Mainstream press covering the White House got their first unignorably palpable taste of “The Storm” conspiracy theory and its anonymous protagonist, “QAnon,” last night at President Trump’s rally in Tampa, Florida.
People lining up for the Trump rally in Tampa today. A lot of the chan anons might treat Q-Anon like a LARP, but by all appearances there are plenty of people who take it seriously irl. pic.twitter.com/uys7kmnAs1
— Travis View (@travis_view) July 31, 2018
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) July 31, 2018
The conspiracy theory—which supposes that President Trump is secretly undoing a global satanic pedophile ring with the help of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and ordering a top-level staffer to share information about the efforts via cryptic posts on the anonymous imageboard 8chan— currently captivates hundreds of thousands of right-wing activists online. Some spend hours per day in chat rooms dedicated to decoding the “crumbs” (clues) that an anonymous writer using the moniker “Q” posts online.
It is stunning to me how many ppl in this #TRUMPTAMPA crowd have QAnon signs or t-shirts. That is not a healthy sign for GOP or for America.
— Adam Smith (@adamsmithtimes) July 31, 2018
For mainstream media reporters, the presence of QAnon believers at the Tampa rally heralded a new phenomenon, but this conspiracy theory has been churning beneath the veneer of right-wing media for the better part of a year, and has occupied major space in right-wing internet watering holes.
The conspiracy theory has also bled into real life in various ways. In June, a man with a gun barricaded himself inside an armored vehicle on top of the Hoover Dam, demanding the release of what they believe to be a secret report that was made by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General —a likely mythical document that QAnon followers have surmised will validate their conspiracy theories once and for all. More recently, lawyer Michael Avenatti, who is representing adult film actress Stephanie Clifford (a.k.a., Stormy Daniels) in a lawsuit against the president, faced in-person intimidation from a suspected QAnon supporter after Q targeted his office for harassment. In April, QAnon supporters marched in Washington.
Last month, the Trump campaign gave VIP access to a QAnon supporter. And an early evangelist of QAnon spoke at the Heritage Foundation, which is arguably the most powerful think tank in Washington for its role in staffing and policy-setting for the Trump administration. Earlier this year, longtime conservative organizations like Operation Rescue hopped aboard the conspiracy theory. Even Trump-supporting personalities purporting to be journalists have kept tabs on QAnon and made public winks toward the supporting base. If that weren’t enough, the conspiracy theory was promoted by Tampa’s own county GOP.
In Tampa, QAnon believers heckled reporters, including CNN’s Jim Acosta. In a video uploaded to Twitter, one QAnon believer shouts at Acosta, “Ask Trump about Q! Ask Trump about Q!”
Just a sample of the sad scene we faced at the Trump rally in Tampa. I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt. We should not treat our fellow Americans this way. The press is not the enemy. pic.twitter.com/IhSRw5Ui3R
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) August 1, 2018
As ThinkProgress reporter Luke Barnes aptly points out, part of the reason that the QAnon conspiracy theory has sustained growth for so long is that it exists as a big tent under which countless other theories have been folded. To see how this works, there is a handy flowchart put together by a QAnon theorist who believes it is all true. Barnes writes:
The expansive nature of the QAnon theory — it involves everything from banking conspiracies to claims of Satanic Abuse and supposed child sex trafficking by Democratic lawmakers and public figures — means that smaller theories can be adopted into the fold as offshoots. For example, over the last two months in Arizona, a group called Veterans on Patrol has been “investigating” what they claim is an abandoned “child sex camp” tied to QAnon, and have been harassing public officials who say that those claims are bogus.
Another aspect of the QAnon conspiracy theory that makes it so infectious to its adherents is the belief that their theories are being noticed and validated by the Trump administration. Supporters have claimed that Trump is nodding to them by reciting snippets of slogans associated with the conspiracy theory, and have alleged that Trump is making hand gestures to signal to them.
Much like the “Pizzagate” conspiracies of years past, the QAnon conspiracy theory has become a surprisingly hearty side dish within pro-Trump media diets across the country, and plays to conspiracy theories about satanic pedophilia rings that have permeated in the American zeitgeist since the 1980s. It’s one of many symptoms of the new reality that Trump and his accessories have successfully validated among his supporters—an alternate reality in which the news is “fake” and the “deep state” clique is out to sabotage American patriots.
Conspiracy theories have long been an American pastime, but one that most politicians have historically left to media personalities to peddle on their behalf. However, once the “birther” Trump was elected, one of those conspiracy theory hawks walked into the most powerful office in the free world and became the mouthpiece of America.
All of this is to say that the QAnon folks’ pronounced presence in Tampa shouldn’t have been so surprising. It’s just the new reality.