The QAnon Shaman Reminds Me of My Best Friend, and Other Musings on Saving Democracy

Along with what felt like all of America, I was glued to my screen on Wednesday. Inauguration Day had finally finally arrived. I watched the proceedings with bittersweet relief. My Twitter timeline hummed happily with outfit psychoanalysis, J Lo said whats?, and mitten memes.

Image: Harvard Gazette

By the time Amanda Gorman began her breathtaking poem, the mood was ebullient. As she recited her final lines, I felt four years of tension leave my body, and hope enter in its place:

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
In every known nook of our nation,
In every corner called our country,
Our people, diverse and beautiful,
Will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

But then a strange thing happened. While my heart cried “yes!”, my brain flashed red. For I’d spent the last week exploring the psyches of militant Trump supporters and, in that moment, my brain short-circuited to how they might be seeing this moment. How would they interpret these verses (“we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid”) if — and this is an assumption on my part — they were not read by a radiant Black woman who looked like the sun, standing in all her brilliance and strength?

“How are militant Trump supporters processing what I’m seeing?” is a question that’s haunted me over the last two weeks, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, I was horrified by the storming of the Capitol and I want answers. Yes, I’m a trained ethnographer who believes that all human stories are worth exploring. Yes, I’m a card-carrying socialist living in a historically Black New York City neighborhood and so I’m curious about “the other side”. But the real reason is that, as I explored this question, I came to some painful realizations.

Through news articles and lurking on right-wing social media platforms, I realized how lazy most narratives about “the other side” actually were. The anemic analyses dominating mainstream discourse are useless in helping us understand each other as humans — the critical first step if we are to, as Gorman implores, reconcile and recover.

Through events and conversations, I found that many working to advance civic dialogue and rebuild democracy in America seemed rather unbothered about seeking deeper narratives. I found this both unsettling and downright odd, as it would basically make it impossible for them to, well, do their jobs.

And through internal reflection — and this is difficult to admit — I realized that I could relate to the pain of despondent Trump voters, because I knew what it’s like to feel invisible in America. The key difference between me and them is how we’ve been conditioned to deal with our pain.

The empathy I felt for the pain of Trump voters startled me. After all, I’m an immigrant woman of colour, and my work focuses on progressive causes, with multiracial coalitions, and through the lens of global solidarity — all things I assumed a stereotypical Trump voter opposed. But as I’ve dug deeper into the world of the militant right, there are aches, longings, and angers I can recognize in myself.

And if my work as an organizer and facilitator has taught me anything, it’s that if we are to bridge divides, we must first understand, grapple with, and shepherd human emotion. This work is essential if we are serious about rebuilding democracy.

So what follows are reflections on these themes. I share them because I believe we need to be asking different questions, but I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t claim any special insight on American democracy, but I have been in enough conversations on rebuilding it that I have a sense of the landscape of thinking — and where our blind spots may be.

Image: CNN

Let’s rewind a bit. Last week, I attended a gathering on building healthy, flourishing digital public spaces. The ~200 people participating were mostly white, American, white collar, and Silicon Valley liberal. Key themes included how we encourage the humanization of others and build bridges between diverse groups.

Despite enthusiasm for these themes, participants struggled to reconcile them with the storming of the Capitol we’d witnessed just days prior. This was understandable; we were all still processing together. A lot of the small-group conversations swirled around just how impossible it was to understand those people. How could we possibly cultivate belonging and build bridges across such vast gulfs?

“I could never talk to the Camp Auschwitz guy,” said one man in a breakout discussion, “I have nothing to say to him.” He was visibly angry, and I was sympathetic. He was a friend, and so I happen to know that he’s Jewish and had relatives who died in the Holocaust. His response made sense to me. But then I realized everyone in the room was nodding, as if we were all agreeing that none of us could ever talk to that guy. These were writers, nonprofit leaders, and technologists — people with outsized influence in shaping the world. Among this crowd, I thought, erecting a wall between “us” and “them” cannot be a universal and final response.

“I’d be fascinated to talk to him,” I blurted out. The group looked at me, surprised. I stammered, as I sometimes do when I’m the lone contrarian voice in an all- or majority-white space, but went on to make the case for why I wanted to — and why more of us needed to. To build bridges, I argued, we first need to understand one another as humans. What is your life like? How were you raised? What shaped your beliefs? Why are you drawn to the communities and ideas you’re drawn to? How do you choose to take certain actions? The room listened politely, but seemed unconvinced.

