By Geoff Cobb
(Reading time: 3 mins.)
Prominent among the crazed mob that stormed the American Capitol building on January 6th were banners of QAnon, a far right-wing, loosely-organized network and community of believers who embrace a range of wacky, discredited beliefs. Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed during the violence inside the Capitol was a fanatical QAnon adherent. Babbitt’s social media feed was a stream of messages celebrating President Trump and QAnon conspiracy theories and many of her co-insurrectionists were also QAnon true believers. For many on the American far right, QAnon shapes their worldview and explains their fanatical support for President Trump, but what exactly is QAnon, how large and powerful is it, and what do they believe?
At its heart, QAnon is a cult united by the insane belief that President Trump was waging a secret war against a cabal of elite cannibalistic Satan-worshipping pedophiles. QAnon supporters believe that Trump was planning a day of reckoning, known as the “Storm”, when thousands of members of the cabal would be arrested. After the Storm, believers say military tribunals would ensure that these baby-eating traitors would be executed or sentenced to life in prison. Faced with overwhelming proof of the cabal’s existence, a stunned public would mourn; rage; and ultimately unite behind President Trump, ushering in a golden age of patriotism and prosperity.
QAnon supporters claim liberal Hollywood actors, Democratic Party politicians and high-ranking “deep State” government officials are all members of the cabal. They have also claimed that Trump feigned a conspiracy with Russians to trap Robert Mueller into exposing the sex-trafficking ring and preventing a coup d’état led by Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama and George Soros. Disgraced General Michael Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI, but then pardoned by Trump is one of the heroes of the movement. He was filmed reciting the QAnon oath — “Where we go one, we go all” — with his family.
No-one knows the exact number of QAnon believers but social media and opinion polls indicate there are at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who believe at least some of the bizarre theories offered up by QAnon. In August, according to NBC, an internal Facebook review identified more than three million followers across a number of groups and pages. Roughly 10 percent of American adults believe in some or all of QAnon’s theories, according to a Pew Research study conducted last year.
It all started in October 2017, when an anonymous user posted a series of notes on social media message board 4chan. The user signed off as “Q” and claimed to have a level of US security approval known as “Q clearance.” These messages became known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”, often written in cryptic language peppered with slogans, pledges and pro-Trump themes. True believers argue that deliberate misinformation is sown into Q’s messages, making the conspiracy theory impossible to disprove.
“Q” signs and merchandise were first spotted at Trump campaign rallies in 2018 and the cult has spread like wildfire. In 2019, the FBI designated Qanon as a potential domestic terrorist threat. Using social media, QAnon believers swap conspiracy theories, welcoming opponents of vaccinations, people who believe the moon landing was faked, and followers of just about every other conspiracy theory into their community. QAnon is also tightly linked to the equally mad “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which claimed that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring from a Washington pizzeria. Many of the most popular QAnon groups also double as pizzagate groups, according to leaked documents. Theses fantasies though have spurred violent reactions among its believers. Both pizzagate and QAnon have been implicated in real-world violence, including armed standoffs, harassment campaigns, attempted kidnappings, a shooting and two murders. Data from digital researchers shows that QAnon content spiked during the early coronavirus lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Even after mainstream social media platforms began cracking down on QAnon-related accounts — Twitter banned them in July with Facebook and Youtube following in October — people continued spreading conspiracy theories through camouflaged account names and hashtags.
Prior to the 2020 election, a Yahoo Poll found that nearly half of Trump supporters had heard of QAnon, and of those, more than a third said they believe at least some of it is true. When asked about the baseless claim that “top Democrats” were involved in child sex-trafficking, half of all Trump supporters agreed.
QAnon played a prominent role in the 2020 election. In the election, more than 70 congressional candidates endorsed some part of the QAnon ideology. The Texas Republican Party used a QAnon slogan for its 2020 campaign, (“We Are the Storm”), then rolled it out with a new line of swag and text messages to supporters (“Text STORM2020 for updates”). Fox News, playing to the group’s adherents, ramped up its coverage of sex-trafficking stings and, in an interview with Eric Trump, Fox host Jesse Watters said: “Q can do some crazy stuff, with the pizza stuff and the Wayfair stuff, but they’ve also uncovered a lot of great stuff when it comes to (pedophile Jeffrey) Epstein and when it comes to the deep state.” Trump himself mentioned QAnon during a debate in October claiming he knew “nothing about it” but had heard “they’re very strong against pedophilia, and I agree with that.”
Q predicted a Trump victory and true believers were devastated when Joe Biden won, but in a worldview dominated by the belief that Democratic elites have rigged the system, a Biden victory wasn’t a repudiation of the theory, instead it was further evidence of a scandal. A QAnon believer soon claimed that the Biden campaign used a powerful supercomputer known as the hammer to change millions of Trump votes to Biden ones. The Hammer story neatly fit into QAnon’s overarching narrative of corrupt Democrats stealing the election from its rightful winner, Mr. Donald Trump and hence, the presence of so many of its followers inside the Capitol.
Though Trump lost, in many ways QAnon won. Almost a million and a half Americans will be represented in Congress by people who support QAnon. Gun-toting Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert who won her race to represent her district is perhaps the most famous QAnon supporter. In the wake of the Capitol attack, Boebert has faced fierce criticism for disclosing the secret location of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the insurrection, putting Pelosi’s life in danger. Boebert has been called the “Qanon Congresswoman” for saying she hopes the conspiracy theory is “real.”
Boebert is not alone in the House of Representatives. Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia has called “Q” a “patriot” who is “worth listening to and claimed that Q “posted many things that seem to verify that he is the real deal,” she says. “It’s not just someone poking in the dark, messing with people.” Taylor Greene has also accused holocaust survivor George Soros of collaborating with the Nazis and Trump has called her a “future Republican star. There is speculation that she might run for the United States Senate or Governor of Georgia.
Perhaps the poster child for the movement is the Q Shaman, whose name is actually Jacob Anthony Chansley. Also known as Jake Angeli, he was photographed striding through the Capitol bare-chested wearing a fur and horns, while carrying a six foot spear and a USA flag. In February, Mr Angeli was photographed at a Trump rally holding a sign that read “Q Sent Me.” Mr Angeli has called himself a “multi-dimensional or hyper-dimensional being” and claims he can “see into these other higher dimensions that these entities – these pedophiles, these rapists, these really high up people … that they can almost hide in the shadows in.” He faces multiple charges including violent entry and disorderly conduct. Angeli told federal authorities he traveled to the Capitol to answer the call from his President, who had asked his supporters to muster in Washington, D.C., on the day Congress met to certify the election defeat of Donald Trump. Angeli’s claim of following Trump’s order, along with the same claim made by others arrested in the insurrection, will serve as evidence in Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently warned in an op-ed in The Atlantic magazine that the QAnon conspiracy theory movement is destroying his Party. He wrote, “We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasists, and the ruin that comes with them.” He added, “The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”
Will Biden’s victory dim QAnon’s allure? Or will these conspiracy theories always survive, even in the face of apparent contradictions? Will Sasse and rational Republicans prevail or is the movement too powerfully entrenched in the party to be extirpated? One thing is sure: Qanon is not going to go away quietly.