QAnon began as an online conspiracy theory.
But now, it’s a fully-fledged movement animating hardcore supporters of President Donald Trump as he falsely denies that he lost the election.
At its core, QAnon says Trump has been secretly fighting a shadowy group of devil-worshipping pedophiles who pull the strings in business and government.
But the movement has spread like wildfire since he took office – and even though Trump’s on the way out, it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
And it’s been showing up at recent pro-Trump protests on the streets of Nevada.
At the weekly protests in Carson City, QAnon has been a visible presence with people carrying signs and wearing T-shirts with well-known Q slogans.
A Q supporter interrupted an interview with a Boogaloo Boi, another far-right movement that advocates a second civil war, to explain one part of the conspiracy theory.
“What’s going on is they’ve put watermarks in the ballots to find out which ones are counterfeit and which ones are not. The National Guard has deployed to count the votes. This was the biggest sting operation in the world – was the election. They brought ‘em in. They let ‘em doing it and now we’re going to arrest them,” the supporter said.
What he’s describing is part of the Q mythology. They believe the National Guard has been activated to defeat Trump’s enemies in secret.
The events are a medley of far-right ideologies, including patriot movements and militias and the Proud Boys - a white supremacist gang supporting Trump. QAnon seems to be getting more visible
For example, right-wing radio host Monica Jaye gave a pro-Q speech at an event in Carson City while announcing she would run against Republican Congressman Mark Amodei in 2022
Other GOP political leaders have attended these events, including Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and State Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, who were at an event in October.
Not everyone at these rallies is forthcoming about their QAnon beliefs. Some people don't talk about them because they just don’t like journalists, mainly because President Trump has been using journalists as punching bags throughout his term.
Other people talk about Q without saying it explicitly. They’ll use codewords and slogans like “trust the plan,” which is a reference to Trump’s purported plot to draw out pedophiles and arrest them.
They’ll also reference the “rabbit hole,” Q-talk for so-called research online that reinforces the conspiracy theory
The whole thing started in 2017 when someone calling themselves 'Q,' and claiming they had high-level national security clearance, started posting cryptic messages about President Trump's efforts to destroy the cabal run by liberal elites around the globe online.
"Qanon is essentially a cult-like conspiracy theory that holds that a military intelligence team is running a secret, yet also public, operation to root out and destroy large-scale, interconnected rings of sex traffickers and pedophiles and saboteurs that have infiltrated the heart of the Democratic Party, big business, Hollywood, the media, finance - basically anywhere where there are prominent liberals, these people see pedophiles and the Q team is supposedly working together with Trump to take these people out," explained Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researching, who is working on a book about QAnon.
However, Rothschild points out the grand plan that the president is supposed to be executing seems to be a slow one that has never come to fruition.
Rothschild said the conspiracy is gaining ground in the mainstream because those pushing it are sanding off some of the darker aspects of it, including cannabilism and pedophilia.
Instead, they're focusing on questioning authority and fighting globalist forces. Plus, they're pushing an extreme loyalty to the president,
"That Trump can do no wrong, and that everything that Trump does that looks like its wrong is actually right because he's a master strategist and has everything under control," Rothschild said.
The theory is no longer just traded among followers in online chat rooms. It has lept into real life, Rothschild said.
There was the Pizzagate incident at a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., where a man brought a gun to the restaurant and demanded to see the children supposedly being kept there. There were no children being kept there.
Rothschild said the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was a precursor to the current QAnon but there are a lot of other theories in the mix, including old anti-Semitic tropes.
"It's very much a kind of gumbo of the worst things that people believe all put together in a shiny new media package," he said.
Pizzagate is far from the only QAnon theory that has moved from online to the real world.
In June 2018, Matthew Wright, a Henderson man, stopped traffic on the bridge near the Hoover Dam to demand that a secret special inspector general report about the 'deep state' be released. After a standoff and short police chase, Wright was arrested. This past February he pled guilty to terrorism charges.
Rothschild said Wright's demands and the sign he had with him on the bridge were taken directly from online posts by Q.
