Kari Nickander drove to Dallas through the night on October 29 from her home near Indianapolis so that she wouldn’t miss anything at Dealey Plaza. She was arriving days before fellow QAnon supporters planned to gather to welcome the return of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. at the site of his father’s assassination, part of a key QAnon prophecy that holds the Kennedy scion faked his death in 1999 and will reemerge to run with Donald Trump in 2024. The group’s de facto leader, Michael Brian Protzman, had urged the 100,000 or so participants in his Telegram chat to show up early for a “surprise,” as Nickander put it. But nothing obvious was there for the 30 or 40 who arrived. “I think they wanted to see who really was in,” says Nickander. Still, Protzman was “very charismatic” as he met with the group. “It was not a disappointment,” she says.
Over the next few weeks, Nickander would return to Dallas twice by air to join the ongoing gathering for days at a time, leaving behind her family and the doughnut shop she runs with her husband. On occasion, hundreds would be on the grassy knoll citing the Pledge of Allegiance and waving campaign signs for the Trump–JFK Jr. ticket envisioned by Q; on slower days, it would only be dozens.
Regardless of attendance, the core of the group has revolved around Protzman. Since the official word from the eponymous leader of QAnon stopped coming down shortly after the Capitol riot, the 58-year-old demolition contractor from Washington has been one of the major figures filling the void. Protzman’s channel on Telegram under the name Negative 42 has been a core meeting place to discuss Q-adjacent theories and keep the hope alive after predictions that Trump would supplant Joe Biden as president did not bear fruit. Since March, his channel has grown from fewer than 2,000 members to more than six figures.
As Q’s followers Balkanize into new factions, Protzman’s group has separated itself from the old majority in a few ways. Among them is the idea that JFK Sr. is also coming back — at the age of 104; after the dead president failed to appear at a Rolling Stones concert in Dallas in early November, as Protzman & Co. predicted, the group held a candlelight ceremony at Dealey Plaza urging his return on the anniversary of his assassination. But the biggest appeal for those considering joining the Dallas corps is an increased focus on an adapted form of numerology from Jewish Kabbalah known as gematria, of which Protzman is a vocal advocate.
“Michael has been teaching us,” says Nickander, who explained how the system works. Each letter has a numerical value from one to 26 based on its placement in the alphabet. Adding up all the letters in a word or phrase provides a number that followers can use to compare to other phrases to draw out meaning. In one exercise that she posted on Twitter, Nickander used the numeric value of Protzman’s demolition company (185) to compare it with phrases like “intelligent design,” “Donald John Trump,” “ALL lives matter,” “very soon now,” and “the Florida Project.” When asked about the significance of that last phrase — did it have to do with the Willem Dafoe movie? — Nickander said she was “not sure exactly, but Florida is super-important. Sometimes you hit on something that’s not quite known yet.”
Protzman has made his name among Q supporters with his flair for gematria. Speaking himself hoarse before throngs of followers in Dallas, he carries himself in the manner of a biblical prophet divining the word of God — if an Old Testament seer discussed nonradioactive-isotope watermarks on ballots and wore basketball shorts, tinfoil hats, and a sticker on his T-shirt that reads, “I’m Just a Dumb Ass.”
Now in a third full week of rally mode, Protzman has drawn loads of scrutiny as he attempts to place himself at the center of the post-Q orbit. Detractors haven’t had to look far for anti-Semitic remarks from the man fascinated by a numerological system based on an ancient method in the Kabbalah tradition: In his channel on Telegram, he has said that “there is no Jewish race” and has described “Jewish leadership” as “just the criminals.”
Within the movement, there are defectors as well. Dallas attendee Maureen McNamara told Vice News that she grew frustrated with the lack of planning within the group. “There were children sleeping on that ground,” she said. “There were elderly people, there were people with walkers, people with canes, people that were in pain, in a lot of pain.” After returning home, she set up a splinter Telegram group, Dealey Plaza Truthers Chat, to critique the Dallas gathering and discuss members’ understandings of the movement. Like the channel it broke off from, the defectors’ conversation I saw is not laser-focused. One participant will be discussing whether it was JFK Sr. or his son who was adopted (neither was), followed by another chatting about Thanksgiving plans: “I got a butterball at Aldi for .89 cents/lb.”
Nickander, who “never really got into” the original Q posts and began listening to Protzman in July, has not had the problems at home that some of her fellow travelers have faced. “My husband is super-supportive, but it’s been hard on him,” she says. Like many of those who have looked to Protzman’s channel and QAnon proper before it, she describes being energized by the spark of camaraderie that comes with bonding over ideas not accepted by the mainstream. “Michael always says there’s no coincidences, so we are just basking in some of the things we’re learning together,” she says. “It’s a real community of people just believing in the same things you know.”
As the North Texas weather grows less balmy, the core group of followers is still hunkered down at hotels around downtown Dallas, gathering to practice gematria and meet on the grassy knoll when they get a hint that a Kennedy may return. There is fun to be had, of course: On the 58th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Protzman was cheered on by supporters as he rolled around in a pickup with “Fuck Joe Biden” painted on the top, flashing Nixonian V-for-victory signs while hanging out the passenger window. And there’s always another date down the line on which JFK or his son could reappear: In addition to the Thanksgiving celebration, Thursday marks what would have been JFK Jr.’s 61st birthday.
Nickander hopes to get back soon after the holiday. “I’m still learning and trying to figure out what this all means to me,” she says. “I do still believe that JFK is alive, and how that’s revealed I have no idea. I feel like we’re an important part of making that happen.”