Looking Behind the QAnon Curtain

January 31st, 2021 - by Will Sommer and Luke Savage / Jacobin Magazine

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About QAnon but Were Too Weirded Out to Ask

Will Sommer and Luke Savage / Jacobin Magazine

 (January 30, 2021) — Much of the news these days is unhinged, but nothing can compare, in terms of pure lunacy, with QAnon. The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, longtime observer of the far right, spoke with Jacobin to explain QAnon’s origins and evolution — and why he thinks the movement is here to stay even if “Q” and “The Storm” are never heard from again.

Amid all the chaos, ugliness, and otherworldly strangeness of the Trump era, few phenomena have proven as perplexing as QAnon. On October 30, 2017 an anonymous 4chan post from an account called Q claimed that Hillary Clinton’s arrest was imminent, spawning what quickly became a vast digital community of people trying to interpret and decipher Q’s cryptic messages — messages they believe suggest that a vast empire of global elites was about to face justice, courtesy of sealed indictments in the hands of Donald Trump.

With remarkable speed, the far-right conspiracy entered the mainstream and was soon earning less than subtle nods from Trump himself. It’s since been linked to murders, kidnappings, and even an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam. Its supporters have run for (and been elected) to Congress. Its visibility and influence notwithstanding, much about the QAnon conspiracy remains elusive — not least the specific nature of the conspiracy itself.

Due to the cryptic style of the posts that originally inspired it, the Q-verse has become a sprawling network of competing interpretations and micro-sects. With Donald Trump’s defeat and the swearing-in of a new Democratic president, QAnon now faces the existential paradox of a prophecy that has failed to materialize — a development which raises significant questions about the future of a group whose influence now reaches deep into the Republican base.

The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer has been following and reporting on QAnon from its early days. Since its creation a few years ago, his newsletter “Right Richter” has been a must-read for anyone interested in the machinations of the extreme right, from the sinister to the downright bizarre. He appears in a new docu-series debuting this week and is currently writing a book on QAnon.

Jacobin spoke to Sommer about the origins of the Q-conspiracy, its influence in American politics, and its future in the post-Trump era.

LS: The QAnon conspiracy began thanks to a series of opaque 4chan posts in October 2017 — and by the end of the Trump presidency, it was something a lot more people had heard of than your typical online conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, I think many still aren’t clear on exactly what QAnon is, beyond the fact that it exists, it may have something to do with satanic, interdimensional pedophiles, and has taken hold within an especially fanatical pro-Trump portion of the Republican base.

So, I think it might be useful for us to begin with some very bread-and-butter questions: Where did QAnon come from? And what is the basic narrative underlying the conspiracy?

WS: Basically, it’s a conspiracy theory worldview that launched in October 2017 with a series of anonymous posts on the website 4chan from a figure named “Q.” Now, Trump’s supporters took this to mean that this person has a high level Hugh “Q” security clearance and was giving them messages from Trump.

In terms of what QAnon actually means, there’s a lot of different factions in QAnon and they sort of believe different things. But pretty much all QAnon people believe that the world, as revealed to them by Q, is run by a cabal of satanic cannibal pedophiles who torture children in satanic rituals, that these people are in the Democratic Party, in Hollywood and in banking, and that they’ve controlled the world for centuries. They also believe that Donald Trump was basically convinced to run by the military to take this cabal down, and that someday there’ll be this big moment called “The Storm” in which Trump arrests and executes all of his enemies.

LS: The intervention of QAnon followers into the recent Georgia Senate runoffs really underscores the extent to which they’ve become an assertive faction within the GOP. As you reported in December, Lin Wood — a pro-Trump lawyer with ties to QAnon who was involved in spreading stolen election conspiracies — was quite literally telling rank-and-file Republicans not to vote for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the runoffs (something which earned him censure from Breitbart and even, of all people, Roger Stone).

Do we have any way of knowing what proportion of the Republican base identifies with QAnon or is Q-curious?

WS: The polling on this is kind of all over the place, but I think conservatively we can say that between 10 and 30 percent of the GOP is either like hardcore QAnon or has somewhat signed on to a lot of its ideas. And even that I would say is probably at the lower end of reality, so that would just be a conservative guess.

LS: QAnon initially started through these cryptic messages on 4chan. But what can you tell us about how and why it actually spread? There are reams of conspiratorial stuff posted on the internet every day, so what was it about this that made it catch fire?

WS: Before QAnon started, there were all these characters on 4chan that were sort of pretending “I’m a leaker in the FBI” or “I’m a leaker somewhere in the NSA” and stuff like that. But for whatever reason, QAnon really caught on, and I think that’s thanks to a combination of things.

One is that there’s this gamification element: the clues are very vague, so people can really get whatever they want out of it. For anti-vaccine people, for example, it’s about vaccines. If you’re obsessed with Fox News and Sean Hannity, it’s about the Russia investigation, etc.

