The American Roots of QAnon, Part One

The following text is the first half of the speech I gave at Purdue University in early April on the uniquely American properties of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Because it wasn’t recorded, I decided to post it online, broken up into two parts because it’s really long. Part two will follow later this week. Enjoy!

My name is Mike Rothschild, and I’m an author and journalist focused on the history and spread of conspiracy theories. And since you’re probably wondering, yes I debunk conspiracy theories while also sharing the last name of one of the most prolific subjects OF conspiracy theories of the last century, the Rothschild family. And no, I’m not related to the Rothschild family.

BUT the conspiracy theories about the Rothschild family are the subject of my next book, called Jewish Space Lasers and out in September. And in writing that book, I realized that for as universal as Rothschilds conspiracy theories are – they’re not called “globalists” for nothing – there’s also a deeply American aspect to them. The Rothschilds actually had very little success in the US compared to the rest of the world, but the conspiracy theories and myths about them are intertwined in American institutions, American paranoia, and America’s economic calamities. Even if the Rothschilds had nothing to do with them.  

Of course, Rothschild conspiracy theories are just one part of the buffet of madness that is QAnon. And while Rothschild theories started in Europe and migrated across the Atlantic, QAnon’s foundations are almost entirely American. Yes, it’s based on universal tropes – the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on. And it’s become popular around the world, particularly with far-right movements in Europe and Australia. But Q has become popular overseas by sanding off its most American aspects, and exploiting universal unease over power, wealth inequality, and science.  

There is something deeply and uniquely American about QAnon. It’s built on layer after layer of past American conspiracy theories and hoaxes. It exploits deeply American evangelical fears and hopes. And it revolves around not just American politics, but the most uniquely American president – the outsider who claimed he would stick it to the elite and fight for the ordinary, forgotten American.

QAnon plays into that sense of aspiration perfectly. Together, with Trump leading and an army of patriots behind him, there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished. Except, of course, any of the things either Trump or Q promised.

Before we can talk about how QAnon fits into the continuum of modern and historical American conspiracy theories, I should make sure that everyone knows what QAnon is, because I never want to assume. And if, somehow, this is your first time hearing about QAnon, I’m so very sorry.

QAnon is a cultish conspiracy movement that started on the image board 4chan, a hive of trolling and unmoderated “free speech” that usually descends into racism and misogyny, or at the very best, annoying memes. 

In a series of cryptic and unsigned posts, a figure claiming to be embedded deep inside military intelligence claimed that President Trump was leading a secret operation to purge the deep state, Democratic party, and Hollywood elite of sex traffickers, Satanists, traitors, and enemies of America. Starting in October 2017, the figure, which eventually started calling itself “Q Clearance Patriot,” posted thousands of cryptic posts called “drops,” usually full of jargon, codes, riddles, and discussion prompts.

Their tone and style varied, starting with specific claims that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested on October 30, 2017 – she wasn’t – and later becoming much more cryptic and vague. They were often full of links to Fox News stories, pictures from Trump rallies, or military-sounding babble that was likely generated by random banging on a keyboard. They had catchphrases like “where we go one, we go all” and “future proves past” – meaningless, yet profound bits of shared language for believers to rally around. And taken all together, they told a strangely compelling story. It was a conspiracy theory technothriller, like Dan Brown meets Tom Clancy – with some old-school fascist paranoia thrown in.

At first, the drops promised a vast wave of mass arrests and executions in the first week of November 2017. There would be riots in the streets, martial law, executions, but then – utopia, with freedom’s enemies vanquished forever.

When that didn’t happen, Q’s story should have ended right there.

But anyone who studies prophecy cults and mass movements knows that once a compelling story takes hold with a group of believers, it almost immediately becomes resistant to being disproved. And Q’s story was indeed compelling. It was full of twists and turns, heroes and villains, secret battles and desperate negotiations, and narrow escapes for both the good guys and bad guys. Ultimately, there would be more than 4,900 of these drops – which believers claim were posted by both military intelligence and President Trump himself.

In reality, the Q drops are wildly inconsistent in tone and style. Some are long blocks of text going into bizarre and operatic conspiracy theories, full of attacks on Jews and Blacks and leftists. Others are just links to tweets. All of them were likely posted by a combination of trolls, possibly working together, and possibly not. The identity of their writers will probably never be known for sure, and it’s not especially relevant. What matters isn’t who wrote the text, but why people believed it. And those reasons are both simple and complex.