The next day, I got on a Zoom catch-up with my Democracy Friends, an international but still majority-white group of researchers and practitioners working on participatory and deliberative democracy. The month before, we’d all presented to a group of US policy experts exploring how to repair American democracy. This meeting was supposed to be our follow-up to take key ideas forward. But like most conversations that week, it was upended by trying to make sense of the Capitol insurrection.

“It was shocking, but not all that surprising” was the phrase many had settled on by then. It was always said in a resigned tone, as if that explained it, as if this fate was inevitable.

Among friends, I shared the lukewarm response I’d received the day prior when urging the conference crowd to try to understand “the other side”. I could again feel myself getting worked up as I discussed the necessity of the task. Only then, I reasoned, could we truly begin to define ways forward.

My Democracy Friends looked at me. I couldn’t read their expressions. Then one of my dearest friends in the group spoke: “Wow. You must have Olympic levels of empathy.” Another chimed in, “I couldn’t even imagine wanting or trying to understand those people.”

The comment was neutral; meant neither as criticism nor praise. And it was from someone I love and respect deeply. But it’s bothered me ever since.

Because I don’t have Olympic levels of empathy. I’ve just interviewed enough people that society deems broken or unsavoury to know that everyone has a story behind why they do what they do. I’ve just facilitated enough efforts around intractable problems to know that if we can’t level as humans first, we’ll never make it out the other side. And I’ve just lived enough life as a dismissible demographic to understand what people are capable of when they feel like no one cares about their existential pain.

Image: National Review

In “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster”, Mitsuye Yamada recounts teaching the Asian segment of Ethnic American Literature course, for which she’d assigned the Asian-American anthology AIIIEEEEE!. In class, students shared that they’d been offended by the writers’ militant tone. Yamada was puzzled. Surely work from other assigned writers had been just as militant, so were they also offended by those? To her surprise, her students said they were not, but they struggled to explain why. After she pressed further, they said that they “understood” the anger of Black and Chicano writers and “empathized” with the sorrow of Indigenous writers. But Asian-Americans?

Then, Yamada recounts, “one student said it for all of them: ‘It made me angry. Their anger made me angry, because I didn’t know Asian Americans felt oppressed. I didn’t expect their anger.” As a person who is Asian, I wanted to mock their ignorance. As a person who lives in this world, I could understand their confusion.

My family immigrated from Taiwan to Canada when I was six. Growing up, I was told to be grateful to be here and to remember how lucky I was to have all these new freedoms and opportunities. Because I was now privileged, I must always keep my head down and learn to 吃苦 (“eat bitter”) as a natural part of life. This was intended as encouragement: If we endure our hardships with a positive attitude, so my ancestral logic went, people like us will onedaysomeday move up in the world. So I did. I endured racial slurs, bullying, and abuse, all with a top-notch attitude.

This, of course, did not serve me well. And I eventually learned how to feel my pain and to deal with it in healthy ways. But most of my family was not so lucky. And I’ve seen the impacts of their unprocessed pain show up in our lives as a constant thrum, a quiet and cruel companion — until one day, it wasn’t so quiet anymore.

Last year, a member of my extended family tried to violently take the life of someone in my nuclear family. In hindsight, this event was perhaps also “shocking, but not all that surprising”. I do not wish to share the details of this event, nor the history of unacknowledged grief and invisibility that precipitated it. But needless to say, this act of gross violence shook my family to our core. And it launched me into deeper exploration of how people try to cope, and what they’re capable of, when they feel neglected and left behind.

Wesley Yang explores this topic — “the peculiar burden of invisibility” — in his collection The Soul of Yellow Folk, which includes his remarkable essay on the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho. “As the bearer of an Asian face in America,” he writes, “you paid some incremental penalty, never absolute, but always omnipresent, that meant that you were by default unlovable and unloved.” Yang describes Asian-American identity as “the most lukewarm of all personal conundrums, the racial grievance least likely to receive, or to deserve, any public recognition, the most readily treated with ironic ridicule.”

In the past, I’ve reflected on this passage in the context of my own life. But in the last two weeks, I’ve been returning to it as I considered the men (as they were largely men) who stormed the Capitol, because the struggles of white men are increasingly treated in a similar way.

I’ve wondered what it’s like to be a working class white man raised in a white supremacist, patriarchal society who is now struggling to perform the duties (or exercise the privileges) traditionally given to white men. I’ve wondered what it’s like to be struggling on these fronts and then to hear the crescendo, across media and cultural platforms: White men stand back, it is no longer your turn. I’ve wondered what it’s like to hear that when, perhaps, to your mind and in your lifetime, you’ve never had “a turn” yet.

