(Image: PA)

The easiest thing to do is to persuade people to accept something. Maybe they’ll turn a blind eye, or maybe they’ll nod and think “sure, okay”.

People accept things all the time, from sincerely-concerned environmentalists driving fume-spewing cars to fervent anti-socialists wondering when their next stimulus cheque is coming from the government.

Harder than that is persuading people to believe something.

Beliefs are rooted in the human need to externalise failings, justify inadequacies, comprehend the unknown and find hope where little realistically exists. The greater this need, the more irrational the belief that can be held.

Hardest of all is persuading believers, once you’ve got them, to act.

That’s the sort of trick that can lead to 918 cult members committing mass suicide as happened in Jonestown in 1978, or the followers of Aum Shinrikyo releasing Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1996, killing 13 people.

Over the last four years, a tiny percentage of followers of US President Donald Trump have been climbing this very ladder. On January 6 they reached the top.

How the hell did they get there?

One of the driving forces behind the Capitol Hill riots has been followers of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. At the heart of it is the belief that the government is populated by Satan-worshiping elites who, with the support of the media and business leaders, run a cabal of child prostitution rings. Key players are supposed to include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros. Trump is supposedly a saviour waging a secret war against them, and his election as president meant that a day of reckoning called “the Storm” was on the way.

This narrative tied into existing bizarre claims like Pizzagate — a conspiracy theory suggesting that Democrats were using a DC area pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong as a front for human trafficking and paedophilia. One North Carolina resident grew so concerned that he took a gun into the store and fired three shots while searching for the children he was certain were imprisoned there.

Over the course of Trump’s time in power, he has repeatedly refused to distance himself from groups like QAnon. His claims of “fake news” have supported the idea that media stories can not be trusted and that what was really happening was kept secret, only to be revealed to anonymous internet posters and far-right conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, host of the wildly popular Infowars.

Why the darkest of government secrets should have been accessible to a dodgy health supplement peddler is unclear, but perhaps that was all part of the plan.

Trump himself was asked repeatedly about QAnon in the media, with the frequency of such questions increasing in the run-up to the 2020 election. While he stopped short of endorsing followers’ beliefs, he did say that he knew they liked him, and that they were doing good things. For several years they had been claiming in their online enclaves that he was sending them coded messages in his public speeches.

Once the election had been lost, facts no longer mattered. An enraged Trump had nothing to lose and took to social media in a tweetstorm, claiming that the election was rigged. This openly encouraged the conspiracy theorists and in December they urged him to #crosstherubicon; or, in other words, take military action.

At his ill-fated “Save America” rally on January 6, Trump spun fantasies of fraud and media lies to the seething crowd, then told them to march. Rudy Giuliani, his long-time lawyer, told them it was time for “trial by combat.” There is no doubt that both men knew exactly what they were doing

This was the final push needed. The true believers had reached the top of the ladder of persuasion. The whole world knows what happened next: he was impeached.