At President Trump's rally in Tampa on Tuesday night, a conspiracy theorist who has slowly gained popularity under Trump's presidency leaped into prime time — anonymous conspiracy theorist "Q."
Some attendees wore shirts with Q logos, while others held up posters promoting the theory: TV cameras even caught one person holding a sign reading “We are Q” as Trump stood in the background.
A wide-ranging and vague theory, “QAnon” touches on a number of popular conspiracy theories: Democrats and prominent Hollywood figures are orchestrating underground pedophile rings; special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is a front for investigating Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for their ties to said rings; and hundreds of sealed indictments may have already been handed down in the Clinton case.
The theories are proliferating online, fanned by cryptic messages posted by a person or persons going by the initial “Q." The persona first posted on 4chan last year, claiming to be a high-ranking security official in the Trump administration.
Among other things, Q alleges that Trump was persuaded to run for president by military leaders, and that together they are planning mass arrests of deep-state actors and perpetrators and will send them to be detained in Guantanamo Bay.
Those allegedly forthcoming arrests are called “The Storm,” referring to Trump’s cryptic comment warning of a “calm before a storm” during a meeting with military leaders last year.
The popularity of the "deep state" theory, which has been popularized by Trump on Twitter and regularly raised by his most high-profile supporters in TV appearances, may have helped Q's theories proliferate in the Trump era, according to one expert who studies the spread of online theories.
Q’s messages, called “crumbs” by his followers, are vague and use code names to refer to major players in the theory. His devotees who interpret the messages to fuel the theory are in turn called “bakers,” and often speculate about who Q could be, with some suspecting that Trump himself is behind the posts.
Those devoted followers have seized on current events to fuel their own theories: The Daily Beast reported that many believed that the Justice Department’s inspector general report released in June would reveal the official allegations against Clinton and others. They now reportedly believe the version that was released was altered by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and that Trump possess the true version of the report.
However, the theory has begun to shift from solely existing online: Q’s followers held a parade in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, with some calling for him to reveal his identity. Billboards referencing the theory have sprouted up in different parts of the country. And the Q supporters at Trump’s Tuesday night rally marked the community’s most high-profile appearance yet.Marko Kovic, a researcher who has studied conspiracy theories and is the founder of the ethics consulting firm ars cognitionis, told The Hill that while conspiracy theories are generally followed by people across the ideological spectrum, he believes QAnon has grown more popular among Trump supporters as a way to explain some of the administration’s shortcomings.
“If I am a strong supporter of Donald Trump and things maybe aren’t going as well as I would like them to go, it’s easy to spin it into a theory that tells me, ‘actually it’s going great, it’s going extremely well,’ ” he said.
Kovich added that while Trump has not directly promoted the QAnon theory himself, his attacks on Mueller’s probe have added “fuel to the fire.”
Joseph Vitriol, a college fellow at Harvard University who has also conducted research on individuals who believe in conspiracy theories, told The Hill it’s likely that the conspiracy theories will strengthen as Mueller’s probe and other investigations tied to the president move forward.
He said that while it is difficult to dissuade people from believing in conspiracy theories, Republican leaders have a responsibility to “speak clearly and certainly and regularly, about how these beliefs about the deep state are inaccurate, they’re false and are deeply disturbing and damaging to our civic and our political lives.”
“But it won’t happen because there’s an electoral advantage to keeping their base angry and upset, and unclear and uncertain on what these investigations and special counsel’s actions might imply for the president and their political agenda,” Vitriol added.