On Tuesday evening, the dark recesses of the internet lit up with talk of politics.
"Tampa rally, live coverage," wrote "Dan," posting a link to President Trump's Tampa speech in a thread on 8chan, an anonymous image board also known as Infinitechan or Infinitychan, which might be best described as the unglued twin of better-known 4chan, a message board already untethered from reality.
The thread invited "requests to Q," an anonymous user claiming to be a government agent with top security clearance, waging war against the so-called deep state in service to the 45th president. "Q" feeds disciples, or "bakers," scraps of intelligence, or "bread crumbs," that they scramble to bake into an understanding of the "storm," the community's term — drawn from Trump's cryptic reference in the fall of last year to "the calm before the storm" — for the president's final conquest over elites, globalists and deep-state saboteurs.
What Tuesday's rally in Tampa made apparent is that devotees of these falsehoods — some of which are specific to faith in the president, others garden-variety nonsense with racist and anti-Semitic undertones don't just exist on digital message boards.
Believers in "QAnon," as the conspiracy theory is known, were front and center at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, where Trump came to stump for Republican candidates. As Trump spoke, a sign rose from the audience. "We are Q," it read. Another poster displayed text arranged in a "Q" pattern: "Where we go one we go all."
The symbol appeared on clothing, too. A man and a woman wore matching white T-shirts with the YouTube logo encircled in a blue "Q." The video-sharing website came under criticism this week for unwittingly becoming a platform for baseless claims, first promoted on Twitter and Reddit by QAnon believers, that certain Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles. A search for one of those celebrities' names Monday returned videos purporting to show his victims sharing their stories.
The prominence of the "Q" symbol turned parts of the audience into a tableau of delusion and paranoia — and offered stark evidence that QAnon, an outgrowth of the #Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led a gunman to open fire in a D.C. restaurant last year, has leaped from internet message boards to the president's "Make America Great Again" tour through America.
"Pray Trump mentions Q!" one user wrote on 8chan. He didn't need to. As hazy corners of the internet buzzed with talk of the president, his appearance became a real-life show of force for the community that has mostly operated behind the veil of anonymity on subreddits.
Trump himself has at times been a purveyor of conspiracy theories, most notably in refusing for years to back down from his lie that President Obama was not born in the U.S. He also claimed without evidence that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, pedaled the debunked idea that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote and associated the father of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with the assassin who shot President Kennedy.
But viewing their message boards, it's clear that QAnon crosses a new frontier. In the black hole of conspiracy in which "Q" has plunged its followers, Trump only feigned collusion to create a pretense for the hiring of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is actually working to expose the Democrats. Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros are planning a coup and traffic children in their spare time. J.P. Morgan, the American financier, sank the Titanic.
In the world in which QAnon believers live, Trump's detractors, such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, wear ankle monitors that track their whereabouts. Press reports are dismissed as "Operation Mockingbird," the name given to the alleged midcentury infiltration of the American media by the CIA. The Illuminati looms large in QAnon. As do the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish family vilified by the conspiracy theorists as the leaders of a satanic cult. Among the world leaders wise to satanic influences, the theory holds, is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
QAnon flirts with eschatology, fascist philosophy and the filmmaking of Francis Ford Coppola. Adherents believe a "Great Awakening" will precede the final storm foretold by Trump. Once they make sense of the information drip left for them by "Q," they will usher in a Christian revival presaging total victory.
The implication is that resolving the clues left by "Q" would not just explain Trump's planned countercoup. It would explain the whole universe.
When "Q" is absent for long stretches of time, followers take note.
"Please tell me where to go," one wrote last month. "I feel lost without Q."
Some big names have bought into the fantasy. Roseanne Barr, the disgraced star of the canceled ABC revival that bore her name, has posted messages on Twitter that appear to endorse the QAnon worldview, fixating on child sex abuse. She has sought to make contact with "Q" on social media and has retweeted messages summarizing the philosophy built around the online persona. QAnon has enjoyed promoters ranging from Curt Schilling, the former Boston Red Sox pitcher, to Cheryl Sullenger, the antiabortion activist.
There is a component of QAnon that can be interpreted as a direct call to action, which has already had real-life consequences.
The Newport Beach Police Department said recently it was looking into the presence of a man outside Michael Avenatti's law office after a link to the lawyer's website and images of his office building appeared in QAnon threads. This spring, armed members of Veterans on Patrol stumbled on a homeless camp and demanded that authorities investigate it as a site of child sex-trafficking, later thanking QAnon followers for taking up their cause.