At the height of pandemic lockdown, I often went on aimless strolls through my neighborhood in an effort to stave off cabin fever. On one such outing, I came across a poster, amateurishly made and visibly besieged by the elements, that featured an image of World Economic Forum (WEF) chairman Klaus Schwab speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government alongside a YouTube video URL and a quote reading: “What we are very proud of, is that we penetrate the global cabinets of countries with our WEF Young Global Leaders . . . like [Justin] Trudeau.” No further commentary was included, but the implication was clear: here, the poster darkly intoned, was the head of the WEF caught on tape admitting that multinational elites run the world — that the prime minister of Canada is not a patriot but a puppet of larger forces hell-bent on enforcing their wills from above.
The image has stayed in my mind because it’s such a perfect encapsulation of the way conspiracy theory tends to operate. At a certain level of abstraction, its premise — that the world is a deeply unequal place and that a self-serving consensus holds among its most influential elites — wasn’t entirely wrong. Yet, somehow, the rather banal realities of elite power (sourced, in this case, to a video publicly available on the Kennedy School’s YouTube channel) was blown up into a revelatory fantasy of conspiracy unmasked and global evil exposed.
As a political fable the whole thing conveys an attractive moral simplicity. If a tiny group of individuals is really complicit in all of your problems, the business of solving those problems becomes incredibly straightforward. When you cut off the head of a snake, after all, the torso it has wrapped around you will quickly slacken and die.
In October, 2017, an anonymous post on the message board 4chan made a bold announcement: “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM-8:30 AM EST on Monday — the morning on October 30, 2017.” Subsequent posts elaborated that President Donald Trump and his administration were making plans for the arrest and preparations for the chaotic events it would inevitably set off.
For reasons that will never be fully understood, these posts somehow stood out enough amid the deluge of content posted to 4chan every day to trigger one of the most sprawling, sinister, and fascinating right-wing subcultures of the twenty-first century. The initial prediction obviously never came true. But QAnon — the epochal and millenarian conspiracy theory it spurred — quickly seemed to grow in inverse proportion to the accuracy of the eponymous “Q’s” predictions.
Having since metastasized into a globe-spanning phenomenon, the basic story of QAnon is by now well-known. As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer explains in his excellent new book, Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America:
At its heart, QAnon has a simple message; the world is run by a cabal of Satanic cannibal-pedophiles from the ranks of the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and global finance who sexually abuse children and even drink their blood in rituals. The US military, which has resisted joining the otherwise all-encompassing cabal, recruited Donald Trump to run for president to oppose this evil group of elitists. And someday soon he’s going to purge all his foes in a violent, cathartic moment called “The Storm,” with his opponents ending up either imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay or executed by military tribunals. All of the world’s problems — and yours — will be solved forever.
Here we have the essential ingredients of QAnon: a familiar theory of shadowy elite rule grafted onto a horrific story of organized child abuse; an undercurrent of right-wing nationalism and a reverence for institutions like the military; a collection of antagonists who all hail from liberal America; a simulation of grassroots political participation in the form of cryptic, anonymous posts that can be endlessly deconstructed and decoded; and, finally, a fantasy of violent purges and the promise of a coming utopia.
Beyond these basic contours, QAnon is endlessly complex, factional, and adaptable to a seemingly limitless number of different causes, contexts, and grievances. Understanding its genesis is important, not only because it has torn apart families and inspired real-world acts of violence, but because it may represent a new template for conspiracy theory in an age of media oversaturation and democratic paralysis.
In this respect, Sommer’s book — enriched by immersive reporting and informed analysis — is an engaging and useful treatment of a sinister and endlessly slippery subject. Having tracked and reported on QAnon since it first emerged in 2017, he has an unmatched ability to explain its convoluted (and often competing) mythologies and make its obscure idioms and language legible to the reader.
In an early chapter, for example, he cites a Q post from October 28, 2017, which read:
HRC detained, not arrested (yet).
Where is Huma? Follow Huma.
This has nothing to do w/Russia (yet).
Why does Potus surround himself w/generals?
What is military intelligence?
Why go around the 3 letter agencies?
They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control.
This is not a R v D battle.
Why did Soros donate all his money recently?
Why would he place all his funds in a RC?
God bless fellow Patriots.
Just like the posts on any obscure subreddit or web forum, Q’s messages mean virtually nothing unless you’ve spent hours consuming them already. But as Sommer explains, everything above would be instantly legible to an average Q devotee: “Mockingbird” referred to a real-life CIA operation during the Cold War; “3 letter agencies” referred to the CIA, FBI, and NSA, who have supposedly been infiltrated by the cabal; “This is not a R v D battle” meant that both major parties had similarly been infiltrated; “Huma” was Hillary Clinton confidant Huma Abedin, who Q claimed was secretly working with the patriotic faction Trump and his generals would soon lead into the promised land.
