The “QAnon shaman”—Jacob Chansley, the tattooed dude having an Excellent Adventure in Mike Pence’s Senate chair on January 6—put a photogenic face on the insurrection, and on Trump’s Idiocracy. Barechested, covered in neo-pagan tattoos, brandishing a spear, and sporting a fur headdress with horns, Chansley was catnip to media outlets. Was he a Burning Man bro gone MAGA? Adam Ant on ayahuasca? Or, as one YouTube wag put it, what you get “when you throw a Republican, a ton of shrooms and MDMA, a scratched DVD of Vikings Season 1, and a sweaty yoga mat into a boiling pot”?
All anyone knew at the time was that he was a devout believer in QAnon, the conspiracy cult that knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a devil-worshipping cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles is the real power—the Deep State—behind our sham democracy. Whoever he was, he made great copy. No coverage of the sacking of the Capitol was complete without a photo of him sitting in the vice-president’s chair on the senate dais or leading the assembled rioters in a prayer thanking God for allowing him and a mob of deranged “patriots” to “send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”
Chansley is being held at a Federal Correctional Institution in Colorado, awaiting his November 17 sentencing on a felony charge that could keep him behind bars for four more years . He accepted a DOJ plea deal that reduced the six counts in his indictment, which could’ve sent him to prison for up to 20 years, to one: Obstruction of an Official Proceeding (the counting, in a joint session of congress, of the Electoral College results of the 2020 presidential election).
Curious to know if Chansley really is emblematic of the batshit style in American politics, as the historian Richard J. Hofstadter never called it, I bought a copy of his book, One Mind at a Time: A Deep State of Illusion, self-published in 2020 under the name Jacob Angeli.“Doing my own research brought me more information than listening to the news ever could.”
I wasn’t surprised by the misspellings and grammar glitches. Chansley is a college dropout, smarter than his persona suggests and a better writer than some of the undergrads I’ve taught but hobbled by the spotty literacy of the autodidact. (Hitler’s minister of propaganda is “Joseph Gerbils”; the civil-rights icon known for his “I Have a Dream” speech is “Martian Luther King Jr.”)
Also no surprise: the weird syncretism of New Age spirituality and right-wing conspiracy theory, which scholars of American religion have dubbed “conspirituality.” This, after all, is a man who describes himself in his back-cover bio as a “shamanic practitioner, QAnon digital soldier,” New Age energy healer, and “God-loving, country-protecting patriot of the U.S.A.” “What we did on Jan. 6 in many ways was an evolution in consciousness,” he told the Washington Post, “because as we marched down the street… shouting ‘USA’ or shouting things like ‘freedom’… we were actually affecting the quantum realm.” Deepak Chopra, meet QAnon.
One Mind at a Time outlines a unified field theory of power, paranoia, and sinister myth. No surprise there, either: Frank P. Mintz, the historian who invented the term, defines conspiracism as the “belief in the primacy of conspiracies in the unfolding of history.” It’s the metanarrative suspicious minds use to make sense of the world. And a significant part of that sense-making consists of sleuthing out the connections between seemingly unrelated things.
Chansley connects the dots between the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Yale’s secretive Skull & Bones society, MK-Ultra (the CIA’s notorious experiment in Better Brainwashing Through LSD), Nikola Tesla, “reptilians from the Draco star system,” “the artificial monolith” found on Mars’s moon Phobos (on loan from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 ?), the horrors of fluoridation, the depravity of the Royal Family, Jeffrey Epstein, Jeffrey Dahmer, the performance artist Marina Abramović’s “’spirit cooking’ event based on Aleister Crowley Magic,” which Hillary Clinton attended, we’re told, and where “semen, breast milk, and blood” were on the menu. The scattered points coalesce, as they always do, into a constellation: “the deep state takeover of our nation through corrupt laws and the government’s misuse of force.”
What I wasn’t prepared for was just how closely One Mind at a Time harmonizes with the worldviews of public figures like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental activist-cum-anti-vaxxer; Naomi Wolf, the feminist pundit turned COVID Truther; and Mark Crispin Miller, the NYU professor of media studies who ran afoul of his colleagues for what they allege is his “espousal of ‘non-evidence based’ conspiracy theories, including [the belief] that cell phones cause cancer and the moon landing was fake” and, most controversially, his promotion of anti-mask, anti-vaccine misinformation in the middle of a pandemic.
