Q Origins speculates that QAnon has a life beyond the chans because of Q's ability to tone down the overt racism and sexism of /pol/ to a level closer to what you'd see on Fox News.

QAnon draws on all the conspiracy theories that came before it. Crimes against children, specifically ritualistic atrocities, figure prominently in conspiracy theories throughout history. You can hear the echo of Blood Libel allegations against the Jews in QAnon's belief in a Satanic cabal of child abusers.

Like all conspiracy theories, QAnon reflects the hopes and fears of its co-creators. If you spend a lot of time on an imageboard that's saturated with pedophilia references and studded with actual child porn, child porn probably seems like even more of a threat than it does to the average person.

The early QAnon evangelists brought the fledgling faith to the larger world, starting with YouTube and Alex Jones' media empire, InfoWars. This was a critical step in QAnon going mainstream. Chans are an insular world that is only navigable by people with a fair amount of technical sophistication and a high tolerance for obscenity and abuse. QAnon's spread across more user-friendly platforms, particularly Facebook, brought the theory to a normie audience, including evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals played a key role in fomenting a moral panic over imaginary child sex abuse in daycares in the 1980s and 1990s while overlooking sex abuse in their own churches. It's comforting to imagine that children are abused by The Other when the reality is that most children are abused by the people closest to them.

QAnon's focus on child trafficking also became a powerful recruiting feature as the conspiracy theory spread online within the massive parenting and wellness subcultures. Appeals to #savethechildren resonated with moms and some dads who wouldn't otherwise have been interested in QAnon. After all, every 21st-century parent worries about child abuse. Everyone's against child sex trafficking. It's a lot more socially acceptable to share content that's ostensibly about stopping trafficking than it is to talk about the other side of QAnon, the prophecy of political violence and authoritarian rule.

There's a surprisingly important lesson in the 'QAnon shaman' and his antics behind bars

Jacob Chansley, the "self-initiated shaman" who charged into the US Capitol wearing a horned headdress and carrying a six-foot spear, has been moved to a jail in Virginia that can accommodate his request for an all-organic diet. Chansley's lawyer had argued that his client's shamanic faith requires him to eat only organic food, or suffer physical consequences that are serious, severe, and above all, dehydrating.

The court's decision sparked outrage among critics who see him as just another privileged white guy in horns, a cosplayer exploiting Indigenous spirituality to extract privileges that are rarely granted to Indigenous inmates.

Skeptics wonder if Chansley's whole shamanic shtick is the work of a grifter courting notoriety, but the prison system isn't set up to interrogate questions of ultimate motivation.

"Like all things about Trump, QAnon, and the modern conservative movement, Chansley's act is built on nothing but bullshit and a heaping dose of racism and white supremacy," wrote Jessica Mason for The Mary Sue, adding that, "He has no right to claim 'shamanism' as a religion that should get him special treatment in jail or defend his traitorous actions."

It's easy to construe Chansley's organic diet as a form of special treatment. However, in securing a special diet, Chansley is availing himself of legal protections that are supposed to guarantee the right of every prisoner to practice their faith behind bars.

For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that the following points are true:

  • "Self-initiated shamanism" is not a thing, except in the minds of Chansley and a handful of credulous white people.
  • An all-organic diet is not a central part of any shamanic tradition known to anthropologists or practiced by contemporary Indigenous Americans.
  • It is offensive when white people appropriate the sacred traditions of Indigenous people.

So, why is Jacob Chansley entitled to a special diet, even if we assume all of the above?

Because the Constitution protects everyone's right to freely exercise their religion and because Congress passed even more stringent laws to safeguard the free expression of incarcerated people. Penal institutions may not substantially burden an inmate's religious expression except to advance a compelling interest of the institution, such as maintaining security. And if the institution does have to curtail certain religious expressions in the name of security, or another compelling interest, they must do so in the least restrictive way.