Q had many of the same hallmarks as past American and worldwide conspiracy theories – it told a similar story with similar villains and a similar need to answer unknowable questions with gibberish. But Q also had two defining features that set it apart from its predecessors.

The first was that it was optimistic, believing that a better world full of once-suppressed new technologies and cures for diseases was just within reach once the evil people doing the suppressing were eliminated. It wasn’t about watching the world burn, it was about putting out the fire and getting rid of the arsonists.

The second was that unlike most theories about a vast and unknowable cabal running he world, Q wasn’t just something to sit back and passively consume. It was participatory, requiring believers to decode Q’s riddles, decipher the clues and codes, and spread the message of Q through memes and videos.

In this way, Q was the perfect conspiracy theory for both the Trump era and the social media era. Q’s great purge, called “the storm,” after a bizarre comment made by Donald Trump in early October 2017 about a gathering of military officers at the White House being “the calm before the storm,” needed its followers to stay strong and keep the faith, even as Q’s predictions and claims constantly failed, and as Trump’s promises were broken and his administration descended into a haze of scandals and fiascos.

To Q believers, none of those things mattered. They probably weren’t even real, just more fake news from the lying liberal media. What mattered was that utopia was just around the corner, always about to arrive “soon” or in “two weeks” or in a “big week” that was ahead.

It never did, of course. But even as the failures continued, the Q movement continued to gain new converts, who got turned on by the slick videos and profound-seeming Twitter threads of Q promoters. Q believers started to see signs of QAnon everywhere in their daily lives, becoming more and more desperate for the long-awaited mass arrests, and for Hillary and her cronies to finally be brought to justice.

Some added their own strands of paranoia to Q’s story, such as John F. Kennedy Jr. still being alive two decades after his plane crash, or children’s blood being drained to create the superdrug “adrenochrome” – a clear echo of both the gonzo fiction of Hunter S. Thompson and the blood libel used against Jews for a millennia.

It created its own industry of merchandise, clothing, books, subscription podcasts, and celebrities. A book by a collective of pro-Q writers came out in March 2019 and became the #2 best seller on all of Amazon. Q signs and shirts showed up at Trump rallies to the point where the Secret Service had to ban Q paraphernalia. And major figures in the conspiracy theory ecosystem like Mike Flynn, Alex Jones, Jerome Corsi, and Roger Stone all either outright endorsed Q or at least paid lip service to it being a real operation. Some, like Flynn, made millions off the QAnon community while simultaneously calling it a leftist disinformation campaign.

All the while, the mainstream media seemed baffled by and scornful of Q. Some journalists did start to realize its potential for mayhem – particularly when Q believers started committing crimes. But most legitimate publications laughed at it and wondered how anyone could believe something so stupid and fake.

It wasn’t stupid and fake to its believers. And those believers would use Q as the foundation for a whole new realm of conspiracy theories once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In fact, we all had the tools in front of us to become conspiracy theories. We had time on our hands, we had an uncertain future created by a massive worldwide upheaval, and we had the need to blame someone for it.

All those are the ingredients that go into conspiracy belief, and as the lockdown went on, the death toll mounted, and the election loomed, people who never would have bought into Q’s vision of a MAGA utopia suddenly found themselves being radicalized by their search for answers as to what was “really” going on with COVID and who did it to us. They were yoga devotees, wellness moms, Instagram influencers, and Bernie bros. And they got sucked into a relentless vortex of conspiracy theories that, in many cases, all but destroyed their relationships and their lives.

Q kept going as the first vaccines were delivered, as Joe Biden won the election, and as the lockdown eased. All the while, the predictions and prophecies failed and the “storm” never arrived. After a last desperate gasp to keep Trump in power on January 6th, featuring insurrectionists in Q t-shirts and screaming Q slogans storming the Capitol, Biden took office. And given that he was probably a charter member of the deep state, the chances of him enacting arrests of the deep state were pretty low.

Really, that should have been the end. Q revolved around Trump enacting mass arrests, not losing an election to a candidate Q said was too old and feeble to function.

But Q now had countless fervent believers desperate for Trump to be vindicated, for the pedophile rings to be broken, for the new cures and financial reset they needed. And these people couldn’t just admit they’d been conned and go home to their loving families. Because they had nowhere else to go and had sacrificed too much.

