Why Trump went full QAnon: He's desperate — and "those are the only people he's got left"

Author Mike Rothschild says Trump may be fading, but the QAnon cult is spreading — and could bring "mass violence"

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published September 27, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Alex Jones | QAnon Supporter (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump | Alex Jones | QAnon Supporter (Getty Images/Salon)

During Donald Trump's Sept. 17 rally in Youngstown, Ohio, members of the audience began to sway in time with the music playing over the loudspeakers and pointed their index fingers in the air as the former president talked about the supposed disintegration of the United States. That salute, as it turned out, is tied to the massive conspiracy theory QAnon (or, more specifically, with a QAnon offshoot movement called Negative48 that has spent much of the last year waiting for the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr.). The song was an instrumental track that did not originate with the QAnon movement but has become associated with it after being reposted online under the title "Wwg1wga" — the abbreviated movement slogan "Where we go one, we go all." 

In the week after his Ohio rally, Trump went on a Q-curious spree, posting a video on his Truth Social page that featured multiple QAnon slogans and images of the ex-president holding a playing card with the letter "Q" on it or striding through the center of a giant upper-case Q with a flagpole over his shoulder. On Friday, at another rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, he seemed to invoke QAnon's main themes and language — claiming that his own MAGA movement was "standing up against" "sick, sinister and evil people from within our own country" — even as the event's security team tried to stop attendees from pointing their fingers in the air.

All of this amounts to a stunning escalation of Trump's involvement with the conspiracy theory, after years of flirting with quasi-endorsements of it or coy claims that he had only barely heard of it. In that time, as journalist Mike Rothschild writes in "The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything," QAnon metastasized, absorbing old conspiracist claims, applying its logic to new developments and ultimately coloring huge swaths of mainstream Republican politics as well. In a new edition of the book released last month, Rothschild writes that QAnon is "no longer the cool, secret club that you had to speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It [is] just 'conservatism' now." Rothschild spoke with Salon this week. 

In the last couple of weeks Donald Trump has been signaling to QAnon in far more explicit ways than he's done before. What should we make of that? 

Trump started to retweet QAnon memes and tweets from QAnon people really early on, just a couple of weeks after the first Q drops. But it was dribs and drabs. He'd retweet something with a flaming Q, but then it would be a month before he did it again. It was never this binge where he's sharing dozens of posts with outright explicit references to Q. And with most of the stuff he tweeted, you could say, well he maybe didn't read anything else by this person. There was always some other reason. Now, at this point, there is no other reason. There is no other possibility than he is directly tipping his hat to QAnon and the people who follow it. 

Why is he doing it? Is this just desperation? 

I think it is desperation, and trying to keep faith with the people who have been in his corner the most fervently.  He's losing support; people are walking away from this. They're just sick of it. And you also have to remember that he's doing this on Truth Social. This is not a widespread mainstream application; nobody's using it other than Trump people. So he's signaling to the people who are already in his corner — knowing that they love him, that they will do anything he asks them to do — because those are the only people he's got left, really. 

What's changed in the world of QAnon since the first edition of your book came out last year? 

The biggest change is certainly that Trump is no longer the president. This was a movement based on Donald Trump unleashing a purge of the deep state, and Trump is not the president anymore. So you have a movement that by its very nature has to be about something different. It can't be about the "Storm" happening anymore. Now it has to be about all of the various things that conspired to get Trump out of office and all of the moves and countermoves that Trump is making to get back in office. 

But it's also a movement that has become much less about the branding and iconography of QAnon. A lot of the really weird stuff has been left behind, but QAnon's ideas are much more mainstream than they ever were before: The idea of an all-powerful government that conspired to keep Trump out of office, and staged COVID-19 just to make sure that there could be mail-in voting fraud, and then that the election was stolen. All of these things are now mainstream Republican tenets. You can't be successful in the modern GOP if you think that the 2020 election was fair. And a lot of that comes from the normalizing of conspiracy theories that you got with QAnon. 

You talk about QAnon as "a conspiracy theory of everything."

QAnon is like a lot of other past movements in that it takes in everything that's going on around you and filters it through the lens of conspiracy theory. With QAnon, any event that happened in the world was actually part of this secret silent war, from a military plane crashing to James Comey tweeting a picture of his dog. 

With [the anonymous poster or posters known as] "Q" not really being active anymore, there aren't any more Q drops. But there is so much happening in the news that it became really easy for QAnon believers to start pulling more and more things into their conspiracy: COVID-19, the COVID vaccine, the "cancel culture" hysteria. Everything that happened got pulled in and, after a while, those different silos merged. The "wellness"/alternative medicine conspiracy movement merged with the stolen election conspiracy movement. These things normally wouldn't have much to do with each other. But with QAnon, it's like everything is connected to everything else; everything is part of the conspiracy. 