Chansley's lawyer argued that his client must have organic food in order to achieve purity needed to practice shamanism. It's difficult to argue that a jail has a compelling interest in making all inmates eat non-organic food. A jail does have a compelling interest in saving money, but the courts routinely uphold prisoners' rights to receive Kosher meals and other special religious diets, even if they are slightly more expensive.

It's easy to scoff at Chansley's assertion that shamans must eat organic food. A search of the Anthropology Plus database generated 0 hits for "Shamanism" and "Organic Food." But legally, it doesn't matter that other practitioners of shamanism are also devotées of Whole Foods. It's probably enough that Chansley thinks his self-made religion demands it. The authorities are not allowed to second-guess whether a particular practice is central to a prisoner's religion.

That's because the government telling people how to practice their faith "properly" would violate the separation of church and state. The religious practice that the prisoner is seeking to accommodate doesn't even have to make logical sense. After all, religions postulate all kinds of illogical things, from bodily resurrection after death to the conversion bread into human flesh. It's not for the state to judge what makes sense.

It matters a lot, legally speaking, that Chansley's religious belief in the sanctity of organic food is sincerely held, as opposed to being a pretext to get tastier meals.

Many have doubts. His bizarre aesthetic smacks of cosplay and appears to borrow as heavily from video games as from Native or Nordic tropes. However, Chansley's years of enthusiastic religious practice establish that his shamanic sensibilities are not just a jailhouse ruse. Chansley's social media history shows that he has dedicated his life to espousing his idiosyncratic belief system for years, which includes elements of Indigenous spirituality, neo-paganism, and conspiracy theories.

Before the insurrection, Chansley was a fixture at right-wing protests, frequently bearing a sign reading "Q Sent Me." He has advertised his services as a shaman and even self-published two books on metaphysical themes. It's unclear if Chansley preached the importance of organic food before he was incarcerated. He seems to have said a lot about the value of psychedelic drugs and nothing about the value of non-GMO soup. But he claims to have followed an organic diet for many years and his mom insists that he will get sick without it.

Skeptics wonder if Chansley's whole shamanic shtick is the work of a grifter courting notoriety, but the prison system isn't set up to interrogate questions of ultimate motivation. Penal authorities are typically more concerned with evidence of consistent religious practice. If Chansley were caught cheating on his diet by sneaking food from the commissary, that could be taken as evidence that his belief is not sincerely-held and his organic diet might be taken away.

Chansley's only getting what all prisoners are entitled to, but that doesn't automatically make the system fair. In practice, the rights of prisoners get ignored all the time. I have interviewed many formerly incarcerated Indigenous women whose right to religious expression in custody was ignored and even derided.

The system is surely more indulgent of Chansley's religious idiosyncrasies because he's a famous white defendant with a private lawyer. However, we should not let Chansley's antics trivialize the principle of free exercise of religion in prison. We must support religious expression for all inmates, not just for a favored few.

The truth about Russia's role in pushing the QAnon canon of conspiracies

The cult of QAnon is at a crossroads. Adherents of the conspiracy theory/new religious movement convinced themselves that Donald Trump was poised to purge the cannibal pedophile cabal and its traitorous enablers in a cleansing burst of political violence. But with Joe Biden in the White House, and Capitol rioters facing charges for their insurrection of January 6, prophecy has apparently failed. QAnon has been banished from major social media platforms. You can't even sell Q merch on Etsy anymore. True believers are struggling to make sense of it all. Q himself has fallen silent. It has been over a month since his last dispatch to the faithful.

In just three years, QAnon has exploded from an anonymous post on 4chan to a household word. The FBI has declared QAnon a domestic terrorist threat and the QAnon ideology has been the impetus for numerous terrorist attacks, not even counting the major role played by QAnon adherents in the assault on the US Capitol. QAnon has fractured families and destroyed lives. Astonishingly, we still don't know who Q is.

The enduring mystery of Q's identity has led to speculation about QAnon being an influence operation, (aka a psyop). Which raises the question of who's supposedly running this operation. QAnon's critics typically blame Russia or an alliance of Russia and Trump's inner circle. Disillusioned former QAnon sympathizers including Trump advisor Steve Bannon have also embraced a version of the psyop theory, claiming that QAnon was a deep state hoax designed to fool patriots.