I don’t pretend to know what these men struggle with, but I’ve read enough sociology studies to have an inkling. And I’ve lived enough life to know that hurt people hurt people. While their grievances may not be the problems I wish to work on, that doesn’t mean they are not worth examining and tending to.

But ironic ridicule is what I’ve seen from my “camp” as we look at images from January 6. We roll our eyes, chortle at the outfits, and make snarky comments about white male entitlement. Because we don’t know how to explain their behaviour, we simply deem them Other, then return to our insular, ideologically pristine conversations about supporting “communities” and rebuilding democracy. But ostriching will get us nowhere.

Image: CNN

Given the outright refusal of many to try understanding these communities, I figured I’d give it a shot.

It wasn’t an easy task, as the news outlets that i) are in my regular rotation, and ii) have the resources for in-depth reporting weren’t doing particularly deep profiles. I read about a former Olympic gold medalist, a Harvard-educated writer, a bus driver from Michigan, a group of Stop the Steal protestors, and Camp Auschwitz guy — one Robert Keith Packer, a welder and pipe-fitter from Virginia — who’d launched my inquiry. The pieces all felt lacking. They dutifully recounted events in their subjects’ lives, but did not meaningfully explore the why behind their beliefs and actions. And they barely bothered to situate their lives within broader socioeconomic and political contexts. As a former journalist, I know how subjects respond when you aren’t genuinely curious about them or, even worse, approach them with an air of judgment. People can tell.

I signed up for a Gab account and lost one evening mindlessly scrolling through, but I didn’t have the access or energy to do deep analysis. Court documents were helpful, but the lines of questioning are oriented to a drastically different purpose than mine.

I then decided to watch a video of Jacob Chansley, aka the QAnon Shaman, who drew ironic ridicule as the terrorist who looked like Jamiroquai meets Braveheart. It was hard. I did some grounding exercises to brace myself, and had to split viewing into four sessions to manage the surge of emotions. But as I made my way through his 1.5 hour video, and listened to him flit between Buddhist teachings, Vedic traditions, and a whole gamut of New Age teachings that shaped his worldview, I was struck by how much he sounded like one of my best friends. In fact, he sounded like many of my friends from the woo woo progressive left.

His discussion of the relationship between social justice and astrology reminded me of Chani Nicholas, beloved astrologer to many progressive leaders including Alica Garza and Ai-jen Poo. Chansley’s descriptions of how celestial alignments “chose him for the task” echoed the thesis in Nicholas’ book You Were Born For This. His exploration of Indigenous wisdom had whispers of Robin Wall Kimmerer. His insistence that “we don’t do anything without thinking seven generations ahead” reminded me of Roman Krznaric. His thesis — “we need to liberate our minds through love” — reminded me of my favourite community arts non-profit The Laundromat Project. He shared his anger at political corruption and greed, and his desire for non-violent change.

There were, of course, also parts that were incredibly disturbing. For example, when he portrayed President Obama as the Antichrist or delved into his Illuminati theories. But I couldn’t help but notice how, for much of the video, he sounded like people I knew in the Burning Man attending, higher consciousness seeking, love-as-liberation crowd. Yes, his politics are vastly different. But there is a human side of him that is responding to pressures in his life, and to our broken world at large, in ways similar to people I know.

Unlike my friends, he had a very different interpretation of how to realize liberation through love. What was unspoken in the video was who deserved to be liberated and who didn’t, what was the cost of the battles he was called to, and how he envisioned the path to Shangri La.

I searched for details on his life; they were sparse. What I did learn: He’s a 33-year-old Navy veteran turned actor who’s been struggling to get work. He went to a public high school where, today, over half of students are economically disadvantaged. He’d had a hard time paying rent on his $899 a month apartment, so moved back in with his mom last year. He’d begun selling courses in shamanic healing, I assume as a way to make money, and his leadership in QAnon also enabled him to raise some income. He used to volunteer at a Phoenix arts organization that serves at-risk youth.

Of course, none of this explains or justifies his actions. But it starts giving us a sense of who he is, what his life was like, why the game mechanics of QAnon may have appealed to him, and how he may have come to the conclusion that storming the Capitol was the right next step in his path. In contrast, the friend he reminds me of went to a private school, owns a beautiful loft, and directs a leading creative agency. This enables him to lead a life of fulfilling, socially conscious work and global travel that includes meditation retreats and artistic explorations.

