If the January 6 attacks in Washington, D.C., which left five dead and many more endangered, boasted anything like a breakout star, it was Arizona’s Jacob Chansley. In both the Senate raid and the ensuing media coverage, Chansley, dubbed “the QAnon Shaman,” arguably stole the show.
You know him from the photos: face slathered in tricolor war paint, head bedecked by a horned bearskin headdress, his shirtless torso a fleshy canvas of inked-on miscellany. Chansley stood out amid a sea of red MAGA hats and winterized workwear; strange and silly. And also a bit scary—and not because his Halloween costume Viking getup brought to mind pagan B-movie horror. The danger he embodied was all too real. He spoke to just how far these pro-Trump reactionaries had strayed from any mainstream, recognizably ordinary parameters of political and cultural affiliation.
“He is a practicing shaman,” confirms Albert Watkins, a St. Louis–based attorney and sometime radio personality. He is representing Chansley, who is currently being held in an Arizona jail without bond, awaiting transfer to D.C. to be tried for violating six federal statutes. Watkins, who speaks with showman-like polish, notes that while his client has no previous criminal background, he admittedly “does fall outside of the bell curve of normalcy,” both “in terms of his religious beliefs and his sartorial splendor.”
In some senses, Chansley’s “sartorial splendor” has been seized upon because it acts a symbol for the various transgressions of Trumpism. It also makes him an easy target of mockery: Jokes circulated about the fact that he still lived with his mother, or that the US Marshals Service was forced to make jailhouse accommodations for his all-organic diet; both true. These cracks escalated recently, when Chansley appeared on television, speaking from jail with CBS reporter Laurie Segall. Bare-faced and attired in considerably less-splendorous rags, he defended his shamanic beliefs, and claimed that he nobly thwarted attempts by rioters to steal muffins from the break room adjacent to “that sacred space, the Senate.” (Chansley’s mother, who also appeared in the CBS piece, also took some licks online.) In both these forms—bellowing in his full, furry ensemble, and the humbler prison apologia—Chansley has become a handy way of laughing off violent domestic terrorists as little more than a disorganized gaggle of, well, wackos and losers.
But he also represents a real emerging trend: the increasing convergence of esoteric New Wave spiritualities and wellness movements with a reenergized far-right conspiracy scene.
Scratch the surface of any number of benign-looking, vaguely New Age belief systems, and you’re increasingly likely to find an alt-right pipeline. You may find examples of this within your own social circles, as I have mine: health-conscious vegan friends becoming hard-line anti-vaxxers after subscribing to multilevel marketing schemes; coworkers moving from posting “daily spiritual inspirations” memes on Facebook to sharing misinformation about an alleged child-trafficking scheme perpetrated by Wayfair; ad hoc shamanic cults in northern Ontario centered on the ceremonial use of DMT, an extremely potent psychedelic.
Elsewhere in recent months, a crackpot Covid-19 documentary called Plandemic gained traction via Facebook groups, feeding a larger audience of medical-skeptical conspiracists, while savvy Gen Z Instagrammers propagated theories about perfumes containing the cells of aborted fetuses.
This messaging multiplies across various platforms, creating a whole ecosystem of disinformation. “You’re doing normal stuff on Instagram and you find yourself suddenly inundated with all this information,” says Whitney Phillips, who researches Internet misinformation at Syracuse University. “When it seems like lots of places are independently saying the same thing, it lends credence to an idea.”
For Phillips, stories of tumbling down these social media rabbit holes are increasingly typical. And personal. “Everybody has a story about somebody they’re related to. This is something we’re all having to navigate,” she says. In a forthcoming book, she draws comparisons between these new disinformation platforms and more old-fashioned conspiracy theory networks and misinformation.
“In the past you had to seek it out,” Phillips explains. “Now, it comes to you. Algorithms often know things about us that we might not know ourselves.” This feedback loop massively accelerates the ferment of a conspiratorial mindset. Computer scientist Tristan Harris, formerly of YouTube’s parent company Google, told The New York Times that the promotion of “extreme” content could be, to some extent, by design. “If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more,” he said, “I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.” Beliefs that might have previously calcified through a much longer process—a lifetime of evenings spent tuning to conspiracy theory radio or perusing titles in the shadier corners of specialty bookstores—now take hold seemingly overnight.
