What is QAnon? A not-so-brief introduction to the conspiracy theory that's eating America

Do millions of Americans really believe Donald Trump is saving children from underground demons? It seems that way

Published August 16, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

QAnon supporters wait for the military flyover at the World War II Memorial during Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
QAnon supporters wait for the military flyover at the World War II Memorial during Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This is the first article in a five-part series explaining QAnon. Read part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

I've been involved in the wild world of conspiracy theories for 24 years now, ever since I published my first article in the pages of Paranoia Magazine in the spring of 1996 when I was 24 years old. What most impressed me about Paranoia was the anarchy of information available within its pages. It wasn't a right-wing conspiracy magazine. It wasn't a left-wing conspiracy magazine. It didn't even exist between these two poles. Its editorial mission (or non-mission) was beholden to values (or non-values) that lay far beyond these limiting parameters, a dedication to cataloging and analyzing the extremes of fringe beliefs from multiple points of view. As Marshall McLuhan once said, "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." The editors of Paranoia dedicated themselves to not having a point of view. It was the exact opposite of propaganda. By its very nature, propaganda excludes any information that contradicts or undermines the message the dedicated propagandist is intent on disseminating.

Conspiracy theories have always been used by what we now call "persuasion engineers" as tools of mass indoctrination. A good conspiracy theory that seems plausible and frightening enough can be worth more than a thousand well-reasoned stump speeches.

In my first book, "Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form," I broke conspiracy theories down into five distinct categories: 1) Insanity, 2) Disinformation, 3) Misinformation, 4) Satire, and 5) Legitimate Research. Some theories manage to merge two or more categories into one. Only on very rare occasions do such theories manage to combine all five categories. The most recent — and arguably most impactful — strain of this hybrid form of conspiracy-mongering first emerged in 2017, promulgated by an anonymous 4chan poster known only as "Q" — or "QAnon." You've been hearing a lot about this lately, most likely. At least one QAnon supporter is almost certain to be elected to Congress in November, and devotees of this particular conspiracy theory are eagerly supporting the re-election of Donald Trump. 

The average person, who has not spent the past couple of decades studying the origins of conspiracy theories (a reasonable choice, I might add), would probably not recognize the origins of most of the quasi-surreal elements that make up the convoluted QAnon narrative.

Earlier this year, in March, I was talking to a friend about COVID-19 and the national lockdown. He's 10 years older than me and lives in a small town in the Midwest. I live in Long Beach, California. While chatting with him on the phone about all the unexpected difficulties that have arisen from teaching my English classes online, he suddenly volunteered the opinion that COVID-19 would be a positive development in 2020. 

"Yeah?" I asked. "How so?" 

He proceeded to tell me, with complete sincerity, that after Trump is re-elected in 2020, he will deliver "free energy" to the people of America. Not only that, he's also going to abolish the income tax. Right now, at this very moment, United States troops have been deployed underground where they're busy "cleaning out" covert subterranean tunnels, "saving hundreds of children from satanic slaves," and kicking out the "black hats." Without skipping a beat, my friend then insisted that news of this game-changing development would be "coming out" soon. 

"It's a great thing," he told me in measured tones. "Trump will have to use the Emergency Broadcast System to give this news to the American people because the media keeps lying and social media like Twitter and YouTube are censoring and deleting videos that report reality the way it actually is." 

Furthermore, my friend said in tones of absolute certainty, Trump supporters working behind the scenes (referred to by my friend as the "white hats") had recently wrested control of the entire Google corporation from devil worshippers, which is why you could now retrieve "accurate information" from that particular search engine. 

"Uh … where are you getting all this?" I asked.

He seemed reluctant to tell me. At first he hemmed and hawed, then muttered, "Oh … just these message boards." 

"Well … what message boards?" He wouldn't say. "Could you send me the links?" I asked.

"There are no links," he replied.

"No links? What is this, the dark web or something?"

He chuckled. "Kind of."

When I pushed further and asked for more details about this "accurate information," in a conspiratorial whisper he urged me to search the word "Adrenochrome" in Google.

*  *  *

I first read Hunter S. Thompson's classic nonfiction book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" when I was 18. I've taught the book in my English composition classes at Cal State Long Beach, off and on, since 2002. I'm well aware that Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, encounters Adrenochrome when Dr. Gonzo (Duke's speed-fueled attorney) suggests that he ingest the drug because it "makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer." He also warns Duke, "You'll go completely crazy if you take too much." Duke claims that the hallucinogenic effects of Adrenochrome work best when the substance is harvested from the adrenaline glands of living human bodies. 

