Catching on to Q

October 9, 2020
A protester waves a QAnon flag near the Washington Monument on October 3, 2020. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA, via AP Images

His tie red, his baggy suit blue, his face the familiar stained orange, President Trump approached a podium in the rotunda of the National Archives Museum and began to speak. It was September 17, and Trump looked bored. He was there for something called the White House Conference on American History. He mentioned Mount Rushmore—“which they would love to rip down, and rip it down fast,” he said, referring vaguely to the summer’s anti-racist protesters—“but that’s never going to happen.” Then he paused and started a new thought. “The left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution,” he told the crowd. “Whether it is the mob on the street or the cancel culture in the boardroom, the goal is the same: to silence dissent, to scare you out of speaking the truth, and to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life. We are here today to declare that we will never submit to tyranny.”

He identified some “tyrants”: the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer-winning reporting and education initiative produced by the New York Times Magazine, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which had recently published a graphic identifying aspects of white culture. (A week before Trump’s speech, Donald Trump Jr. and allies at Fox News had bullied the museum into removing the graphic from its website.) Trump also inveighed against critical race theory, a decades-old philosophical framework for examining and opposing institutional racism. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words,” he said. “For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness, but they’re wrong. There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children, and patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

Trump possesses an unmatched talent for connecting with the lizard brain, tempting people to turn off their better judgment and submit to simple rage. Still, even for him, the address at the National Archives Museum was remarkably unhinged. It attracted a few news stories, whose emphasis was mostly on Trump’s intention to monkey with educational curricula. Only a few academics and researchers seemed to notice that, with his rhetoric, Trump wasn’t merely rehashing his racist views—he was trying out a new kind of pandering, this time to the “save the children” crowd: a front for QAnon.

QAnon, formerly known as The Storm, is a conspiracy theory that casts high-level Democrats, media personalities, and movie stars as a cabal of satanic pedophile cannibals who harvest a special chemical called adrenochrome from the brains of fearful children, whom they devour. A secret resistance to this team of supervillains is being led by Trump, the theory contends. The head of QAnon is “Q,” a person—or, more likely, a few people—posting to message boards. The contours of Q’s world are largely recycled from the fake scandals elevated by right-wing outlets ahead of the 2016 presidential election: the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, for one; an obsession with child-abusing secret societies that pervades the American right; plus assertions, promoted by Alex Jones, of Infowars, that the Clinton family has been involved in satanic rituals, possibly with the help of Marina Abramović, the conceptual artist. A lunchroom casserole made of yesterday’s leftover conspiracies, Q takes ingredients from various fringe groups, often ones that are racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-vaccination. Q works closely with Jim Watkins, an American expat who runs websites that verify and host Q’s posts, or “drops.” (Watkins lives in the Philippines, where he oversees message boards frequented by Nazis and child abusers, and tends a pig farm.) For a couple of years, Facebook and Twitter have embarked on large-scale bans of pages and accounts related to Q; on Tuesday, at long last, Facebook updated its policy, announcing that it “will remove any Facebook Pages, Groups and Instagram accounts representing QAnon, even if they contain no violent content.”


THE FIRST MAJOR NEWS ARTICLE exploring QAnon was a column by Paris Martineau that appeared in New York magazine in December 2017. “As most terrible things do, this story begins with a post on /pol/, a sub-board of the more-or-less-anonymous, anything-goes website 4chan,” she wrote, tracing the first Q missive to October of that year. In November, Trump began elevating QAnon personalities on Twitter. Martineau’s piece conveyed a sense of exasperation: “How can we even begin to argue with hundreds of thousands of people who choose to believe that a top government agent is speaking to them through 4chan, that Trump has been playing a game of 4-D mind chess this whole time, and that the Las Vegas massacre was an inside job?”

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Since then, QAnon has become something between a news story and a full-blown beat. In August 2018, Trump hosted QAnon conspiracists at the White House. A year later, the FBI warned that the group officially constituted a domestic terrorism threat. Technology journalists who had covered Russian meddling in the election—notably Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, at NBC, and Craig Silverman, at BuzzFeed—were among the earliest covering Q’s rise, as they tracked how the alt-right dished out conspiracies on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The two most popular figures to emerge from the fever swamp were Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, crossover stars who parlayed large social media followings into real-world political access, in Cernovich’s case, and a gig with Trump’s beloved One America News Network, in Posobiec’s. Coverage of a political movement often focuses on its adherents, but the tech reporters were most interested in mapping the networks of information distribution and determining how such a movement forms. Q wasn’t a joke, these journalists found, and it was dangerous. 

