If you follow the squeaks and squawks of far-right conspiracy theorists, you have almost certainly encountered QAnon believers — individuals who follow the oft-debunked predictions of an anonymous man who calls himself "Q" and claims to know the sinister truth about how the world works.
In 2020, the bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory didn't fizzle — instead, it just became even more mainstream. A Trump campaign spokesperson has appeared on a QAnon show, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser Mike Flynn has sworn allegiance to the movement, and Fox News host Jesse Watters initially praised them for uncovering "a lot of great stuff" before being pressured into retracting his statement. Trump himself has repeatedly retweeted posts from QAnon-related accounts (although it is unclear whether he knew about the connections) and there are a number of Republican congressional candidates who either openly believe in the conspiracy theories (like Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia) or have expressed varying measures of sympathy with them (including Lauren Boebert in Colorado, Theresa Raborn in Illinois, Mike Cargile in California, Joe Rae Perkins in Oregon and Erin Cruz in California).
"QAnon offers its adherents an addictive alternative reality that requires their participation and, through this participation, draws them into the elaborate architecture of the conspiracy. It exploits the sense that something is broken in our society," disinformation researcher Molly McKew told CNN earlier this month. "But rather than focus on understanding these social fractures and healing them, QAnon instead fixates on the pursuit of enemies and villains described in such extreme terms that any action — either by adherents or by identified champions like President Trump —becomes justifiable. By drawing on the culture and value system, Q adherents have justified violent attacks."
The QAnon conspiracy theory remains potent even though the vast majority of its Nostradamus-like predictions have not come to pass. Those predictions include saying Trump was about to open 25,000 indictments against members of the deep state and that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested to arguing that Trump was working to destroy a vast pedophile ring. (Indeed, Trump's only connection with any prominent pedophile ring was his close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein.)
To better understand the QAnon conspiracy theory, Salon spoke with Travis View, the host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, who has written about the group extensively for the Washington Post.
1. What does QAnon believe?
"QAnon is based upon the idea that there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world, essentially, and they control everything," View told Salon. "They control politicians, and they control the media. They control Hollywood, and they cover up their existence, essentially. And they would have continued ruling the world, were it not for the election of President Donald Trump."
"Now, Donald Trump in this conspiracy theory knows all about this evil cabal's wrongdoing. But one of the reasons that Donald Trump was elected was to put an end to them, basically. And now we would be ignorant of this behind-the-scenes battle of Donald Trump and the U.S. military — that everyone backs him and the evil cabal — were it not for 'Q.' And what 'Q' is — is basically a poster on 4chan, who later moved to 8chan, who reveals details about this secret behind-the-scenes battle, and also secrets about what the cabal is doing and also the mass sort of upcoming arrest events through these posts."
2. What is "The Storm?"
As Vox's Jane Coaston wrote in March, followers of QAnon believe that there is an imminent event known as "'The Storm,' during which all of Trump's enemies, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and others, would be arrested and executed for being murderous child-eating pedophiles." In November 2017, Coaston pointed out that QAnon had predicted that John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, would be arrested and that the military would take control, followed by riots being orchestrated to prevent more senior officials from also being arrested.
"'The Storm' is basically when tens of thousands of people, including Hillary Clinton and James Comey, and [John] Brennan, and maybe even Hollywood celebrities, and other high-level politicians and journalists even, are going to be arrested, and rounded up and possibly even sent to Guantanamo Bay," View told Salon. "Or be subjected to basically military tribunals, where they will be tried for their heinous crimes. And that's sort of like the outline."
3. Who is 'Q?'
As View put it, "We have some indication of who 'Q' might have been, but there isn't really any sort of solid evidence right now connecting someone to 'Q.'" At the very least, it does not seem likely that any old person could pretend to be 'Q.'
"On 4chan and 8chan, these are image boards," View said. "There aren't really like webs or forums. And how image boards work is that you can't create an account. You can't register an account that's yours. But what you can do is — you can create what they call a trip code. And this is sort of like a string of characters that's connected to a particular password that only you know . . . For someone to post as 'Q,' they would first need to know 'Q's' trip code or password. And so that's basically it: There's a method for identifying yourself basically on these image boards."
"Now, in 'Q's' case is kind of complicated, because the trip code has changed a few times, because the trip code was leaked or hacked for whatever reason. But, yeah, that's basically how image boards work. You can sort of identify yourself as sort of someone who posts two or more times with this trip code."
4. Is there any truth to what QAnon believes?
"The interesting thing about QAnon is that there's always at least this tiny hint of truth to it," View said. "I've talked about sometimes they're sort of right, maybe in a very broad general sense, but their specific particular claims are always insane and far, far detached from reality. In the case of secret pedophile rings, I mean, you don't have to look very far to see that kind of thing actually happens. I'm talking about the massive sort of scandal in the Catholic Church. For example, there's a case in Philadelphia, which is horrendous, of many young people who were molested by people in the Catholic Church. And it was sort of covered up, and has gone on and served several cities all over the world. Very, very tragic."
"And, of course, there's the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was a billionaire who may have molested dozens of girls, and then basically got a sweetheart deal from the government and is a free man now. So there's that reason — is that they often have a sense that, 'Well, if this kind of thing is going on and is being covered up, then perhaps the cover-up is bigger than anyone thinks.'"
This point cannot be discounted: From Hollywood to the corridors of power, there are indeed secret pedophile rings that exist. That does not mean, however, that any crackpot who claims to have discovered one should be automatically taken seriously.
5. Why do people believe this nonsense?
To answer that question, let us turn to "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the classic American political essay by historian Richard Hofstadter. Originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1964, Hofstadter dissected what causes people to subscribe to conspiracy theories. His argument was based not on a psychological diagnosis but rather on a particular style that tends to appeal to people regardless of whether it has any objective merit:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse...
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.