Along with everyone else online who spends too much time wallowing in political news, I spent my Tuesday morning reading about QAnon, the operatic pro-Trump conspiracy theory that, like some sort of derangement-inducing fume, has been gradually leaking from the internet’s boggier corners into real life, including a recent televised Trump rally.
Then I made the mistake of tweeting about it.
For those not caught up: QAnon is an elaborate fantasy, wherein our president is secretly working with special counsel Robert Mueller to purge a powerful deep state cabal that has exercised criminal control over the United States, and the wider world, for decades. In this sprawling story, the Russia probe is actually a clever ruse meant to distract the country while Mueller’s team conducts an investigation that will eventually sweep up thousands of villains from inside and outside the government, including figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The entire saga has been driven by an anonymous poster (or group of posters) named Q, who claims to be a high-level government official and drops gnomic clues on message boards like 8Chan that followers then sweatily parse. Like Pizzagate, it involves a child sex trafficking ring, controlled by possibly satanic Democrats. Some versions also mix in retro nuttery about the JFK assassination and the Federal Reserve and the Bilderberg Group and false flags. It’s like if you Vitamixed every lunatic idea that grew out of America’s fringes during the past 60 years and poured the puree into a MAGA mug.
What makes QAnon a little a different, and little bit scarier, than many of the conspiracy theories Americans have latched onto through the decades, is that it’s fundamentally authoritarian (like Joseph McCarthy’s raving about communist infiltration of the government, but more surreal). QAnon believers aren’t fearfully scouting for black helicopters. They’re waiting for the sitting president to deliver their country from evil by rounding up his political opposition. Adherents have taken to jubilantly counting up the sealed indictments federal authorities have filed lately because they see them as a sign that a mass wave of arrests is coming. At Trump’s Wednesday night rally in Tampa, Florida, a shocking number of attendees showed up with QAnon T-shirts and signs. These people are all but asking for a strongman to seize control of the country—which is the thought I shared on Twitter:
It caught on. Retweet after retweet. My mentions started overflowing. While most of the responses were harmless, a gaggle of trolls and QAnon believers, mostly anonymous, showed up too. Sometimes their handles had little red cross marks, or they’d include the hashtag #WWG1WGA, which stands for “When we go one, we go all,” a quote QAnon followers often misattribute to John F. Kennedy, but apparently comes from a mid-’90s action movie starring Jeff Bridges called White Squall. Some of their comments were standard bits about getting red-pilled, meaning that they think they finally see the truth of the world as it really is. Some of them had a surreal, religious tinge.
The number of responses, and my inability to determine who was actually writing them and how real they were, reminded me of Twitter during the campaign. In 2016, you could never quite tell whether the anonymous Trump supporter ranting at you in all caps was an actual, angry voter, a bot, or a contractor in Russia’s troll army. Ditto the Nazi frogs sending pictures of Jewish bodies in ovens. The problem with this dynamic is twofold: It is extremely disorienting, because it becomes difficult to know what’s real and what’s not. It also ultimately makes it impossible to determine the size or influence of the fringe, and to keep any sense of proportion and perspective.
In its explainer published after the Trump rally, the New York Times tried to estimate the scope of the QAnon community by looking at things like the number of visitors to its subreddit and downloads of QAnon apps. But the numbers the Times floated ranged from 49,000 to 7 million. In other words, they have no idea.
To some extent, it doesn’t matter how many believers there are. After all, it took only one Pizzagate follower to shoot off a gun in a restaurant. The alt-right may be overrepresented on Twitter compared with its numbers in real life, but there were still enough racist young men in this country to swarm Charlottesville and kill a counterprotester. Likewise, the QAnon faithful are making their presence felt IRL. Before Trump’s rally, celebrities like Roseanne Barr and star pitcher turned conservative talker Curt Schilling were promoting the theory. In April, an armed man blocked off the Hoover Dam to demand that the Justice Department release documents the conspiracy’s subscribers believe will unmask the cabal. Believers also marched toward the White House in April. You can’t tell how many are really out there, but they’re now part of the political fabric in a country where around 1 in 5 people think we’d be better off with a strongman leader, and 17 percent say they’d be OK with military rule. Also, did I mention they have T-shirts?
I spent most of my subway trip into the office Thursday morning staring at Twitter on my phone as my mentions filled up from a seemingly alternate universe. But at one point, I looked up and noticed the young guy sitting across from me. He had a few tattoos. One was an illuminati sign, a pyramid with an eye. Right next to it, not totally healed and a little crude, was another: WWG1WGA.