QAnon Is the Latest American Conspiracy Theory

QAnon Is the Latest American Conspiracy Theory

QAnon Is the Latest American Conspiracy Theory

The rise of the right-wing paranoid fantasy, egged on by Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene, reflects deep currents in American politics.


The first act of Kevin McCarthy’s tenure as house speaker was decidedly ominous: In the early hours of January 7, 2023, he posed for a congratulatory selfie with Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right GOP colleague notorious for her early professions of faith in the shape-shifting hard-right movement known as QAnon. As she has moved closer to the centers of D.C. power, Greene has downplayed her past Q affiliation, blaming it on excessive Internet engagement. But her equivocations don’t explain away her other conspiratorialist and insurrectionist sympathies. Greene has since threatened in an online meme to gun down members of the left-wing Democratic “Squad” in Congress, and she recently introduced Steve Bannon at a Young Republicans event as someone who, along with Greene herself, would have ensured that “we would have won” on January 6, in no small part because the insurrection “would have been armed.”

Greene’s alliance with the new House speaker is just one facet of her mainstream makeover: She is now angling to make the short list of prospective vice-presidential nominees for Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential run. The establishment embrace of Greene is a parable of sorts for the QAnon movement itself, which in little more than six years has sprouted from a shitposting account on the “dark web” of the conspiracy-minded right to a global movement of militant—and increasingly violent—confrontation with the putative forces of liberal globalism, child predation, and satanic power-mongering. Like Greene, QAnon has gone from a vaguely shameful outlying force steeped in unfounded digital speculation to a hiding-in-plain-sight feature of right-wing organizing and messaging. Both the representative from Georgia and the Q movement at large deployed a welter of canny mainstreaming tactics to align themselves with a conservative movement that has long outgrown the distinction between “fringe” and “mainstream.”

From last fall’s attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband to the occupation of federal buildings in Brazil’s capital by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters, QAnon supplies the running spiritual soundtrack to the mood of all-or-nothing apocalyptic confrontation on the right. It’s a puzzling escalation of force for a belief system that began life as a string of anonymous posts on a discussion board claiming to chronicle a pedophiliac cabal at the summit of global liberal power. The right’s overt and fervent embrace of the QAnon faith is roughly analogous to what would have transpired had, say, Ronald Reagan, at the height of his political influence in the mid-1980s, teamed up with notorious global-cabal-monger Lyndon LaRouche, who wouldn’t hesitate to blame the Trilateral Commission and the queen of England for the death of his dog.

This juxtaposition also conjures the deeper problem with the QAnon movement: Its core tenets are so plainly outlandish, and its most prominent adherents, like Greene, so flamboyantly cracked, that it’s hard to understand the Q-inflected polity as anything other than a particularly bitter joke aimed at the Enlightenment rationalist conceits of American liberalism—a shitposting hack of our governing software somehow gone dementedly global and viral. But the tenets of Q belief run deep in the American grain.

America has a long history of conspiracy-theory-based movements that initially seem too unhinged to take seriously. But amid a wide-ranging distrust of traditional sources of public authority, they have come to acquire a perverse sort of legitimacy for a segment of the citizenry clinging to dogmatic skepticism of a hostile, faithless, and nonwhite social world. The pattern goes back to the nation’s founding: As historians like Bernard Bailyn have documented, the Revolutionary-era mindset of colonial revolt against the crown was steeped in lurid fantasies of the organized British defilement of Protestant virtue. Nineteenth-century anti-Catholic fantasies of libertine monks and priests sexually violating white Protestant women took root in anonymous pamphlets—the bygone equivalent of an Internet discussion board—before burgeoning into mass nativist political movements under the direction of the Anti-Masonic and Know-Nothing parties. Reagan himself, while no LaRouchite, was an enthusiast of end-times speculation and its signature theme of noble Protestant innocence besieged—a fact that the president’s advisers jealously guarded from the public at a point in Cold War hostilities when the genuine threat of nuclear apocalypse didn’t need a spiritual imprimatur from the leader of the free world.

