The weeks following Donald Trump’s reelection loss have separated the president’s true believers from the mere political opportunists. Attorney General Bill Barr defied Trump by stating there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged Trump’s defeat and congratulated President-elect Joe Biden. All of Trump’s Supreme Court justices agreed not to hear a case brought by Texas seeking to overturn the election results. In response, Trump has turned to the segment of his base whose commitment to him is far greater than their commitment to empirical reality, the Republican Party, or even self-preservation: the QAnon community.
QAnon started in 2017 as a small community of imageboard users who delusionally believed they were receiving messages from the Trump White House and the military through an anonymous entity known as “Q,” promising the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton and many other powerful people for child sex trafficking. Clinton obviously remains free, but QAnon followers tend to overlook the lack of results and failed predictions because they gauge the movement’s success by its popularity, its opposition from the mainstream media, and its recognition by the president himself. Consequently, many in the QAnon community feel supremely validated despite the fact that Trump is exiting the White House.
Trump’s encouragement of QAnon is nothing new. The president first amplified a QAnon-promoting Twitter account in November 2017 and has done so hundreds of times since then. One of these retweets includes a post by Ron Watkins, the longtime administrator of imageboard 8chan/8kun and the probable author of at least some of the posts credited to Q.
Over the past few months, however, Trump has recognized the QAnon community in a way its followers could have only fantasized about when I began tracking the movement’s growth over two years ago. When I started, QAnon followers were convinced Trump would validate the conspiracy-theory movement if asked directly by the press, despite the fact that QAnon was then considered too fringe to be worthy of most serious journalists’ attention. But during an October town hall, Trump did praise the QAnon community, as people who are “very much against pedophilia,” in response to a question from Savannah Guthrie of NBC News. QAnon followers were unsurprisingly thrilled with Trump’s answer. One QAnon promoter on Twitter called it “FULL AND COMPLETE CONFIRMATION.” In the postelection period, the president has increased his reliance on QAnon for his media, messaging, and legal strategies.
For example, QAnon followers feel validated by Trump’s growing reliance on two high-profile QAnon promoters: the recently pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell, who had been Flynn’s attorney before she joined the Trump campaign’s postelection legal effort. Trump reportedly met with the duo at the White House two weeks ago to strategize about overturning the election. At that meeting, Trump allegedly suggested appointing Powell as a special counsel to investigate voter-fraud claims. Trump also asked about Flynn’s poorly defined plan, which he first floated on Newsmax, to use the military to “rerun” the election. These suggestions were reportedly met with concern and pushback from the senior White House staffers in attendance, but they’re par for the course in QAnon World, which Powell and Flynn themselves have promoted and relied on for years.
Powell’s lawsuits seeking to overturn the election, which she and her supporters have dubbed “the Kraken,” have repeatedly relied on QAnon followers. One affidavit was authored by Watkins, who has actively led the QAnon community on Twitter since the election. Another affidavit was authored by an anonymous QAnon follower who went by “Quisling_Hunter” on Twitter. The claims in that affidavit derive from a harassment campaign against voting centers in Georgia that was initiated by Watkins. Flynn is both a central figure in QAnon lore and a QAnon promoter himself. He has regularly signed the QAnon slogan “WWG1WGA” in books and has taken the “Digital Soldier Oath” at the behest of Q. Flynn’s post-pardon media tour has involved interviews with QAnon programs such as The Matrixxx/Groove Show.
QAnon followers have patiently yearned for this kind of recognition since the movement’s inception, so what has happened since Election Day is the most satisfying fulfillment of a prophecy they could have hoped for, absent Clinton’s boarding a plane destined for the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.
Trump’s actively inflaming the QAnon zealotry is concerning considering the movement’s political goals: Adherents long for the mass imprisonment and/or execution of thousands of people in politics, entertainment, and media whom they believe are guilty of unspeakable atrocities. In QAnon lore, this violence will descend swiftly in a prophesied event called “the Storm,” in which Trump’s political enemies will be swept away en masse. Most QAnon followers are content to keep waiting for this eternally delayed day of reckoning — but some impatient ones have taken matters into their own hands. An Arizona QAnon follower was recently sentenced for a terrorism conviction he received after an armed standoff on the Hoover Dam bridge. A California man was convicted for setting a fire inside the Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong, which is frequently targeted by QAnon followers. And in New York, QAnon follower Anthony Comello was charged with murder for allegedly killing the reputed mob boss Frank Cali. Comello’s defense attorney stated in a legal filing, “Mr. Comello became certain that he was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself, and that he had the president’s full support.” Comello may suffer from delusions, but the idea that QAnon followers enjoy Trump’s “full support” is not among them. A reasonable person can be justified in believing such a proposition by observing Trump’s repeated willingness to praise the QAnon community, amplify QAnon messages, and turn to QAnon promoters for advice.
As Inauguration Day approaches, it’s possible that more QAnon supporters will take extreme action and feel justified because of Trump’s “full support.” Their single-minded fantasticism shouldn’t be underestimated, as many have sacrificed family, career, and countless hours on social-media platforms in service of Trump’s imaginary battle with a global Satan-worshipping cabal. It may be comforting to believe Biden’s inauguration will discourage or temper these QAnon followers, but the opposite reaction is more likely. As Trump faces a defeat that no amount of bluster can reverse, it remains to be seen how QAnon followers will prove the full extent of their devotion to the powerful man who rewarded their undying support with validating recognition. But we won’t have to wait long to find out.