Even at the tender age of 18, I knew that this inspired idea was one of Thompson's many phantasmagorical asides in an otherwise journalistic narrative. Thompson was famous for these detours into Munchausen-level jabberwocky, like the time he claimed that Sen. Ed Muskie was taking "massive doses" of a psychedelic drug called Ibogaine during the 1972 presidential campaign, a hilarious (and entirely false) tale related in Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." 

On the commentary track that accompanies the 2003 Criterion DVD release of Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Gilliam confirms that Adrenochrome is "a totally invented nonsense-drug that Hunter [made up]." Gilliam follows this with an eerily prescient statement that almost foreshadows the introduction of the drug into QAnon's ever-expanding mythology: "This scene had such an effect on so many people that afterwards I was hearing kids say, 'Oh, I've had Adrenochrome!' They were talking about where they get it. 'Oh, there's a guy who can get me Adrenochrome.' I just love how the Big Lie always works. It worked for Hitler, and it can work for people like us [i.e., artists and storytellers]." 

It appears to be working for QAnon as well, since "totally invented nonsense" has a way of becoming facts in the minds of the gullible, the semi-informed, the frustrated and the insane.

So I did exactly as my friend suggested. I googled the word "Adrenochrome." Keep in mind that my friend insisted that Trump-supporting "white hats" had taken control of Google, so I would receive only accurate information from that search engine when inputting this particular word.

The first result that popped up was Emily Writes' March 17, 2020, article in Spinoff entitled "Down the Rabbit Hole With the COVID-19 Conspiracy Theorists," which begins as follows:

Today I fell down a rabbit hole of rabid Trump supporters who are convinced COVID-19 is both a hoax and also Trump's greatest moment as president. He has acted decisively apparently, while also knowing that COVID-19 is a Hollywood Liberal Elite cover-up …. Adrenochrome is a drug for the liberal elite of Hollywood made from actual human brain stem containing hormones from the adrenal gland. Hillary Clinton manufactures this drug by torturing children in a pizza shop …. Tom Hanks is addicted to Adrenochrome and he caught COVID-19 from the latest batch of tainted Adrenochrome that came through Celine Dion who is a high priestess from the Church of Satan. She is well-versed in poison as she's been lacing her children's clothing line with a chemical that makes our children "gender neutral." Tom Hanks signalled to the Hollywood Liberal Elite Cabal DeepState in his Golden Globes acceptance speech that there would be a shortage of Adrenochrome. Ellen has closed her studio audience because she's addicted as well. 

After reading this article in its entirety, I emailed my friend and pointed out that when I put his advice to the test and Googled "Adrenochrome," the first article that popped up sardonically tore the entire conspiracy theory to shreds. How did this jibe with the notion that Trump-supporting "white hats" had total control over Google?

I received no direct answer to this question. I was told, instead, to search the name "Rachel Chandler." This would somehow answer all my questions. Bypassing those pesky "white hats" at Google, I decided to use a different search engine called Millionshort, and almost immediately found a March 22, 2019, Daily Dot article entitled "QAnon Is Attacking a Random Woman in a Disturbing and Dangerous Way," which detailed how QAnon posts had become strangely focused on a photographer and casting director named Rachel Chandler, who is part of the newspaper-owning Chandler family but has no visible political footprint and is not otherwise a public figure:

Q made a seemingly endless stream of posts referencing Chandler, insinuating that she took a 2017 picture of Bill Clinton and registered child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (whose light prison sentence handed down by current Trump cabinet official Alexander Acosta is currently under investigation) hanging out together in a pool.

Beyond that, QAnon accused Chandler of "procuring" "girls" for Epstein, having her photography studio funded by elite Satanists who used it for rituals, flaunting Epstein's "sex and torture room victims" with her pictures, having a link to a still-unexplained (yet supposedly horrific) event at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood ….

To be clear, Chandler has not been accused of any wrongdoing by any law enforcement agency …. There's no evidence she took the pool picture that QAnon claims proves she's linked to Epstein, and it doesn't even feature him — though it does feature George Nader, the convicted pedophile who's providing evidence in the Mueller investigation regarding President Donald Trump's link to meetings with Russian officials.

And yet Chandler's name has been dragged into the conspiracy so completely that the first page of a Google search shows nothing but QAnon-related content, while five of the top six videos that come up when searching her name are by QAnon acolytes.

None of the many videos and speculations posted by QAnon and his numerous supporters provide any definitive links between Chandler and Jeffrey Epstein, yet somehow this red herring has received intense focus from thousands of amateur detectives, most of whom no doubt have a sincere desire to get to "the truth." 