The convergence of the seemingly far-off cultures of New Age spirituality and political conspiracy is a growing movement, sometimes dubbed “conspirituality.” Matthew Remski, who disentangled himself from what he calls a “neo-Buddhist cult” in the late 1990s, knows it well.
Remski, who cohosts a podcast called Conspirituality, doesn’t regard the slippage—in Chansley’s case, between shamanism, evangelical Christian prayer, and fealty to the baseless QAnon conspiracy—as at all paradoxical. Rather, it’s indicative of “a very common, New Age, recombinant smorgasbord of beliefs.” Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, calls this a new, online, “networked nationalism.” Members of fringe and far-right groups once participated in real-world rituals and adhered to certain creeds designed to certify belonging; now, Dr. Donovan says, the curious “can believe parts of these far-right and extremist theories, but they don’t necessarily have to adopt them as their identity.”
This mishmash of ideologies and impulses represents, in all its outsize farcicality, the ways various New Age and esoteric belief systems are increasingly finding common ground in far-right extremism. That a disorganized group of wing nuts, terrorists, and true believers joined forces, and marched up the Capitol steps and into the Senate chamber, many rallying under the QAnon banner, speaks to its “big tent” appeal. Crucially, this more diffused, networked form of belonging also provides the cover of plausible deniability. Now you can propagate racist and anti-Semitic talking points without having to be a card-carrying Klansman.
Albert Watkins, Chansley’s attorney, seems keen on exploiting such deniability. He maintains that racism and anti-Semitism do not constitute part of his client’s “shtick,” and that he is being unfairly singled out among this herd—that, unlike the rioters armed with stun guns and zip ties at the Capitol, Chansley harbored no particularly malicious intent. He just wanted to engage in a politically symbolic act, seizing the building. “You will note he had no bulletproof vest,” Watkins says. “He didn’t have a pipe bomb. He didn’t have a gun. He didn’t perpetrate violence or perpetrate destruction. He was a guy who, for better or for worse, won the best costume contest on January 6.” (Part of that “costume,” it’s probably worth noting, was a six-foot spear beribboned with an American flag.)
Yet writing off Chansley as a loony or cosplaying crank risks underestimating the graver threat of nationalist, nativist, xenophobic movements that gained traction under Trump. “By focusing attention on the more carnivalesque elements,” says Susannah Crockford, an anthropologist and author studying New Age spirituality, “It makes it easier to distance the more dangerous elements that were behind a more serious attack on the capitol…. ‘Look at that fool over there in the horns! Don’t pay attention to the heavily armed militia!’”
“He has become a cultural image by which the movement can be dismissed,” elaborates Remski. Even higher-placed believers in such conspiracies have been similarly portrayed as laughingstocks. In early February, Republican representative and QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Greene publicly repudiated previously stated beliefs that 9/11 and the Parkland shooting were staged, which may go down in history as the most surreal thing an elected American official has had to do.
When Chansley was identified during the Capitol raid, photos soon circulated of him attending a climate strike rally in full shamanic regalia. Some of his fair-weather fellow travelers attempted to disown him on the basis of his environmentalism, labeling him an undercover antifascist. Versions of this discredited claim that the right-wing, pro-Trump seditionists actually were agents provocateurs were parroted by various conservatives, including Republican representative and Trump loyalist Matt Gaetz. “Trump supporters don’t usually attend ‘climate activism’ events,” the popular right-wing YouTuber Cari Keleman claimed, in a since-deleted tweet.
There’s a certain cognitive dissonance here that’s tricky to reconcile. Today, identities conventionally associated with some vague idea of “the left”—yoga moms, alternative medicine practitioners, vegan environmentalists, and the “vaccine curious”—find a home in the dingy cellars of far-right, quasi-fascist conspiracy mongering. “Many of us need to step back and trace the steps, to see how wellness people and New Age people [got here],” explains Phillips.
