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For the past three years, someone using the alias “Q” has been posting updates to internet forums, supposedly from within the so-called “deep state.” The posts allege a conspiracy: Donald Trump, they say, is fighting a secret war against a cabal of pedophiles and Satanists entrenched in the government. Soon, Q assures their followers, Trump will destroy them.
Not coincidentally, the pedophiles are also embedded in the Democratic Party.
This isn’t just your average conspiracy theory, where self-trained criminologists puzzle over photographs of the grassy knoll in Dallas. Since 2017, when Q first appeared on a 4chan board as “Q Clearance Patriot,” the conspiracy theory, now popularly known as QAnon, has grown to embrace millions of Americans: one survey estimated that half of Donald Trump’s supporters believe that Q is real.
Between 2018 and the present, a dozen instances of violence have been linked to QAnon. Adherents of Q have made showings at Trump’s rallies, and Trump has, in his characteristic style, ducked requests to take a position on the conspiracy theory, claimed ignorance – and encouraged it. At a press conference in August he told reporters that he “didn’t know much about the movement” but that QAnon followers “love our country” and “like me very much.”
Q’s specialty is predicting the future, but they do a poor job of it. For almost as long as Q has been posting, there has been speculation about when the people who follow them will suspect fraud. But it isn’t happening. When Q predicted that Hillary Clinton would be arrested in November of 2017 and she was not, the conspiracy only grew, and became more public. Dozens of believers ran for office in the 2020 cycle, and two—Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14) and Lauren Boebert (R, CO-3)—are heading to Congress.
With Trump’s impending removal from office, recent think-pieces have proposed that this finally will be the end of QAnon. The movement’s most closely held belief, that Trump is more powerful than the shadowy, global cabal working against him, will have been disproved.
We will see. But if history is any indication, the most potent elements of QAnon will adjust to this new reality, incorporating whatever next appears on the news into its narrative. And it seems that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he lost the election may be fueling the fire of a re-energized, and re-organized, QAnon conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories, and the anti-Semitic tropes that QAnon traffics in, aren’t new to the United States. For more than a century some Americans have been convinced that some form of shadowy, global cabal controls the governments and peoples of the world for its own secret, evil purposes. The framework for this imagined conspiracy (as opposed to actual conspiracies like Watergate, which are by necessity self-contained and brief in duration) has existed for a century. Not coincidentally, it emerged simultaneously with the creation of international political and economic institutions themselves, and in particular the formation of the League of Nations in 1920.
But apocalyptic conspiracies, as the historian Matthew Avery Sutton has written, had already been fueled by the horrors of World War I. During the war, premillennial evangelicals understood the war itself as the years of suffering and strife predicted in Revelations that would precede the end of the world. The horrific battles on the Western front were their proof, and their prophecy was fulfilled each day in newspaper reports.
For those in the trenches, it seemed quite possible that the world was going to end, and although it didn’t, the political turmoil following the war kept these fears alive. Some in the United States, such as Arno Gaebelein, who edited the magazine popular in the early twentieth century with evangelical preachers, Our Hope, understood countries and institutions as apocalyptic figures predicted in the scriptures. The new Soviet Union, for Gaebelein, was the land of Magog, and the Russian Revolution the rally of Satan in advance of the end times. Other influential evangelicals, such as the circuit preacher Billy Sunday and Moody Bible Institute President James Gray, argued about whether the German Kaiser was actually the anti-Christ, Satan’s imitation of Jesus, or whether he was simply preparing the way for Satan to arrive.
Though the war concluded without the arrival of the anti-Christ or the apocalypse predicted by Revelations, this prophecy, and the search for conspiracies that it promoted, did not dissipate. As the victorious Allies organized international governance through the League of Nations, Gray transferred his apocalyptic anxieties to a powerful body that he saw as a potential vehicle for the anti-Christ. He urged the Senate to reject US entry into the organization, which—driven mostly by Republican isolationism—they did.
This refusal delayed, but did not defeat, the liberal internationalism that increasingly framed United States foreign and economic policy in the twentieth century. Thus, conspiracies that picture international institutions as screens to conceal the consolidation of a “one-world government” could point to evidence all around. As the historian Paul Boyer has noted, a growing evangelical and right-wing media linked biblical prophecy to current events, from the dropping of the nuclear bomb in 1945 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, during the Cold War.