One important takeaway from Sommer’s book is that this insularity is a significant part of QAnon’s appeal. By understanding and interpreting Q posts, followers could partake in a fantasy of endless intrigue and identify themselves as soldiers in a righteous crusade. The ambiguity of the posts, moreover, left ample space for competing interpretations, spawning a whole network of Q microsects and streaming enterprises — with different partisans advancing their own analyses and competing for new chunks of territory on Q’s ever-expanding frontier.
In this sense, there is something quintessentially American and Protestant about QAnon, beyond the unavoidable fact that many of its most zealous adherents are conservative evangelicals. At the level of grassroots interaction, it is a priesthood of believers speaking in chan-ified tongues and experiencing a personal relationship with their chosen God. The vehicle for this anarchic individualism, however, is ultimately a marketplace of competing brands and franchises. And, as in your average megachurch, there is a concurrent reverence for authority and hierarchy — QAnon’s theology foregrounding, above all else, the US military and its one-time commander in chief, Donald Trump.
Trust the Plan
In early 2021, just after Joe Biden’s inauguration, I asked Sommer about a basic paradox regarding QAnon that I was unable to wrap my head around. Conspiracy theories are often convoluted attempts to mythologize and explain feelings of marginality and exclusion (whether well-founded or not). In this sense, they emerge, almost by definition, from a context of powerlessness.
What then explained the genesis of the Q phenomenon, which first appeared shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as president and the Republican Party enjoyed unified control of the United States government? How Sommer answers this question is critical to understanding the nature of QAnon and what has enabled it to grow even as its various prophecies have failed to come true.
Essentially, he argues in Trust the Plan, QAnon initially emerged as a “coping mechanism for Trump voters troubled by his stalled presidency . . . a fairy tale for people wondering why Trump hadn’t fulfilled his promises,” which recast “[a] struggling president as a hero of biblical proportions.” This strange epistemology, by almost alchemic process, allowed Trump supporters to interpret anything and everything — no matter how banal — as a signal that all was in fact going according to plan. However Trump might look mired in scandals and Congressional investigations, and however he seemed to have morphed into a fairly conventional Republican president, the lusted-for moment of ultimate catharsis would soon come over the horizon.
Throughout the book, using a mixture of reporting and analysis, Sommer details innumerable episodes, variously violent and bizarre, inspired by QAnon. His approach, born of countless hours spent talking with Q adherents themselves, is admirably sensitive and empathetic. Many of Trump’s supporters, Sommer writes, quite earnestly viewed his election as an historic event that would solve all their problems.
For some, that belief was quite literal (a man with terminal cancer and no health insurance convinced by Q’s predictions that The Storm would force the cabal to surrender a cure; a woman with an autistic and constantly bullied son patiently waiting for Trump to force a release of the antidote, etc). For others, the pull had more to do with the need to rescue children from the clutches of the elites abusing them.
As the author writes of the movement’s adherents, “Anons see the world as an abattoir, a place where innocent children are sexually tortured to keep Hollywood celebrities wrinkle-free. A world where this happens demands that bold, even criminal, action be taken.” Here, he details, QAnon clearly had a trial run in 2016’s Pizzagate conspiracy, but also found earlier antecedents in much older conspiracies like the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
As both a moral panic and a far-right power fantasy, all of this speaks to what makes QAnon exceptional. More than any rival in recent history, it has shown a remarkable ability to cannibalize existing right-wing narratives and synthesize them into new forms — fusing the existing IP of conspiracism into a kind of ur-conspiracy malleable enough to incorporate virtually anything in its path.
To this end, some of Trust the Plan’s most interesting passages detail its history since the eponymous Q (whoever they might have been) stopped posting in 2020. Despite Q’s absence, and despite the promised Storm never coming to pass, the movement has not only persisted but spread to other countries and gobbled up their own right-wing idioms along the way. At the same time, Q continues to linger in spectral form behind the various homophobic and child-related sex panics currently proliferating on the American right.
As much as the movement was supercharged by the coronavirus, Sommer speculates that Trump’s forthcoming presidential run may soon give QAnon yet another lease on life. Whether this happens or not, the engaging and expansive account he offers in Trust the Plan makes clear that something like it will probably be with us for quite some time.
On one level, QAnon is obviously symptomatic of various twenty-first-century malaises: epistemic collapse in an age of diffuse media consumption and social atomization, raw human desperation born of systemic institutional failure, and the continued descent of politics into managed spectacle. On another, however, it is a harbinger of something even more worrisome: a new and radically postmodern species of right-wing politics, capable of transcending the boundaries of nation, culture, and language, and offering its converts an authoritarian fantasy of violent revolution.