The Cult of QAnon
Air Date: April 20, 2020
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Based in San Diego, California, Travis View is my guest today. He’s a writer, conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous which chops and screws the best conspiracy theories of the post-truth era. According to Wikipedia, “QAnon is a far right conspiracy theory detailing a supposed secret plot by an alleged deep-state against U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters. The theory began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous image board 4chan by someone using the name Q, a presumably American individual that may have later grown to include multiple people claiming to have access to classified information involving the Trump Administration and its opponents in the United States,” and that again is from Wikipedia. Welcome Travis. Thank you for being here.
VIEW: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: Is that an accurate anecdotal origin story?
VIEW: I mean, broadly, I mean, I think that really more central to the QAnon conspiracy theory is the belief that the world is run by a cabal of child sacrificing elites. And they control everything. They control governments and control the media. They control Hollywood, and they would have continued doing this sort of basically indefinitely were not for the election of Donald Trump. They basically believe that if Hillary Clinton were to win then this evil elite cabal with just sort of continue doing all the evil they wanted sort of unimpeded. But the QAnon community believes that Donald Trump knows all about this cabal, is fighting them behind the scenes. And he’s doing it with the, with the assistance of a group of military intelligence officials known as QTeam. And this QTeam is sort of letting the public know about what is going on with the sort of fight with the cabal through these posts on these image boards. Image boards originally started on 4chan moved to 8chan and now 8kun. And the QAnon community believes that by decoding these very cryptic, very vague sort of posts on these image boards, they can sort of understand what sort of going on really behind the scenes.
HEFFNER: The fact of the matter is Donald Trump has re-tweeted and often promotes QAnon literature, so even if you don’t believe it as a viewer, it is in the mainstream right now by virtue of his reposting of it.
VIEW: Yeah, I think, yeah, Trump has quote tweeted or re-tweeted literally dozens of QAnon accounts. He’s actually even re-tweeted one tweet that contained the hash tag QAnon. Also additionally, there are dozens of congressional candidates who currently promote QAnon. There’s no knowing how well they’re going to do in the election in November. But I think, yeah, this is definitely a topic worth exploring, even if you rightly dismiss it as all a sort of absurd nonsense.
HEFFNER: What do they say, the QAnon advocates and posters in response to what is the mainstream media definition, which is that this is not just outlandish, but this is just fictional.
VIEW: Oh, Yeah, yeah, the QAnon reaction to sort of the mainstream media sort of definition of QAnon is that this is all sort of a controlled message, is that the mainstream media is sort of like scared of QAnon rising and uncovering the truth because ultimately they see themselves as a competitor to the mainstream media. They think that you know, when the mainstream media goes out and reports on things that happen, then that’s basically old lies or it’s in service of a particular narrative and the QAnon community, they are working to destroy that false narrative. They imagine themselves to be very heroic in this way.
HEFFNER: And do you see it more as a monetized commercial aspiration or as a political party because in both cases you’ve described, and if you follow Travis on Twitter, you’ll see he will point out every example around the country and even the world of Q literature. So that might be a sign, a sticker, a bumper sticker on the back of a car. That might be people reading the cues in Donald Trump’s messages and trying to decode what it means.
VIEW: I think it’s mostly political aspiration. I think that there are obviously, there are two sides. There are the grifters of the QAnon community. There are people who don’t believe it but want to exploit people who do believe it for monetary gain. But there are people who are sincerely radicalized into this belief. They believe this sort of, this grand conspiratorial narrative that that the world is run by a group of evil people who lie about everything and they are very, nobly working to dispel those lies.
HEFFNER: How much of that, the lie narrative is racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and how much of it is not?
VIEW: Well, you know, this all ties back to sort of the classic sort of new world order conspiracy theories. Where’s the idea that the world is sort of being controlled by a cabal and those always have at the very minimum and anti-Semitic subtext. But lots of lots of QAnon followers, they, they aren’t I guess a racist or anti-Semitic in overt way, but some of them certainly are.
HEFFNER: So from your interaction with this community, with which you have some regular conversation or dialogue, right?
HEFFNER: Daily or weekly?
VIEW: I mean I, I interact with a QAnon followers online I think daily. And then I’ve also met a few at rallies and stuff.
HEFFNER: Do you, there is a segment of genuine believers in this movement who you would say are disconnected from that subtext and from that larger political aspiration?
VIEW: Yes, there are people who, yeah, don’t really see the sort of political aspiration they serve, see themselves as – well they call themselves digital soldiers and the, they imagine
HEFFNER: That sounds political.
VIEW: It does sound political, right. ‘Cause they imagine that they are you know, fighting this, this very noble fight to destroy the narrative that’s controlling everybody.