Against this historical backdrop, QAnon’s apocalyptic fever dreams are less the disease than a symptom—one among countless recent augurs of severe democratic decline and fascist ascension in America. In a more immediate sense, QAnon is the digital offspring of the Tea Party movement and birtherism—militant, conspiracy-theory-steeped uprisings that began on the right fringe to similar choruses of dismissal from traditional political gatekeepers and steadily grew into mass mobilizations behind the Trump presidency.

“The very first time I heard of QAnon, an academic colleague had pulled up a chart showing all these arrows and lines of influence, and I was amazed how similar it was to the apocalyptic charts from the late 19th-century millennial movements,” says Matthew Avery Sutton, a historian at Washington State University and the author of American Apocalypse, a landmark study of Protestant millennialism. Sutton notes that QAnon’s origins in the shitposting world of right-wing discussion boards call to mind other paranoid turns in the country’s past that drew on mass hatreds and religious bigotry to fuel their sense of millennial certainty: “There are parallels here with things like the Illuminati, the anti-Masonics, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There have always been these things that are sort of secular but sort of not. They offer something secular people can buy into but religious people can also buy into. It works both ways.”

Placing QAnon in the context of millennial Protestant belief means reckoning with it as something that never really qualified as especially fringe in the first place. To begin with, it involves bypassing the loaded term “cult”—typically a designation for belief systems that spend their full lifespans on the margins of respectable religious observance. “‘Cult’ is a hot word; that’s why people use it a lot,” says Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who has followed QAnon from the movement’s inception six years ago on the discussion boards of the “dark web.” But cults tend to pivot around a single strong and charismatic personality—and apart from Trump’s opportunistic flirtations with the Q faithful, the movement is leaderless. Its namesake prophet—a supposed high-placed national security insider in Washington who boasts a “Q”-level security clearance—appears not to exist, and whoever may be impersonating him has long since gone silent.

What’s more, Q adherents don’t necessarily follow the strict preachments and proscriptions of a ritualized submission to delusional practices, as in the Jonestown cult of the 1970s or the Heaven’s Gate cult of the ’90s. Instead, the movement courts and accommodates all sorts of doctrinal innovations from its online base—and in this way echoes the creative syncretism of such counter-hierarchical millennialist movements as early Mormonism and Pentecostalism.

In terms of scale, QAnon is unlike a cult for a counterintuitive reason: It’s too big. Polls generally record broad public sympathy with QAnon at the astonishing rate of 20 percent, according to Will Sommer, a reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America. “When you ask how many subscribe to specific beliefs of QAnon, it’s between 3 and 12 percent. I was talking with someone about the 12 percent figure, and they said, ‘Well, that’s not that much.’ But, you know, that’s millions and millions of people,” he says. Indeed, a 2021 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 20 percent of Americans—roughly 30 million people—went beyond general sympathy, indicating genuine assent to the core dogmas of QAnon, such as faith in “the storm” as a grisly moment of apocalyptic reckoning for satanic, child-violating liberals. That’s more than the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu populations of the country combined.

Q followers also make up a sizable portion of the white Protestant evangelical community—the most hard-line pro-Trump demographic in the country. Alongside QAnon’s boom in recruitment during the Covid pandemic, the movement has entered the vanguard of Protestant congregations that furnish frontline culture warriors for the religious right. “My parents, they’re still regular churchgoers,” Sutton says. “When they had people in their congregation explaining QAnon to them like true believers, my parents thought it was batshit crazy. I didn’t know that it had penetrated the evangelical churches to that degree.”

The QAnon-evangelical alliance was another nascent feature of the emerging Trump coalition that was always hiding in plain sight. Since the rise of the religious right to political influence in the late 1970s, GOP leaders have courted prominent preachers and denominational leaders for institutional support; this was yet another traditional Republican political norm that Trump short-circuited. “What Trump figured out about the Christian right that no Republican understood before him—he realized he didn’t need the A-list preachers,” says Jeff Sharlet, the author of the forthcoming book The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War. “Paula White was not an A-lister in any sense,” Sharlet adds, referring to the Pentecostal prosperity minister who allegedly presided over Trump’s rushed election-season evangelical conversion in 2016. “And that’s what QAnon is—it’s the Christian right for people who don’t want to go to church very often. YouTube is their church.”