So Q entered a new phase, where there was no need for prophetic drops or cryptic riddles, because vaccine denial and the belief that an all-powerful cabal had stolen the 2020 election were now the GOP mainstream. It was virtually impossible to be a prominent figure on the American right and not spout conspiracy theories – even if you didn’t believe them. The new iteration of Q didn’t need the trappings of an outsider movement anymore, and many of the people spouting its mythology actively claimed they weren’t one of those crazy Q people. Q’s story – and its grift – never ends. Because the only end can be failure.

But why did people believe any of this? Why was a president who was so scandal ridden and seemingly incapable of carrying out some of his most basic campaign promises also seen as a genius running a top-secret military operation that would, on his command, snap up thousands of New World Order acolytes and break the control of, as one Q promoter put, a “six thousand year old Babylonian Death Cult?”

Ultimately, it ties back to the hallmarks of American politics and culture: paranoia, grievance, fear of the other, and the inescapable feeling that someone is getting something they don’t deserve. Every culture has these, of course. And they’ve driven some of the worst organized violence in world history, from Jewish expulsions in the Middle Ages to the Holocaust and beyond.

But America doesn’t just have these characteristics, it revels in them as a national attitude. Paranoia and grievance have powered our culture, our commerce, and of course, our politics, since the earliest days of the colonies, with whispers of witches and slave revolts dominating the pre-1776 discourse.

And it continued into the earliest days of the United States. Those “Hessians” referenced as “large armies of foreign mercenaries” as one of the 27 colonial grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence? They were leased out by the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel in the Holy Roman Empire, hence the name “Hessian.” And who was the resident Jewish banker and coin dealer for the son of the leader of Hesse? None other than Rothschild dynasty founder Mayer Amschel Rothschild.

As the conspiracy believers say, it’s all connected.

So both QAnon and its component parts are all deeply American. But those parts are put together in an unusual way, even for America-centric theories. While Q relies on centuries of conspiracy tropes, it also inverts them to make the bad guys into the good guys.

A perfect example is the Q movement’s messianic view of Donald Trump. Such a stance toward a president would have been unthinkable not even ten years ago. The far right has long distrusted the federal government and its law enforcement arm as Jewish-bought and corrupt. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early 90’s, where Bill Clinton and his “jackbooted thugs” were the enemy, and when they came to your door to take your guns, you had to, as former Nixon hatchet man G. Gordon Liddy put it, “aim for the head.”

And it wasn’t just Clinton they distrusted. The militias and cranks of the early 90’s hated George HW Bush for being a vocal proponent of the New World Order. They would hate W for being a globalist pawn. And they would hate Obama for…well, we don’t have to time to go down the list.

But in Q, the president is the brave and resourceful leader, taking the blows of powerful enemies to protect his people, the real elites. What changed? Why was Q different?

The answer is that for all its differences, Q is another rung on the ladder of classic American conspiracy theory. Q rehashes the “us vs. them” secret war that’s been playing out in books, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts for generations. Some of the names change, but the basic facts are the same: “they” are lying to us about everything, “they” are depraved and godless, “they” don’t want us to know the truth, “they” will kill anyone who gets in their way, and “they” will never be stopped unless we stop them – with violence, if necessary.

And to many Q believers, nobody in the conspirators’ hierarchy was worse than the target of its very first post: Hillary Clinton. That post specifically promised the “extradition” of Hillary Clinton, with her passport flagged as tries to flee for her life. And Q was prepared for what would happen next, as National Guard battalions would deploy to the streets of America’s biggest cities to stop the Soros-funded riots that would surely result.

Right away, Q was promising something that conservative pundits and politicians had spent three decades screaming for – the Clintons to be taken down. The Clintons have been the focal point for American conspiracy theories since Bill first emerged on the national stage in 1992. And while the details of their made up scandals seem like an incomprehensible foreign language, to the superstars of the exploding right wing talk radio and extremist scenes, they were the only thing that mattered.

There was Travelgate, Filegate, Cattle Futures, Whitewater, and the granddaddy of them all, the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster, said by Rush Limbaugh to have been “murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton” and by other conservative pundits to have “shot himself three times in the back of the head” to silence his upcoming testimony against the family.

