Argument

QAnon Is Trumpism Now

The sprawling conspiracy theory is dying—and being reborn as the new normal of the Republican Party.

A car with a flag endorsing QAnon
A car with a flag endorsing QAnon drives by as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather for a rally outside the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Nov. 14, 2020. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Q is dead. Long live QAnon.

From one viewpoint, the conspiracy movement-cum-mass delusion exits 2020 in shambles. Its shadowy leader is in the wind. Two elected members of Congress who once praised the movement now insist they want nothing to do with it. Its chosen presidential candidate went down in flames on Election Day. Its kooky name has become a household punchline.

And yet, the underlying ideas behind the movement may be more influential than ever. QAnon believers have toiled away, on the anonymous message board 8chan and on the far-right social media platforms Parler and Gab, to make 2021 their year. With just weeks to go before Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, the conspiracy club has worked feverishly to supply the faulty research and nonsensical allegations allowing President Donald Trump to keep claiming a false victory.

Last year was massive for the once-fringe conspiracy theory. Even as the general public has woken up to the grandiose theories of QAnon, from belief in Democratic Party-run child trafficking rings to deep-state Satan worship, its adherents have been ascendant. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as national security advisor to Trump, has gone all-in on the movement. Polls have shown that the secretive leader Q’s followers are likely not in the thousands, but the millions. And it has gone global: You can spot the iconic Q flag at far-right rallies throughout Europe, QAnon followers have tried to perform citizen’s arrests of Canada’s easily accessible politicians, and a close friend of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a prominent QAnon influencer. At the center of it all was Q, the anonymous figure who has spent years showering their followers in a deluge of innuendo and coded messages.

But as the Nov. 3, 2020, election came and went, and the results began to show Trump—who has coyly encouraged QAnon—was the loser, Q grew quiet. The only information “drop” on the message board 8chan in the past month has been a glowing propaganda video of the president that has now racked up 1.5 million views.

The QAnon gang has always been a self-motivated bunch, but they have relied on the titular Q to provide clues and direction. In their posts, Q rarely offers new intelligence but often confirms or remixes theories already percolating on 8chan. With little to go on from their de facto leader, the followers of QAnon had an election result to flip all on their own.

And while their research is, nearly without fail, unserious and fantastical, it has formed the bedrock of tossed-out lawsuits from QAnon-linked lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, padded the daily broadcasts on One America News and Newsmax, and formed the basis of Trump’s own demands to overturn the election. Nearly every piece of supposed evidence cited by Trump’s merry band of election thieves—the so-called Kraken that was supposed to dazzle the courts into flipping states from blue to red—was concocted, augmented, or at least boosted by his legion of QAnon faithful. And Trump himself has been enthusiastically boosting them.

Take the complex network of conspiracies around Dominion Voting Systems. Going back to 2018, the QAnon message boards on 8chan have claimed the Toronto-based election company is tightly linked to George Soros and the Clinton Foundation, evidence of the company’s complicity in a satanic deep-state plot. On Nov. 2, on the eve of Election Day, a user posted to 8chan, reporting that they had just heard from a “well known intelligence analyst,” imploring them to look into Dominion. “They don’t have to win the election. They just need to create distrust in our elections,” the user wrote, supposedly quoting the unnamed intelligence analyst.

On Nov. 8, Powell appeared on Fox News to tout the theory that Dominion machines switched votes from Trump to Biden—a suggestion that has since been debunked by multiple states’ auditing of the tabulations. A few days later, the president was tweeting about Dominion’s supposed involvement in the theft. That theory, for which there was never any concrete evidence, has now become intrinsic to Trump’s claim of fraud. (Trump actually won many counties that use Dominion systems.)

Sometimes it can be tough to trace the provenance of these conspiracies, from 8chan to the president, but sometimes they make it easier. Both Wood and Mike Lindell—CEO of My Pillow, a backer of One America News, and a prominent supporter of Trump—recently tweeted out a direct link to 8chan, which pointed to a report on supposed electoral fraud that warned “Americans Prepare for War.”