As I pieced together these facts from Chansley’s life, I could only imagine what he may have been feeling in the months leading up to the insurrection. But I don’t know, though I wanted to. Because humans are driven not by facts, but by emotions. So what mix of emotions — disappointment? loss? fear? shame? or something else? — drove his decisions? If we can better understand what drove him, we can better learn how to shepherd these emotions.

Image: International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America

In somatic practice, there are five human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate. Which responses we each turn to are inherited through evolution, informed by our social and cultural contexts, and beyond our conscious capacity to control. As Staci Haynes explains, “People often develop prominent strategies for survival, safety, belonging, and dignity. While these reactions are automatic and stored deep in the body, they are also shaped by culture, gender, class, etc. Fundamentally, we hold these survival reactions and adaptations as wise, intelligent, and essential.”

I know that my somatic responses to trauma are primarily to appease and dissociate. This was shaped by my ancestry, and by my life as an immigrant and an Asian woman who’s struggled to stay middle class. My family member who committed the horrible act was male, of a different generation, and has long lived an economically precarious existence. I was taught to “eat bitter”, so when faced with traumatizing experiences, I literally grin and bear it while leaving my body. This has been hard to unlearn, and is part of my ongoing practice.

These white, working-class men were conditioned in a very different way. For a long time, they’ve been taught to defend their tribe and fight for what is theirs. This worked for them until, only quite recently, it didn’t. So the question now is: How do they grapple with the reality of a society they perceive to be unfair and losing its most revered traditions, traditions that served them? How do they divest from a longstanding view of masculinity that is only recently being challenged and transformed? How do we steward them through this rapidly changing world?

Experts on white nationalist groups say that people typically join to feel a sense of belonging, they only get radicalized later. The Proud Boys are offering one answer to these questions. What are others?

My social justice universe is increasingly aware of the need to tend to and transform trauma for marginalized communities, but I don’t imagine Chansley’s is. But he also sees his work as social justice, and his tribe as increasingly marginalized. So what types of empathy and support might they need?

Image: CNN

In the last year, I’ve noticed a distinct shift from the use of “marginalized communities” to the embrace of “Black and brown communities” in conversations on social justice. Given the disproportionate impact of COVID on these communities and the uprisings for racial justice, this makes sense: We should be precise about who is most impacted by which problems, so we can be precise in targeting solutions.

Yet, I have mixed feelings about this shift. On the one hand, yes, Black and brown communities historically and presently fare worse on just about every socioeconomic indicator because structural racism is embedded in the very fabric of this country, and is central to the larger project of Western imperialism. But I also know that marginalization manifests in many ways; while race is a key dimension, it’s not the only one. So while I’m relieved that racial justice is at long last being centered in mainstream discourse, I’ve wondered about the unintended consequences of displacing class-based or intersectional analyses. After all, working class white people have long been exploited by wealthy white elites to serve their economic and political ambitions. Does a focus on race-based analyses conveniently obscure this critical point?

I can’t help but wonder: Have American elites embraced racial justice because it is comparatively easier to address via a surface-level approach, and because doing so lets them off the hook around larger systemic change? Of course, how “racial justice” is defined and pursued looks very different depending on your politics.

On the left: Hire a Chief Diversity Officer, appoint Black leaders, and invest in extra outreach until enough squares across Zoom gallery view are populated by BIPOC faces then breathe a sigh of relief. These acts are largely cosmetic which, perhaps, is part of their appeal: You can literally point to visible change. And while they can signal and enable deep, lasting change, it’s not guaranteed. The decisions to change still, by and large, rest with individual people and organizations.

On the right: Foment anger around the slipping away of our entitlements — and go to great lengths to ignore the incalculable suffering communities of colour have long endured for these “freedoms” — and rally the troops to defend our God-given rights.

For the moneyed and political class, on both sides of the political divide, is championing racial justice preferable to championing economic justice? Comparably, there seems to be less to lose: No sweeping wage increases, no strengthening of labour protections, and no (god forbid) giving up more of their incomes in taxes so we can invest in public goods. These changes are not cosmetic and, once enshrined in policy, are very hard to reverse. These policies help white communities but also, given how the American economy is structured, yield greater benefits for racialized communities.

Race is a social construct developed to justify economic exploitation. Thus, true racial justice requires economic justice; but today, economic justice is not limited to racial justice. The two are intertwined, and my sense is that focusing only on racial justice serves the elites. Economic justice policies are more structural, widely beneficial, and enduring — thus they are more costly for the 1%.

