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Is QAnon Finished?

And why did it catch on in the first place?
July 30, 2021
Is QAnon Finished?
WASHINGTON, D.C.-July 4, 2020: QAnon supporters wait for the military flyover at the World War II Memorial during Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein / Washington Post / Getty)

The Storm Is Upon Us
How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything
by Mike Rothschild
Melville House, 302 pp., $28.99

Drive along the highways of Missouri and you’re bound to see a few Trump 2020 signs and flags. Many of them are coupled with other staples of Missouri paraphernalia, such as Confederate flags and yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags. Exposed to the elements, these signs and flags are often in a state of decay, their colors fading and fabric unraveling, yet still proudly on display for as many travelers as possible to see.

You might also see, as I did on a recent weekend, something a little more confusing. On the way to Stockton Lake, my wife, who was driving, asked if I had read what the Trump banner we just passed read. Distracted by my phone, I hadn’t noticed it. She told me it looked like gibberish, just a bunch of hand-painted letters and numbers. On our way home, I was on the lookout for it, suspecting it had something to do with the conspiracy theory QAnon. Sure enough, the hand-painted phrase was “WWG1WGA”—the initialism for the QAnon slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All.”

Much as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 resulted in a surge of books explaining the alt-right, it was inevitable that publishers would start putting out stacks of books about QAnon. Its story is so strange and sprawling that authors have a lot to work with: the shadowy way in which QAnon began and spread; the wild claims concerning Satan-worshiping pedophiles and the coming “storm” that will see these villains arrested, imprisoned, and executed; the eye-catching personalities (and costumes) of figures like Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman”; the relationship between QAnon and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol; QAnon’s rapidly growing popularity within the Republican party; and the election to Congress of QAnon supporters Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

Mike Rothschild’s The Storm Is Upon Us is among the first serious books about QAnon to be published since the storming of the Capitol, with more and more following, not to mention HBO’s recent documentary Q: Into the Storm and the popular podcast QAnon Anonymous. For those who have not closely followed news coverage concerning QAnon or who are puzzled by its bizarre claims, Rothschild’s book serves as a helpful primer, covering QAnon’s mysterious origins, rapid evolution, and basic tenets.

As he describes it, QAnon

is a complex web of mythology, conspiracy theories, personal interpretations, and assumptions featuring a vast range of characters, events, symbols, shibboleths, and jargon. It can be understood as a conspiracy theory, for sure, but it also touches on aspects of cultic movements, new religions, Internet scams, and political doctrine.

At the heart of this phenomenon is the mysterious “Q,” whom Rothschild describes as an “unknown figure claiming to be a military intelligence officer who posts purposefully vague and cryptic messages on imageboards about an upcoming great purge of the deep state.” We now know, thanks to the investigation led by HBO filmmaker Cullen Hoback, that the individual behind Q’s “drops” is in all likelihood the thirtysomething provocateur Ron Watkins.

In Q’s first posts, dated October 28, 2017, he claimed that Hillary Clinton would be arrested two days later. This fiction, like many of those that followed, was embellished with made-up government-military-techno details of the sort you might see in a Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy novel. Though no Clinton arrest took place, Q continued to post. As Rothschild rightly obverses, “Even a sampling of Q’s predictions and conspiracy theories shows that, contrary to Q’s believers, this is an Internet persona who not only has no feel for events to come, but quite the opposite.” The unremittingly bold predictions—claiming that Trump’s enemies would commit mass suicide on February 10, 2018, or that Pope Francis would resign—were at first posted on the 4chan imageboard, where anonymous users engaged with them. Soon, though, discussions about Q’s promises and predictions found their way onto Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. QAnon rapidly grew from some obscure posts into a fledgling online conspiracy movement and then into what some might call a new religious movement or a cult.

While it is difficult to know QAnon’s exact numbers, Rothschild notes that there are probably “hundreds of thousands who buy into at least some part of the complex mythology.” Indeed, according to a large PRRI survey conducted in March and published last month, perhaps 15 or 20 percent of Americans believe some of the central QAnon claims.

But why—what’s the appeal?

While QAnon undoubtedly attracts trolls, grifters, and the mentally ill, Rothschild notes that “there is a strain of critical thinking and writing that sees Q believers . . . as searchers yearning for answers and authenticity.” QAnon offers the hope of order in an apparently orderless world; it offers a confusing though coherent explanation for the world’s wrongs; perhaps most importantly, it promises retribution when justice seems lacking. A sense of belonging is another draw, as adherents develop their own cultural touchstones, insider lingo, in-jokes, and communal practices. All of this reinforces their shared sense of purpose and their group identity.