Are newer narratives, like the "Great Reset" or the recent farm protests in the Netherlands, part of QAnon's extended universe? 

That's absolutely part of QAnon's influence. I think the Great Reset idea is taking off because a lot of people have been conditioned to think there's some vast plot that's going on, and theories like that have been around a long time. In the book I write about things like the dinar scam — which promised there would be a great currency reset or a great economic collapse — but this was really fringe stuff, not stuff that mainstream politicians would talk about. You wouldn't see massive events where thousands of people would show up to hear speeches about the global currency reset. That just didn't happen. The idea that there is a vast, new world order, a deep-state plot to completely change the way we live our lives and to take all of our property and our rights, these things have existed in the right-wing conspiracy world for a long time, but they were never as mainstream as they are now. 

You also write that QAnon has always drawn on these older conspiracy theories, whether the New World Order or the Blood Libel. What does it mean for QAnon to be such a pastiche? 

A lot of these theories are very durable because they work. There's always going to be people who feel there is a vast oppressive force keeping them down and manipulating politics and banking. That's been called the New World Order, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Freemasons, the Illuminati. QAnon is just another iteration of all that. And it works because people genuinely want someone to blame for their own misfortunes. They want to point to something failing in their life and say, "Well, it's not my fault. It's the Freemasons." Or "The Jews sank my business." That stuff has always been popular because there's always a human need to blame somebody. 

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What QAnon does that these other movements didn't is it makes you part of the story. So you've got the blame aspect: So-and-so is keeping me down. But with QAnon, it's also, "Now we're going to fight back. We're going to make memes, we're going to make videos, we're going to red-pill all our friends. We're going to show them who is really in charge. And then, at the end, we're going to get what we want because we all worked together." 

You write that while some people dismiss QAnon as just a fascist fantasy, many people are drawn to it exactly because it's a fascist fantasy.

I think it goes back to that idea of looking for someone to blame, that there are powerful enemies and someone should do something about them. That kind of grievance-mongering is a huge part of American politics. It's what propelled Donald Trump to success. But there have always been candidates, demagogues, pundits and preachers who seized on ideas like that. 

QAnon combines them and puts the audience in the center of it, where they get to enact their daydreams of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros facing justice. Of course, that justice is a military tribunal carried out by soldiers at Guantánamo Bay, which is not how our justice system actually works. But these people are so desperate for their enemies to get "what's coming to them" that they throw away our constitutional principles. And there's something very fascist about that to me. 

You warn that QAnon will likely transform into something even worse than it is now, and that it has the possibility of inspiring acts of mass violence. 

It definitely has the capacity for mass violence. We've already seen individual incidents: murders, acts of vandalism. But I think what QAnon really has is adaptability. It survived its guru going silent for a year and a half, since there weren't any Q drops from December 2020 to June 2022. And then when Q came back, it was like nothing and now Q is already gone again.

A lot of people came to QAnon without any knowledge of what the Q drops were, without any particular affinity for Donald Trump. They just knew something was wrong and somebody was lying to them.

So this is now a movement that has transcended the person or people who started it. It doesn't need Q drops anymore. In fact, it's arguably better if there are no more Q drops, because the Q drops tend to be cryptic and weird and they keep people away. If a movement really wants to grow, you don't want anything like that. You want it to be very obvious, very approachable. You want anybody to be able to fall into it, and that really happened during the pandemic. A lot of people came to QAnon without any knowledge of what the Q drops were, without any particular affinity for Donald Trump. They just knew something was wrong and somebody was lying to them. So the biggest danger in QAnon is how adaptable it is to discarding its previous self and adapting into something new. 

For example, during the pandemic, certain lifestyle influencers were basically promoting parts of QAnon, seemingly unaware they were doing so.

Yeah, you had lifestyle influencers who had nothing to do with conservative politics or were apolitical on their Instagram feeds, but were really worried about 5G internet or vaccines or Bill Gates buying farmland or whatever. A lot of those people would talk about those things and say, "We're just asking questions. What are they hiding from us?" And their fans would read this stuff and say, "I'm kind of concerned about 5G internet too," or "I've heard some bad things about Bill Gates." Then they start joining Facebook groups and getting turned on to other conspiracy theories, and at some point QAnon starts to filter in, because it fits in so well with these other conspiracy theories. It has the same distrust of experts, the same feeling that the world's billionaires are out to get you and you're just a lab experiment to them, and we're going to ask the questions they don't want us to know. So these movements that seem very different are actually all the same movement. 

You wrote a year ago that QAnon was still growing fast. Is that still true?

I think it is. There are more people getting turned on to QAnon and its conspiracy theories than we've ever seen before with these kinds of fringe movements. I look at the shooting that took place in Michigan a few weeks ago: This guy who shot his wife and his daughter had gotten turned on to QAnon after the 2020 election, when there were no more Q drops and the branding and iconography of the movement had really declined. But he found the stolen-election theory and then he found QAnon, and it completely took over his life. 

