To some, it’s the beginning of a new religious movement. For others, a puzzle or a game. For still others, it is community, a gathering of like-minded folks who enjoy each other’s company and share a deep passion. But for most people, it’s a loosely collected, far-ranging, bizarre and possibly dangerous family of conspiracy theories that have been dubbed “Q” or “QAnon.”
What is Q?
The origins of Q are arcane, and they involve some of the seediest corners of the internet, particularly the anonymous image-sharing message board called 4chan. In October 2017, a user appeared claiming to be a “Q Clearance Patriot,” implying that he had a very high level of governmental security clearance and was therefore privy to the inner workings of the Trump administration. This is not unusual for a place like 4chan; anonymous users claiming to be intelligence officers or government officials appear frequently and post ominous warnings, only to never post again.
What set apart the Q Clearance Patriot — quickly shortened to simply Q — was his consistency. He never disappeared. Since that day in 2017, Q has posted more than 4,600 times on a few different websites (including 8chan and 8kun), and a massive community has emerged dedicated to understanding the message he is attempting to share.
“Figuring out Q’s message requires an interpretive community because Q’s posts are, frankly, obtuse.”
Figuring out Q’s message requires an interpretive community because Q’s posts are, frankly, obtuse. There are a few obvious and straightforward claims, but many of Q’s posts are long lists of sentence fragments, rhetorical questions (ostensibly designed to encourage “research”), and tortured symbolic phrases like “find the reflection inside the castle.” Even Q’s punctuation is taken to be a clue, and meaning is commonly given to the assortment of brackets that populate his posts.
Eventually, though, a semi-coherent worldview emerged. Broadly speaking, Q and his disciples believe that the United States is run by a sinister group of power-hungry elites who represent every aspect of public life. Democrats and other progressives are Q’s most frequent targets (especially Hilary Clinton and George Soros), but the cabal also includes Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks and even conservative politicians who refuse to support President Trump.
In its most extreme forms, the conspiracy also alleges that these elites engage in human trafficking for a variety of purposes, including pedophilia, ritual sacrifice and the harvesting of psychotropic compounds from human adrenal glands. President Trump, along with the support of the U.S. military, intends to take down this cabal and prevent it from destroying the United States.
According to Q, a massive day of reckoning, usually referred to as “The Storm,” is coming. After The Storm, the United States will enjoy a period of tremendous peace and prosperity sometimes referred to as “The Great Awakening” — implying none too subtly that those who doubted Q will soon see the error of their ways.
Why is Q popular?
Plenty of ink has been spilled in the past months trying to assess Q’s popularity. Richard Hofstadter’s famous phrase, “the paranoid style in American politics,” has been frequently invoked, as has the American religious impulses to revivalism, millenarianism and apocalypticism. Q has been regularly compared to a cult.
“Like all good lies, Q’s narrative contains a healthy dose of truth.”
None of these analyses are wrong. In fact, most are quite nuanced and cogent. But there’s another angle that also bears exploring: Like all good lies, Q’s narrative contains a healthy dose of truth.
Take, for example, Q’s basic claim that there is a dedicated syndicate of elites running this country for their own gain. There’s plenty of room to interrogate the motives of our public officials, but it’s relatively easy to see that power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Just two political families, the Bushes and the Clintons, have dominated American public life for an entire generation. Fourteen members of the House and Senate have served in the federal legislature for more than 35 years. And while wages stagnate and unemployment soars, American billionaires added $637 billion to their wealth in the middle of a pandemic. Is it an organized cabal with Satanic motivations? Almost certainly not. But it is an alarmingly unequal distribution of power.
Or consider the terrifying assertions of human trafficking, the element of the conspiracy that seems to appeal most to justice-minded evangelical Christians. While it can be hard to pinpoint exact numbers, there is broad agreement that human trafficking is a global crisis that affects millions of victims each year. Some sources go so far as to claim that more humans are held in slavery today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And while Q’s focus on the sexual exploitation of minors minimizes the suffering of trafficked adults and those who are trafficked for other forms of labor (roughly 1 in 5, according to a U.N. estimate), it is clear that human trafficking is one of the most pressing justice issues facing the modern world.
These are just two examples, but plenty of other pieces of Q’s narrative contain kernels of truth: lack of trust in the changing landscape of traditional media; the dark web of relationships and illegal activity surrounding Jeffrey Epstein; the historical willingness of American intelligence agencies to perpetrate violence against citizens.
This is not to say that Q is not lying about plenty of things, arguing in bad faith and making plenty of errors in judgment, logic and data analysis. But it does suggest that we would be foolish to dismiss Q followers as an entire mass of unhinged lunatics. Their narrative taps into some dark truths about the nature of our democracy and attempts to address some of the deepest anxieties of the present age.
There are plenty of reasons to ultimately dismiss Q, but there are plenty of reasons to have compassion for Q believers. Although they have fallen under the sway of grifters and demagogues, most of them began in exactly the same place as the rest of us: searching for the tools to make sense of this confusing, unsettling, contentious, divisive, frightening, and, yes, unprecedented moment in history.
“Given all the lies, fraud and manipulation, is there anything that can be done to stop or at least reason with the Q movement?”
What can we do about Q?
Of course, we can have compassion upon Q followers while also vehemently opposing the larger Q movement, which we absolutely should do for a variety of compelling reasons:
- Not a single prediction from Q’s 4,600 posts has come to pass (Q slickly passes this off as a “misinformation campaign”).
- The conspiracy recycles anti-Semitic memes and stereotypes.
- Q adherents are actively damaging the anti-trafficking movement.
- Despite Q’s repeated promise that “nothing can stop what is coming,” some Q believers are engaged in political violence to further the cause (the FBI believes Q is a domestic terror threat).
- The Q community sometimes functions like a dangerous cult.
- And, the whole thing might just actually be a giant grift.
Given all the lies, fraud and manipulation, is there anything that can be done to stop or at least reason with the Q movement?
Tragically, in the opinions of many experts who study cults and conspiracy theories, the answer might be no. At least for those who consider themselves “true believers,” normal methods of discourse have difficulty penetrating the layers of self-supporting argumentation that surround Q. For those in the deepest, the only way out might be their own disillusionment.
But not everyone is a true believer. Plenty of people start out investigating Q cautiously, moved by its zeal for victims of human trafficking or intrigued by its claims to make sense of a senseless world. Those who are on the fence are the ones who have the best chance of being influenced away from Q and toward something better. But how?
Three practical suggestions
First, we have to be honest, faithful and compassionate dialogue partners. No one ever has been shamed or lectured into changing their mind. We can begin by acknowledging all the ways in which Q hits close to home. We can listen to anxious hearts with compassion. We can share resources that don’t make our conversation partner feel demeaned.
Second, we can be wise. Refuting the specific claims made by Q or other conspiracy theorists is generally ineffective and should be avoided. We can also learn to recognize when someone is arguing in bad faith and refuse to waste our time and energy. We can use our resources to support good and ethical journalism, science and politics.
Finally, those of us who identify as Christians have an obligation to tell a better story. Christianity has the capability to speak compellingly about the problem of evil in the world, God’s eschatological vision and humanity’s role in both. We have to stop being afraid to talk about sin, the demonic, repentance, and yes, even apocalypse. Q’s apocalyptic vision borrows many of our tropes, after all. It’s high time we started using them ourselves.
This article was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.
Aaron Coyle-Carr is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He’s currently a stay-at-home dad, Bible study teacher and researcher based in Dallas. He is married to Leanna Coyle-Carr, who also is a Baptist pastor.