UNTIL RECENTLY, most people asked to identify “Q” would mention an eccentric inventor of gadgets for James Bond. Now a nastier, if equally fictitious, Q is becoming better known. Digital searches surged this month among people who hoped to unpick the meaning of “QAnon”—an anti-Semitic and incoherent conspiracy theory. It has been spun for three years in cryptic messages posted by Q, posing as a senior government official.
The alleged conspiracy is both outlandish and dismally familiar. Supposedly Donald Trump is set to smash a cabal of paedophiles and cannibals, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros. Every generation or so, some outfit alleges that a secret league of the powerful—often cast as a financial, globalist or simply Jewish elite—is out to destroy America.
QAnon’s version has echoes of Robert Welch, a sweetmaker who founded the anti-communist John Birch Society in 1958. He claimed a “furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians” wanted America to be run by a socialist United Nations. It also shares some characteristics of the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, when rumours suggested devil-worshippers ran kindergartens and abused children.
The new conspiracy spread first in half-hidden corners online, then moved to mainstream social-media platforms and beyond. (Amazon now offers piles of mumbo-jumbo-filled QAnon screeds for sale.) Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others recently removed QAnon-affiliated groups and pages from their sites. Yet the movement surges, partly because the president prods it on. Last week he cheered Q-adherents as “people that love our country”. Media Matters, a left-leaning think-tank, counted 216 times by late August when he had retweeted messages of QAnon folk. Q-fans are ubiquitous at his rallies.
By one count 72 Republicans who have sought office this year are sympathetic to QAnon, including two Senate candidates and 17 candidates for the House who will appear on the ballot in November. Mr Trump recently praised Marjorie Taylor Greene, a House candidate who expects to win in Georgia, as a “future Republican star”. She has accused Mr Soros of helping Nazis and published dozens of articles lauding QAnon’s barmy ideas.
The president may welcome QAnon as a distraction from the pandemic. Its adherents also align with his supporters. Many use language familiar to evangelical Christians, eager to see a rapture or a cleansing “storm”, when their enemies will vanish. A review last year of academic research into who believes in conspiracies all but described Mr Trump’s most loyal fans—people who are typically poorer, less educated, outsiders and distrustful of institutions. One hint of QAnon’s potential reach was offered in a poll by Pew Research in June. It found that a quarter of adults believe a claim that nefarious plotters may have spread the coronavirus deliberately.
Mr Trump also indulges QAnon for a simple reason: because it lauds him. “It is very reciprocal, it’s about fealty to him,” says Ethan Porter, a researcher into the spread of misinformation, at George Washington University. He notes how the movement draws hangers-on, notably older people who lose themselves in “online rabbit holes” trying to grasp the conspiracy. Others joined recent QAnon-affiliated “save the children” marches in various cities.
Moderate Republicans are aghast. Some observe that the FBI last year identified QAnonners as potential terrorists. Denver Riggleman, an exiting congressman from Virginia, this week co-sponsored a resolution condemning QAnon, which he likens to “mental gonorrhoea”. The vice-president, Mike Pence, dismisses it “out of hand”. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, says it has no place in the party. His colleague Liz Cheney calls it a “dangerous lunacy”. Ben Sasse, a senator, warns that “garbage like this” will deter swing voters and let Democrats take the Senate.
None of this deters Mr Trump. He has asked Ms Taylor Greene to hear him speak at the White House on August 27th. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “On and on”