Their reflexive mistrust of official narratives and fervent embrace of conspiracy theories makes all three sound, at times, as if they’re channeling Chansley. Kennedy, whose iconic name has made him a superspreader of popular delusions, believes Bill Gates is behind a diabolical scheme to control the population by injecting us, via COVID vaccines, with microchips; that 5G “causes DNA dysfunction ”; and, famously, that vaccines cause autism, a thoroughly debunked theory typical of the anti-vaxxer falsehoods that got him banned from Instagram .
Wolf, who was booted off Twitter for the same reason, has suggested that the Moderna vaccine is a “software platform…that can receive uploads ”; that Apple has developed a “new tech to deliver vaccines with [nanoparticles] that let you travel back in time”; and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, Big Pharma, and Bill and Melinda Gates are part of a monstrous conspiracy using vaccination passports as a stalking horse to strip Americans of their rights and impose a totalitarian regime.
As for Miller, he’s a 9/11 Truther, a Sandy Hook skeptic (the school shootings were a “false flag” operation, he believes, staged to provide a pretext for a crackdown on Second Amendment rights), and a vociferous opponent of masking, lockdowns, and vaccines, which he, like Wolf and Kennedy, believes are prelude to “The Great Reset,” a eugenicist plot cooked up by George Soros, the Rockefellers, Ted Turner, and—because no conspiracy’s complete without him—Bill Gates to eradicate the mass of humanity so the one percent can have the planet all to themselves, maintaining a slave class that will serve their overlords in a neo-feudal society.
How did the scion of America’s most storied political dynasty; the author of a feminist classic that influenced generations (The Beauty Myth); and a progressive media critic end up on the same page as a QAnon cultist whose book reads like Don DeLillo on DMT?
What all four have in common is the knee-jerk suspicion that all government and establishment-media narratives, all expert opinions are “propaganda.” This wariness is coupled, paradoxically, with a willingness to believe any “counternarrative,” no matter how dubiously sourced or implausible. In raising doubts about public-health authorities like Fauci, the CDC, and the WHO, Kennedy, Wolf, and Miller seem to see themselves as standard-bearers of the 1960s activism whose bumper-sticker slogan was Question Authority. Conspiracism is a counterculture—a counterculture of counternarratives.
One Mind at a Time isn’t Steal This Book for Trumpers, but “question authority” could easily do double duty as Chansley’s battle cry. Asked by the UK’s Channel 4 News, ”At what point in your life did you stop listening to the mainstream narrative?” Chansley replied, “When I realized that doing my own research brought me more information than listening to the news ever could. Once I stopped allowing the news to make up my mind or my narrative for me, I grew exponentially.”
Chansley’s use of the word “research” is instructive. Every QAnon cultist is a self-styled “researcher,” convinced that his or her Google erudition is a license to question authority. They’re symptomatic of our moment, when the hierarchy-flattening internet makes everyone a critic and everyone an expert. Called on the carpet by his department chair for his skepticism about the efficacy of masking and other pandemic measures, Miller was incredulous. “He said, ‘Do you think you know more than the doctors at NYU?’” Miller told Joseph Mercola, the anti-vaxxer and peddler of anti-COVID nostrums, on his podcast. “I didn’t even know what to say to that. I read the studies [showing, in Miller’s opinion, that “masks are not effective as a barrier to transmission of respiratory viruses”]; that’s all I can say. And I understand English.”
What he doesn’t understand is virology. Or epidemiology. Or vaccinology. “Medical science is science and facts are facts,” said Nina Burleigh, whose VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic (2021) touches on the question of COVID conspiracism. “You can have an informed opinion on, for example, economic policies that affect the frail and poor,” she told me, in an email. “But you can’t have an ‘opinion’ on the details of a heart surgery if you’re not a heart surgeon, or about the best chemotherapy if you aren’t an oncologist.”
The thing is, if everything is a narrative, and only a narrative—a tale told by an unreliable narrator bent on cover-up or propaganda—science isn’t science, and facts aren’t facts. For Chansley, Miller, Wolf, and Kennedy, as for most of us, mental life is a welter of media narratives—tweets, posts, podcasts, cable news, commercials, papers of record, pop-up ads, talk radio, YouTube channels, websites, blogs, newsletters. What distinguishes the way they read those narratives, however, is a conspiracist mentality that takes “the hermeneutics of suspicion” to extremes. Coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, the term refers to a form of textual analysis that assumes the narrative is there to conceal, not reveal. The truth is under the floorboards, hidden in the crawlspace of the subtext, and like all buried things is never pretty to look at when exhumed. (“My definition of ‘conspiracy theory,’” Miller likes to say, “is something that if true, you couldn’t handle it.”)
