The Storm Is Here – on both sides of the Atlantic
For those not quite familiar with the premise of these two things – “QAnon” refers to a popular conspiracy theory on the American right which purports Donald Trump as a biblical saviour, here to deliver the US from a deep state cabal of satanic paedophiles. This mythology was a pivotal component of the Capitol Hill riot on 6/1, in which a violent mob stormed the houses of Congress, hoping to overturn recognition of Biden’s victory. Salmondgate refers to the conspiracy alleged by Alex Salmond against the Scottish Government, SNP, crown office and parliament of rigging false sexual abuse allegations against him to bring him down. Following his acquittal on all charges, this has now become the focus of the Holyrood Inquiry on the subject of ScotGov’s investigation of claims against him.
There are an incredible number of surface-level similarities between supporters of the “QAnon” conspiracy movement in the United States, and the vocal segment of the independence movement that indulges conspiracies surrounding the fallout of the sexual accusations made against the former FM. However, there are some even deeper, tectonic symmetries between the two sides of the Atlantic, which to some extent reveal how hollowed out the credibility of state institutions and authority has become.
The most superficial comparison is simply the shared vocabulary of both groups of conspiratorial-minded people. Salmond fans repeatedly invoke Q catchphrases like ‘a storm is coming’, as well as the emergence of themes like the “deep state” or “secret cabals”. Both movements are also fueled by base reactionary impulses such as misogyny, antisemitism and transphobia. The fundamental premise of Trump’s #StopTheSteal rallying call is that all votes for the Democratic party are fundamentally illegitimate – largely by virtue of their voters being disproportionately black, young, immigrant and female and thus in the eyes of Republican America never truly be legitimate citizens. Similarly, the driving impulse of Salmondgate for most of his followers is that Salmond has been proven unimpeachably innocent (he hasn’t), and that all nine women who accused him of misconduct are therefore liars, as are all of the other women taking their side by choosing to believe them. The fundamental anxiety driving this is one of the #MeToo movement going too far, and that if they can victimise a powerful man, it could be your husbands, brothers and sons next.
In addition to this, much of the Trump cult see him as a demi-godlike figure, capable of fixing all of the US’s ills and vanquishing his enemies with the snap of a finger. The more esoteric parts of the independence movement, much like QAnon, see Alex Salmond as an exiled king returning to the rescue of Scotland and the SNP, believing that the problems dogging the Yes movement will simply evaporate once he conquers the imposters currently leading the party. On both sides of the pond, this belief in lone saviour figures speaks to the wider disorientation of popular political participation and movements in disarray.
Both worldviews are, despite their convolution, deeply naïve in their understanding of how power functions in the real world. Lest it be forgotten, the large majority of the Trumpian mob who had gathered that day were not out seeking to overthrow the US Constitution, but to restore it – they thought that they could appeal to the instincts of American legislators to “do the right thing” and overturn a fraudulent election despite having no leverage over them. Similarly, a lot of Salmond-truthers believe that Scotland’s ruling institutions themselves are wholly virtuous and artificially corrupted by Sturgeon and her cabal, and that sweeping them out will fix everything. Some even think that Sturgeon will “have” to resign, despite there being absolutely no law or constitutional instrument which can compel her to do so.
The two conspiracies are cover stories by men, for the purpose of salving their own bruised egos. Donald Trump really was convinced that he could never lose an election in a million years, and when he did lose, he had to construct a version of reality that would afford him the greatest opportunity to save face. Thus began #StopTheSteal. Salmond was doubtless aggrieved by the fact that sexual harassment claims against him were taken seriously by the Scottish government, rather than simply brushed under the carpet. Even after acquittal, Salmond’s reputation has failed to recover – multiple admissions were made under oath of his unsavoury behaviour towards women in the workplace, and his own lawyer referred to him as a “sex pest”. Thus, his only hope at redemption is demonstrating a vast conspiracy against him, orchestrated by the highest echelons of every part of Scotland’s institutions.
The Delegitimisation of Devolution
Trump and Salmond have also become wrecking balls for their own institutions from which they arose. Trump’s kamikaze attacks on Georgia’s governor and state secretary, as well as on the integrity of the state’s elections, may have played a pivotal role in depressing Republican turnout in the Georgia special senate elections, gifting both seats – and a working senate majority for the first time in six years – to the Democrats. Trump has also whipped up chaos in the GOP congressional and senate ranks, promising to support primary challengers against insufficiently loyal incumbents. Salmond, in the meantime, is launching rhetorical missiles at every pillar of the state in Scotland and going as far as claiming that the country he once led is not fit for independence, while also whipping up massive division within the party and movement he once spearheaded.
Unionists, for their part, have been more than happy to legitimise these missives against Scotland’s civic pillars because their political project relies wholly on the delegitimisation of devolution, and the depoliticisation and alienation of the electorate from mass participation or faith in government – whereas the independence movement has thrived by doing the exact opposite, bringing consciousness to the masses and politicising everyday life itself. Similarly, institutionalist Republicans have merrily goaded on Trump’s attacks on democracy for simple self-serving reasons – namely that the GOP’s electoral coalition represents the diminishing white, rural, older and downwardly mobile section of America that can only hold onto power through minoritarian anti-democracy.
Finally, the anticlimactic ends of both movements have a lot in common. As Andrew Tickell deftly points out – the evidence which Salmond insists he is forbidden from admitting in order to prove the conspiracy against him could easily have been challenged on appeal if it were really of such great significance – and yet no appeal was ever made. Even more stunning was when Salmond himself admitted at the inquiry that absolutely no evidence implicating Nicola Sturgeon of participation in a conspiracy against him exists. This echoes the comically incompetent My Cousin Vinny-like Trump election appeals in court fought by a coterie of colourful characters like Rudy Giuliani, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell. Needless to say, the Trump campaign lost nearly every single litigation it filed.
The real tragedy here is that these two conspiracies have in fact obscured very real problems with the institutions they target. America’s political and electoral system is deeply undemocratic in multiple ways, before considering the far higher barriers to electoral participation that exist for low-income and ethnic minority voters – made even worse this year by processes that in many GOP-controlled states forced voters to risk exposure to a deadly disease in order to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. And the fact of the matter is that Scotland’s governing institutions absolutely – have failed the women who complained about their treatment, and more broadly victims of workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape in general.
The Scottish Government has made its share of unforced errors throughout this saga, and its inherent qualities of lack of transparency, hostility to scrutiny and evasion from accountability have reared their heads time and again. QAnon is rooted in a rich tradition of American conspiratorial right wing reactionary mass delusion, going back to the Anti-Masonic party, Know-Nothings and John Birch Society. Salmond’s behaviour has echoes of Tommy Sheridan’s, another powerful man who willingly destroyed a successful party in order to evade accountability. We deserve a lot better from the institutions that govern us, but little hope for that can exist when the most viable challenges to them come from an even worse place.