When news of U.S. President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis broke just after midnight on Friday, QAnon followers reacted with glee—not because the president, who they idolize, was sick, but because the news must mean that “the storm,” the great revelation where Trump would arrest his enemies for their crimes, was coming. Most of those who believe in the convoluted QAnon conspiracy theory hold that the pandemic is fake, and so the move could only indicate that the president was going undercover, and that the final revelation was coming.
People have always looked forward to the end of history.
Cults have used the promise of the apocalypse to recruit followers. New religions have attracted adherents with missives about the coming holy war. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that history itself would come to a grinding halt, as things couldn’t possibly get better than Protestant Germany in the early 19th century. Usually these movements have a built-in expiration date. If the prophesied end doesn’t come, followers tend to move on. But, eventually, the jig has to be up.
It has been called everything from a virulent conspiracy theory to a mass delusion, a cult, and a complete scam, and yet it’s growing daily. It seems set to send some faithful followers to Congress, it has earned the tacit acknowledgement of the president, and it still maintains a core following of about 600,000 people on Facebook alone, despite efforts by the platform to ban QAnon outright. QAnon followers have attempted political violence, and links between apparent acts of domestic terrorism and the movement are increasingly apparent.
In February and March, just 3 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew Research said they had heard or read “a lot” about QAnon. By September, more than 30 percent told Civiqs the teachings of the elusive pseudonymous leader Q were partly or mostly true. QAnon is growing, and fast.
In many ways, QAnon is the culmination of Trump’s America: paranoid, deeply critical of journalists and experts, obsessive in its defense of the president. Zoom out, though, and QAnon is the amalgam of decades of doomsday cults and new religious movements. It is the ideological successor of the satanic panic of the 1980s, and of older, even darker ideas like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It has more in common with the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo than the Republican Party of Dwight D. Eisenhower. From its modest origins on a far-right message board, it is now a behemoth, absorbing a set of ideas that have long lurked below the surface.
It has vacuumed up every paranoid thought and half-baked idea about power, government, and society. While it hasn’t predicted the end of the world, Q warns its followers that a “storm is coming.” The ultimate battle between good and evil is around the corner. Apocalyptic vibes radiate through all of Q’s messages.
And, critically, the particular idiosyncrasies of Q’s warped worldview may contain clues to the man behind the curtain.
QAnon traces its lineage back to a single, disproven conspiracy: that, in 2016, a pedophile ring tied to the Democratic Party had been exposed. John Podesta, Anthony Weiner, and Hillary Clinton were all involved, satanism was at play, and Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was the headquarters for the whole operation. Trump was about to launch mass arrests, fringe players promised, that would expose the whole conspiracy.
Scroll through the thousands of posts from Q and its followers, and you’ll see that there’s no new conspiracy under the sun. Every theory, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to mind control, can fit neatly into QAnon. In Q’s world, where the deep state knows no bounds and shows few scruples, it seems evident that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were an inside job. That the few dynasties that secretly run the world’s banking system are real and active. That even the British conspiracy theorist David Icke’s stories of lizard people could be true.
It’s not surprising, as Q is very much a product of the channels on which it started. In the dark recesses of the 4chan and 8chan message boards, these theories have long been bandied about. The core tenets of QAnon are not so much novel as they are a reflection of what the users of these boards wanted to see.
That’s no coincidence, according to Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan.
While he has distanced himself from his former site in recent years, he believes he knows who is really behind QAnon.
On a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, Brennan laid out his belief that Q was, originally, an 8chan moderator who had created the character to cosplay with fellow users, as part of a running bit where posters pretended to be anonymous security-cleared American officials.
To that end, many of the early tenets of Q were borrowed wholesale from the 8chan message boards.To that end, many of the early tenets of Q were borrowed wholesale from the 8chan message boards. In early 2018, before hitting the big time, Q’s so-called drops of information included cryptic messages like “we haven’t started the drops re: human trafficking / sacrifices.” Other drops from the same time made oblique references to the CIA and its “ability to harvest.”