The hermeneutics of suspicion is more than an analytic method, argues the literary theorist Rita Felski, it’s a state of mind. “This entrenching of suspicion… intensifies the impulse to decipher and decode,” she writes, in The Limits of Critique (2015). “The suspicious person is sharp-eyed and hyper-alert; mistrustful of appearances, fearful of being duped, … always on the lookout for concealed threats and discreditable motives. In short: more suspicion means ever more interpretation.”
Conspiracism is what happens when the hermeneutics of suspicion escapes the page, into the wild. The world is a text; anything can be a sign, a symbol, disinformation, propaganda, psy-ops, a subliminal message, evidence of dark designs and covert ops. Where you and I see a stylized arrowhead in the logo of the Arrowhead Towne Center mall in Glendale, Arizona, Chansley sees “pedofile code,” as the orthographically challenged sign he waved at a 2020 Trump event proclaimed. “This symbol says that Arrowhead mall is a safe haven for certain people with certain tastes—in particular, boy love,” he tells a TV crew, adding, with flawless comic timing, “That’s not just me talkin’ out my rear end, here.” All the globalists’ schemes are “hidden in plain sight.” You’ve got to “read between the lines,” he instructs the viewing audience. Look for “certain code words like ‘pasta’ or ‘pizza’ and if the pizza sign has, like, devil horns or something, that’s something to watch out for, okay?” The sun winks off the upswept horns on his headdress.
One Mind at a Time begins with a quote from a 1961 speech by President Kennedy: “For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence…” The Cold War was on, and Kennedy was conjuring the specter of Soviet expansion, but Chansley, adept at the hermeneutics of suspicion, reads between the lines: “The deep state is the system which Kennedy spoke of,” he writes, a conspiracy marshaling “vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine.”
Dealey Plaza is conspiracism’s primal scene. The assassination of JFK and the Warren report’s suspiciously tidy verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone—regarded by many as a foregone conclusion intended to quell conspiracy theories—marked the beginning of Baby Boomers’ loss of faith in authorities and institutions. “2020 really began to slouch towards us in 1963, you know what I’m saying?” Miller told a crowd of COVID skeptics, anti-vaxxers, and assorted Truthers at a rally in May of this year. “It really sort of starts in Dallas on November 22nd, right?” It is The Conspiracy, of course; Chansley’s Deep State. JFK committed “crimes against that network, that syndicate and its interests,” said Miller. “That got him killed.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would probably agree. He believes that both his father and his uncle were the victims of conspiracies.
“The assassination left an emptiness that made everything plausible, made us susceptible to the most incredible ideas and fantasies,” Don DeLillo told a BBC interviewer. Riffing on Libra, his novel about those six seconds in Dallas, he said,
We couldn’t seem to find out what happened, even on the most basic level: How many gunmen? How many shots? How many wounds on the president’s body? There was no coherent reality we could analyze and study, so we became a little paranoid; we developed a sense of the secret manipulation of history… Documents lost or destroyed; official records sealed for 50 years; a number of very suspicious murders and suicides. Since Dallas, we see conspiracy everywhere.
Trump, our first conspiracist president, sailed into office on a wave of conspiracist bilge. Tellingly, JFK was the ghost at the Burger King buffet of the Trump presidency, materializing during the 2016 campaign when Trump insinuated, citing a patently fabricated story in The National Enquirer, that his rival Ted Cruz’s father was with Oswald shortly before he killed Kennedy and thus somehow involved in the assassination.
In 2017, a year into Trump’s presidency, he threw the conspiracists in his base a bone by ordering the National Archives to release documents related to JFK’s assassination. Trump is out of office, but Trumpism marches on, and with it the conspiratorial obsession with the shots that ended Camelot: on November 2, QAnon cultists gathered in Dealey Plaza to await the Second Coming of JFK, Jr., whose death in 1999 is no impediment, in their minds, to him becoming Trump’s running mate in 2024 when the Orange One has another go at the presidency.