Whatever role Russia may have played in promoting this conspiracy theory, the real problem is that there's a huge market in the United States for conspiracy theories that promise the violent overthrow of democracy.

Influence operations are typically military- or intelligence-led efforts to shape how a population thinks or feels without resorting to physical force.

Russian intelligence operates within the vast QAnon ecosystem but QAnon is a home-grown phenomenon, deeply rooted in American prejudices and preoccupations. QAnon and its forerunner Pizzagate were forged on 4Chan, a crucible of both the Alt-Right and American conspiracy culture. Understanding the racist, ultranationalist, conspiratorial culture of /pol is key to understanding the likely origins of QAnon. It's also important to understand how contemporary conspiracy theorizing incorporates and elaborates on older conspiratorial themes.

Q is old conspiracies made new

Many of the central tenets of QAnon are retreads of the antisemitic hoax tract, "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," which purports to be the minutes of a criminal conspiracy of rabbis to take over the world. The Protocols, in turn, recycles the ancient antisemitic superstition known as blood libel, the notion that Jews are harvesting the blood of Christian children.

Q asserts that the Houses of Rothschild and Soros are "puppet masters" covertly manipulating historical events. (Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene notoriously speculated that a space laser from "Rothschild, Inc" might have caused the Camp fire in California. Video of Greene berating a Parkland shooting survivor as a pawn of George Soros resurfaced recently.) Many of the QAnon faithful have their own take on blood libel, with the cannibal pedophiles being said to harvest a molecule known as adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims.

Ironically, the Protocols were commissioned by the head of the Russian secret police in the late 19th or early 20th century. The goal was to set back the cause of liberalism by convincing Czar Nicholas the II that the rise of capitalism in Russia was a conspiracy by Jews and the Freemasons. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was created by Russian conservatives to fool their own ruler, but the impact of the document was much broader. The forgery became the Ur-text of global conspiracy culture. Henry Ford's newspaper published the Protocols in 1920. The Nazis cited the Protocols to justify the Holocaust. The influence of the Protocols can even be seen in Dan Brown's bestselling Da Vinci Code novels.

In 2017, Vladimir Putin's personal confessor was hyping the idea that Czar Nicholas and his family were ritually murdered by Jews. (In fact, the deposed Nicholas and his family were assassinated by Bolsheviks shortly after the Revolution of 1917. The leader of the death squad was commended by Lenin for his work.)

QAnon sprang from the primordial soup of 4chan's Politically Incorrect board, aka /pol. 4chan is an anonymous imageboard where anyone can post almost anything. 4chan is often described as the birthplace of the Alt Right. Users are known as "anons."

"Q" is short for "Q Clearance Patriot." Q purports to be a high-ranking US intelligence official leaking details of Donald Trump's campaign against his enemies in the deep state. Q's revelations began in late October of 2017. The researcher who posts as Q Origins on Twitter has published his findings on the investigative news site Bellingcat.

Some have speculated that various pro-Russian themes in Q's body of work are evidence that the QAnon phenomenon was a Russian influence operation, but this argument ignores the fact that Vladimir Putin's Russia is organically popular in the Alt Right and /pol. Q and his message board disciples may admire Putin's brand of hyper-masculine authoritarianism without being Russian agents.

In order to understand the origins of QAnon, it is necessary to understand the imageboard tradition of LARPing. "In the 4Chan context, a LARP is when you pose as a big insider," explains the anonymous author of the Q Origins Project.

Q isn't a psyops

There's a long history of imageboard anons pretending to be high-ranking national security officials who, for inexplicable reasons, have decided to divulge highly classified information to one of the web's most notorious cesspools. In imageboard culture, LARPing is like spinning ghost stories around the digital campfire. Most people know it's fake, but it's fun to pretend that it might be real. Before Q, posters with names like FBIAnon and MegaAnon acquired followings as LARPers, often exploring themes that would later be featured in Q drops. LARPers will often entertain their followers with puzzles and cryptic predictions--a style that is familiar to anyone who has read Q drops. Followers become invested in decoding the riddles. A LARPer may gain respect if their predictions seem to come true.

