He Reported On QAnon From The Start — And Is Revealing What Drives True Believers (2024)

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He Reported On QAnon From The Start — And Is Revealing What Drives True Believers (1)

The anonymous internet account known as “Q,” the force behind the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, published its first cryptic online post in October 2017 — making the fascistic conspiracy theory that has shaped American politics for the worst one of the Trump era’s longest-lasting legacies.

At its heart, QAnon asserts that a satanic, pedophilic “cabal” made up of Democratic politicians and media and financial elites controls the world, and that former President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against them. The movement anticipates “The Storm,” or the moment when the tides will turn for Trump and his supporters, and the cabal will be overthrown and either killed or imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

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QAnon followers, desperately chasing the nonsense breadcrumbs left by their unnamed leader — and interpreted by a grifter class of influencers and media personalities — have squandered thousands of dollars, committed heinous crimes, and put their faith in snake oil medical cures due to their beliefs about Q’s prophecies. In addition to the execution of their political enemies, some have taken Q’s posts as signs of forthcoming debt forgiveness, or the release of hidden cures.

The movement has slipped from headlines recently thanks to repeated failed prophecies and disappointments with Trump, along with the monthslong disappearance of “Q,” but it is very much alive, most visibly in Republicans’ obsession with targeting trans people.

Multiple followers of the conspiracy theory have been elected to public office — including Congress — and Trump has recently embraced the movement openly, posting QAnon memes on his Truth Social account.

As long as there has been a QAnon, the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer has reported on it. His new book, “Trust the Plan,” is one of the most anticipated releases in the field in years (along with HuffPost alum Jesselyn Cook’s forthcoming work, “The Quiet Damage”). Sommer’s book offers a tour through the biggest conspiracy theory rabbit hole in America, with extensive firsthand reporting to back it up.

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I spoke with Sommer about the comfort people find in conspiracy theories, the uniquely American combination of biases and paranoia that fuel QAnon, and what’s next for the “superconspiracy” that hijacked American politics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Two major banks recently collapsed within 48 hours of each other. This sort of thing strikes me as a time when conspiratorial thinking can be comforting and reinforcing. Can you explain how followers of QAnon digest troubling breaking news when things feel scary and uncertain?

Yeah, this is a sort of classic moment, particularly with these elaborate financial systems collapsing, that’s really ripe for conspiracy theorists. And this isn’t just QAnon people, but already we’re seeing the right say, “Oh, well Silicon Valley Bank had a [diversity, equity and inclusion] coordinator,” or, “The head of risk in their British office was using social justice language, so that’s what caused it!” But when you look at the QAnon bit, conspiracy theories often appeal to people in these really chaotic moments, when events are happening that are combinations of various systems and very complex causes.

The obvious example here was the pandemic, where suddenly you have something that’s really unprecedented in modern memory, and it’s affecting people at a personal level: Somebody you know might not have a job anymore, or somebody you know died. And then the question is, “Is it globalization, or maybe it was the wet market?” or do you just say, “George Soros and Bill Gates did it”? For some people I think that’s appealing because it gives you someone in particular to blame.

For QAnon, I think dread is the currency. That feeling of uncertainty and dread that makes people go, “I want to reach for whatever feels solid and stable.”

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That sense of dread and hopelessness, I talk about it in the book. QAnon gives people who feel marginalized and helpless — whether rightly or wrongly — this sense of, “I’m not just being tossed around by events and people far more powerful than me, I’m a digital soldier working for this Great Awakening.”

There’s one person who said, “It’s like I know the news before it happens.” You look at your neighbors and think, “Those doofuses, they don’t know what it signifies when it rains a lot — that means the pedophile tunnels are being flooded,” things like that.

I want to talk about QAnon in material terms, because that was a substantial part of the book, and of your coverage: people who spend life-changing amounts of money, or who withhold medical treatment, because they think everything’s gonna be OK. They have the sense that once The Storm comes, once the right people are in control, then they’re going to release cancer treatments or have a debt jubilee.

A sentence in your book about this really stuck out to me. You said, “While QAnon is a conservative movement, the post-Storm world it promises is far to the left of anything that Bernie Sanders could imagine: the destruction of major pharmaceutical companies, the cancellation of all personal debt, and renters inheriting the property they live in, among other things.” Why isn’t that part of our broader understanding of this movement?