As circles of trust develop, deep and intimate friendships form inside the conspiratorial community, even romance. Rothschild shares tales of hospitality among QAnon followers trying to find places to rest while heading to a Trump rally and expressions of solidarity during tough emotional times. While it was played for laughs, some of this kindness was on display in last year’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat was welcomed to stay with a group of QAnon believers, informing them he had no place to quarantine during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet for every one of these stories of friendship and camaraderie, Rothschild shares tales of families between torn apart, loved ones becoming increasingly isolated from their old friends. Rothschild manages to convey some of the allure of QAnon, but does not stint in expressing the cost—the wasted hours, dollars, and lives.

Yet Rothschild warns against casting judgment. Relying on the work of Rob Brotherton, Rothschild explains how conspiracy theorizing is not a psychological aberration but rather the biases of the human brain at work. When bad things happen to us, we prefer to blame our travails not on mere chance nor our own shortcomings but rather on other people; it’s not unnatural to suspect that people are plotting against us, that there is some scheme that deserves blame. Writes Rothschild:

A person doesn’t get cancer because of some randomly misfiring cells—they got it because of chemtrails or 5G Internet or microchips poisoning them. Our beloved candidate didn’t lose an election because they ran a poor campaign—they lost because of the conspiracy of a corrupt cabal to keep them from power.

According to Brotherton, this cognitive tendency toward conspiracy-mindedness has its roots in our species’ evolutionary past, as a healthy amount of paranoia would have helped keep us alive when we heard rustling in the foliage or bumps in the night. As disturbing as it might seem, a certain amount of conspiracy theorizing is just normal human instinct.

Conspiracy theorists who think the moon landings were faked, ancient aliens were real, or the JFK assassination was covered up tend to be benign, Rothschild explains, because they are focused on the past, fixing what they believe to be errors in the historical record. Because of this, they have little interest in changing the future or even serious proselytizing. For many of them, knowing “the truth” gives them enough smug satisfaction.

What makes QAnon so different (and so dangerous) is its belief in an ongoing war of good and evil in which the stakes are as high as they are real—an ever-unfolding drama concerning the “deep state,” Q’s apocalyptic hopes for the future, and the role adherents can play in bringing about the coming “storm.” Even when compared to more violent groups like Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda, QAnon is distinctive in how quickly the movement has turned violent.

Due to QAnon’s broadness and changing dynamics—it is “fairly easy to understand” yet “slippery to pin down”—Rothschild remains unsure what to label it. He is open to thinking of QAnon as a new religious movement. And he notes that sociologists and scholars of religion are wary of the term “cult” due to its historical baggage: There have been many instances of people pejoratively labeling as a cult any religious tradition they don’t like, as when evangelical and atheist critics called Mormonism a cult. In this nonjudgmental view now standard in the academy, one man’s cult is another man’s religion. Even so, the word “cult” has remained an easy shorthand for much of the coverage of QAnon and undoubtedly such a provocative term (used in the book’s subtitle) will help drive more clicks and sell more books.

Though Rothschild touches upon QAnon’s religious elements, he doesn’t do a deep dive into its theological convictions. Because of QAnon’s growing appeal among white evangelicals, I think it is best understood as a kind of para-Christianity—that is, something that “goes with” or “side by side” an evangelical Christian worldview. For many believers, QAnon is not a significant alternative to their orthodoxy or orthopraxy, but a complicating add-on. If one already believes that the world is besieged by demonic forces, then fine-tuning that conviction into ideas concerning a secret cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshiping pedophiles is not a great leap of faith, as we have already seen during previous Satanic panics. QAnon might even be thought of as a kind of Trumpian gnosticism, with seemingly “ordinary” Christians indulging in unconventional extracurricular activities beyond the supervision of their clergy. One can keep going to weekly Bible study and maintaining regular Sunday attendance while logging on each night to await the latest drops from Q and praying for the coming storm.

In short, it is my sense that QAnon isn’t a cult or a new kind of religion, but rather part of a well-established Christian tradition of seeking secret knowledge and yearning for apocalyptic combat.

Mike Rothschild is to be commended for this accessible introduction to a mystifying element in our current politics. Written with clear prose and a sympathetic though unflinching voice, The Storm Is Upon Us will give readers a strong sense of QAnon’s history, ideology, and attraction—as well as the threat it poses.

There are reasons to hope that QAnon will soon peter out, starting with the fact that Q has not been heard from since December 8 of last year. “I think the December 8 drop will be the last one,” Rothschild told a reporter. “The core prophecy of the Q movement is now Trump being restored to office, and Q offered up a picture of Trump as being incapable of losing—which doesn’t square well with the current situation.” Still, so long as significant numbers of Americans say they believe in the core claims of QAnon, there is a possibility of resurgence. And so long as its adherents feel certain that Donald Trump will be restored to a presidency that was stolen from him, QAnon remains a troubling and potentially dangerous element in our political life.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.