Then, there’s this aspect of people who spend their time doing their research calling themselves “digital soldiers.” So, it’s like: you are the equivalent of a soldier, but all you have to do is spend a lot of time on the internet. I think it’s a very dramatic way to see the world and so a lot of people have been pulled into it for that reason too.

QAnon was lucky in a way in that it had some people who already had YouTube and Twitter accounts with big followings who latched onto it (I think of Jerome Corsi, for example, who was kind of one of the kings of the birther conspiracy theory and is tight with Alex Jones). So there were all these people who have seen in QAnon a thing that they could make a buck off of and promote. Some of those people have since had falling outs with QAnon but I think they’re one of the reasons it was able to go as far and fast as it did.

LS: Is it fair to say that QAnon attracts older Republicans more than younger Republicans?

WS: This is interesting, yes. I think, first of all, that is true, because I think younger Republicans are probably having more interactions directly with the alt-right. So the initial QAnon-type person is more or less in line with what we think of when we think of a Trump supporter: older, white, probably an evangelical Christian and, frankly, more likely to fall for something on the internet.

Because younger people, even Republicans, with more experience on the internet see this stuff and just think “Oh, that’s 4chan, I know what that is… I’ve seen like a bunch of crap for a decade on 4chan and I’m not just going to assume that that’s actually Michael Flynn typing away.” But, especially during the pandemic — when obviously the world seems a lot crazier and people have more time at home, or maybe they’ve been laid off — we’ve seen the rise of this broader kind of QAnon.

So now you’ve got more women and young people, and more black and Hispanic people getting into it, often through this “save the children” push (which is a vague anti-sex trafficking thing). You even have yoga-type people getting into the picture. So the question of what a typical QAnon person looks like is now really, really in flux.

LS: Something that has always been especially perplexing about QAnon is the Kennedy element / tie-in. Can you explain that a little bit?

WS: One thing that’s really interesting about QAnon is that, because it’s so big with boomers — and because the Kennedy family looms very large for them in general — JFK is a very big deal. QAnon has kind of subsumed many other conspiracy theories: 9/11 Truth, vaccine stuff, and also the JFK assassination. So that’s been sucked in too and people think “JFK stood up to the cabal and that’s why they killed him.”

And so Trump is, for them, the first non-cabal president since JFK. This narrative re-enters the picture after Q disappears for a little while and someone named R claims that JFK Jr (who died in a 1999 plane crash) in fact faked his own death to get revenge for JFK’s killing and join up with Trump to be Q.

So there’s this very intense JFK Jr. Faction that is widely reviled by a lot of other QAnon people. I ran into it at the Trump 4th of July event in 2019 at the Trump hotel, where all these women were wearing JFK Jr masks. And I asked, you know, “What does this mean?” and this lady said “He’s alive!” and then sort of ran away. And then there’s a guy they think is JFK Jr in disguise — Vincent Fusca, who’s obviously not JFK Jr but really leans into it. He wears a George magazine shirt and clearly wants people to think that he’s JFK Jr.

LS: There are all sorts of questions about QAnon that are obvious to ask but difficult to answer: Why for example, given the amount of conspiracy material posted online, did this particular theory spread? But the bigger question, it seems to me, is why the second half of the Trump presidency gave birth to something like it at all.

When the first Q posts appeared, Republicans actually had unified control of the US government. Their guy was quite literally in the White House at the helm of the American state. Conspiracies more typically spread among groups of people whose values are distant from power. What do you think explains this apparent idiosyncrasy vis-à-vis QAnon?

WS: It is unusual to see a group that’s actually in power create their own conspiracy theory because they’re more often about rationalizing why a group believes it’s been robbed of power. But they had it. For me, the explanation is that Trump during the campaign made all these promises and people just thought all their personal issues would be solved if only Trump was elected. But then, when he did get into office and it was just tax cuts or him being bogged down with the Mueller investigation, they had to come up with excuses for why their hero was failing to really do anything for them. And I think the answer became “Well, you know, even though it appears that Republicans have total control of the government, the deep state is actually undermining him.”

So then it becomes much bigger than just winning an election and Trump is having to take on this centuries’ old evil. The corollary to that is it’s also just a lot more fun to see politics in that way compared to being like “Oh my gosh, like, can we get this out of committee?” or “Maybe they’ll use budget reconciliation?” That’s very boring stuff, and given that Trump attracted so many people who were not familiar with politics, you can easily see why they would prefer a tale of demons and witches and stuff like that.

LS: QAnon’s influence has manifested itself in some very peculiar (and also dangerous) ways. For example, just today you reported on a town of about seven thousand people (many of them retirees) in Washington State where the mayor’s public Q-sympathies have thrown the local civic institutions into chaos. What exactly is going on there? Do you know of any other examples like this?

