Its messaging can seem cryptic, even nonsensical, yet for tens of thousands of people, it explains everything: What is QAnon, where did it come from, and is the Capitol insurgency a sign of where it’s going next?
On October 5th, 2017, President Trump made a cryptic remark in the State Dining Room at a gathering of military officials. He said it felt like “the calm before the storm”—then refused to elaborate as puzzled journalists asked him to explain. But on the infamous message boards of 4chan, a mysterious poster going by “Q Clearance Patriot,” who claimed to be in “military intelligence,” began the elaboration on their own.
In the days that followed, Q’s wild yarn explaining Trump's remarks began to rival the sinister intricacies of a Tom Clancy novel, while satisfying the deepest desires of MAGA-America. But did any of what Q predicted come to pass? No. Did that stop people from clinging to every word they were reading, expanding its mythology, and promoting it wider and wider? No.
Why not? Who were these rapt listeners? How do they reconcile their worldview with the America they see around them? Why do their numbers keep growing? Mike Rothschild, a journalist specializing in conspiracy theories, has been collecting their stories for years, and through interviews with QAnon converts, apostates, and victims, as well as psychologists, sociologists, and academics, he is uniquely equipped to explain the movement and its followers.
In The Storm Is Upon Us, he takes readers from the background conspiracies and cults that fed the Q phenomenon, to its embrace by right-wing media and Donald Trump, through the rending of families as loved ones became addicted to Q’s increasingly violent rhetoric, to the storming of the Capitol, and on.
And as the phenomenon shows no sign of calming despite Trump’s loss of the presidency—with everyone from Baby Boomers to Millennial moms proving susceptible to its messaging—and politicians starting to openly espouse its ideology, Rothschild makes a compelling case that mocking the seeming madness of QAnon will get us nowhere. Rather, his impassioned reportage makes clear it's time to figure out what QAnon really is — because QAnon and its relentlessly dark theory of everything isn’t done yet.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
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The Plan to Save the World
On January 6, 2021, an armed mob of Donald Trump supporters accomplished what no Confederate soldier, Nazi storm trooper, or Al Qaeda jihadist had ever managed to do: they sacked the United States Capitol Building.
That day was the final act of a two-month stretch that saw Trump lose his reelection bid only to repeatedly tell his millions of supporters that he had not only not lost, but he had won in a landslide. According to him, it was a win that the liberal deep state, its media minions, and its globalist backers were desperate to keep from the masses. So Trump devotees gathered in the cold to protest as Congress voted to certify Joe Biden’s election as president.
In a thunderous speech before the crowd, the lame-duck president declared, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” He told his flock to “fight like hell” or else they wouldn’t “have a country anymore.” He even claimed he’d join them.
He didn’t, and they did not march peacefully. Many in the crowd were fueled by false information that Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to throw out the electoral votes of states with voting anomalies. And a significant contingent held Trump to be a god emperor and golden-haired champion. They were ready to fight for their leader and shed blood. And they did.
Thousands of ride-or-die MAGA believers pounced on the Capitol, intending to cross the American Rubicon. And once they crossed, they didn’t stop. They breached the building’s ramparts in an armed attack that appeared to have at least some assistance from insiders, killed one of its defenders, looted sensitive material, beat Capitol police with flagpoles, and occupied the immediate area for hours. In the process of their insurrectionist attack, they were seconds from forcing their way into the Senate chamber while the body was still in session, chanting “hang Mike Pence.”
But while the insurrectionists looked to be nothing more than a sea of rage only differentiated by their level of military costuming, the attackers had a variety of end goals that day. Some believed that Pence was a traitor who deserved death for his failure to throw out the certified votes of the Electoral College. Some were prepared and out for blood, strapped with guns, bombs, and plastic flexible handcuffs for hostages. Others were happy to wander around the halls of Congress, take selfies, and maybe grab a letter off Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. There were Trump acolytes who claimed they merely got caught up in the moment, neo-Nazis looking to recruit new members, clout chasers finding content for their monetized livestreams, wannabe special-operator types finally living out their covert-ops dreams, actual ex-military and police types flexing their familiarity with arms and tactical skills, and trolls just out to have a good time overthrowing democracy.
Most were arrested within days of the insurrection, aided in no small part by the fact that many left their phones’ GPS on, refused to wear face masks, wore identifiable militia patches, and used their full names during their livestreams.