HEFFNER: What I’m trying to understand, Travis, is when did the cabal form, I mean, when did you start doubting the integrity of the American Republic and the experience here
VIEW: A lot of them believe that it started a hundreds of years ago. And this, this ties back to conspiracy theories about the Illuminati. And was it the free masons and those sorts of sort of secret societies, kind of conspiracy theories. There are others who believe that more ties to the American deep state as its origins in there, the belief that JFK was assassinated by out of control intelligence agencies in the U.S. federal government. And they have been working to keep everything secret. I mean, the truth is, is that it’s not really a coherent narrative. They all have different sort of factions, different ideas of who the cabal is and what their ultimate goals are. But they’re all sort of united in the belief that everything is a lie. And therefore the sort of the order that needs to be destroyed,
HEFFNER: But they themselves are sort of an anarchy or sort of a libertarian attitude towards their narrative. They don’t feel like they have to have a unified narrative on their origin. And they accept people, and their sort of unified principle is a love for Donald Trump.
VIEW: That’s true. We often call QAnon a sort of a big tent conspiracy theory in the sense that it welcomes people many broad sort of conspiratorial beliefs. You might have people who believe in the idea of alien disclosure. This is the idea that the U.S. government has been hiding lots of UFO secrets for decades. And then eventually those, those secrets going to be released and then we’ll have access to incredible technologies. There are other people who really are more focused on the religious aspects, the belief that the cabal is Satan worshiping and they’re finding a holy fight. And there are still others who believe things like JFK Jr lives. This idea that JFK Jr. did not die in 1999 in a plane crash, but somehow is still alive to this day.
HEFFNER: So there are people who have their own faith in, in Q, and it might be a certain connection to, to Kennedy or it might be a connection to a hate movement or it may be a con, but there, there is a patchwork of what is inspiring these, these folks. And ultimately what is the effect of Q on civil society?
VIEW: I mean, the effect is the effect of the effect of Q on civil society, I think it’s really corrosive. It’s corrosive number one in that it sort of erodes this idea of that that truth is knowable, that you can sort of, like trust anything at all. And the idea that you can serve just form ideas about what’s true inside of your own head and that’s as good as real. It’s also destructive in what does the personal relationships, at least what I’ve seen; I’ve seen a lot of QAnon followers, they talk about being isolated from their families. I mean, I personally, I get DMs from people about once or twice a month and they’ll say, my father, my brother, my friend has fallen into QAnon and it’s become an obsession and it’s becoming harder to maybe treat their mental illness. And do you have any recommendations on how do I deal with this issue? And it is very troubling.
HEFFNER: What would you approximate is the size of the digital footprint and is that analogous to the actual footprint? In other words, are we, by virtue of this episode and hosting you over exposed to it, and in fact the digital footprint is much smaller than the actual presence. Your anecdotal evidence in tweeting every day seems to suggest Q literature is popping up around the country. So my question to you is, what’s the digital footprint and does that have some basis in numbers in flesh and blood?
VIEW: Yeah, I mean obviously the digital footprint is sort of over-represented because it is sort of an online movement. It’s based upon this belief that the QAnon followers can by sitting at their computer and tweeting this basically propaganda that can change the world. It’s a very sort of heroic narrative. But it also, it does spill out into the real world in terms of like you know, affecting personal relationships and also acts of domestic extremism. So it’s, and also it also obviously it’s part of the real world and that many Trump rallies, you’ll see QAnon followers very proudly showing off their Q gear and there’ll be groups of QAnon followers who wear Q shirts. So the actual size of the QAnon community, I mean, it is not really known that well, there hasn’t been really a good solid poll on that. I would love it if there was, but we just don’t know that.
HEFFNER: But you would be the most informed both in terms of telling us how many actual human being followers there are online.
VIEW: Yeah. Yeah. I mean,
HEFFNER: Not bots.
VIEW: There are lots; I mean I would have to be a like at least in the hundreds of thousands and possibly into the millions.
HEFFNER: And to what extent did the Russian disinformation efforts during the ’16 campaign amplify this sort of pre Q ideas and to what extent, if any, was that integrated into the founding principles of Q?
HEFFNER: Yeah, we know that the Russian sort of state actors sort of work to sort of amplify QAnon accounts. They worked to get a lot of re-tweets, a lot more followers into QAnon. They might, the Russians might have seen it as an opportunity. I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Russians were driving the narrative so much. By all appearances this is a homegrown movement.
HEFFNER: Do these folks who are writing the stories of QAnon, are they engrossed because they’re like writing their own National Inquirer? I mean, is that part of the allure of this or is that a mistake to simplify it that way?
VIEW: No, I think the people who genuinely serve, promote QAnon they really think that they’re doing something noble and good. It’s not just, it’s not something gossipy. It’s really, they believe they’re taking part in an incredible revolution and they believe that like after this revolution that they call the Great Awakening,
VIEW: There will be this incredible time of peace and prosperity and togetherness or utopia basically. So they feel very motivated to keep doing what they’re doing online.
