On January 6 thousands of Trump supporters stormed the legislative chamber in the capital of the free world. Among them was a man with a horned fur headdress, a bare chest and a 6ft spear.
Jake Angeli was one of many who believed Trump was about to be installed as president for life and that liberals and traitors would be hanged. He is, or was, a supporter of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that has swept from the wilder fringes of internet message boards to the heart of the Republican establishment.
According to one poll about 8 per cent of Americans believe QAnon to be “very accurate” and about 10 per cent “somewhat accurate”. That’s about 40 million people.
Angeli, like most QAnon believers, thought he was a “digital soldier” in a battle between good and evil. If that seems extreme, it might help to understand why. QAnon believers don’t just think liberals are soft and woolly. They think they traffic children. They think they slaughter them and drink their blood. They think they harvest their adrenaline to make a drug that extends life.
They see enemies everywhere — Hillary Clinton, “Hussein” Obama, George Soros and Bill Gates — and think Covid is a fraud. Sounds crazy? Well, yes. But “mocking the madness”, as Mike Rothschild says in his introduction, “gets us nowhere”.
Facing the Madness
An American journalist specializing in technology and conspiracy theories, Rothschild has been investigating QAnon since 2018. In The Storm Is upon Us he explores, as its subtitle explains, “how QAnon became a movement, cult and conspiracy theory of everything”.
He has immersed himself in deeply unsavory message boards. He has interviewed people involved in QAnon, people on the fringes and people whose families have been destroyed by it. It is, he explains, work in progress. “We’re still trying to put all the pieces together of how it jumped so quickly from typical conspiracy circles to Bernie Sanders-voting yoga moms.”
It’s also very complicated, “a complex web of mythology, conspiracy theories, personal interpretations and assumptions”. Rothschild supplies a whole lexicon at the end, along with nearly 30 pages of notes.
Yet it started simply enough, with a cryptic message by an anonymous poster on a message board called 4chan. The poster called themselves “Q Clearance Patriot” and claimed to be the collective avatar of a small military intelligence team. The “drop”, as supporters call it, claimed that Hillary Clinton would be arrested two days later, on October 30, 2017. She wasn’t, of course, but a religion, or something like it, was born.
QAnon believers don’t just think liberals are soft and woolly. They think they traffic children. They think they harvest their adrenaline to make a drug that extends life.
Since that first “drop” there have been 4,952 further messages (all of which Rothschild has analyzed) and thousands of predictions, and not one of them has come true. That doesn’t seem to have stopped Q or his/their supporters.
A digital army has developed to interpret the messages and explain the broader truth that applies. These are the “Anons” and some of them have mass followings on social media and YouTube, Patreon pages and online shops selling books and “merch”.
And then there are the “bakers”, who put together threads decoding Q posts on message boards or social media, threads QAnon supporters call “breads”.
In clear, punchy prose Rothschild explains how the movement that started on a message board for white supremacists, antisemites and fans of hard-core porn moved into the mainstream, capturing the hearts of Instagram influencers as well as nearly 90 Republican candidates for the House of Representatives. Two were elected, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently compared facemasks to the yellow stars forced by Nazis on Jews.
Jews, by the way, do not fare well in QAnon. Soros and the Rothschild banking family are, its supporters believe, part of the “deep state” plotting against ordinary Americans. It is, says Rothschild (no relation), in many ways a continuation of the “blood libel” story from the Middle Ages.
“We’re still trying to put all the pieces together of how it jumped so quickly from typical conspiracy circles to Bernie Sanders-voting yoga moms.”
The story of QAnon has so many twists and turns, it’s sometimes hard to keep track. But Rothschild’s book reads like a thriller, with cliffhangers that leave you eager for the next episode. The trouble, of course, is that it’s not fiction. The surreal fantasies of believers are matched by a real-world story that’s horribly, tragically true.
Rothschild writes with compassion about some of those who have been sucked into it. Many are lonely, lost, unemployed or mentally vulnerable people who genuinely believe that they are fighting evil and now feel their life has a purpose. He has talked to experts who offer guidance on how to deal with friends and family who have become believers but warns that the odds of people changing their minds are low.
What he doesn’t quite do is explain the psychological leap that enables perfectly ordinary people to believe that liberals and Jews are child-trafficking pedophiles. Perhaps no one really can. He does quote research by an expert in cults that suggests that many mass movements start with messages that are vague, if not unintelligible, like Q’s “drops”. People project and interpret as they like. Conspiracy theories feed on grievance and there was plenty of that washing around on the far right already. “One day they looked around,” says Rothschild, “realized they didn’t get everything they were promised out of life, and wanted someone to blame.”
He has a lot less compassion for the powermongers who have colluded: not just the Republican Party but the social media titans who didn’t ban QAnon because it suited their business model to keep the conspiracy going.
The Storm Is upon Us is an impressive piece of research and a gripping read. Unfortunately the storm is upon us, in the form of a vast online army that’s still here, and mad as hell.
Christina Patterson covers culture, politics, and the arts for The Guardian and The Times of London