The extremely online origins of the QAnon movement on platforms like the late far-right discussion board 8chan are central to how it formulates and distributes its gospel. The movement’s intensively digital profile ensures that the steady drumbeat of failed Q prophecies are rapidly discarded and replaced with minimum fuss—and little cognitive dissonance. Without missing a beat, Q believers eagerly translated the gnomic pronouncements of their James Bond–monikered prophet into a prediction that this or that senior liberal cabal member was about to be arrested and executed, or that Trump would be restored to the presidency after the fraudulent 2020 presidential balloting was exposed once and for all. After each forecast failed, the movement simply went off in search of wilder speculative fodder—hence the rapidly multiplying subset of Q delusions, such as the belief that John F. Kennedy Jr. and/or Sr. are still among the living and are poised to return to power in an end-times cloud of glory.

“Since Q is primarily an online movement made up of people who don’t use their real names, there’s no accountability if predictions go wrong,” Holt says. “Are you going to post into the abyss at 8chan and demand an apology from Q? Maybe you can get mad at an influencer, but people are always getting mad at influencers. Also, online audiences unfortunately have goldfish brain. It’s very easy to forget that someone sold you a failed prophecy and then go back a week later to the same influencer.”

Digital rhetoric can also give a failed prophecy retroactive cover. Instead of appearing to pivot on unfounded speculation, the disappointed forecasts of Q and his following have functioned as a canny form of trolling, devised to confound and misdirect the lackeys of the deep state. “The people who followed Q in the earlier iterations, they called themselves ‘digital warriors,’” Holt says. “So if you revisit the failed prophecy from the lens of these people thinking they’re in a war, it’s something quite different.”

“In war, disinformation gets used as a weapon,” Holt continues, noting how various military cliques in the Afghan war were able to generate panicked flight among civilian populations with phony images of heavy artillery about to be trained on them. “So if they think they’re engaging in this movement as a war, that gives everything a different meaning. Some Q posts contain the phrase ‘disinformation is necessary’—you get these things out there to throw off the media and the researchers looking into the movement.”

Another, more diffuse mark of QAnon’s digital birthright is its steady stream of curiously self-aware wisecracking. Thanks to the movement’s roots in the world of digital shitposting, QAnon’s characteristic modes of expression still carry a strong undertone of self-undercutting irony—an improbable rhetorical tic for a movement announcing the onset of the apocalypse. “Humor is almost always an element,” Sharlet says. “If you ever listen to a Q podcast, they experience themselves as knowing and funny…. If you roam around the Net, you see Q accounts making memes and jokes—that’s what they do.” The memes that online posters—including one Donald J. Trump—have sent coursing through the Internet abound with kitschy Marvel-style imagery of ultra-buff strongman leadership, while a Q-offshoot group called Negative48 announces itself by blaring the Elvis Presley song “Suspicious Minds” at Trump rallies.

Indeed, the best-known Q adherent—apart from political figures like Greene and retired general Michael Flynn—is the comedian Roseanne Barr. Barr’s prime-time ABC sitcom was canceled in 2018 after she posted a racist tweet about Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett; before that, she had staged a tasteless, purportedly satiric photo shoot in which she sported a Nazi armband and Hitler mustache while preparing to place a sheet of human-shaped cookies into an oven. Around the time of her attack on Jarrett, Barr was also eagerly tweeting requests for QAnon updates and intel.