She believes the common denominator is an ingrained sense of mistrust: of governments, of the media, of academia, and, especially of late, of medical and scientific authority. Certain hollows of social media help shape and strengthen what she calls “deep mimetic frames”: an ingrained sense, “that you feel in your bones,” about how the world works and who the bad guys are. “It’s a lack of trust. Especially with wellness, it’s a lack of trust in the medical establishment. Of course they would be anti-vax, and then of course through anti-vax channels, they’d be led to QAnon.”
“A lot of people see it as contradictory, but it’s really not,” explains Crockford. “The association of environmentalism with left-wing politics is very much a right-wing talking point. Environmentalism has all shades of political adherents, within that broad church of wanting to do something about environmental destruction.” She cites the mass shooters of Christchurch in New Zealand and El Paso, Tex., both of whom listed environmental degradation among their homicidal motivations.
When QAnon’s core prophecy flopped on Inauguration Day, and a Trumpist military junta showed no signs of seizing power and rooting out the cannibal/pedophile/Deep State coven, many Q-conspiracists were left adrift. Betrayed and alienated, these diehards may now become vulnerable to recruitment by more serious, fundamentalist political causes. It’s a pattern Whitney Phillips has recognized before. In 2015, she saw members of the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist message board The Daily Stormer “actively recruiting” new members from the misogynist, anti–“political correctness” set, in the wake of Gamergate. “They’re very good at recognizing who might be reframed as an asset to them,” she says.
To such groups, someone like Chansley also makes a perfect scapegoat, right down to the horns. “I think the real potential tragedy of a person like Jacob Chansley,” says Remski, “is that he’ll be thrown under the bus of the politically motivated and organized and more competent forms of ethnonationalism.”
In this respect, the QAnon Shaman stands not only as a visible face of the January 6 insurrection, or a symbol for the conspiritualist collision. He’s also an unlikely avatar for his own idol and would-be redeemer Donald Trump. Habitués and hangers-on still rally around the ex-president, as he shags golf balls in sunny South Florida exile—this despite his being both voted out of office and impeached (twice), and ceremonially cast off by the mainstream political establishment. In absence of any need for decorum conferred by the office, even his former collaborators are increasingly free to recognize him as a vulgarian and wannabe fascist strongman—in Crockford’s words, a “carnivalesque” embodiment of the right wing’s most egregious excesses.
But misinformation researcher Phillips is most concerned with the more moderating influences that tame and civilize these excesses. She’s less worried about the Jacob Chansleys, Marjorie Taylor Greens, and Donald Trumps, and considers more self-serious Republicans like Kevin McCarthy the real threat. “We can talk about QAnon until we’re blue in the face,” she says. “But the real concern is that elected officials—on record, publicly—are not repudiating the underlying narrative that animates QAnon.”
“It’s the people who aren’t easily denounced as extremists,” Phillips says, framing another lively paradox befitting our weirdly paradoxical times, “who pose the greatest risk of perpetuating extremism.” Crockford, an academic whose research focusses on the highly specific domain of American New Age spirituality and esoteric ethnography, also noted the unexpected intersection of her scholarly specialization with the mainstream of American political life. “It kind of shows you how the boundaries have shifted,” she laughs. “Everything I do was always so fringe.… We’re in danger if this stuff is becoming more mainstream.”
Dr. Donovan also sees the insurrection as a bizarre inflection point, one that demands an immediate rethinking of various narratives that had been popular in her field over the years. The bygone dreams that the Internet would facilitate exposure to new ideas or grant freedom to explore and adopt new identities have given way to a nightmarish inversion of this promise. “It’s liberation until it’s not,” she warns. “Dystopia has arrived.”
It’s tempting to view the insurrection as some dramatic, bloody climax of the Trump era. The perpetrators will be tried, and jailed, and that’ll be that. But according to the researchers I talked to who study cultish thinking and the intensifying danger of being extremely online, it could be an opening act.
As long as algorithms are built to lead us down these rabbit holes, and far-right groups sit primed to exploit that curiosity, more and more people are bound to tumble into even deeper, darker warrens. The horned headdresses and ceremonial prop spears will be hung up, swapped for suits and ties and the trappings of ostensible legitimacy. We may begin to feel sentimental, even nostalgic, for the baldfaced bizarreness of QAnon and its public-facing priests; for the time when the forces of weirdness and malice were still so unsophisticated as to announce themselves as such.