But across this chaotic range of motivations, competence, and genuine commitment to the cause was another commonality. Many were believers in the cultish conspiracy theory called QAnon. Everywhere you looked during the frenzy of January 6, you could find symbols of QAnon iconography: a man in a Q T-shirt was one of the first rioters to bust through Capitol defenses and brawl with an officer. Images of the “Q Shaman,” clad in furs, face paint, and a horned helmet, were reproduced everywhere in the flood of media that covered the events. There were Q flags flying and signs with Q slogans on them. Insurrectionists screamed the text of one of QAnon’s cryptic 8chan “drops” as they destroyed the camera equipment of one news outlet, and several of the day’s mortalities were avowed QAnon believers with social media feeds that expressed full-throated belief in QAnon and a willingness to die for Trump—right until the moment they did.
These insurrectionists didn’t just believe that voting machines had been hacked, China was partially responsible, Trump had really won the election, and efforts to decertify the vote had legal merit that would eventually pay off. They also believed that if legal measures were unsuccessful, the military would step in, Trump would be installed as president for life, liberals and traitors would be hanged, and freedom would reign. And that’s not the only fantastical reality these people had immersed themselves in—many of the rioters believed they’d be given secret cures for deadly diseases, the path to economic stability and prosperity, access to powerful new technology, and possibly even the truth about aliens.
All of this is part of QAnon—a cult, a popular movement, a puzzle, a community, a way to fight back against evil, a new religion, a wedge between countless loved ones, a domestic terrorism threat, and more than anything, a conspiracy theory of everything.
In fact, no conspiracy theory more encapsulates the full-throated madness of the Donald Trump era than QAnon. From its beginnings as a few posts on the message board and trolling haven 4chan in October 2017, QAnon and its complex mythology grew to overwhelm conservative thought and media. It is virtually impossible to discern how many people believe in QAnon, but there are likely hundreds of thousands who buy into at least some part of the complex mythology—not just in the United States, but all over the world. Many don’t even know that what they believe is associated with QAnon. Some will publicly distance themselves from those “crazy people.” Others wear their allegiance on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and flags on their boats. They hold rallies and conferences. They write books and become QAnon social media influencers.
Before the insurrection at the Capitol made QAnon an international news curiosity, the movement had already saturated Republican politics. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has embraced his status as a hero among QAnon followers for supposedly faking an admission of guilt to go under deep cover in the deep state. Roger Stone extolled Q’s virtues and urged Trump to declare martial law—a go-to fantasy of QAnon mythology—in the run-up to the 2020 election. Conservative stalwarts, including some of Donald Trump’s children and other popular right-wing pundits, have begun pandering to the movement. Between 2018 and 2020, nearly one hundred Republican candidates declared themselves to be Q believers, with several actually winning their elections. And before his Twitter account was shut down, Trump himself retweeted hundreds of Q followers, putting their violent fantasies and bizarre memes into tens of millions of feeds. When asked by a White House press corps member to denounce Q, Trump evasively replied “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
As Trump’s presidency came to an end, QAnon was covered by every major media outlet in the country, getting air time on virtually every cable news channel including the president’s beloved Fox News. Everyone from The New York Times to NPR to TV stations around the world have tried to figure out what the hell Q is, what it’s about, and what to do with the people who think it’s real. And yet, many of these same people were shocked when a mob, drunk on conspiracy theories and misplaced rage, sacked the Capitol building.
They shouldn’t have been shocked. QAnon has centered around violent ideation since its very inception, and before the brutal attack on the Capitol, several killings, numerous incidents of domestic terrorism, multiple child-kidnapping schemes, police chases, and even a botched attempt to kill Joe Biden and destroy a coronavirus hospital ship were committed in the name of QAnon. It is a movement premised on the idea that a “storm” of mass arrests and executions to sweep corruption, child molesters, and liberals out of government forever, so it should not have been so jarring a surprise when Q’s believers decided to carry out a long-promised purge themselves.
Still, the question remains as to how something that started on the anarchic message board 4chan could go on to power right-wing thought to the point where QAnon believers were erecting a gallows on the lawn of the Capitol. To answer it, we need to look closely not just at what QAnon is, but where it comes from and how it lodges itself so stubbornly into the mind of its adherents.
Featuring a mythology that’s virtually impenetrable to outsiders, the QAnon conspiracy theory revolves around an anonymous group of military intelligence insiders who collectively refer to themselves as Q. These patriots are supposedly under orders from Trump to leak clues and prompts that reveal secret knowledge of an upcoming and world-changing event called “the storm.” While anyone can read these “drops” online, only the special and highly attuned believers in Q can understand them. These believers see themselves at the center of a secret war between good and evil—a war that will end with the slaughter of the enemies of freedom.
And it’s getting more popular by the day. QAnon has sucked in an amorphous, but certainly massive, number of people through its unchecked growth on social media—probably including someone you know.