The Foster suicide, of course, was just one of dozens or even hundreds of “suspicious” or “unexplained” deaths connected to the Clintons. There were so many “friends of Bill” turning up dead or disappearing or getting hit by inconvenient trains that they spawned their own list – the “Clinton Body Count.” The list of two dozen names, many of whom died of natural causes and/or had almost no link to the Clintons, was put together by right wing activist Linda Thompson, based on research she’d done for an anti-Clinton film called Waco: The Big Lie, which accused Clinton of using ATF agents as hired killers during the Branch Davidian siege.

That list, in turn, was entered into the Congressional record thanks to a 1994 letter by retired California rep William Dannemeyer, a far-right stalwart whose New York Times obituary made sure to note that he “vigorously opposed, among other things, higher taxes, environmentalism, legal abortion, and civil rights protections for gay people and AIDS patients” while supporting “purported murder plots implicating former President Bill Clinton.”

From there, the Body Count theory found a legion of fans, who added more names to it, spread it around via fax and chain letter, and put it in the minds of countless Clinton opponents that not only were they globalist tyrants, but also maybe mass murderers.

Thompson freely admitted she had no actual evidence the Clintons killed these people, but figured that the media would find more here if it would only bother to dig. Her list became the basis for an ever-updated list comprising almost anyone who had even the slightest link to the Clintons, or none at all – military personnel who died when a plane Bill rode on once crashed, a former dentist, various interns and journalists, a small-town mayor, random Arkansas teenagers, Jeffrey Epstein, the president of Haiti, even Hillary’s own brother. All were seen as victims of the unstoppable “Clinton Crime Family” as Limbaugh called it.

Ironically, most of the names who did the most damage to the Clintons, or at least far more than most of the names included in the body count, either are still alive or died decades after the list came out. Special Counsel Ken Starr, whose report led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment? Died in 2022. Rush Limbaugh? Died of cancer in 2021. Even the list’s originator and biggest proponents, Linda Thompson and William Dannemeyer, lived far longer than most other supposed Clinton enemies. Thompson died in 2009, and Dannemeyer ten years later, at age 89.

And maybe the one name who did more than anyone to hamper the Clinton plan for world domination is still alive: America’s first conspiracy theorist president, Donald Trump. Somehow, in a shocking lapse of oversight, the cabal allowed millions of Americans to find a champion in the man who rose to political prominence on the hoax that Barack Obama was a Muslim sleeper agent born in Kenya and sent to Hawaii to become a pawn of the New World Order.

One could even argue that the popularity of QAnon stemmed not just from the desire to see Hillary Clinton locked up, but as a way to come up with a reason why Trump had been president for close to a year without actually doing it. It wasn’t that “locking her up” wasn’t just a reactionary campaign promise, it was that the deep state was making it harder for him.

In QAnon, worship of Trump and loathing of Hillary go hand in hand. And while Trump made references to the supposed body counts of both Clinton and Obama, the 2016 election was so close that Trump needed every edge he could get. He found it in the conspiracy theory that seems most likely to have directly led to QAnon – Pizzagate.

The theory that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair John Podesta were running a Satanic pedophile ring out of the nonexistent basement of Comet Ping Pong pizza had about as much evidence going for it as the Clinton Body Count. Which is to say, nothing other than wishful thinking. It was made of nothing but 4chan memes, bits of Podesta emails that were taken out of context, and exploitation of the far right’s extant loathing of the Clintons. But the timing was perfect for an outlandish, improbably, and intensely stupid conspiracy theory to find the right audience, and this one did.

Coming in a blizzard of unhinged theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Hillary Clinton’s foundation; Pizzagate emerged at the end of October 2016, was immediately and enthusiastically picked up by right wing pundits and foreign propagandists, and within a week it was everywhere. Even after Clinton lost the election, Pizzagate picked up steam.

It was only a matter of time before the frenzy over what “they” were doing to innocent children spilled over into violence. Sure enough, in December, a man drove up from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, armed with only an AR-15 and the burning desire to save the children. He didn’t find anything except terrified people just trying to eat their pizza in peace. He fired a few shots into the ground, didn’t hurt anyone, and was arrested. Pizzagate burned out pretty quickly after that, except the conspiracy hive mind saw how viral it went so quickly and filed that success away for later.

And conspiracy theories can be filed away for a long time.

Part Two coming later this week!


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