Also these ideas have now become so mainstream in the Republican Party that you can completely radicalize yourself into QAnon without ever having read a Q drop or knowing anything about Q. You just fit into this world and it turns you on to more and more conspiracy theories. 

In the book you write about the more recent break that occurred between the sliver of QAnon followers who got into the idea that JFK Jr. was going to come back from the dead, and then the much larger way that QAnon has basically become part and parcel of mainstream Republican politics. 

One reason I wanted to explore that double track is that there are multiple versions of this theory going around. The people who are really into JFK Jr. see themselves as the true believers. It's like a fringe group within a fringe group. They're still devoted to what QAnon used to be. 

People involved in the stolen-election industry, or who are running for office, are not talking about JFK Jr. That stuff is too weird and most mainstream Republican don't want anything to do with that.

A lot of the people involved in the stolen election industry, or the people running for office who are really into QAnon, they're not talking about JFK Jr. That stuff — the numerology and the worship of this one guy, Negative48 — is too weird and most mainstream Republicans don't want anything to do with that. If you are turning a fringe movement mainstream, you don't want anything that's going to push people away. You don't want anything that's so weird that it's a barrier to entry. You want to make it as accessible as possible.  

What does the existence of that latter, larger group, who are basically mainstreaming QAnon throughout the GOP, do to our politics? 

Well, it makes elections part of this secret war and it turns people's votes into almost military actions. What it could also do, potentially, is put people in the position to certify elections who don't believe that elections are run fairly anymore. You have people running for secretary of state offices, running for governor offices who have said they won't certify a Democrat if they win in 2024. So much of that is based on QAnon, and this stolen election industry that intersects perfectly with QAnon. 

We're now doubting the very basics of how democratic government works, and we weren't doing that before QAnon came along; we weren't doing that before the 2020 election and a whole industry of people who are making their living denying that this election was fair, and who are still talking about overturning 2020. That kind of stuff is absolutely toxic for representative democracy. It makes people think their vote doesn't matter, that the election is just going to get stolen, and it inspires people to commit acts of violence.  

I think it's very, very important to talk about that and make people aware of just how perilous everything is right now in terms of democracy: These are people who've deputized themselves to possibly pick who wins elections. 

What will be the impact of Trump's public embrace of Q? 

I don't think we know yet. It's certainly driven a lot of coverage and it's fired up the Q people. I've been checking out Q Telegram channels and they really feel like it's Trump outwardly telling them he's still in the fight, that everything's going to be OK, that we're going to get everything that we want. 

I don't know how many people are slipping away from QAnon. If you've come this far, if your faith in the movement has survived Trump losing the election, it will probably survive anything.

I think he's embracing it out of the feeling that his back is really against the wall. There are some real potential legal consequences to what's going on with these top-secret documents, with the Georgia phone call. He's in some actual jeopardy. I think when your back is against the wall, you turn to the people who've always been in your corner. And the people who have always been in his corner are the Q people.  

He's not telling them, "If I get indicted, go out and shoot up an FBI office." But some of them definitely will look at these signals and these tips of the hat and say, "He's telling us what to do. He's telling us to take action if he's indicted." That's the way Trump's always worked. It's never been, "Go out and do this." It's always been, "Hey it'd be a real shame if something happened to this guy." 

Is it the sort of thing that has the power to juice up the movement and draw back people who maybe were slipping away? 

At this point, I don't know how many people really are slipping away from QAnon. If you've come this far, if your faith in the movement has survived Trump losing the election, all the election lawsuits going nowhere, Biden continuing to be in office, no mass arrests — if your faith survived that, it will probably survive anything. But he is signaling to the people who still believe in him, "Hey, I still believe in you. We've still got this. We're going to win." And that's a really powerful affirmation. When everybody else is looking at you like you're completely crazy, he's the one guy looking at you and going, "No, they're crazy." 

You write powerfully about people who have lost loved ones to QAnon, or a few people who managed to find their way out of it. Is there any hope for the Republican Party as a whole being able to disentangle itself from QAnon?

I think there is hope, but it's probably not going to happen as long as Donald Trump is an active part of American politics. If you look at the GOP in 1964, after Barry Goldwater, they did step back a little bit. For all Richard Nixon's flaws, he was not the extremist that Goldwater was. But Goldwater had the sense to mostly walk away from the national spotlight after he lost his election. Trump is still out there. He's still holding rallies. He's still teasing whether he's going to run in 2024. And if he runs in 2024, then we're in for, bare minimum, another year and half of this. If Trump fades away from politics, then there's some chance that more sensible people in the GOP will step up and say, "We can be conservative, we can have all these ideas, but we don't need to so completely embrace the conspiracy movement and all of the antisemitism and violence that comes with it." 

So I think that there is hope, but not as long as Donald Trump is still out there holding rallies once a week.

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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