One might argue, as does Emily Writes in her above-mentioned Spinoff article, that when "people feel like they have no control over their lives — like in the midst of a global pandemic — the comforting certainty of conspiracy theories seems increasingly attractive." One might also argue that racism, xenophobia and (perhaps most deadly of all) neophobia fuel the interest in such theories. But I think these explanations, while partially valid, ignore the heart-meat core of the real issue plaguing America at this moment.

The real problem is that genuine conspiracies are unfolding before our eyes every day, but when the mainstream media avoids reporting on such conspiracies — for a whole variety of reasons, the main one being that it's simply easier to get paid rewriting corporate press releases and slapping one's byline on the end product than by actually putting one's reputation on the line tackling a plethora of inconvenient truths — it becomes necessary for average people to fill in the gaps on their own. These people may be ignorant, but they're not stupid. They know instinctively that they're being victimized by blatant lies every day. So, with no training whatsoever, they perform "research" on their own by scouring through a multiplicity of such "reliable" online sources as 4chan, 8chan, 8kun and Reddit.

As award-winning science fiction writer Cory Doctorow wrote in May of this year:

[W]hy is it so easy to find people who want to believe in conspiracies[?] My answer: because so many of the things that have traumatized so many people ARE conspiracies.

The opioid epidemic was a conspiracy between rich families like the Sacklers and regulators who rotate in and out of industry. The 737 crisis was caused by Boeing's conspiracy to cut corners and aviation regulators' conspiracy to allow aerospace to regulate itself.

Senators conspire to liquidate their positions ahead of coronavirus lockdown, well-heeled multinationals conspire to get 94.5% of the "small business" PPP fund, Big Tech conspires to fix wages with illegal collusion while fast food franchises do the same with noncompetes.

In a world of constant real conspiracy scandals that destroy lives and the planet, conspiracy theories take on real explanatory power. 

Everything Doctorow says here is true; however, we rarely apply such clinical observations to people we know personally. Often, we use such explanations to dismiss the cockeyed beliefs of peculiar strangers encountered online. Before March of this year, I had known my friend to be a rational person with a fair amount of real-world experience and common sense, not someone who would be swayed easily by illogical rhetoric or over-the-top nonsense. On the other hand, I hadn't been in close contact with him since the last presidential election and the birth of QAnon, who emerged from internet obscurity in November of 2017.  This was, coincidentally, the same time period when Trump's approval ratings had reached a "near-record low." (The full effect of QAnon on Trump's approval ratings since November of 2017 has not been studied in any substantial way.) 

After about four weeks had passed, I emailed my friend and asked him a few more questions about QAnon, trying to understand how anyone could believe so many unsubstantiated claims with so little skepticism. Surely, I thought, there must be something at least halfway reasonable to back up these outrageous statements. I needed to know the source so I could evaluate the claims myself. On May 3, I sent him the following email:

I'm trying to wrap my head around this whole QAnon thing, so maybe you can help me. I have a few questions.

Why would the United States military be "cleaning out" covert underground bases when they're the ones who built the bases in the first place? Who else but the U.S. military would be in charge of massive underground bases built on U.S. soil? 

Why would Trump be interested in implementing free energy? Isn't he trying to revive the coal industry? It would seem to me that free energy would undermine all of his business interests.

According to most reliable sources, censorship on Google seems to be alive and well at the moment, which is nothing new. (In my experience, I've found that is a far better search engine tool.) 

I'm not certain that "white hats" exist in our current political situation. Perhaps "black hats," "slightly-less-black hats," and "gray hats" would be more accurate terms?

Didn't the whole concept of "Adrenochrome" being harvested from live human beings originate with Hunter S. Thompson — as a satirical concept? I always thought that passage in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was intended as a joke. Is QAnon claiming that Hunter S. Thompson had "insider knowledge" when he wrote the book?

The next day, my friend responded to my questions with another question: "You're a researcher. Why are you playing D.U.M.B.?" That's it. Nothing else.

Since I had no idea why he had written the word "dumb" as an acronym, I replied, "I'm not playing 'D.U.M.B.' I honestly don't know the answers to those questions. I'm trying to understand the proposed scenario. If you have the answers, I'd love to hear them."

Later that day, he wrote me back and explained that "D.U.M.B." stood for "Deep Underground Military Bases." The explanation rendered the first message even more confusing than before. (How could I possibly be playing "Deep Underground Military Bases"? I resisted the urge to ask him to elucidate further, as I suspected the response would just add to my befuddlement.) He sent me several links as well, despite the fact that a month earlier he had insisted that there were no links he could possibly send me. He never bothered to explain how or why this situation had changed during the past four weeks. 

