QAnon 2.0: "Sound of Freedom" and the rise of MAGA vigilantism

Right-wing influencers pushed a paranoid, anti-immigrant hit movie — while pretending they'd never heard of QAnon

Published September 2, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A publicity image from "Sound of Freedom." (Angel Studios)
A publicity image from "Sound of Freedom." (Angel Studios)

I once met a former Scientologist at a backyard barbecue who explained to me how L. Ron Hubbard, the mediocre science fiction author who founded the Church of Scientology in the 1950s, got his retro-pulp novel "Battlefield Earth" on the bestseller lists in 1982. According to this fellow, the church compelled all its members to rush out and buy multiple copies for friends, family members and even non-Scientologists (sometimes derogatorily known as "wogs"). How many copies of that 1,050-page doorstop actually got read? There's no way to know, but "Battlefield Earth" spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Something similar happened earlier this summer with Alejandro Gómez Monteverde's film "Sound of Freedom," which occupied the No. 1 spot at the box office until it was mercifully overtaken by Greta Gerwig's "Barbie." Whatever the original intentions of the filmmakers may have been, "Sound of Freedom" arrived in theaters as a thinly disguised QAnon recruitment film whose star, Jim Caviezel, is an evangelical Christian who has said he believes in the central myth of that conspiracy theory: that innocent children are being kidnapped by Satanists, dragged into underground dungeons and tortured to manufacture a chemical called "Adrenochrome," whose consumption keeps the privileged elite forever youthful. This fantastical concept is ripped off from various sources, including Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" as well as an array of grade-B horror movies.

As Miles Klee of Rolling Stone reported on July 7, fans on QAnon message boards eagerly discussed Donald Trump's endorsement of the film and encouraged efforts to get "normies" who are "in need of awakening" to see it. "Crimes against children will unite us all. Eyes are opening," read one optimistic post.

That same week, right-wing Christian podcast host Rick Rene urged his followers to drag friends and family members to see "Sound of Freedom," offering a banner link to the film on his website, emblazoned with a variation on a QAnon catchphrase: "Fight for the light. Silence the darkness." (The slogan "Dark to light" can be found on innumerable QAnon websites, flags, baseball caps, T-shirts, coins, pins, decals and jewelry.) 

Even so, Rene wrapped up his review of "Sound of Freedom" in a more wistful tone, lamenting that it hadn't offered "nearly as expansive a message" as he had hoped. The film "didn't get into Hollywood and the elites and the Adrenochrome and harvesting — all the ugly, ugly stuff. … And it didn't show any of the real gross stuff either."

That was revealing, to say the least. From Rene's perspective, "Sound of Freedom" is disappointingly light on QAnon messaging, but nonetheless useful as a recruitment tool. Essentially, he hoped it would be a gateway drug to what's really important to him and other QAnon acolytes, i.e., "the ugly, ugly stuff," the 100% pure hit one finds deep in the QAnon rabbit hole after being offered the free taste test. 

In a so-called news show broadcast July 13 on Newsmax, anchor Rob Schmitt (a former co-host of "Fox and Friends") tried to connect "Sound of Freedom" to actual political issues, including immigration and border security: 

Senate Republicans say the Biden Administration has created the largest human trafficking ring in the world, which certainly explains why the Establishment media is so desperate to discredit this new Jim Caviezel child sex trafficking film. … The DOJ has eliminated language on child sex trafficking from the government's website. An archived image of the webpage from April of this year included phrases and descriptions of "International Sex Trafficking of Minors," "Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors" and "Child Victims of Prostitution," but as of today that's no longer on the website. … These open border lunatic ideologues will ignore anything — death, rape, whatever it is, anything — before they admit their ideals on immigration are misguided …. If this doesn't open people's eyes to just how sinister and disturbing American politics has become, I don't think anything will.

The rest of the segment involved Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, explaining why he believed the Biden administration was responsible for "creating the largest child trafficking ring in U.S. history." While Cornyn did not directly endorse QAnon's lurid fantasies, he certainly alluded to them, claiming that 

300,000 [immigrant] children [have] been accepted and placed with sponsors by the Biden administration ... the Biden administration can't tell you where they are, what they're doing, whether they're going to school, whether they're being adequately fed, their medical needs attended to, or whether they're forced into involuntary labor [and] sex-trafficked.

Right-wing commentators went out of their way to tie the child-abuse message of "Sound of Freedom" to anti-immigrant paranoia, pursuing QAnon's most pernicious goals without explicitly endorsing the movement or its beliefs.