If a great massacre for peace carried out by patriots on a mandate that supersedes the Constitution sounds troubling to you, it should. The problem is that for all the people who dismiss Q as a fascist fantasy, there are others who are drawn to it specifically because it is one.
But there is also a “conspiracy theory of everything” aspect to QAnon, which makes it a big tent welcoming to all those who question authority, distrust the media, and do their own research. They fight not primarily with guns or bombs but by making memes and decoding deep-state “comms.” They refuse vaccines and COVID-19 masks, and do their part by waking up “normie” friends to “what’s really going on.” They fight in Twitter mentions and text messages and in tiny interactions with nonbelievers.
As the war consumes its “digital soldiers,” people outside of the conspiracy are left behind. Q believers embrace their online community, and push away friends and loved ones as their “secret knowledge” curdles into violence and madness. It’s especially bad for older social media users who lack the digital literacy to realize they’re being lied to, but enjoy the community of like-minded patriots they’ve found. Studies have found that baby boomers are far more likely to share fake-news stories on Facebook, and it’s this same cohort with which QAnon has found pay dirt and a devoted audience.
Clearly, the danger posed by QAnon is real. But why do people believe it? Are QAnon followers true believers who really think they have been tipped off by military intelligence about a secret war? Are they dupes of Russian intelligence? Cynical trolls who enjoy riling people up? Marks in a giant grift that’s drained them dry? Should we mock them or pity them? Scorn them or help them? And is there any way to get believers to leave behind their fantasies and rejoin the rest of us?
This book is my attempt to answer these questions. Because the people who keep asking me how to save their loved ones deserve an answer.
I’ve been writing about QAnon since January 2018—long before the costume-clad Q Shaman even existed, let alone rose to prominence as an iconic image of the Capitol siege. The first time it caught my eye was when there was a hubbub in conspiracy theory circles about pictures of John McCain and Hillary Clinton wearing orthopedic walking boots on both feet, along with hashtags like #WWG1WGA and #FollowTheWhiteRabbit.
“Why was this a big deal?” I asked over Twitter. Q followers immediately filled me in: McCain and Hillary were wearing orthopedic boots not because of ankle injuries, but because they had already been arrested and released. The walking boots covered up the ankle monitors they wore to prevent them from fleeing the country.
My interest was piqued, and I began writing regularly about it. As I wrote more about QAnon, I started hearing more and more from family members of QAnon believers—and they had no idea what the hell had overtaken their loved ones. Over email, Twitter DMs, and blog comments, distraught loved ones have asked me, over and over, what they should do about QAnon. They’d lost parents and relationships to it, and had no idea what to do or how to help. Or if they even could.
“I’ve followed you for several years after my sister and mother became followers of QAnon,” Nicole (a pseudonym) wrote to me. “This past week my husband’s employer was targeted by [QAnon followers] and employees are receiving death threats. I may never get my mother and sister back as I knew them, but you remind me I’m not alone in missing them and that my own kids are sane and okay.”
Another woman, Olive (a pseudonym) emailed me about her husband, who was becoming increasingly withdrawn and depressed as he sank deeper into the QAnon ecosystem—to the point where they’d briefly broken up over it. “My husband has been a zealous QAnon believer since December 2017,” she wrote to me. “I think there is the tiniest part of him that may slightly doubt, as he came to the realization that he may regret losing me. He is unable to discuss any issue without bringing up QAnon or the ‘evil’ Democrats and leftists."
And a man named Curtis (a pseudonym) got this text from his conspiracy-obsessed mother, from whom he’d been disconnected for years after she became convinced that Barack Obama and his cronies were about to go to prison: “Hold on to your seats, HRC is about to go down. It will be announced very soon, the first of many to come. All is good. You are not obligated to believe me. I still love you. It’s already starting . . .”
Curtis’s mom had gone fully down the rabbit hole of QAnon, and as he told me, he wasn’t going down with her. “I will no longer visit her for any occasion,” he said to me. “I don’t even think that I will be talking to her again.”
Even with Q’s explosion into the mainstream, many gaps still remain. We’re still trying to put all the pieces together of how it jumped so quickly from typical conspiracy circles to people with no history of conspiratorial or paranoid thinking, why so many people believe a story that proves itself false over and over, how to help QAnon believers walk away from the movement, and what exactly President Trump and his staff know about it.
What is it about Q that repels most people but strongly attracts a few? And what hole does it fills in the lives of those attracted to it? Because it does fill a hole—one that family, hobbies, work, church, or even spouses and children struggle to patch.
This is the story of Q—what it is, what it means, and where it goes. And be warned—none of it is pretty.