If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight.
the origins of QAnon are recent, but even so, separating myth from reality can be hard. One place to begin is with Edgar Maddison Welch, a deeply religious father of two, who until Sunday, December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. That morning, Welch grabbed his cellphone, a box of shotgun shells, and three loaded guns—a 9-mm AR-15 rifle, a six-shot .38‑caliber Colt revolver, and a shotgun—and hopped into his Toyota Prius. He drove 360 miles to a well-to-do neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C.; parked his car; put the revolver in a holster at his hip; held the AR-15 rifle across his chest; and walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
Comet happens to be the place where, on a Sunday afternoon two years earlier, my then-baby daughter tried her first-ever sip of water. Kids gather there with their parents and teammates after soccer games on Saturdays, and local bands perform on the weekends. In the back, children challenge their grandparents to Ping-Pong matches as they wait for their pizzas to come out of the big clay oven in the middle of the restaurant. Comet Ping Pong is a beloved spot in Washington.
That day, people noticed Welch right away. An AR-15 rifle makes for a conspicuous sash in most social settings, but especially at a place like Comet. As parents, children, and employees rushed outside, many still chewing, Welch began to move through the restaurant, at one point attempting to use a butter knife to pry open a locked door, before giving up and firing several rounds from his rifle into the lock. Behind the door was a small computer-storage closet. This was not what he was expecting.
Welch had traveled to Washington because of a conspiracy theory known, now famously, as Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. The idea originated in October 2016, when WikiLeaks made public a trove of emails stolen from the account of John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and then the chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign; Comet was mentioned repeatedly in exchanges Podesta had with the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, and others. The emails were mainly about fundraising events, but high-profile pro–Donald Trump figures such as Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones began advancing the claim—which originated in trollish corners of the internet (such as 4chan) and then spread to more accessible precincts (Twitter, YouTube)—that the emails were proof of ritualistic child abuse. Some conspiracy theorists asserted that it was taking place in the basement at Comet, where there is no basement. References in the emails to “pizza” and “pasta” were interpreted as code words for “girls” and “little boys.”
Shortly after Trump’s election, as Pizzagate roared across the internet, Welch started binge-watching conspiracy-theory videos on YouTube. He tried to recruit help from at least two people to carry out a vigilante raid, texting them about his desire to sacrifice “the lives of a few for the lives of many” and to fight “a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.” When Welch finally found himself inside the restaurant and understood that Comet Ping Pong was just a pizza shop, he set down his firearms, walked out the door, and surrendered to police, who had by then secured the perimeter. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” Welch told The New York Times after his arrest.
Welch seems to have sincerely believed that children were being held at Comet Ping Pong. His family and friends wrote letters to the judge on his behalf, describing him as a dedicated father, a devout Christian, and a man who went out of his way to care for others. Welch had trained as a volunteer firefighter. He had gone on an earthquake-response mission to Haiti with the local Baptist Men’s Association. A friend from his church wrote, “He exhibits the actions of a person who strives to learn biblical truth and apply it.” Welch himself expressed what seemed like genuine remorse, saying in a handwritten note submitted to the judge by his lawyers: “It was never my intention to harm or frighten innocent lives, but I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.” He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Pizzagate seemed to fade. Some of its most visible proponents, such as Jack Posobiec, a conspiracy theorist who is now a correspondent for the pro-Trump cable-news channel One America News Network, backed away. Facing the specter of legal action by Alefantis, Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy-theory website Infowars and hosts an affiliated radio show, apologized for promoting Pizzagate.
Read: The lasting trauma of Alex Jones’s lies
While Welch may have expressed regret, he gave no indication that he had stopped believing the underlying Pizzagate message: that a cabal of powerful elites was abusing children and getting away with it. Judging from a surge of activity on the internet, many others had found ways to move beyond the Comet Ping Pong episode and remain focused on what they saw as the larger truth. If you paid attention to the right voices on the right websites, you could see in real time how the core premises of Pizzagate were being recycled, revised, and reinterpreted. The millions of people paying attention to sites like 4chan and Reddit could continue to learn about that secretive and untouchable cabal; about its malign actions and intentions; about its ties to the left wing and specifically to Democrats and especially to Clinton; about its bloodlust and its moral degeneracy. You could also—and this would prove essential—read about a small but swelling band of underground American patriots fighting back.
All of this, taken together, defined a worldview that would soon have a name: QAnon, derived from a mysterious figure, “Q,” posting anonymously on 4chan. QAnon does not possess a physical location, but it has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising. It also displays other key qualities that Pizzagate lacked. In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it.
conspiracy theories are a constant in American history, and it is tempting to dismiss them as inconsequential. But as the 21st century has progressed, such a dismissal has begun to require willful blindness. I was a city-hall reporter for a local investigative-news site called Honolulu Civil Beat in 2011 when Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a presidential run by publicly questioning whether Barack Obama had been born in Hawaii, as all facts and documents showed. Trump maintained that Obama had really been born in Africa, and therefore wasn’t a natural-born American—making him ineligible for the highest office. I remember the debate in our Honolulu newsroom: Should we even cover this “birther” madness? As it turned out, the allegations, based entirely on lies, captivated enough people to give Trump a launching pad.
Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.