Yeah, thank you for noticing that because I feel like the promise of the world we would live in after The Storm, I think people often miss.

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Sort of the NESARA aspect of it, which is so weird, and in our broader consciousness, people don’t know what NESARA is supposed to be. [Note: Modern-day NESARA believers and hucksters alike assert that a private citizen’s 1990s economic proposal, which initially failed to gain steam until it was repackaged by conspiracy theorists, will erase debts and eliminate the IRS and Federal Reserve.]

And so I think often they miss that utopian aspect of QAnon. It appealed to people on such a personal level to say, “Oh, is your car at risk of getting repossessed? Well, don’t worry. Because in a couple months there will be this Storm and all of your debts will be abolished.” Just like we were talking about people turning to conspiracy theories because of these catastrophic financial or global events, I think QAnon is often a way for people to cope with recognizing that there’s something wrong with our current capitalist, neoliberal order, but not being willing to be liberal or being progressive. These are people who consider themselves Republicans, free-market types. But then they look at the world and they’re like, “Well, you know, it’s kind of screwy that I have this disease and I can’t afford to get medical treatment for it.” But rather than say, you know, “America’s screwed up in this way,” they have to create this fantasy world to explain why they’re in trouble.

And this is not just a QAnon thing, right? This is sort of a broader right-wing populist thing. I think about [one QAnon believer featured in the book] who had a disease and was rejected for disability — and he then decides, I’m gonna become a Trump guy, then I’m gonna become a QAnon guy, because in this roundabout way, this is how I will achieve some sort of agency.

He Reported On QAnon From The Start — And Is Revealing What Drives True Believers (2)

GIORGIO VIERA via Getty Images

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But then there are groups like “Pastel QAnon” — the yogi, holistic healing sort of thing — where their politics don’t really strike me as reactionary Republican. You’d think these could be Bernie Sanders supporters, but somewhere along the line, not only did they hop on board with this idea that a Satanic pedophilic elite controls the world, but also that the GOP is the answer?

This is one of the fascinating aspects of QAnon — that there are so many different things that bring people to it. And I think for a lot of the left-wing people, it is this concept of “stigmatized knowledge,” where, let’s say you got into yoga, or essential oils, stuff that people would say — rightly or wrongly — this is bunk. Cryptocurrency is another example. And so once this stuff has resonated with you, or you feel that it’s changed your life, when you see something else that you may in the past have had resistance to, you say, “Well, people told me yoga was dumb too, or that natural wellness was dumb.”

I do think in that case, a lot of those people were just drawn in by the “save the children” aspect of it. And then there’s also a left-wing aspect of QAnon in that you’re saying, “Jeffrey Epstein and all of these billionaires are, or were, abusing children.” So there’s a critique of wealth from that direction.

Just to add one more group into the mix, you were talking in the book to a mental health professional [psychiatrist Sean Heffernan] who noticed QAnon bumper stickers in wealthy areas, for example certain suburbs of Annapolis, Maryland. And so on top of the reactionary Republicans, the crypto bros, the yogis, then we have folks who, as far as we know, aren’t really facing a ton of financial hardship. I wonder if you’ve seen a difference in how people interact with Q based on these different motivations, be they financial, social, religious — are there different types of “anons”? Can you tell them apart based on their background?

I do think often you can sort of see what draws people into it. The most prominent promoters of QAnon tend to be younger, even though I think that the demographic skews older. And often for me, I think those are the people who are more disconnected from society and sort of living on the margins, or they’re dealing with some kind of big disappointment in their life. Whereas I think the run-of-the-mill QAnon believer tends to be an older person, sometimes relatively wealthy, living in a suburb somewhere. And I think there is sort of a boredom aspect to it. This casts your life in heroic terms …

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You see throughout the book, people with mundane lives — or especially some of these QAnon promoters who I think would be classically cast as losers — are able to, No. 1, make a lot more money than they would have, but also, achieve a sort of prominence and popularity that they never would have had without QAnon.

You refer to QAnon one at one point as just a fascist movement, talking about former national security adviser Michael Flynn saying there’s no reason we can’t overthrow the government here. And there was one line in particular that you wrote about Romana Didulo, the Canadian QAnon figure. You said she realized that QAnon had created “a community of people desperate to follow orders.” That was chilling to me, because it jives with this community’s enthusiasm for a military dictatorship. I’m wondering if there’s a version of QAnon, or a version of this constituency, that could have existed without ending up fascist. Is that just naive of me to wonder about?

