- Interview by
- Luke Savage
QAnon is one of the strangest developments in the Trump era: a pastiche conspiracy theory involving Satanic rituals, child abuse, the US military, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and the former host of The Apprentice. In many ways, QAnon should have died in 2021 when, contrary to the eponymous “Q”’s various prophecies, Donald Trump departed the White House and Joe Biden was sworn in as president. Instead, it was supercharged by the global pandemic and exported to countries as far afield as Germany, France, and Japan.
Investigative journalist Will Sommer has been following QAnon since it first emerged in 2017. His new book Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America is an extended interrogation of the theory’s genesis and roots. Sommer joined Jacobin’s Luke Savage to discuss the book, the state of QAnon, and what has enabled the movement to endure and grow despite its many failed prophecies.
Reading your book, I was particularly struck by the extent to which QAnon is an expansive pastiche of existing conspiracy theories and grievances that are common on the Republican right. What are the various sources and antecedents to QAnon as you see them? What’s the raw material that it’s drawing on?
In truth it goes back hundreds of years. But I think of the conspiracy theories that exploded during the Obama administration on the Right, like birtherism, which has a lot of the same people behind it as QAnon. There were these free-floating conspiracy theories, like the idea that Obama was going to send conservatives to be imprisoned in Walmarts, or the stuff laid out by Alex Jones: the idea of a New World Order or a cabal.
We can go back even further to things like the Satanic panic in the 1980s — the idea that the Satanic sexual abuse of children was happening and was a national threat. We can even go back hundreds of years to the Jewish blood libel of the thirteenth century, which suggested that Jewish people were murdering gentile children and using their blood to make bread for Passover. We see this recur — as crazy as that sounds — in QAnon: this idea that Jewish people in Hollywood and finance are drinking children’s blood.
You’ve spent a lot of time talking to “Anons” about their beliefs and what has drawn them into the movement, and something that struck me in Trust the Plan was the earnestness of some of the people you write about. QAnon is ecumenical and attracts followers for different reasons. But one catalyst, at least for some, was personal desperation and a belief that Donald Trump was going to deal with whatever was causing it. Can you talk about that?
People who get into QAnon often have clear-eyed ideas about how they got into it, and some were at very low points in their lives. For example, I talked to people who have huge amounts of debt. Or a guy who had cancer and couldn’t get treatment because he didn’t have insurance. But rather than saying: “You know, geez, why doesn’t America have free health care?”, he decided that the cabal was hoarding the cure for cancer and that Donald Trump was going to rescue him.
You can see how these people are often driven to QAnon by material deprivation, the causes of which get twisted up in their heads. Particularly in the United States, these are people who are often already on the Right and don’t want to criticize the system. They don’t want to conclude, “This is capitalism doing this to me.” Instead, it gets twisted into, “It’s this shadowy group that’s after me.”
The last time we spoke, in 2021, Joe Biden had just been sworn in as president. On paper, this should have been an existential threat to the Q mythology, and yet the movement has persisted and even grown. Q himself stopped posting in 2020, but, as you detail in the book, that hasn’t posed a problem either.
Can you walk us through the trajectory of QAnon since 2020? What has its evolution been through the pandemic and since Trump left the White House?
Q has popped up occasionally since 2020 but not in a concerted way. He really went quiet shortly after the 2020 election. For years, even before Q went quiet, QAnon’s believers and promoters were laying the groundwork for QAnon without Q. These prophecies failed to come true, and they would say: “Well, maybe Q is a guy in his mom’s basement, maybe it isn’t Michael Flynn or Don Jr. But what he taught us is real. Maybe this was all a game, but it was an educational game about teaching us the cabal is real and that vaccines are going to murder us. That’s all real. It’s just that Q sort of had to dress it up to get us all to come together and see the truth.”
In terms of how they keep it going: even after Biden was inaugurated, it is remarkable watching how they deal with the cognitive dissonance. They say stuff like, “Well, I guess the deep state was just tougher than we knew” and offer all these excuses for why their dreams didn’t come true.
The pandemic was a substantial accelerant, right?
Yes, definitely. Think about where people found themselves in March 2020. People were losing their jobs. A lot of people felt like things were out of control. They also had a ton of time to spend online and were isolated from people they knew in the real world.
So some people grasped for an easy explanation, and QAnon was happy to provide that. It said: “We can blame Bill Gates or George Soros or Tony Fauci. We blame these people and they’re the ones responsible.” That gives people the feeling that they have more agency as opposed to just being buffeted by wider forces and trends. You can say, “If we would just arrest Fauci, this whole thing would be solved!”
QAnon appears to suck up random bits of cultural detritus in a way that seems quite novel. Its slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All,” for example, was randomly borrowed from a barely remembered Ridley Scott film called White Squall released in the 1990s; adrenochrome — which is supposedly the substance being drawn by the cabal from children — was popularized by the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What exactly do you think is going on there?
It really is this sort of pop-culture driftwood that QAnon picks up: this Ridley Scott sailing movie that’s kind of a Dead Poets Society on the ocean is just one example. It’s very bizarre. It’s a sign of how pop culture–addled whoever created Q is.
QAnon’s followers are very into these heroic narratives. They also think that Hollywood is so infected by the cabal and these pedophiles that it almost flaunts it by making movies with all these clues in them. One of QAnon followers’ slogans is “symbolism will be their downfall.”
Another idea is that these people are stupid, which gets into another aspect of QAnon: it allows believers to feel smarter. You can look at someone in Hollywood who’s so exalted and say, “This moron! He shouldn’t have put all these clues about the cabal into his movie!”