This first-time-comedy, second-time-fascism trajectory was a pronounced motif in the mobilization of another precursor movement to QAnon: the alt-right. The white nationalist Proud Boys brigade was founded by former Vice media impresario Gavin McInnes—an allegedly market-savvy ironic provocateur and pop-culture-branding wizard who proved adept at fascist shitposting long before 8chan was a malevolent gleam in the Internet’s eye. The rise of Gamergate—the ugly and abusive misogynist attack on feminist critics of video game culture—was another viral inflection point for the alt-right’s move into the political limelight. Gamergate spilled over into real-world political discourse by employing many of the themes that would go on to define both Trumpism and Q adherence: an unapologetic embrace of rampant fabulizing and shitposting as badges of identity and belonging; an all-out campaign to demonize the press and political opponents as irredeemable agents of subversion and mortal threat; and an eagerness to escalate cultural and political grievances into violence.

All along, Steve Bannon—Trump’s former campaign manager and White House adviser, who forged the critical alliance between the alt-right and the Trump campaign—was taking notes. “He saw in Gamergate that you could mobilize these people,” says Viveca Greene, a professor of media studies at Hampshire College who has long tracked the intersection of irony and right-wing politics. “He helped bring on Milo Yiannopoulos—a gay man with a Black partner who never played a game in his life—and he somehow became their mascot.” This early foray into digital-native activism set the tone. “The alt-right realized that somehow they’d have to be more playful—more funny and edgy—than the people who came before them,” Greene adds. “In the same way that Bannon saw Gamergate as this opportunity, Trump is now courting the QAnon movement.”

Trump and QAnon appear all but made for each other. Trump’s mass appeal stems largely from an ethos of incessant political attack, one that permits the baldest sort of bigotry and exclusion to fester at the ideological foundation of his power cult—while also providing the luxury, at moments of overheated rhetoric and overtly authoritarian and violent release, to back away from it all as a joke that goes over the heads of righteous and humorless libs. Just as the historically humor-challenged evangelical right has found a surprisingly wide zone of accommodation with Trumpism, so has it absorbed the eliminationist fantasies of QAnon with nary a theological whimper.

Trump has indeed long flirted with QAnon’s twisted end-times ideology, recirculating Trump-centered Q memes on social media and occasionally wearing a Q pin as a callout to the movement. But the flirtation became much less coy at a rally for Ohio Republican candidates in September: Trump intoned a grim litany of putative Biden-inflicted injuries to the American nation over the movement’s unofficial anthem—a bathetic string-laden composition known alternately as “WWG1WGA” (for the movement’s motto, “Where We Go One, We Go All”) and “Mirrors,” essentially a Spotify version of the same song. (The provenance of this song is under dispute, but as with most things pulsating through the Internet and nearly all things Q, authenticity is very much beside the point.) Trump has also recently used his Truth Social account to elevate some of QAnon’s most extreme and apocalyptic memes and videos.

Trump’s ever more explicit benediction of the movement comes as QAnon is assuming a much more self-conscious political identity of its own. As with Bannon’s embrace of Gamergate, it’s an acknowledgment of a fusion of interests that’s already well underway. Juan O Savin—a Q-affiliated Internet troll—has launched a successful initiative to recruit hard-right candidates, most of whom are confirmed election deniers, for secretary of state or attorney general in five states. The Nevada GOP secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant says that Savin persuaded him to run at a hard-right conference devoted to political strategizing. Savin has also spent a good deal of time honing an (online and off-) impersonation of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose Q-anointed resurrection is on prophetic schedule to coincide with Trump’s restoration to the presidency. “The thing that’s fascinating to me is that with the exception of a few reporters, Savin has been totally ignored,” says Sommer, the Daily Beast reporter. While the Q-endorsed slate of election deniers largely came up short in the 2022 midterms, the precinct-level romance between MAGA and Q true believers seems likely to continue unabated, particularly with news organizations hard-pressed to supply in-depth coverage to local and state primary races.