That has spun off an entire homegrown conspiracy around the supposed harvesting of the chemical adrenochrome. Q followers believe that the satanic human trafficking operation is all a means to abduct children and extract adrenochrome from their brains, injecting the chemical to stay young. Never mind that adrenochrome, while it has been touted for its mild hallucinogenic properties, isn’t produced by the human body. But it’s no coincidence that this theory has spread, Brennan said.
He pointed out that adrenochrome harvesting has been “a big thing” on 8chan for years. “I’d never seen it anywhere else, personally,” Brennan said. The puppet master behind Q must have known they would find a receptive audience for it.
But QAnon doesn’t just repeat 8chan drivel—it borrows from decades of conspiracies and remixes them into something modern and new. Its followers, meanwhile, crowdfund their own additions to the conspiracy, which Q regurgitates back to them. It gives adherents the distinct feeling that they are uncovering some secret, like detectives on a case. Like they are pulling the string between the pushpins on their corkboard.
While other conspiracies suffer from a lack of confirmation, every newspaper headline or oblique tweet is, for QAnon followers, proof positive of their predictions. Every negative story about Q is evidence of the deep state pushing back. Every Trump tweet can be a coded message encouraging QAnon to work harder.
It’s a world of meaning, in which every event has an occult significance, hidden from most but revealed to initiates. The chaos and suffering of the real world are given significance and purpose. Nearly every facet of modern life is just a cheap plywood set piece, hiding a plot that spans across the world and through time.
What’s so surprising is that Q managed to break free of the message boards on which it began. That, too, was carefully choreographed, Brennan said.
Take Q’s growing piousness.
Sites like 8chan are generally irreligious places. Digital neo-Nazis may appreciate the cultural Christianity of the United States, but users on those message boards tend to focus on cultural and ethnic nationalism instead.
That’s one clue suggesting that, while the person behind Q may be well versed in 4chan and 8chan, they have their own motivation and influences—and plans for broader American appeal. It’s something that points to Brennan’s theory: that Q is, currently, 8chan owner Jim Watkins.
While a moderator may have originally run the account, a series of security blunders has convinced Brennan that Watkins—who took control of 8chan after Brennan quit in disgust for its tolerance of far-right extremism—is running the show. It’s all a ruse, Brennan believes, for Watkins to amass American political influence from his expat headquarters in the Philippines.
“He knows Christianity is a way, in the United States, to get something to go big,” Brennan told me. He said that “the time I knew him best, between 2015 and 2018, I never saw him go to church, I never saw him read a hymn.”
“He knows Christianity is a way, in the United States, to get something to go big.”
Today, Watkins’s YouTube features him singing religious hymns and reading Bible verses.
Meanwhile, Q’s messianic prophecies have warned its followers of the evil influences of satanic temples and the supposed threat of anti-Christian symbology everywhere. There are even Zoom-based church services for Q followers. The exact tenets of the “Qvangelicals” are as murky as Q’s oblique 4chan posts, however. Its efforts to hijack faith have led pastors to warn their followers away from Q.
As Q wrote in June: “We are living in Biblical times. Children of light vs children of darkness. United against the Invisible Enemy of all humanity.”
But even as its doctrine borrows heavily from Christianity, QAnon also dips into other movements. In April of this year, Q dropped a link to a YouTube video with a command to “Clear your mind. Heal.”
The video was uploaded by an English electronic music group that is particularly popular with yoga enthusiasts. It was notably out of character for Q.
But not, as Brennan notes, for Watkins.
“Watkins has tried to get 8chan into yoga for a long time,” he said. When Brennan worked with Watkins, out of his office in Manila, the staff had to do yoga with the boss if “they wanted to be in Jim’s favor.” He was also big into ambient music, similar to the music Q linked to. “He would constantly try to sell me on the binaural beats,” Brennan said. “And I would try my best not to make fun of him.”