Something I find very interesting is QAnon’s apparently endless adaptability to different milieus and cultures. On one level, QAnon seems like the most quintessentially American thing you could possibly imagine: foregrounding Republican politicians and military leaders, involving JFK conspiracies and the like. Yet to take one example — you report that it now counts as many as two hundred thousand followers in Germany, where QAnon recently helped inspire an extremely bizarre coup attempt (albeit a comically unsuccessful one).
Could you walk us through QAnon’s international spread? How do you account for it?
It makes sense in some ways, because QAnon is so vague, and these clues are so open to interpretation, that people already can really find whatever they want in it — whether they think it’s a religious parable or they’re insanely into Donald Trump. It’s had a remarkable ability to adapt to local conditions.
In Germany, this far-right movement that’s obsessed with the German Empire and wants to bring it back existed before QAnon. But members see in Q a story about how Donald Trump is going to rescue them from this fake country and restore the empire. In Japan, people are into it. France too. It really is surprising. In Canada, they have their own QAnon Queen.
The German example is so funny to me because, as I understand it, the group at its center believes that the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II — which involved the United States — never ended. But then, somehow, Donald Trump is going to reinvade on behalf of the United States and restore true German nationhood . . .
It does not make a ton of sense. I mean, that whole Reichsbürger thing is fascinating. They resemble American sovereign citizens who say, “I don’t recognize the authority of this German government, and so I don’t have to pay my taxes.”
You’ve spent a long time immersing yourself in the granular details of internet-era right-wing conspiracy theories. Do you think QAnon is unique or exceptional?
I think QAnon does have a unique aspect to it, which is its participatory nature. You really don’t have other conspiracy theories with an anonymous guide inviting you to follow them down a rabbit hole. Other conspiracy theories are very backward-looking: it’s like, “Who assassinated this person?” With QAnon, on the other hand, there’s a promise of utopia at the end: this moment called “the Storm” in which Donald Trump is going to arrest all of his enemies, and there won’t be any more wars, any more diseases, and all debts will be abolished. For other conspiracy theories, that just doesn’t really exist, whereas QAnon asks people to participate and even to help bring about the Storm itself.
In Trust the Plan, you are very skeptical of direct attempts to deradicalize Anons. Full-frontal factual debunkings, you argue, don’t work. You write: “If people are driven to conspiracy theories because they feel disrespected in their lives, then the solution is to treat all people with more dignity. I believe that anything that broadly improves conditions in the United States, from a universal daycare program to a minimum wage increase, would do more to keep people out of movements like QAnon than any kind of targeted anti-disinformation effort could.” Why do you think that is?
I think definitely it doesn’t work in the case of individual QAnon believers. More broadly, if we can inoculate society by saying, “Here’s this crazy thing people are talking about, which is fake,” I think that can be effective. But in terms of bringing people out of it, they have been taught and have already bought into a belief system that attacks every institution of outside truth. With academia, science, government, or media, they’re taught not only that these are all just lying, but also that they’re eating children.
As a result, QAnon followers are really burrowed in, and they ultimately want to save face. Even if there are things chiseling away at what they believe, they know that admitting QAnon is wrong is going to mean acknowledging that they fell for it. So there are a lot of incentives to stay within it. For lots of QAnon believers, when they do come out of it, it’s sort of random. There was first something that proved QAnon was real, and then at some point they’ll encounter something disproving it. Maybe it’s something in their area of expertise, or in the industry they work in, and they say, “I know that’s not true. What else isn’t true about this?”
And the solutions you offer are quite expansive, I guess because you see the problem as quite expansive.
It’s a very thorny issue. People often think about how to solve this disinformation problem and see it as a matter of, for example, getting YouTube to stop promoting these videos. Which would be good. But I think it’s often these very specific solutions, like teaching about disinformation in school, that won’t work. I mean, look at what’s going on in Republican states across the country where you can’t have Toni Morrison books — much less say to people, “don’t trust Fox News.”
I don’t have any great answers apart from saying that maybe we should make society nicer. But so many QAnon people I talk to were really down and out. Not all of them — some are just driven by racial resentment or other negative impulses. But many felt that the social safety net had failed them, and that was what brought them into QAnon. If we had things like universal health care, fewer people would feel the kind of desperation that drives them into these fantasy worlds.
In some ways, QAnon is inextricable from Donald Trump, and he is about to run for the Republican nomination again and currently leading in all of the polling aggregates that I’ve seen. What do you see as the future of QAnon — both over the next few months as Trump runs again, and then more generally in the long term?
We can think about this in a couple of ways. On one hand, Trump is really signaling to QAnon in a major way on his social media site Truth Social. He’s posting pictures of himself wearing Q buttons — they’re photoshopped, but he’s really saying about QAnon, “These are my guys.” That’s really crazy, because QAnon is about how Trump is going to murder people and become dictator for life.
On the other hand, I think that, even if we don’t see people marching with Q signs again like we did on January 6, this broader conspiracism has really infected the GOP in a serious way. We saw that Republicans like Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger who said that the election wasn’t stolen were run out of town.
We can also see how common it is now for people on the Right to claim that gay teachers are involved in a conspiracy to abuse children. I don’t think we would have this kind of language without QAnon laying the groundwork for it. Ultimately, just as Pizzagate went away after the shooting at Comet Ping Pong and then reemerged through QAnon, I think QAnon is going to stay with us — even if it’s under another name.