HEFFNER: And meanwhile, they’ve made a lot of predictions that haven’t materialized.
VIEW: They predicted that like people like a Huma Abedin would be indicted. I mean, the very first Q drop predicted.
HEFFNER: Have any of their predictions been realized?
VIEW: Not really. I mean, not more so than like a, sort of a psychic medium might be able to get, right. I mean, the thing is, that thing is that I a Q relies on these sort of, these cold reading tricks. Well, Q will say something like very vague, like, watch the water, watch the water. What does that mean? I mean, it can mean anything. And but the thing is that because water covers most of the planet, we all need water to survive. There’s going to be a news event eventually that involves Trump and water. And so the QAnon community will look at that and will say, look, Trump, drank a glass of water on-camera Q said watch the water. That means that Q predicted that event, which of course it’s nonsense.
HEFFNER: Right. And do you think judging by your interactions with this community that, you know, they will find a way to entrench themselves in any narrative where there is destruction and basically say that they predicted it, you know, in some fashion because they’ve come up with so many
VIEW: Of course
HEFFNER: …hypotheses. For instance with coronavirus and the emergence of this new disease, how have you seen the real time integration of live world events into their propaganda?
VIEW: Yeah, Yeah. They, they, a lot of them have been claiming that that the coronavirus is sort of created by the deep state. Or they claim that it’s a part of Bill Gates’ plan to sort of destroy most of humanity
HEFFNER: Or China. I think I’ve seen some examples. That’s where there is some, there is a segment that is the American ethos of, you know, fear of other powers and some sympathy that you might have in understanding the geopolitical conflict historically, the aspiration of democracy. But are those, are, are those people who would accuse China of corruption or, you know, some sort of biochemical failure intentional or unintentional, is there a segment of them that either they’re saying that because of their own professed patriotism?
VIEW: It might, yeah, it’s part of that, I feel like they’re mostly wary of elites generally, just the people who are in power, whether it’s Bill Gates, whether it’s the Chinese Communist Party.
HEFFNER: So why do they want Donald Trump seemingly to serve until he’s how old? Over a hundred. I mean, some maybe a preponderance of the Q community would like to see Trump’s realization of that Time Magazine meme graphic where he’s winning elections every four years for three, four decades. I mean, aren’t they so skeptical of authoritarianism? Except Trump?
VIEW: Not, not, not in his case. They see him as a Washington outsider, which he technically is, but they believe that he is one of the only uncorrupted elites. For some reason they believe that he is the one who’s going to come in and acquire all of this power and he’s going to basically tear down the power structures that this evil cabal has built up.
HEFFNER: Do you think behind closed doors, before Twitter, there was this kind of fanfare for Reagan? I, there has to have been some cultivated political allegiance in the past on which these folks have built.
VIEW: You know, they’re obviously, there’s lots of people who venerate Reagan as a, as a great, great Patriot, great American, great president. But this is certainly another level. I mean people in QAnon community almost revere Trump, almost on the spiritual level. They believe that he is, you know basically, he has saved the country from certain destruction. They believe that actually if Hillary Clinton was elected president, it would be the end of the Republic. And, the only reason that didn’t happen was because Trump, you know against all odds won the office.
HEFFNER: Do you have any concern that the work that you’re doing and now the work that I’m doing here interviewing you is heightening people’s attention or interest in a way that’s ultimately counterproductive?
VIEW: Yeah, I’m always worried about that, but, at the same time, I feel like we are living in an age where conspiracy theories are normalized more so than ever, therefore promoted at the highest levels of power, when wasn’t that long ago when conspiracy theories where the sort of the pastime of the powerless. And, but I think that is important. That has to think it’s important to talk about conspiracy theories for that reason, but also because we’re seeing you know, some conspiracy theory driven extremism and, you know, once people’s lives are at risk, I think it’s a certainly important and worth addressing.
HEFFNER: And how would you assess the rehabilitation, the DMs that you get on Twitter from folks who say they are now a forever lost to this cult? And has there been any successful intervention or rehabilitation?
VIEW: You know there is a cult expert named Steve Hassan who deals with these issues who’s been exploring QAnon quite recently. He’s helped people get out of other cults like Scientology and he has just started exploring it. I don’t know of any, really good case study of someone who was like deeply into QAnon who eventually got out. I have spoken to a few people who were into QAnon for the very first few months for three or four months, they realized it was nonsense they got out. But is lot harder for someone who was involved for years to eventually realize that they’d been bamboozled and then stopped believing.
HEFFNER: Right. And from your interactions, you gather that there are some examples of you wouldn’t expect it, but your neighbor could be among the few following. There is no precise pedigree, although there, there seems to be a pretty tribal following that I was going to ask you if you could estimate what percent of these people did come from the evangelical community?