History is littered with cults and movements that have crafted a new world for their followers. A world where something revolutionary is happening just below their feet, and the only key to seeing it all is to wake up. As a favorite expression of conspiracy theorists, borrowed from the Matrix movies, is “take the red pill.” At their least damaging, these movements are a home for disaffected and frustrated people looking for a comforting alternative to a society in tumult. At their worst, this detachment from reality inspires acts of terrorism.
In one of the final editions of the official magazine of the esoteric Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, it was announced that Shoko Asahara, the group’s leader, “formally declares war on the ‘world shadow government’ that murders untold numbers of people and, while hiding behind sonorous phrases and high sounding principles, plans to brainwash and control the rest. Japanese awake! The enemy’s plot has long since torn our lives to shreds.” Soon after that Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, killing 12 people.
These movements succeeded through simple tactics. They appealed to a human desire to be brought in on a secret. They inoculated their followers against outside criticism. (The Heaven’s Gate cult warned followers “all religions have been spawned from the misinformation … propagated by space-alien races.”) They built not just a worldwide conspiracy, but the tools to fight back against the supposed conspirators. They gave each follower a leading role in one of the most important moments in history.
Those cults needed to build that world from scratch. QAnon, however, has picked up existing movements and communities, like a snowball rolling down a hill and collecting debris.QAnon, however, has picked up existing movements and communities, like a snowball rolling down a hill and collecting debris. By bringing in existing movements, enveloping them into its mass, QAnon absorbs a quasi-credibility and an existing fan base.
Notably, QAnon builds heavily on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the world’s most enduring conspiracy theories. Written around the turn of the 20th century, the text contends in its introduction that the “hidden hand” of some 300 Jewish elders control all of Europe.
The text is a lazy forgery, a jumbled plagiarism of a political pamphlet against Napoleon III and a novel rife with anti-Jewish stereotypes. It was probably written by the failed writer Matvei Golovinski in order to solidify opposition against leftist revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia.
Yet The Protocols was useful propaganda for Adolf Hitler. It has become required reading in some Islamist circles. It also had a fan in Jim Watkins.
“Jim also read the [Protocols] before,” Brennan said. “He doesn’t believe it was a forgery.”
When Brennan mentioned his Ukrainian heritage, he said, Watkins immediately “espoused the Khazar theory to me.” The theory revolves around the historical Khazar empire, which began nearly two millennia ago in and around modern-day Ukraine. The theory, however, has very little basis in historical fact.
According to a rundown of the theory, posted to the anti-Semitic and pro-Russian website Veterans Today, the evil Khazar empire practiced “Babylonian black-magic, also known as Secret Satanism” which “involved occult ceremonies featuring child sacrifice, after ‘bleeding them out,’ drinking their blood and eating their hearts.” Tsarist Russia, this conspiracy goes, defeated the child-kidnapping empire in the 13th century, but the Khazars went underground, operating as a secret society. They are responsible for the fall of King Charles I and have supposedly infiltrated the world banking sector and the British monarchy for their own criminal and nefarious ends.
This is a particularly arcane conspiracy. But, as Brennan said, Watkins “definitely is very hyper-aware of conspiracy theories.” As is Ron Watkins, his son, who also works for his emerging media empire.
The Khazar theory suggests that the underground mafia eventually took the name Rothschild, plugging the historical fiction into some virulent, modern anti-Semitism.
That concept has become integral to the movements of several modern conspiracy theorists, including Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial candidate for American high office and father of much monetary policy quackery. LaRouche died last year, but the political action committee bearing his name has gone all in on Trump, despite his movement once being notionally left-wing.
The LaRouchePAC warned in 2004 that George Soros, funded by the Rothschilds, was secretly financing a campaign “to destroy a nation’s ability to resist imperial rule.”