None of this is a coincidence. Right-wing commentators who rhapsodized about the importance of "Sound of Freedom" went out of their way to tie the film's central plot of combating child abuse to anti-immigrant screeds, without ever explicitly endorsing QAnon and its beliefs. To those unfamiliar with the direction QAnon has taken since the aftermath of the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, this feigned ignorance among MAGA types might seem paradoxical. Consider this ridiculous monologue delivered by Kelly Sadler, an editor at the Washington Times, in the July 10 episode of Chris Plante's "The Right Squad." Sadler began by carefully mispronouncing QAnon as "Cue-na-non," to underscore that she had no idea what it was: 

I've been in conservative politics my entire life. I've never heard of it! It's fringe, but it's a way to label something as racist, something that you don't like, right? All of Hollywood subscribes to ... movies promoting more LGBTQs, they need more movies that have this DEI incentive, but this one from an evangelical talking about a real problem happening on our southern border? Eighty-five children were lost [by DHS, allegedly] last year, trafficked through the border, and then put into child labor camps .... This is a real issue that [the film is] bringing attention to, and it seems if there was one thing that could unify both Democrats and Republicans, it's this issue of child slavery through child sex trafficking.

Host Chris Plante had introduced the segment with a similar tone of incomprehension, staring into the camera asking: "Who follows QAnon? What is QAnon? The news media is breathing life into QAnon!" 

I'm sorry, Chris — you don't get to pretend you've never heard of the unofficial propaganda arm of your favorite president simply because the events of Jan. 6 exposed way too much of its ugly underside. For Plante, of course, Democrats are "the party of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein … and Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton's intern program and 'Let's not be critical of people just because they want to have sex with a five-year-old,' that's the party that's attacking anybody and everybody [with] this QAnon obsession."

I don't need to tell Salon's readers that no one in the Democratic Party has endorsed anyone having sex with five-year-olds, but the notion that the Democrats are equivalent to pedophiles — now widespread in the "parents' rights" movement — has been a core QAnon belief from the beginning. To hear Plante and Sadler essentially advocating a key plank in the QAnon cosmology while pretending to know nothing about the movement reflects a central argument in my recent book, "Operation Mindf**k: QAnon & the Cult of Donald Trump," where I suggest that in the wake of Trump's 2020 defeat and Jan. 6, loyal QAnon followers will pretend to leave the movement behind and rebrand themselves, continuing to pursue its most pernicious goals under a somewhat more innocuous banner. The central imperative, however, remains largely unchanged, and the focus on immigration and the border also goes back to the beginning, mirroring Trump's infamous promise to "Build the Wall" on the southern border. 

In Agenda 47, the profoundly disturbing manifesto found on Donald Trump's campaign website, we find a plank entitled "President Trump Calls for Death Penalty for Human Traffickers." Since we know the phrase "human traffickers" is synonymous with "liberal Democrats" in the MAGA mind, it requires little imagination to figure out what Trump is really promising his followers. Here's Trump talking about "Sound of Freedom" on July 19 at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey:

I was thrilled to host a screening at Bedminster of the important new film "Sound of Freedom," about the power of faith in overcoming evil and in particular, the evil of child trafficking. Big problem. We had it down to the lowest number in many years, just four years ago, and now it's gone through the roof. Even though the fake news media has tried to ignore it.... We do have modern slavery, if you can believe it. Additionally, I created the first ever White House position focused solely on combating human trafficking and perhaps most importantly, we created the most secure border in U.S. history by far, dealing a major blow to the cartels and traffickers. We built hundreds of miles of wall. We renovated hundreds of miles of wall. We never had anything like it, and then I got Mexico free of charge, to give us 28,000 soldiers to protect us from people coming into our country illegally. When I'm back in the White House, I will immediately end the Biden border nightmare that traffickers are using to exploit vulnerable women and children.... I will use Title 42 to end the child trafficking crisis by returning all trafficked children to their families in their home countries and without delay, and I will urge Congress to ensure that anyone caught trafficking children across our border receives the death penalty immediately.

Whether any of that is true, and whether Trump intends to follow through on any of those promises, is irrelevant in regard to the 2024 presidential election. What's important here is that Trump knows how that language will be interpreted by the QAnon crowd. Since his 2020 defeat, some of his most outspoken acolytes have ramped up from online stalking and harassment to outright vigilantism against those deemed less than human by the MAGA agenda, specifically immigrants. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a growing number of vigilantes patrolling the southern border consist of "White Nationalists, Jan. 6 protesters, and QAnon" followers. 

Veterans on Patrol, a militia group led by a QAnon advocate named Michael "Lewis Arthur" Meyer, takes great pride in attempting to detain migrants crossing the border into Arizona. The SPLC calls VOP "a vigilante group" which believes that "humans, weapons and drugs are being trafficked into the U.S. via the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation, a Native American reservation in Southern Arizona" and that "migrants are looking to harvest the organs of [American] children." Investigative journalist Melissa del Bosque reports that these MAGA vigilantes sometimes acquire the phone numbers of migrants' U.S. sponsors and "confront the sponsors at their homes." They perceive immigrants as parasites that need to be hunted down and eliminated and view themselves as QAnon superheroes who can get the job done.

Similar views are espoused by Rebecca Ferland, head of the AZ Desert Guardians, a group that claims, with no evidence, that "U.S. sponsors for migrant children are also registered sex offenders." Other QAnon-adjacent organizations include Women Fighting for America, led by Christie Hutcherson — who came to prominence in MAGA circles by riling up a "Stop the Steal" crowd the night before the Jan. 6 riot — and the paramilitary group AZ Border Recon, led by an Army veteran named Tim Foley who claims to have buried homemade bombs along the border for the express purpose of killing immigrants.