I think it’s inevitable. And the reason I say that is because I think the appeal of QAnon, one of the main things, is that it’s not just a conspiracy theory about something that happened. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Let’s say you’re going to get really into the JFK assassination. You can study it and study it, and in the end, the payoff is just saying, “I think I’ve figured it out!” and that’s it.

The reason QAnon appeals to so many more people than 9/11 “truth” or anything like that is that there is this payoff of The Storm. And now what is this Storm going to look like? Well, if you convince people that everyone who runs the world right now is a satanic pedophile, well, it’s not going to be enough to just add Republican Supreme Court justices or lower taxes. It’s got to be this big moment, where these Democrats are never allowed to hold power again.

You’ve also convinced people that basically every system is corrupt; that people can’t be tried fairly in the court system and we can’t expect justice for that. So really, I think pretty much inevitably, this does lead to this fascist idea of, “We just have to purge our enemies.” Additionally, a huge aspect of it is that elections are stolen, so it’s not like you can trust the ballot box to get this change. So I do think inevitably it turns fascist.

“I think pretty much inevitably, [QAnon] does lead to this fascist idea of, ‘We just have to purge our enemies.’”

- Will Sommer

There’s a strangely American confluence of these different biases behind QAnon. It’s an antisemitic movement because it’s about an imaginary cabal, blood sacrifice, that type of thing. It’s also racist, because it’s about open borders and the government replacing white Americans. But then it strikes me that fundamentally this is hom*ophobic and transphobic. Adherents’ greatest fear is basically the anti-gay smear that all gay people are pedophiles, that they’re trying to turn your kids trans. I wonder if you saw that pattern as well, that it’s a uniquely American blend of all these phobias and biases into one “superconspiracy,” as you and others have called it.

Exactly, it really sort of blends in all these American anxieties and culture war issues. QAnon existed before the trans panic of, let’s say, 2020 to the present. The pre-trans panic idea of “the cabal is out to eat children” has now folded into it the idea that “the cabal is out to mutilate children through gender surgery” and that kind of stuff.

I think of [the conspiracy theories over] who killed Seth Rich. Well, for a while the QAnon answer was “MS-13 working for Hillary Clinton.” Now, why does it have to be MS-13? Because at the time on Fox News, [they were] the biggest, baddest dudes you could get. And there’s obviously the racial and immigration anxiety molded into that.

A huge aspect of QAnon initially were these [Trump-Russia investigation] narratives. And it’s really gotten obscured as current events moved on, but initially, it was, “the treacherous, gruesome Nellie Ohr,” and all these characters that you only learn about watching Sean Hannity every night, that are inscrutable to the average person.

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QAnon initially appears to have resonated because it offered an explanation for why Trump’s presidency was so bogged down with the Russia investigation. It really is such a jumble of these right-wing narratives.

You wrote about a film called “Q: Plan To Save The World,” which you said felt like “watching a Marvel movie trailer, a military recruitment ad, and a video gram intro all at once.” And I think a lot of Q propaganda feels this way. At the same time, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but QAnon participants don’t really spend a bunch of time helping human trafficking survivors. Am I right about that?

Yes, that’s, that’s correct. I’m not going to say that none of them do, but I think there is a lot of stuff out there in the world that they could be doing, you know, whether it’s helping human trafficking victims or or helping people in other circ*mstances. But it’s mainly about posting, right?

This is part of the genius of QAnon. The whole thing is, as a QAnon believer, you are called to post a lot. I mean, it’s called the Great Awakening. The theory being that these arrests are coming, in The Storm, and we need to make sure more Americans know about why these arrests are going to happen, because otherwise, there’s gonna be a civil war when everyone’s so shocked that Tom Hanks got arrested. So instead, your job is to just spread the word. And so obviously the barrier to that is very low. It’s just hanging out in different groups and tweeting.

So the invocation of pedophilia and human trafficking, even though there’s not a lot of work to help the survivors of these crimes, strikes me as justification: “This is the most beyond the pale crime we can think of, and so of course, it needs to be invoked in order to justify calling for the deaths, or the imprisonment without trial, of our enemies.”

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Yeah, I think it’s justification to engage in this revenge fantasy. You just have to imagine that they enjoy hearing about all these righteous punishments that will be visited on their political and cultural enemies, and people they say stole America from them.