VIEW: Yeah, yeah. There’s yeah, a lot of the QAnon followers they’re, they are perfectly pleasant people. I mean, for example, I went to a QAnon rally in Tampa, Florida, which was attended by about 120, 150 people or so, and they knew who I was and they knew what I reported on, but they were perfectly nice to me despite that. And there yeah, a lot of them do come from the evangelical community because the narratives are so similar in the belief that there is in the, they believe in that this idea of the rapture, the idea that there’s going to be a great reckoning that’s coming in, which all the evil people will finally suffer their ultimate fate.
HEFFNER: Why is it that the conspiracy theory that ends up having a foundation in fact, or why is it that religion are no longer sufficient outlets? You see shows like the HBO series on the McDonald’s Million Monopoly scandal. You see examples where there, there is some evidentiary basis to find alternative viewpoints in media. And then of course there’s God. I mean, then there’s the question of religion and faith and whether it’s real or not, I mean, isn’t there enough to keep us questioning that we don’t need to focus on Q, I mean, or that they don’t need to be focusing on making up other questions. I mean,
VIEW: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. I mean, like on our podcast, we often explored the story of the, the real incredible wild stories of, of powerful people conspiring. That’s something that happens naturally. That’s history in fact. But there’s this, I feel like there’s a profound sense of sort of unreality because of the fragmentation of media. People feel disoriented. People don’t know what’s true anymore. People don’t know who to trust, people feel let down by institutions. And so they resort to these sorts of wild fantasies in order to explain that sense of unreality
HEFFNER: In those shows, like the HBO McDonald’s docu-series or the Netflix Making a Murderer there are real people conspiring and it’s not the elite. I mean it’s, it’s someone who works for a security firm and you know, someone who is in a police department and I, you know, I’m just there, there are ample examples and are they not resonating because these people have dispelled HBO, Netflix, they’re part of the cabal. Is that a reason that they wouldn’t undertake this kind of entertainment or this kind of engagement?
VIEW: Yes, they have they have a knee jerk, rejection, of any thing that they believe is coming from the mainstream media. Anything that the, anything that they believe, is coming from an institutional source of information, it’s automatically suspect for them.
HEFFNER: What, where do you draw that line of institutional? I mean, there has to be some gray area for QAnon people because if they’re not watching local news at all, they’re not seeing anything about recalls and toys. I mean, how much have they given up on normal or civil society?
VIEW: I mean, they have taken to serve trusting sort of YouTubers with like with, you know, maybe 200,000 followers where they think that that sort of more authoritative or at least more trustworthy.
HEFFNER: You’d say that the majority, if not all of the QAnon followers would reject local news, meaning they don’t watch local news anymore and only watch YouTube.
VIEW: They, they, I think they tend to trust the local news more so than national news or maybe cable news, but, they, but, they trust sort of what they call citizen journalists where it’s basically anonymous people online who spend their theories and connect dots and sort of, they think that this is sort of uncovering the true source of information rather than serve a traditional journalist.
HEFFNER: And do you get any sense of when that started for most of these QAnon people, had they been broken from society in this way and for many years or decades prior to this?
VIEW: Yeah, I mean I spoke to a, a one person who was a QAnon follower who claims that he believed in the sort of sense of like the deep state and the cabal ever since the Kennedy assassination. So w it was, it was decades in the making; I mean a QAnon just sort of provides a sort of convenient narrative for everyone. And also the other elements, obviously the rise of social media because if you were a conspiracy theorist decades ago it was a lot of work to get alternative sources of information or spin alternative theories there. Took research, you had to go to the library. It was labor intensive. Nowadays you can spin, you can connect a lot of dots and spin a wild story at your computer, you know, in under an hour
HEFFNER: And reach and potentially persuade millions.
VIEW: Yeah. If you had a conspiracy theory decades ago, you could maybe; you know, staple together a couple of pages and tried to send them out to whoever was interested in it. But yeah, wouldn’t have much reach and most people wouldn’t trust it.
HEFFNER: Finally, how, how can people access your podcast and are the vast majority of listeners part of the community or part of the community that’s just interested in the Q community?
VIEW: Yeah, my podcast is QAnon Anonymous. You can find it on any podcasting platform and we’re mostly sort of QAnon-skeptics. We’re mostly, people are sort of interested in the wild stories or even maybe think that maybe there’s something to them. We also have a lot of listeners who have family members who fell into QAnon; they want to sort of understand what these people believe and why they think they do a lot.
HEFFNER: Has Oliver stone called you yet?
VIEW: Not yet. Waiting on that call.
HEFFNER: They will. They will. Thank you, Travis for being here today.
VIEW: Thank you so much for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.