Who does it benefit if we focus on race and not class? In many powerful media outlets (owned by obscenely wealthy white people), if a person votes Trump, that’s the only part of their identity that matters. In liberal media, profiles are superficially searching and hardly complex — the driving question is not “who are you?” but rather “how could you?” Many liberal outlets treat the Trump voter as aliens with views to ridicule, not humans with grievances to address. It’s no wonder that there’s been an exodus for Fox, Breitbart, Parler, and others. Would you patronize a platform that didn’t care to see you as human?And yet, in these right-wing platforms, there’s also incentive to focus on voting Trump as the most important element of a subject’s identity. Though the motivations of each side differed greatly, the result was the same: reinforcing allegiance to Trump as the defining and decisive marker of who you are.

Image: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

So what now? That’s the gazillion dollar question.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I have some ideas on where we can start and, importantly, who should lead this work.

We must first understand at a deep, human level the communities that form the militant Trump base. I know many would prefer an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach, but just because he’s out of the White House doesn’t mean the grievances he’s legitimized and emboldened have dissipated. They are simmering and communities are organizing. We can’t ostrich, and we can’t rely on superficial analyses for answers.

I’ve worked with many US agencies and nonprofits to do ethnographic work in “troubled places” — Pakistan, Brazil, and Zimbabwe among them. It’s time to do this work in this troubled place. Sociologists like Arlie Hochschild and Sarah Kendzior have already done important work here, but the scale, complexity, and gravity of this issue is far too great to rest on the work of a few (admittedly amazing) scholars. Their books are insightful and I recommend them frequently. But they’re also narrative non-fiction written for popular consumption. They’re not usable foundations for the larger projects in front of us: To design policies and initiatives that address the needs of the communities they describe. To think we can just draw on scholarly and popular press for this enormous undertaking is lazy, dangerous magical thinking.

We need practitioners to do dedicated work uniquely designed to inform efforts to address grievances, de-escalate tensions, facilitate dialogue, and build bridges. There’s a hundred different ways this could look — counseling programs, job training and placement, cultural initiatives, inter-community dialogues, etc — but none of that will be possible without foundational ingredients.

Research needs to be geared at achieving intimate, human understanding of militant Trump supporters. There will not be just one profile or even ten, but this is where we need to do rigorous and nuanced segmentation work, grounded in a mix of psychographics, political concerns, and other factors. The over-reliance on demographics (“what do white women think?”) has got to stop.

Research themes may include how these communities identify and cope with difficult emotions (and how these behaviours have served them), their attitudes toward public programs (and how they were shaped), and past experiences where they’ve drastically changed their minds about something (and what drove the shifts). (Until recently, this QAnon believer had been a registered Democrat for most of her life, supported the Standing Rock protests, and was an active Change.org campaigner.) Only by understanding these experiences and attitudes can we design effective programs — that is, efforts that speak to their interests, and that get adopted and used.

And this work needs to be led by those that are closest to these communities. And that means, among other things, white people. Living in New York City, I hear a lot of “I have Trump voters in my family but…”; well, no buts. I know it’s easier, mentally and socially, to distance yourselves from these relatives, but you are closer than I am. And so this is your work, not mine.

As I mentioned, it took me four sessions to watch Jacob Chansley’s video. My body was tense the entire time, and there were moments where I thought I might throw up. After the first, I had to sit for 20 minutes, desperately practicing energy and breathing exercises, to expunge the received energy from my body. After the second, I went for an hour walk to settle my nerves. There are others for whom this work will be less triggering. We need you to step up.

And so it’s not that I’m preternaturally empathetic. It’s that I’m curious about humans, and I’m pragmatic about what it takes to build bridges across seemingly impossible divides. I also know intimately what it’s like to feel invisible in this world and to grapple with existential loneliness — because these issues aren’t given sufficient attention, my family has suffered greatly.

We cannot applaud Gorman’s call to rebuild and reconcile, then refuse to do the work it takes. It will be hard, even excruciating, work. But I believe there is light in all humans — diverse and battered, but still so beautiful — if we’re brave enough to see it.

We need to understand and steward all pain — without diminishing, comparing, or ridiculing it. Only by doing so can we each and all heal, and finally start moving forward.

With deep gratitude to Troels Steenholdt Heiredal and Kate Reed Petty for the conversations and thoughtful edits, and helping me muster the courage to publish this.

Structural justice x active democracy x radical love. Leading @theReboot.