There have been other crimes connected to the movement, Rothschild said, from stalking to murders, and ironically, child kidnappings. He said not all of the people accused of the crimes are direct Q believers but they are part of the orbit.
"Because all of these conspiracy theories blend together, you can't really separate one from the other," he said, "Yes, it is a very violent and very dangerous movement."
However, Rothschild said the believers of the movement don't believe they are violent. Instead, they think of themselves as people who are waking others up to the reality of the world around them.
There is an end date to the conspiracy and that has Rothschild concerned.
On January 20, 2021, President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated and that is not going to go over well with people who are convinced President Trump is saving the world.
"These people think - not only that Trump won but that he won in a landslide and that everything that is going on is all leading up to this landslide being revealed to the people," he said, "That Trump will actually be the real winner."
Rothschild said the whole thing is like a carton of eggs that is about to go bad.
"They are living in a reality that does not exist," he said.
He said there is already a lot of chatter among QAnon believers questioning where Q has gone and wondering if they need to take matters into their own hands.
Samantha Kutner is an extremism expert and research fellow with the Khalifa Iler Institute. She specializes in the Proud Boys, but she says QAnon and the Proud Boys often have intersecting theories.
One big theory that is connecting the believers of both groups is the belief that the election was stolen from President Trump.
"It can't be conceivable for them that Trump would lose by the virtue of our electoral process," she said, "He has to have lost because there is a global cabal of people trying to influence election outcomes."
She said the reality is many conservatives and members of the GOP are flooding social media and extremists websites with a message that the election was stolen.
Kutner said the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremist groups, including QAnon, have anti-Semitic undercurrents and connections that some believers understand and embrace, while others grasp onto it without thinking about the historical context of some of its underlying theories.
One of those theories is blood libel, which is the belief that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for matza.
"The belief of Jews engaging in ritualistic murder and pedophilia it is incredibly compelling because of the moral disgust that it evokes in people," she said, "Even if it is completely untrue, the thought of that would prompt many people who lack critical thinking skills to want to do something about it."
She said a lot of the ideas in the extreme right-wing conspiracy theories are tied to the idea of losing something. For instance, losing their economic place to immigrants or losing a superior status to women because of the feminist movement.
Kutner said it is all part of the idea of taking the 'red pill,' which is a reference to the "Matrix" film where the main character takes a red pill that wakes him up to the reality that he was living in a computer simulation.
As part of her work with the Khalifa Iler Institute, Kutner has been working to deprogram people from the conspiracy theories at the heart of right-wing extremism.
Steven Hassan knows a lot about deprogramming. He was part of the Moonies cult in the 1970s. Hassan said he believed leader Sun Myung Moon was the messiah until his parents took him to a deprogrammer, following a near-fatal car crash.
Since then, he has researched cults and authoritarian control. He doesn't think QAnon is growing in popularity but is actually on the decline.
"When Biden won the election a month ago, Q drops stopped," he said, "I think there was one last night with a video. I think things are going to shift dramatically."
Hassan said it is important for people who have family or friends who are believers of QAnon to know that people do break free from the conspiracy theories and do return to reality-based thinking.
"I believe that family members and friends, if they care, should reach out and build bridges to their loved ones instead of canceling them and blocking them and calling them names," he said.
Hassan said the idea that people who get sucked into conspiracy theories are somehow stupid or weak-minded is not true. He said people are more vulnerable to the theories right now because of the global pandemic and economic uncertainty.
Plus, the so-called research that people do about QAnon is actually just watching propaganda.
"People are not doing independent research. They're watching propagandistic videos, going into different platforms that are re-enforcing in a silo effect these totalist ideas," he said.
Hassan said the stories of people who have stepped out of the QAnon conspiracy bubble should be amplified and brought to the attention of those who are still believers.
Samantha Kutner, extremism expert and research fellow, Khalifa Iler Institute; Mike Rothschild, conspiracy theory researcher and debunker; Steven Hassan, expert on cults and authoritarian control; Bert Johnson, legislative reporter, KNPR
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