And then it’s also a great recruitment tool because it’s such a primal thing, the desire to protect children. And so from there, you get people interested in it. They say, “You’re not against protecting children, are you?” And people say, “Of course not,” and from that they enter the rabbit hole.

You wrote about growing up in a conservative environment in Texas: Your family listened to Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand audio books on road trips, you cried over Ronald Reagan’s funeral. I wonder if there were conspiracy theories that you grew up with, and whether you ever personally experienced being in the thrall of a conspiracy theory that you felt was very important?

I was a young Republican mainly during the George W. Bush administration, so it was sort of before a lot of the Obama stuff kicked off, like Jade Helm, but an obvious example here would be — and maybe not a classical conspiracy theory — the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Having lived through that and the march to war, I definitely felt that visceral feeling of, “this post-9/11 America’s gotta get out there and restore America’s image,” this image of a crusading America that I think is also very integral to QAnon, this idea that America is doing to save the planet. I guess that would be the closest I got.

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One of the things that came up again and again for me when I was reading your book is that the internet has allowed information gaps to grow. You wrote about mental health professionals and concerned family members who had no idea what QAnon was, and then on the flip side, you had high-ranking Republican politicians who were able to pretend that they didn’t know what QAnon was. There’s so much noise around QAnon created by all of its participants that for a normal person, it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it.

I think as an average person, when someone says, “Oh no, that’s not what QAnon is about,” or “Oh no, this isn’t QAnon, we’re just a movement of citizens to uncover the corruption.” There’s an impetus to say, “Oh, OK, whatever you say!’

We saw this with the Save the Children marches in 2020. It was obviously a QAnon front group, but it had all these weird phrases on their signs that, if someone would just Google it, you could see what they were about. But these local reporters would just get an email and they would say, “Hey, we’re an anti-trafficking group.” “OK, great!” And they’d run these stories that would help bring more people into QAnon. They know what they’re up to. But you have these situations where, with these slogans and stuff, it doesn’t set off these alarm bells for the average person. And then you have a reporter like me saying, “Oh, that’s a QAnon thing.” And they say, “No, it’s not!”

For example, in December 2020, Q told the QAnon believers to stop talking about QAnon. Keep talking about the ideas, keep talking about the cabal and the stolen election, just stop saying “where we go, we go all,” and “we love QAnon.” And so as a result, I think it dropped off a lot of people’s radar. But the reality is, they’re still at it. For example, there’s a bunch of one-star reviews of my book on Amazon. And people say, “Oh, Will doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is no QAnon. There is Q, and there are Anons.” This is the sort of vapid construction they come up with, to hide behind these linguistic tricks. But we’re talking about the same thing.

That’s what I’m trying to do with the book. I understand it can seem very intimidating for someone — the police, FBI, psychiatrists — who’s just like, “Eh, it’s kind of in my peripheral vision, do I really need to learn about this?” I’m trying to simplify it. Because it’s so sprawling and that’s part of the appeal for the believers, but I think it can also make it harder for people to get a read on it. I’m also thinking of Michael Flynn now. This is a guy who goes to QAnon conventions. He holds up Q quilts. He knows what QAnon is. And yet when these local reporters ask him, “What’s up with you and Qanon?” he says, “Well, what’s QAnon? I’ve never heard of that. What is that?” There is this really high level of deception I think they use to get around scrutiny.

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It seems like a lot of QAnon content is from regular people with a ton of time on their hands. But you also wrote about this “priestly class” of QAnon leaders and influencers. You mentioned a chat room with QAnon leaders that at one point included InfoWars “correspondent” Jerome Corsi and Republican operative and QAnon influencer Tracy “Beanz” Diaz. These days, I wonder if you can explain how these QAnon leaders interact with each other. From the outside, it seems like a lot of turf wars, basically that they’re fighting for followers.

There is this intense competition among a lot of QAnon promoters. And it can sometimes be very inane arguments over, “Will this person quit my Telegram group” all the way up to, “Do we believe that JFK Jr. is still alive?” The ultimate turf war is when Q turned on Alex Jones and vice versa, when they sort of looked at each other after promoting QAnon together for a few months, and then it seemed as though whoever was behind Q said, “Wait, am I really in control here, or is Alex Jones stealing this thing from me?” Q denounced Alex Jones and vice versa, and they went at each other.