WS: Yeah, this is a case in Sequim, Washington, which is a pretty sleepy retiree town in which the mayor’s job is essentially to set the agenda at the local meetings. But the guy is a QAnon supporter and is very open about it and tells all his citizens “check out these QAnon videos” and wears a little Punisher pin to his meetings, and refused to quarantine after traveling to South Dakota. He’s a pretty hardcore QAnon guy, and it’s sort of thrown the town into chaos. His critics say he fired the city manager because the guy was not into QAnon, so there’s also clearly a lot happening behind the scenes there.

But yes, I think it’s seeping into a lot of random places. I was struck a couple of years ago, when Mike Pence went to Florida and one of the people guarding him was a local SWAT team guy who had a bunch of QAnon patches. So suddenly this random police department had to be like “Why are you a QAnon guy?” and he then makes a cause out of saying “I can wear my QAnon gear when I’m here.”

I think what’s interesting to me is how QAnon has sort of seeped into all these different facets of life: you have QAnon Instagram influencers and you have Q kids — kids younger than ten years old who love QAnon. It’s very weird stuff.

LS: It’s a conspiracy theory that has almost metastasized into a lifestyle brand.

WS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it is very much a way of seeing the world outside of just politics or Donald Trump. It applies to anything. It applies to entertainment and culture too because they think celebrities are big time cannibals and all that sort of stuff.

LS: The kinds of predictions that form the basis for QAnon have failed to be realized before. Back in 2018 there was a Justice Department report that was supposed to show leading Democrats had broken the law while trying to stop Trump from winning in 2016. It contained nothing of the kind.

But this wasn’t a problem for Q followers because they were quickly able to rationalize and/or explain it away. A popular QAnon poster and YouTuber who calls himself “Praying Medic,” for example, did a forensic analysis of things like the typeface and margins of the report to claim it was fake (Trump or someone else presumably having the real, unredacted version with all the good stuff).

The inauguration of Joe Biden, however, is many orders of magnitude greater as a failed prophecy than anything that’s happened before: As a new Democratic president was sworn in, the mass arrests that QAnon believers were anticipating never happened. “The Storm” never came. How would you characterize the Q-verse’s response to this event? How have QAnon devotees processed or tried to rationalize it?

WS: Joe Biden’s inauguration is maybe the most pivotal moment for QAnon since it started, because it’s all premised on the idea that Donald Trump is the president and so, if he’s not the president what happened? Initially they were expecting these mass arrests: right up until fifteen minutes before Biden was sworn-in and they all thought “Oh, this is going to be good. This is my super bowl and it’s going to be huge.”

And then Kamala Harris gets sworn-in and they’re like “Oh, that’s a little weird, they’re really taking it down to the wire…” and then, when it became clear that Biden was actually president the initial reaction on the forums was one of physical sickness. Stuff like “I want to throw up. I look like an idiot. I’ve been telling everyone in my family that they’re big dumb asses and they need to get ready to learn about the cabal, but now I look like a fool.”

So there was initially a lot of revulsion feeling that QAnon had ripped them off. But then, within a couple of hours, they had circled the wagons and were saying “Wait a minute: maybe this Q plan was a little ambitious, but that’s only because the deep state is so bad. Maybe it’s that Trump is going to come back in 2024. Maybe what Q taught us is real and we still think Comet Ping Pong is a pedophile dungeon, but maybe The Storm isn’t ready.”

LS: How has the Trump element, that is, Trump personally, played into this? Because the most obvious reading of the events since the capital storming is that he sort of betrayed this entire group of people, left without a fight, and laid down arms. After all of it there was no coup and no Storm. How does Trump figure in these rationalizations?

WS: The big thing right now is the idea that Trump is secretly going to take power in a couple of months. They’ve really gotten into this. What’s funny about QAnon is the way that it’s constantly evolving. So now, for example, they’re saying that the United States is only a corporation and it’s been owned by the City of London since 1877.

Plus they’re getting into a lot of sovereign citizen language. Now, Trump is going to come back in March and run the new American Republic so that essentially this can be a new country. That’s the latest theory and it remains very intensely focused on Trump. But yes, when he seems to be backing away from them, what do you do?

LS: This is obviously a very speculative question, but QAnon has spawned a pretty large community and culture. There are huge social media accounts connected to it. It has merchandise and people have made money off of it. It’s even found its way into totally bizarre places like wellness influencer Instagram. Given all of this, it’s hard to believe that it’s all just going to disappear. Might it live on in some other form beyond the Trump presidency? What do you think the future holds for QAnon?

WS: I think we’re going to see some QAnon followers, hopefully, come to their senses and drop off. But I don’t think there’s gonna be a huge number of them, and some are going to get even more hardcore because they’ve been tested and are now even more committed to it.

I think maybe the Q branding is going to be considered a little cringeworthy for them because the theory has so obviously turned out to be wrong. But the messaging of QAnon and these related conspiracy theories may continue — in the same way that after the Comet Ping Pong shooting people stopped saying “Pizzagate” but then that reemerged as QAnon, which was essentially the same thing but with a less tarnished branding.

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