The anonymous researcher behind the Q Origins project has painstakingly reconstructed the pre-history of QAnon. He notes that, like other LARPers before him, Q constructs his pronouncements out of conspiracy theories that are already popular on /pol.

"They love them a conspiracy theory and Q built on that. He stitches together the various LARPs and just creates this Frankenstein that very quickly explodes off of /pol."

The first major proselytizers for Q were two /pol moderators and a YouTuber named Tracy Diaz. Within weeks, they started spreading Q content to YouTube and other social media platforms.

There is evidence that trolls from the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency helped to disseminate the forerunner conspiracy to QAnon, Pizzagate. The breakout Q drop of 2017 continues the Pizzagate narrative of the year before. We're told that Hillary Clinton is going to be arrested.

If Pizzagate is the Old Testament, QAnon is the New Testament. Pizzagate diagnosed the cannibal pedophile problem and Q framed Donald Trump as the solution. Q is the prophet, the self-proclaimed intelligence insider who reveals the "truths" the OPs of /pol expected to hear: Donald Trump is the messiah who is going to usher in a golden age through a spasm of apocalyptic violence.

Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee in order to sabotage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. One of their prizes was a trove of personal emails by Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta.

The basic tenets of the Pizzagate conspiracy gelled on 4Chan's /pol board on or about November 3, 2016, as users combed through Podesta's hacked emails. They fixated on banal emails chronicling Podesta's social life, which included references to DC restaurants like Comet Ping Pong as well as to home cooking. The anons decided that words like "cheese pizza" were actually code for "child porn." This collective world-building exercise eventually decreed that Podesta and Clinton were part of a network of pedophiles enslaving children in the (non-existent) basement of Comet Ping Pong.

The Trump campaign, like the Republican community at large, were enthusiastic consumers and distributors of lurid anti-Clinton conspiracies. Trump campaign luminaries like Gen. Michael Flynn and right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars furiously amplified Pizzagate content. This content was discussed by anons on 4chan's /pol, reworked and elaborated into their conspiratorial worldview, including the next round of LARPs.

We know that accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Kremlin-linked troll farm, hyped Pizzagate and QAnon. Russian state-controlled media like Sputnik and RT have also given sympathetic coverage to these narratives, in keeping with Russia's well-known strategy of amplifying existing rifts within the United States. Russian disinformation takes many forms, including amplifying content created by others. It's easier and often more effective to amplify an American voice rather than to try to imitate one.

The researcher behind the Q Origins Project cautions against putting too much weight on the theory that QAnon was created by Russians. We don't know exactly who Q is, but the researcher's investigations have convinced him that Q is primarily a domestic phenomenon. Q's writings show a deep familiarity with U.S. evangelical culture, he notes. The researcher observes that Q has an uncanny knack for distilling only those elements of /pol culture that would be acceptable on Fox News. Unlike his fellow chan anons, who have no compunctions about racial slurs, Q works just clean enough to be mainstream. In the researcher's opinion, navigating the subtleties of U.S. racial politics would be very difficult for someone who wasn't raised in the United States. Q also has a deep familiarity with US pop culture, particularly Hollywood movies. The famous "Where We Go One We Go All" slogan is from a 1996 Jeff Bridges sailing movie called White Squall, not the kind of material you'd expect an IRA troll to be familiar with. The researcher points out that the time stamps on the Q drops suggest that the author is working on West Coast time.

Whatever role Russia may have played in promoting this conspiracy theory, the real problem is that there's a huge market in the United States for conspiracy theories that promise the violent overthrow of democracy.

It's comforting to tell ourselves that QAnon is an exogenous phenomenon foisted upon us by a demonic Other. But that only distracts from the deeper rifts in our society that allow QAnon to flourish and thrive.

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