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To believe in QAnon is to believe, among other things, that a cabal of global elites are secretly harming children (think: 2016’s Pizzagate), that their behavior is propped up by members of the deep state, and that President Donald Trump is working to bring their crimes to an end. Adherents learned all this from Q, an anonymous figure who they believe has high-level military ties, who periodically leaves clues on the internet. He is their prophet.
QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, yes, but it’s also more important than you might think. Adrienne LaFrance, our executive editor, spent more than a year trying to make sense of the movement and its followers. Her full, enthralling report is our latest magazine cover story.
Here are three ways to understand QAnon, as explained by Adrienne:
1. It’s a real-time participatory conspiracy theory.
The eventual destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophesies, but can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in Q’s clues. … Surely there are people who know that Q is a fantasy but participate because there’s an element of QAnon that converges with a live-action role-playing game.
2. It’s a mass rejection of reason and Enlightenment values.
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.
3. It’s not going anywhere. In QAnon, we are witnessing the birth of a new religion.
Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.
Conspiracy thinking, such as the kind that defines QAnon, was an American tradition from the start.
“In the colonies, a theory was born that King George III was plotting the enslavement of all Americans,” Ellen Cushing, the editorial director of our new Shadowland project, explains. “Even without evidence, this theory helped tip the scales toward revolution.”
Here’s an abbreviated history of major conspiracy movements. (Explore an even bigger timeline on our site.)
New England elites warn that a mysterious group known as the Illuminati threatens to overthrow society.
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination sets off a frenzy of speculation that the president’s killing, by John Wilkes Booth, is part of a larger plot to restore the Confederacy.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination spawns some of America’s most enduring conspiracy theories.
American astronauts walk on the moon. Conspiracy theorists argue that the landing was staged in a film studio.
A since-retracted study sets off one of the deadliest conspiracy theories of the modern era: that vaccines cause autism.
Message boards, fringe media, and college campuses light up with theories that the September 11 attacks were an inside job.
The future 45th president propagates rumors that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
After 26 children and teachers are killed in Newtown, Connecticut, “false flag” theories posit that the massacre was staged.
The convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s prison suicide launches numerous arguments that he was murdered.
Rumors swirl that the novel coronavirus is a plot by the “deep state” to hurt President Donald Trump’s chances of reelection.
If you’re looking for further reading … explore:
Ellen’s essay about being a teenage conspiracy theorist;
Jeffrey Goldberg, our editor in chief, on how the conspiracy theorists are winning;
Adam Serwer on the birtherism movement;
Megan Garber on the paranoid style of American entertainment; and
Kaitlyn Tiffany on the baseless theories about the dangers of 5G.