In 1958, “about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time,” notes a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center. “Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30 percent” But if it was the gravitational pull of the assassination of JFK—not to mention the murders of RFK and Malcolm X and MLK, and Vietnam and Watergate—that caused our confidence in official explanations to collapse into an epistemological black hole, it’s the Right’s weaponization of that uncertainty that spread the virus of conspiracism.
Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House whose declared goal was “reshaping the entire nation through the news media,” pioneered the tactic of demonizing and discrediting the “liberal media elite” as well as the very congress he served in—anything, in fact, that stood in the way of the pugnacious right-wing populism he epitomized. Fox News turned his kill-the-messenger strategy into a mega-profitable outrage machine. Trump transformed Fox’s red-meat demagoguery into a wrecking-ball assault on “the regime of truth,” as the philosopher Michel Foucault called it—the dominant discourses and adjudicating bodies that determine what, in a given society, is true or false. Trump’s insistence that we’re entitled not just to our own opinions, but to our own facts, is now an article of faith on the Right.
Jack Bratich, a professor of media studies and author of Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture, believes that the legitimate skepticism inspired by historical events like the assassination of JFK (and the Warren report’s open-and-shut verdict on it) has mutated into a toxic skepticism that is not only hostile to government institutions but has turned on gatekeepers like the press, scientists, and medical authorities, provoking an epistemological duel to the death over facts and alt-facts, truth and truthiness.
The effect of these attacks and counterattacks is “mutually assured disqualification,” Bratich argued, in a 2017 lecture, punning on the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. And the effect of that is what could be called epistemological vertigo—the pervasive sense of not knowing how to sort fact from falsehood; of being unmoored from the truth. It’s what makes so many grab onto the reassuringly black-and-white theology of conspiracism.
And it is a theology, Manichean in its cosmic struggle between good and evil, apocalyptic in its conviction that we’re living in the end times. “There is a war on humanity, there is a war on religion, there is a war on human assembly,” said Naomi Wolf, on Fox News Primetime. “Big Tech wants to drive everyone indoors and dissolve the bonds between people.” “I’m not afraid to say that this [push for mass vaccination] is an evil, an evil thing, an evil project,” Mark Crispin Miller told the hosts of the City Spotlight community radio show. “It is not intended to save lives; it’s intended to… end them.” But there’s a glimmer of hope: “I think that the project that’s being inflicted on the whole world now is so grandiose, it’s so insane, and it’s so directly hostile to nature and, really, to God, I have to say, that it can’t work. It reminds me of the Tower of Babel.”
Some conspiracy scholars dismiss Richard Hofstadter’s pop-psych take on right-wing populism as dated, but The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) still rings true in its analysis of conspiracism’s religious undertones: “Like religious millenarians, [the conspiracist] expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days… The apocalypticism of the paranoid style runs dangerously near to hopeless pessimism, but usually stops short of it.”
True to form, One Mind at a Time ends not with visions of the Great Replacement or the Great Reset, but with a flurry of New Age platitudes. Chansley calls for “Non-Violent Conscious Rebellion,” offers “A Vision of a Better Tomorrow.” “Imagine if the entire world started using hemp instead of wood, imagine if we used hempcrete instead of concrete”! “Cities of the future will float in the sky,” “disease will be a thing of the past,” “time travel and telekinesis will become normal,” we’ll look back on the old, bogus world from a “higher dimensional perspective of conscious energetic vibratory frequency.”
Of course, that was before Mr. Chansley went to Washington. Before he swaggered, grinning, into the Senate chamber with a “ Fuckin’ A, man.” Before he announced that he was going to take a selfie in the vice-president’s chair “because Mike Pence is a fucking traitor.” Before he led the assembled insurrectionists in a prayer in which he thanked the Lord for “allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.”
At that very moment, elsewhere in the building, insurrectionists willing to die for the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the election but a conspiracy stole it from him, were tasing, bear-spraying, and, immune to irony, using flagpoles flying Old Glory to bludgeon—to death, if they had their way—Capitol police.
Chansley ended his prayer with a benediction, thanking God “for filling this chamber with… the divine omnipresent white light of love and protection, peace and harmony.” Filled with the spirit of benevolence, he propped his spear against the desk and, finding a pen and paper, scrawled a note to the vice-president: “its only a matter of time / justice is coming!”