Inevitably, the first link led me to QAnon's posts. Most of these posts were so cryptic, they didn't answer any of my questions. 

Addressing my question about Trump delivering free energy to the American people, my friend responded, "President Trump's uncle John was asked by the F.B.I. to investigate Nikola Tesla's papers." This terse sentence was then followed by a link to an Aug. 2, 2017, post at entitled "John Trump, Donald's Uncle: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know." Right after the link, my friend wrote, "And you wonder where I come up with free energy for the nation in the future." 

Nothing in the post suggested that Donald Trump was working on delivering free energy to the United States during his second term in office. 

Attempting to address one of my other questions, he wrote, "If Google's censorship is on, then why, when you search 'Rachel Chandler,' you get all of this information about her?" 

Of course this is a perfect example of "circular reasoning." Everything QAnon says about Rachel Chandler is true because, when you Google "Rachel Chandler," all of QAnon's posts pop up. Therefore, everything QAnon said about Rachel Chandler is true. (If A, then B. If B, then A. Or perhaps I should say, "If Q, then Q. If Q, then Q.")

To answer my other questions, he sent me links to three different YouTube videos, one of which dealt with the untold story of the Deep Underground Military Bases. 

The first video (entitled "The Underground War, Happening Now") features a "Christian Patriot" named "Rick B2T" in conversation with an anonymous fellow calling himself "Gene." I subjected myself to 38 minutes and 16 seconds of unsubstantiated rumors about U.S. Christian soldiers battling demon-worshipping members of the Illuminati in deep underground bases. 

This directed me to an even more convoluted YouTube video entitled "1 of 2 — Best of 'Underground War Details! Part 8' — Gene Decode — B2T Show," in which I learned that Gene had decided to risk his life going public with these dangerous secrets because, one fateful day, God had contacted Gene and expressly told him, "This information has to come out!" At this point, Gene teamed up with an anonymous former "Canadian military officer" to reveal the disturbing truths about these "Deep Underground Military Bases" where (and this is a direct quote) "animal and human sacrifices nourish the bowels of creatures — in other words, we're talking demonic, terrible things that inhabited Earth long before Man arrived." 

After this startling revelation, Gene elaborated on the scenario further: "The New World Order is in the final stages — that is, they were, until Trump came along — the final stages of their satanic plan to reduce the current world population by 80 to 90 percent […]. If it weren't for Trump, most of us would not be listening to anything right now." [Gene chuckles darkly.] "Instead of the Word of Christ, you'd be listening to the angels."

As of May 28, only 10 days after being posted, this video had already received 33,105 views and only 34 dislikes. I've seen YouTube videos of random kids opening birthday presents get more dislikes than that. The Blessed to Teach YouTube channel has 92,600 subscribers. 

If it's not clear to you yet, let me spell this out: Even as you're reading these words, there are thousands of "Christian Patriots" living in the United States who sincerely believe that Donald Trump saved them from being eaten by demons when he entered the White House. This is not hyperbole. This is a literal interpretation of what they believe. 

This is the mentality you're dealing with. No amount of logic, common sense or reason can combat such convoluted delusions. These people are clearly the product of incessant brainwashing, and yet they think everyone else in the country is mind-controlled to such an extreme degree that people who do not support Trump are either A) soulless demon-worshippers or B) poor unfortunates incapable of understanding the obvious truths being unveiled by geniuses like "Rick B2T" and his pal "Gene." On Nov. 18, 1978, hundreds of "True Believers" in Guyana held similar beliefs, only seconds before they literally drank the Kool-Aid.

You might assume that most of Rick's viewers are hardcore evangelicals dwelling in a deep pit in the Ozarks. But my friend wasn't raised a hardcore Christian and had never expressed such views in my presence over the course of many, many years. Something happened to change him radically between the emergence of QAnon in 2017 and the advent of the national lockdown in 2020. Even a regular Joe can be swayed by nonsense with a fair amount of ease.

Nonsense has always been an essential part of the American landscape, from Salem witch hunts in the 1690s to New Age UFO cults in the 1990s, but QAnon takes this tradition of nonsense to a whole new level.

Next installment: The roots of QAnon: From 1940s science fiction to 19th-century anti-Masonic propaganda

By Robert Guffey

Robert Guffey is a lecturer in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. His books include the novel "Until the Last Dog Dies" and "Chameleo: A Strange but True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security." Visit his website.

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