There was never any evidence for the preposterous claim that the man who attacked Paul Pelosi was his lover. It's far more likely the attacker was influenced by QAnon theories about Nancy Pelosi's links to Satanism.

Early last year, the National Butterfly Center, which is along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, was forced to shut its doors after receiving numerous death threats from QAnon devotees who were convinced that the butterfly sanctuary was actually a front for child sex trafficking. The targeting of the sanctuary began when "it filed a lawsuit to block construction of the [border] wall on its property," arguing that the barrier "would cut two-thirds off the 100-acre nature preserve, 'effectively destroying it'." After consuming inflammatory QAnon theories regarding the sanctuary, one Trump supporter apparently tried to run over the center's director and her son with a vehicle.  

The phantasmagorical horror story surrounding the Butterfly Center recalls the baseless "Pizzagate" claims of several years ago, which led a North Carolina man to drive 283 miles to shoot up Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C., pizzeria that anonymous Trump supporters on 4chan had claimed was "the home of a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving top Democrats such as Hillary Clinton."

Far-right propaganda linking liberal ideology to homosexuality, and homosexuality to pedophilia, goes way back in the conservative movement, but has notably ramped up over the past few months. That also can partly explain why QAnon theorists and far-right television commentators worked overtime to convince the public that David Wayne DePape, the man who attacked Nancy Pelosi's husband with a hammer last October, was actually a male prostitute and that he and Paul Pelosi were lovers. There was never any evidence for that claim, and of course it's far more likely that DePape was influenced by a steady diet of QAnon theories regarding Nancy Pelosi's alleged links to a Satanic "dark cabal, a secret group of Jews who manipulate world events for their own gain." Indeed, DePape posted many such claims on his WordPress blog in the months before his attack on Paul Pelosi. To radicalized Trump followers like him, or like the above-mentioned Meyer, Ferland, Hutcherson and Tim Foley, this is the same world-spanning Satanic network responsible for spiriting immigrant children across the border into the United States. 

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Not long ago, while I was researching the radicalization of the evangelical right, a colleague who works for the government sent me a copy of an anonymous letter that had been mailed to multiple library branches throughout Southern California. Each letter was a photocopy of a handwritten sheet, although one included an original handwritten page in red ink. Each envelope carried the same fictitious return address. I reproduce it here with original misspellings intact:

Hello Library Employees, 

I'm writing this letter to warn people of California that we have people here that wants to molest kids and rape women. These people kidnapped 95 thousand kids and woman in Mexico. They are here in Los Angeles County, Orange County. Most of them are here to do the same thing here that they did in Mexico. We must not allow these vampires to murder women and children here in the United States. They have to do that in Mexico and not here. 

I just wanted to warn you to be alert of these demons that live among us. We see them every day. Most of these people are Hispanic. Be aware of them. Many of them love to kidnap. Alert all family and friend. Be aware of their. Beware of Death Angels. In there Country 95,000 disappeared. They are in our State. Be alert of them. The Vampires are here. 

Beware of them. They are here to destroy us. Beware and very alert of them. Tell all of your family friend to be alert of them. 

These pictures [in enclosed newspaper clippings] shows that Mexicans are running the show in kidnapping women and children. Sometimes they molest them and sometimes they kill them. Over 90 thousand were killed in Mexico. They want to come here and terrorize USA citizens here in our Country. We cannot let them do that in our Country. These Vampires should stay in there Country and do that. We cannot accepted this here. Are borders should be guarded very well to keep danger from coming into our Country.

The letter never mentions QAnon, but all the important earmarks are there: blatant xenophobia and racism, irrational fear of immigrants, an obsession with pedophilia and a desire to pin the blame for child sex trafficking on outsiders or foreigners, who are equated with inhuman, supernatural beings ("demons," "Death Angels," Vampires"). And of course the passive self-righteousness that cloaks racism as benign concern for the safety of children — but only for white children, as the writer makes it clear that he has no problem with Mexican children being kidnapped and trafficked. The alarmist appeal to guard against an ongoing invasion is distinctly Trump-like, as is the pretense that the writer is nothing more than a patriotic citizen offering up some well-intentioned warnings to his fellow right-thinking Americans. If this example seems isolated or extreme, it isn't. It's a precise microcosm of the propaganda being shoved into the heads of millions of American conservatives every day. 

According to a PRRI report released in 2022, "nearly one in five Americans and one in four Republicans" still believe in QAnon conspiracy theories. This survey, in conjunction with the surprise success of "Sound of Freedom," clearly suggests that QAnon has been growing in popularity since Trump's defeat rather than fading away. Whether or not Donald Trump goes to prison or wins the Republican nomination next year (and both could happen), all available evidence suggests that these conspiratorial obsessions, along with the demonization of immigrants and other marginalized groups, aren't going away anytime soon.

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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Conspiracy Theory Deep Dive Far-right Immigration Migrants Qanon Racism Sex Trafficking Sound Of Freedom