How my sister-in-law became a QAnon sympathizer

Julie believes the election was really won by Donald Trump and that the Covid-19 vaccine might have tracker chips in it

Michele Lynn
North Carolina
Tuesday 15 December 2020 20:20 GMT
A woman with a QAnon shirt protesting a mandate from the Massachusetts Governor requiring all children, aged K-12, to receive a flu vaccine/shot to attend school for the 2020/2021 year outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on August 30, 2020
A woman with a QAnon shirt protesting a mandate from the Massachusetts Governor requiring all children, aged K-12, to receive a flu vaccine/shot to attend school for the 2020/2021 year outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on August 30, 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

When my husband and I were first getting interested in each other as college juniors at Columbia University in the fall of 1980, I asked, "Who are you voting for?" As a political science major, I was excited about voting in my first presidential election. I assumed that, like me, he was debating between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Independent John Anderson. When he said "Reagan,” I replied, “No, who are you really voting for?”

He wasn’t kidding. Growing up in a liberal New York family, I didn’t know any Republicans. Steve, however, had spent the first 12 years of his life in a Nebraska farming community of 80 people before moving to South Dakota.

If Steve and I were first meeting in the fall of 2020 and his reply to a question about his preferred presidential candidate was, “Trump,” I would reply, ”Oh, how interesting. I’ll be right back.” And then I’d never return. The happiest day of my life was the day my son was born, the second happiest was my wedding day, and the third happiest was when Steve registered as a Democrat.

This past election season, Steve canvassed, phone-banked, and wrote postcards with me to elect Democrats in our North Carolina home. His youngest sister, Mitzi, voted Democratic too. Yet their middle sister, Julie, went from Alabama Republican to conspiracy theory devotee.

Julie and I are eight days apart in age, but light-years apart in our politics. Last week, I called to ask about her political views and evolution. “Steve, Mitzi, and I were all raised pretty much the same, with basic Midwest conservative values,” she said. "But over the years, I've become more faith-based.” While Steve’s family was raised Methodist — literally the only church in town — religion wasn’t central to their family life while they were growing up.

Two years ago, Julie joined a non-denominational Christian church that she describes as more fundamentalist than the Methodist church she previously attended. “I realized some years back that I should know the Bible, so I started on a journey to start becoming a better Christian in terms of biblical knowledge and walk,” she told me. “That has led me to be a more fundamentally conservative Republican than what I would have been had I not taken that path.”

On politics, she added, “[Republicans] want government to stay out of our lives, letting our communities guide our decisions and lifestyle. The people in Washington, DC have no idea what my life is like in Baldwin County, Alabama.” As a “perfect example” of local control, she cited Governor Kristie Noem’s management of the Covid pandemic in South Dakota, where she opposes mitigation measures.

South Dakota recently led the nation in the number of Covid deaths per capita, I countered. “All flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia cases are getting lumped in with Covid,” Julie argued (this is not true). “A lot of deaths are attributed to Covid because hospitals get more money if it’s a Covid-related fatality.”

Julie feels that “Covid hysteria” helped Democrats to control the election, which she believes was won by Trump. “This hysteria is part of the fraud because it kept people isolated, separated, and fearful,” she said. She offered arguments about ballot dumps after the polls were closed with suitcases of ballots pulled from under tables after Georgia poll watchers were sent home, contentions labeled as false by attorneys general, governors, election officials, and the courts.

It’s the deep state, insisted my sister-in-law, in charge of government. “Our political body is  corrupt, Republicans and Democrats alike,” she said. When I asked about the mother of all conspiracy theory groups, QAnon, she said, “I am QAnon-curious. Nobody knows what’s true and what’s not.”

Julie has no plans to get the Covid vaccine because of concern about long-term side effects as well as the possibility that a biochip is included in the vaccine which can allow “big government” to track everyone’s health.

But she sees common ground with her siblings. “When you start whittling it down to specific topics and issues, I think that Mitzi, Steve and I would agree on 75 percent of things,” she said. In discussing gun control, she noted her support of background checks, a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases, and a prohibition on convicted felons’ ability to buy a weapon. “But the Democrats want to get rid of the Second Amendment,” she said.

“Trump is an effective leader who has made us energy-independent, brokered peace in the Middle East, and rebuilt the economy,” she continued. “Unemployment is better and 39 million people got off food stamps.” (Again, these claims are not actually true.)

A proponent of a strong military, particularly because her son is a US Navy pilot, Julie supports Trump because he “pulled our forces home, recovered hostages left behind, kept North Korea and China in check, rebuilt our military, and created Space Force to keep up with technology.”

I wondered how she felt about Trump ignoring the findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan. “I don’t know anything about Taliban bounties,” she replied.

This is part of the challenge. Julie gets her news from One American News Network (OANN), Newsmax and The Daily Wire, which toe the far-right party line. The facts Julie hears from these sites are very different from what Steve and I find from NPR, CNN, The New York Times and other, more progressive-leaning outlets.

Julie is frustrated by what she perceives as online censorship. “Social media isn’t a platform for free speech — it’s only what Google and Facebook want out there,” she said. “Google is so tied to the Democratic party, they pull articles and say something is not true [when it supports a right-wing viewpoint].” She claimed that Facebook often deletes her posts. “I feel that if it gets pulled, it’s probably true,” she said.

“Hearing Julie talk about conspiracy theories concerns me. If believing these things can happen to her, it can happen to anybody,” said my husband Steve when I spoke to him about my conversations with Julie. “She’s a smart, educated person who is otherwise level-headed. Yet conspiracy theories don’t seem like common sense to me.”

Mitzi agrees. “Julie has swung further right than she used to be,” she said. “It’s made it hard on our relationship. When she posts extreme theories and fake news, she's not the person I’ve known my whole life. I don’t know where that person went and that’s thrown me.”

Julie doesn’t understand her siblings’ logic and gets irritated when her sister posts rebuttals to her Facebook posts. “But on a deeper level, if Mitzi ever said, ‘I need a kidney. Would you be tested?’, my answer would be ‘Absolutely’,” she added.

After our call, Julie texted me about Hunter Biden, the “China virus,” and suppression of news by mainstream media. I replied with links about Trump ignoring intelligence findings of Russia offering bounties for American troops and the Democratic National Committee’s view on gun violence, which doesn’t advocate eliminating the Second Amendment.

“I’m not going to change your mind,” Julie said. “And I’m not going to let my mind be changed." All of which begs the question: How can Americans heal our nation’s challenges when family members can’t even agree on facts?

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