Unpacking QAnon: A Batsh*t Conspiracy Theory Tailor-Made for the Trump Era

Gabrielle Bruney
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

In June, a political newcomer named Lauren Boebert defeated a five-term congressman in Colorado's Republican primary. But Boebert, a gun rights activist who owns a restaurant named Shooters Grill in a town called Rifle, isn't just your run-of-the-mill right-wing upstart like so many Tea Partiers before her. She's also expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory.

"Everything I’ve heard of Q—I hope this is real," she said during an interview in May. "Because it only means America is getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values."

Boebert has since denied believing in the conspiracy theory, but she's not the only politician to have spoken warmly about it. The demonstrably baseless QAnon theory has now birthed political candidates who openly support the far-right movement or toy with its messaging, despite the fact that the FBI has labeled extremist conspiracy theorists a domestic terrorist threat. Boebert has also scored an endorsement from the figure at the heart of this dangerously bonkers conspiracy: President Trump. Here's what you should know.

How did the QAnon conspiracy theory get its start?

The hodgepodge of conspiracies that became QAnon was born in 2017 when Trump, surrounded by military officials at a White House dinner, called the event "the calm before the storm," which is just the kind of vaguely sinister platitude that sets conspiracy-minded hearts a-flutter. When a reporter asked him what storm he was referring to, he responded, "You’ll find out." It certainly didn’t help that then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did little to offer reassurance, telling reporters that the President wouldn’t explain his comment because he didn’t want to "lay out his game plan for our enemies."

Later that month, the anonymous 4Chan user who would become known as Q (after Q Clearance, a Department of Energy top-secret security clearance designation) posted their first hodgepodge of militaristic-sounding nonsense on the /pol/ message board:

HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.

This is "the storm:" a coming purge of all the supposed Satan-worshipping deep-state child abusers, which of course includes the usually cast and crew of right-wing reviled favorites—the Clintons, the Obamas, Huma Abedin, and John Podesta. Q, who they imagine to be someone or someones close to the president, or Trump himself, is supposedly communicating directly to the internet hoards with hints as to the storm’s advance.

Just what do these people believe?

In QAnon world, Trump wasn't being investigated by Robert Mueller. Instead, the two were working together to take down the aforementioned Davos-attending-pedophile ring-running usual suspects. The key to QAnon's theory is that it encompasses many existing theories, from Pizzagate to Sandy Hook trutherism to the belief that the DNC arranged the murder of its employee Seth Rich. This means the group was able to draw on existing pools of conspiracy theorists, rather than having to make converts from scratch.

Q’s outright predictions—Hilary Clinton’s extradition, or reports of John Podesta’s imminent arrest—of course never come true, but believers hang on, like members of a doomsday cult awaiting their fifth forecasted apocalypse. With little-to-no actual evidence supporting their beliefs, they call on quack classics like numerology. As Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, anytime Trump happens to be spotted around the number, they feel he’s signaling to them.

They believe that judicial proceedings against deep state baddies are already underway, which led to the speculation that Huma Abedin, Hilary Clinton, and John McCain were all wearing ankle monitors that they concealed with ankle boots or, in Abedin’s case, a pair of bell bottoms.

One of their most deranged theories is that John F. Kennedy Jr. is Q. The theorists allege that JFK Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette faked their own plane crash deaths in 1999, going deep undercover to work with Trump. Eagle-eyed QAnon believers scan Trump rallies, convincing themselves that they've spotted the couple attending in disguise.

As conspiracy theories go, QAnon is strangely optimistic. Unlike chemtrails or JFK theorists, who believe that incidents that appear explainable or even benign are secret covers for widespread corruption and abuses, QAnon posits that what looks like the chaotic flailings of a mean, small-minded president is actually a perfectly executed plan that will end with justice being meted out to those who, in believers’ eyes, deserve it.

Photo credit: Medium
Photo credit: Medium

Who are the QAnon candidates?

It's hard to say just how many QAnon supporters are currently making their way into American politics. Some, like Georgia congressional candidate Angela Stanton-King, deny believing in the theory even while littering their social media pages with Q nonsense. Stanton-King has implied that Joe Biden is a pedophile and tweeted about the baseless Wayfair child abuse conspiracy theory and of "globbal [sic] elite pedophiles trafficking children." Mike Cargile, who's running for Congress in California, has a QAnon hashtag in his Twitter bio. Meanwhile, Jo Rae Perkins, a Oregon Senate candidate who won her Republican primary race in May, has said that she "stand[s] with Q."

One of the highest-profile Q candidates is Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who won a primary in June and is headed to a runoff election for a Georgia congressional seat. Along with her history of racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism on social media, Greene has also given her full-throated supported to the QAnon theory. "Q is a patriot," she said in a YouTube video. "There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it."

Why do people buy into this stuff?

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could believe something so deranged, even by conspiracy theory standards. How is it more likely that Q is a well-connected Trump aide than that they’re just a kid having fun on the internet? How is easier to believe that JFK Jr. is alive and plotting with the president in the White House, when there’s abundant evidence that both he and his wife are nearly twenty years dead?

While QAnon is particularly fringe, similar false beliefs are frighteningly wide-spread. According to one poll, 63% of American voters subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory. Many habits of mind that preclude us towards false belies are present in everyone. The human brain loves patterns and hates randomness. In the case of JFK, it seems impossible to believe that the most powerful person in the world could have been brought down by a few lucky potshots by an exceedingly obscure little man. Uncertainty and unanswered questions are everywhere, but they’re disarming. It’s comforting to believe in a plan, even a grand, malevolent conspiracy, when the alternative is empty, random chance.

In a 2017 academic article, University of Kent Researchers Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka published an analysis of the minds of conspiracy theorists. The researchers note that those who feel alienated are particularly susceptible to these ideas, adopting them in an effort to “subvert dominance hierarchies by formulating their own understanding of realities.” People are also more likely to believe conspiracies when they’re feeling powerless and anxious, or are low-income or otherwise marginalized. This fits into our broader understanding of many Trump voters, fueled by cultural anxiety, distressed that hierarchies that once valued heterosexual, Christian, whiteness above all other demographics are beginning to shift.

“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts," wrote the Bureau in a document highlighting conspiracy theorists as a domestic terror threat.

The danger posed by the group prompted Twitter to purge thousands of QAnon accounts in July, and to announce that it would cease amplifying content related to the theory. And according to The New York Times, Facebook is considering a similar move.

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