Many familiar with David Icke know him for his theory that the ruling class is, in fact, a space-and-time-traveling reptilian super race. But his writing, like LaRouche’s, draws heavily on The Protocols and invokes the Rothschilds constantly.
Icke, a U.K. citizen, wrote in 1998 that “The assassinations of President Kennedy and Princess Diana were full of Satanic rituals” and posited that a secret cabal, including Queen Elizabeth, used MI6 to kill Princess Diana because “she threatened their power.”
This constellation of bullshit can be found throughout Q’s drops.
As Q itself wrote: “Realize Soros, Clintons, Obama, Putin, etc. are all controlled by 3 families.” In other posts, it lists the three families: The House of Saud, George Soros himself, and the Rothschilds. In another: “What happened to Diana? What did she find out? Why was she running?” and invoked the idea of a secret British government, propped up by MI6.
For decades, these have been the theories of outsiders.
LaRouche, Icke, and the Khazar theory may be punchlines to the general public, if they’re recognized at all, but they have found a vehicle to the mainstream in QAnon.
“Not too long ago, it would be unpalatable for an American audience to say, just because you have a Jewish last name, you’re part of an international satanic conspiracy,” Brennan said.
For decades, these have been the theories of outsiders. LaRouche and Icke have railed against world governments. They have seen themselves as revolutionaries.
QAnon is different, and it shares a troubling similarity with The Protocols: It is a forgery and a conspiracy designed to protect power, not challenge it.
It teaches its masses that the powerful are actually vulnerable and must be defended.
Of course, approaching the public with tales of secret fake evil empires and international banking conspiracies didn’t work for Icke or LaRouche.
So what’s special about Q?
The movement has appeared in a perfect storm. It is joined at the hip to the man in the White House, but it is also preying on a generation steeped in moral panics.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of fear set across North America. Conservative-minded Americans felt that the social mores of society were crumbling, opening the door to godlessness. Heavy metal music and occultism perpetuated that belief.
So when children began recounting stories of strange happenings at their day cares, parents leapt into action. Thousands of reports sprang up across the United States and Canada, alleging that day care workers and teachers were conducting satanic rituals on the children in their care. Some went to prison on flimsy evidence, and some remain incarcerated.
Through it all, there is no conclusive evidence that any of the alleged abuse actually occurred. As a 1992 FBI report concluded, “the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that satanists are taking over America’s day care centers or institutions.”
Yet many Americans remember the fear and panic over satanism from the evening news. Coverage of the horrors in the nation’s Satan-worshipping day cares resonated, while the sheepish retractions, if they were ever aired, went ignored.
QAnon offers an updated version of that thought-world for prospective followers with no interest in esoteric conspiracy theories. It’s a story of fear, warning that pipelines of trafficked children run through the United States, and that no child is safe.
QAnon is a buffet, offering something for everyone.
Most recently, it has also become married to the COVID-19 conspiracy crowd—again, no coincidence, according to Brennan.
“The first time that Q espoused a coronavirus conspiracy theory, it was a conspiracy theory that Ron had posted on his Twitter,” he said. “And hours after the drop, he removed it.” The 8chan owner’s son tweeted the debunked theory that COVID-19 was a lab-made bioweapon three times between January and February, while Q dropped the theory that the pandemic was preplanned in mid-March.
Beyond that, there is something for the anti-vaccine crowd. Lots for the climate change deniers. Even conspiracy theories normally more identified with the left, like 9/11 truthers, have something in QAnon.
QAnon is the culmination of more than a century in magical thinking, from cults that profess the end of the world to conspiracy theories that tell of a shadow world government to moral panics that warn of dark secrets behind every door. It’s a world where individual people hold the keys to a hidden truth, if only they choose to look for it. This is a reality where everyone in power has a dark purpose, but where the final battle of good versus evil is fast approaching.
This is the end of history. We’ve never seen a movement that ties together a constellation of delusions and beliefs like this.
But the next one could be around the corner.