The political media’s failure to track such movement-level figures is another asset that Q adherents and their allies have exploited throughout the Trump years. “I’ve dealt with this for five years now,” Sommer says. “And you know, it’s very similar to what led up to Trump’s win: a real desire to not recognize what’s happened to the GOP and its voters. After Trump lost the 2020 election, there was this chorus that said, ‘Well, there’s no way Q recovers from this.’ And you check back like a month later and these guys are still at it. It’s difficult, I think, to be a straightforward Beltway reporter and be forced to cover Marjorie Taylor Greene and keep saying, you know, ‘She’s aligned with all these crazy beliefs.’ There’s a real need to believe that the fever is breaking.”

Instead, the fever is spreading. not only is QAnon becoming more political; the Trump-led conservative movement is also becoming more explicitly religious in both form and content. The barnstorming ReAwaken America Tour that Michael Flynn and Roger Stone are headlining to protest ongoing public health measures to combat the Covid pandemic looks and feels like a revival crusade—right down to baptisms performed on-site for newly recruited true believers. The crusade has booked a rally stop at Trump’s resort compound in Doral, Fla.—the same site that Trump tried, while president, to name as the venue for the 2019 G7 summit. The slate of speakers for the Doral rally includes two Q-aligned figures, one of whom professes to reveal that “a 1,400-year-old Satanic cabal controls the world.”

Christian nationalist and Q-sympathetic political leaders like the failed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Douglas Mastriano signal a militant, antidemocratic turn in religious-right campaigning and strategizing. Video and audio recordings released last September captured Mastriano praying for the MAGA forces of righteousness to “rise up with boldness” and “seize the power” just days before the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol—an event that was rife with Q symbolism and participants, since it promised to be the overture to the movement’s long-awaited “storm” of cosmic judgment.

This convergence of right-wing religion and politics onto the same undifferentiated rites of tribal belonging is poised to lead the conservative movement into strange new frontiers—not uncharted territory, by any means, but a departure from the path taken by prior millennialist movements in the United States. Ever since the original compact between the evangelical right and the traditional business establishment of the GOP launched the Reagan coalition, the restive ranks of end-times believers have hungered for an undiluted Revelation-based politics of the right. That longing arguably found its most sustained and potent expression in the blockbuster Left Behind series, apocalyptic thrillers written by the evangelical preacher Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which revolved around an Antichrist firmly embedded in the deep state as the secretary general of the United Nations.

But with QAnon, that fantasy of end-times secession on the evangelical right seems to be coming to pass —albeit in ways that LaHaye himself would never have dared prophesy. For starters, the Q turn in millennial prophecy is aimed squarely at the seats of American power. “The interesting shift is that in all those previous Christian conspiracy theories, there was always an enemy ruling, but it was always outside the US,” says Sutton, the historian of Protestant millennialism. ”It was Rome, it was Hitler, it was Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war. But now they’re within the United States. And, obviously, I think that has a lot to do with electing Obama. You let a foreign Muslim become your president, and you’re no longer Christian.”

Then, of course, there’s the core panic at the heart of the Q myth: the vilification of a political opposition with a blood libel—the irredeemably evil, nay demonic, drive to traffic, torture, and sexually violate children. That notion was mainstreamed during the peak of Covid in 2020, as the anodyne #SaveTheChildren hashtag permitted locked-down netizens to toggle back and forth between the world of nonprofit child-rescue initiatives and the lurid death chambers of Q-obsessed YouTube influencers. This mashup of moral panics, bizarrely enough, is now the stuff of Republican electoral consensus—even as some of its more fervid promoters, such as the unhinged former CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, continue forfeiting public platforms as they spread the Q gospel. “So much of the Q stuff has become the mainstream GOP position: that cabals steal elections, that Democrats want to exploit children,” Sommer notes, referring to the various culture war crusades ginned up around racially inclusive and gay- and trans-friendly curricula in public schools. “It’s succeeded beyond all hopes, so that now it’s become axiomatic on the right that Democrats are killing and sex-trafficking children.”

And with that success come new reveries of influence—and perhaps that recurring fantasy of national secession. It might be that the appeal of Q-branded politics among evangelicals goes back “to feeling like the politicians they were supporting were always using them,” Sutton says. “It could be that they sense they’re big enough and powerful enough to declare independence.”

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