Even immediately after 1989, when the Cold War ended and international relations did not provide a convenient Manichean narrative that mapped onto Revelations, conspiracy theories not only thrived, but rather entered the mainstream. In 1995, pastor Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind book series, in which the anti-Christ brings the world under his dominion by becoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations, became popular enough to be twice made into popular movies, one of which starred Nicholas Cage.
While QAnon is a new phase of conspiratorial thinking, millions of Americans were already primed to become involved in it. Though Q does not literally predict an apocalypse, adherents do envision a Great Awakening, when the struggle between Donald Trump and his adversaries will culminate, that functions in a similar way. The Great Awakening will, Q predicts, bring suffering and strife, as the anti-Christ, in the form of the Democratic establishment, fights for control of the United States.
It will be painful, but this final confrontation between Trump and the globalists will also be a vindication. When it happens—and they believe it will—everyone will have to admit that their faith in Q was justified.
But unlike earlier conspiracies, QAnon is a hybrid: it has religious elements, but is not entirely religious; it is political, but not entirely so. QAnon first emerged on the message board 4chan, which is famously home to edgy internet atheists. Although it has since taken off among some religious people, and accuses deep-state elites of Satan worship, believers do not uniformly use the Bible to interpret, or imagine, the future.
A greater organizing principle, perhaps, is pedophilia, drawing on a longstanding belief on the American right that secretive rings of child molesters and sexual abusers pose a threat to families, communities, and the nation itself. Because of this, the enemies of Trump that QAnon identifies are not evil simply because they are servants of the anti-Christ, but because they are Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Here, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, during which fears that daycare centers across the United States were engaged in the ritualistic abuse of children sparked false prosecutions throughout the country, paved the way. QAnon has simply transferred these anxieties about unknown predators to individuals they can identify: Democratic elites.
Journalists who write about QAnon often marvel at the apparent normalcy of its adherents. They are schoolteachers and grandparents, nurses and barkeepers. Similarly, Amy Johnson Frykholm, who published a study about the Left Behind communitywas struck by the dissonance between fans’ outlandish beliefs and their ordinary existences. An important lesson we should take from this is that the stereotypical street-corner conspiracy theorist may not be the most common kind of conspiracy theorist. After all, the conspiracies furthered by Left Behind and QAnon do not ask for action, but rather, trust in the plan and re-broadcasting Q’s messages over social media. This means it is easy for QAnon believers, and the apocalyptic conspiracy theorists who preceded them, to go about their everyday lives while believing that the world is controlled by pedophiles, or is soon going to end, things that on the surface would seem to call for drastic action.
This is not to imply that QAnon is harmless. The internet harassment that Q’s followers have used as a weapon against their perceived enemies, including death threats and doxing, cause real damage. And that is to say nothing of the institutional authority held by some of Q’s supporters. A growing number of police officers, for instance, with the power to inflict state-sanctioned violence on those in their jurisdictions, are turning to QAnon. They too, though, as far as we know, have mostly restricted their participation to showing off their support for the movement in accessories and social media posts. Pizzagate, the closest a believer ever come to mass violence, ended without injuries.
Technically, Pizzagate, during which an armed man entered a pizzeria in DC to search for the kidnapped children he was convinced Democratic elite were keeping in the restaurant’s basement predates Q, but the conspiracies the gunman acted upon are the same ones that Q promotes, Q’s addition being that Trump is aware of the conspiracy and secretly working against it. The ‘wait and see’ attitude Q encourages, the assurance that Trump will handle all of this, might explain why we have seen relatively little violence or attempts at revolution from people who believe that many in their government regularly rape and cannibalize children.
Trouble becomes more likely, perhaps, in moments like the one that we are in now, when a key element of the plan—Donald Trump’s invincibility—seems to be failing. There was another brush with violence, not quite so close as Pizzagate, in early November, when two armed men from Virginia with a QAnon sticker on their truck were arrested outside the building in center-city Philadelphia where votes in the 2020 election were being tallied. Q has hardly posted since the election, but the conspiracy theory they began will adapt to new circumstances.
Whatever happens over the next few months, QAnon, in some form or another, is going to stay with us, even if it is only to be integrated into the next conspiracy.
Emily Sandercock is a freelance writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania, recently graduated with an MPhil in American History from the University of Cambridge.