An underrated aspect of the causes of these turf wars is this idea that, well, “this rival fact is making me look stupid, because people are saying that they’re QAnon.” This happens when I write about a QAnon promoter, for example, who has a charge for sexual activity with a child or something. Suddenly, basically that person becomes radioactive, and everyone else in QAnon says, “Well this guy works for the deep state. He’s pretending to be part of QAnon so Will Sommer can write negative articles about us.” There are people wandering around Dallas waiting for Tupac to come back to life and the more mainline QAnon people thought, “We’re a respectable patriot research movement, but these guys are ridiculous.”

There are formal markers of a cult, and you mentioned some of them in the book — for example, “thought terminating cliches” such as “trust the plan.” So it has some attributes of a cult as we would traditionally understand them. But then as you note, it’s sort of leaderless. So I wonder how you think about Q as a leaderless cult. Could it exist without Trump? Can it exist without an account called Q? What is the actual structure here?

I think QAnon needs some leader. It needs people who are continuing the storyline, whether that is someone like Michael Flynn, or Lin Wood or Sidney Powell, or, you know, down the line to people with Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers ...

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I think Q is sort of immaterial to QAnon at this point. What you do need though is leaders and, frankly, I think there’s no shortage of them, because there is so much money to be made.

I wonder if you can sort of describe where we are on the life cycle of this thing, or if that’s even something that’s possible to know.

It’s difficult to know where QAnon goes from here. On one side, I think we could see a resurgence in 2024, a public resurgence of it. Donald Trump right now is signaling more to QAnon than he ever did in 2020 even. He’s posting QAnon memes of himself. He’s gearing up to call Ron DeSantis a pedophile — he sort of hinted that he’s gonna do that. And obviously that fits right in with QAnon.

But I think more broadly, whatever happens to the QAnon branding itself, a lot of QAnon’s goals have been accomplished in terms of spreading conspiracy theories throughout the GOP, this idea that, anything that happens, you can say, “Well, I think this is…” the sort of unknowable “they”: “That’s what they want you to think.”

“A lot of QAnon’s goals have been accomplished in terms of spreading conspiracy theories throughout the GOP.”

- Will Sommer

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I think of Marjorie Taylor Greene saying the Chinese spy balloons were a distraction from the East Palestine train derailment. And speaking of Marjorie Taylor Greene, while she no longer says she believes in QAnon, she was deep, deep in it. And so you have a situation where someone who was a hardcore QAnon believer is now one of the most successful members of the House in terms of fundraising, and certainly in terms of getting attention.

I think this conspiratorial stuff has really spread throughout the GOP. The idea that the 2020 election was stolen is so common, and I think QAnon really laid the groundwork for people to believe that the election was stolen. And then finally I would say that we can see QAnon’s fingerprints all over this idea that your political opponent is a pedophile or a “groomer,” as part of this larger anti-LGBT backlash in the Republican Party. Without QAnon, it’s impossible for me to imagine that Ketanji Brown Jackson would have been asked during her confirmation hearing, you know, are you on the side of the groomers?

Maybe to add one more thing to the successes of QAnon: This idea that the government is actually impotent to do anything. I don’t think Republicans are really running for office on the idea that their policies will help people. I think they’re running for office on the idea that Democrats are evil satanists and the only option is to get them out of power, and to the extent that voting for somebody can do that, it’s useful, but we’ve lost all pretense that voting for somebody will result in policies that will help people materially at all.

I mean, part of the appeal of QAnon is this idea that, “We’re just going to cut through the difficulties of a democracy and having rule of law.” So that’s why their fantasy is about arresting and executing all these people. They don’t involve going through the federal courts, they want a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, which is basically a byword for, “We really need to get this done, so let’s not follow the law.” I think of the military tribunal aspect of, “You’re not gonna have these ACLU lawyers to protect someone, we’re just essentially going to have a summary execution.”

And I talked about this earlier, but I don’t think it’s an accident that QAnon caught on after Trump ran for office on “We’re gonna lock her up” and “We’re gonna build the wall,” and suddenly it got really bogged down.

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Trump got tax cuts for rich people, but if you’re the average person who got really activated by Donald Trump, you’re saying, “What’s in it for me?” And so then, Q comes and say, “Here’s what’s coming – it’s utopia. And while this might seem like normal politics, you have no idea: Trump is engaged in a shadow war with the devil.”

He Reported On QAnon From The Start — And Is Revealing What Drives True Believers (2024)

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