On the recently leaked call between Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Trump voices all manner of theories pushed by QAnon. From a supposed “professional vote scammer” to selectively edited videos claiming to show fraudulent ballots arriving, the president regurgitated repeatedly debunked conspiracies that largely originated on 8chan and the Gateway Pundit, a far-right conspiracist site.

It is a new legitimacy for QAnon. It, however, leaves the movement in an awkward bind. On one hand, it has become a sort of opposition research body for the Republican Party—or, at least, the party of Trump. On the other, it is still esoteric in many ways, promoting all manner of kooky beliefs around mass child kidnapping and satanic ritual that are too much even for the Republican Party of 2021. Baked into QAnon is long-standing nonsense around British conspiracy theorist David Icke’s belief in lizard people and anti-Semitic theories lifted from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as newer delusions around 5G towers causing COVID-19 and anti-vaccination propaganda.

On New Year’s Day, those sorts of theories appear to have pushed Anthony Quinn Warner to detonate a bomb in downtown Nashville, killing himself and wounding eight others. While it’s not clear if Warner was a QAnon follower, there are already established examples of the theory leaking from the online world into real terrorism.

QAnon’s belief in nonsense hasn’t stopped it from reaching the president thus far, although it does likely limit its popular potential. Q also faces a more pressing problem, in that they have asked QAnon followers to “trust the plan” one too many times. As various predictions have come and gone without action—Hillary Clinton still walks around, unshackled; no widespread deep-state child trafficking ring has ever been uncovered; John F. Kennedy Jr. did not reappear—one prediction has been crucially important: that Donald Trump would be reelected president to carry on the mission. When Biden takes office, Q’s credibility as messenger of the forces for good may be irreparably damaged among their followers.

It seems Q may have realized that built-in expiration date.

As Foreign Policy has written previously, there is a Q behind the curtain. Ample evidence points to the idea that Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, is the main set of hands behind Q, manipulating the movement to his own ends. Why, exactly, he would want to give up his perch at the forefront of the growingly influential mob is an open question, but some clues may rest with his son: Ron.

Amid the calamity of Election Day, Ron Watkins—who moderated the main QAnon message board on 8chan and verified that Q posts were from the real Q, whatever that means—announced his sudden retirement from his moderating duties.

Within days, however, Watkins reemerged as a preeminent conspiracy theorist in his own right. He boasts more than 500,000 followers on Twitter, and his musings on electoral fraud have been picked up by One America News, the Gateway Pundit, and other right-wing media outlets. The president has retweeted Watkins five times since Election Day—most recently, a slew of tweets on Jan. 3 that mused Trump could push back Biden’s inauguration to buy more time to overturn the results.

Watkins went from verifying Q’s posts to becoming an integral part of Trump’s post-election messaging in just weeks.

QAnon, as it exists now, may be done for. But, in many ways, that doesn’t matter. QAnon’s conspiracies, pseudo-research methods, imaginary connections forged in corkboard and string, and belief in an omnipresent deep state will live on. QAnon has infected a constellation of media outlets, which run information that doesn’t need to be true so much as it needs to feed the Kraken. A caucus of congressional and Senate Republicans will refuse to accept the results of the election, predicated on claims that do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Millions of Americans have bought the notion that a wide-ranging conspiracy altered the outcome of the election. They all may as well embroider the letter Q on their coats.

It’s a terrifying turn of events for American democracy, but it is great news for the Watkins clan, which appears to have turned in their nom de plume and come out of the shadows, building more influence and power than they had in anonymity.

Ultimately, QAnon has become superfluous because Trump himself has gone all in on the movement. While the mass delusion has always obsessed over lizard people and Jewish families who secretly control the world, the core of their mission involves defending the president. In that crusade, many have openly wondered if Q is, in fact, Trump himself. With the outgoing president now signed up for the mission himself, it may be one prophecy that the movement has gotten right: Trump is, for all intents and purposes, the new Q.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.