Others were on the story, too: No one covered the culture inside the conspiracy community better than QAnon Anonymous, a podcast hosted by three men with backgrounds in marketing and entertainment calling themselves Travis View, Julian Feeld, and Jake Rockatansky (all are pseudonyms), alongside a UK correspondent, Annie Kelly (an academic using her real name). Will Sommer, a tech reporter at the Daily Beast with roots in DC journalism, chased the fringes of the fringes in his newsletter, Right Richter. For the most part, however, Beltway reporters treated Q as a novelty, not a powerful political force—with a 2018 column by Dave Weigel in the Washington Post being an uncommon exception. That created a problem: QAnon was in constant, symbiotic contact with politics coverage without becoming a real target of scrutiny. All the while, Q and its followers were able to bend and maim the political press, which has a tendency to sand off the rough edges of the GOP. Using its influence under the radar, Q flourished.

By the time Trump’s second presidential campaign was gearing up, QAnon had made itself a visible presence at his rallies. Acolytes wore shirts bearing the initials “WWG1WGA,” which stands for: “Where We Go One, We Go All.” Still, Q remained the purview of tech reporters. That surprised Feeld, who pointed out on his podcast that the movement is politically motivated (“The point of this…is to get you to vote for Trump,” he said. “That’s what’s behind all of the adrenochrome and the cabal stuff”) and that there was something weird about the silence of American intelligence agencies as people organized online, challenging the federal government’s authority, under the aegis of a man in the Philippines (“How is he not at a black site, tied to a chair in Belarus or something?”).

As the months went by, and Trump embraced Q with increasing enthusiasm, the political press finally started to take notice, especially as the group’s cult fantasies inspired real-world violence that showed up in crime stories. “QAnon believes you are secretly saving the world from this cult of pedophiles and cannibals—are you behind that?” a White House reporter asked Trump during a press conference this summer. “Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” Trump replied. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it.” (Over on Fox News, the commentator Jesse Watters declared that QAnon had “uncovered a lot of great stuff when it comes to [Jeffrey] Epstein and when it comes to the deep state.”) 

When Trump gave his speech on anti-racism scholarship as “child abuse,” the reference to Q—which had lately softened its baby-eating-satanist talk to more general appeals that one must think of the children—eluded campaign reporters behind on the latest developments. Q was in disguise mode: social platforms were more aggressively cracking down; a spokesperson for Twitter said that the number of Q-related tweets had been cut in half. So Q had issued marching orders: “Deploy camouflage. Drop all references re: ‘Q’ ‘Qanon’ etc. to avoid ban/termination.” QAnoners busily rebranded as promoting “save the children” and “anti human trafficking” campaigns. 


IT’S NOT CLEAR HOW MANY PEOPLE Trump thrills when he flirts with dangerous extremist groups at events and on national television. Internal data at Facebook puts the number of QAnon group members in the millions. That’s certainly enough to qualify as a newsworthy movement—but recently, there has been pushback against covering Q, as academics warn against inadvertently granting it greater prominence through sensationalized coverage. That assumes that Q breaks through in major stories about the campaigns, however, and that largely has not happened; political journalists are only just starting to get up to speed. Even finding the right words to identify QAnon has proved tricky—is it a conspiracy theory? A cult? A “collective delusion,” as BuzzFeed would have it? The more Q grows, the harder it is to ignore, and the higher the stakes for covering it responsibly.

It may already be too late. A Q candidate, Lauren Boebert, defeated an incumbent Republican in Colorado’s Third Congressional District, which has been a GOP stronghold for a decade. Jo Rae Perkins defeated a party-backed Republican in the Oregon primary and is now a contender for the United States Senate. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a staunch believer in the satanic cannibals of Hollywood and Washington, DC, is vying to represent Georgia’s Fourth District in Congress—and her chances are good, since she’s running unopposed. At the state level in Minnesota, six candidates for office are QAnon devotees. (Local newsrooms, like the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tend to be better at this coverage than their national peers.)

Like it or not, the question now is how QAnon will shape policy once its adherents take office. And as Q representatives prove that they can mobilize in large enough numbers to win elections, other politicians won’t just pronounce their shibboleths, they’ll start performing constituent service. What do QAnon people want? Trump knows as much as he needs to. As he said during a briefing in August, “They like me very much.”

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Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.