A scene from a campaign rally for President Trump on July 31 in Tampa. Signs in the crowd made reference to QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory. (Video still)
Hannah Gurman is a clinical associate professor at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is currently working on the project "Blowing the Whistle: The Hidden History of Whistleblowing and the Rise of the U.S. National Security State."

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly listed Celerino Castillo’s first name as Celero. It is Celerino.  

Could Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros really be planning a coup, the climax of their corrupt criminal enterprise, which includes the operation of a child trafficking ring? Is President Trump secretly collaborating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to mobilize the National Guard and gut the “deep state” aligned with Clinton in a countercoup?

No, and most Americans think “Q Clearance Patriot,” or Q for short, the online persona that posts these stories on Reddit, is an absurd and potentially dangerous conspiracy theorist.

However, for followers of Q, collectively known as QAnon, he is a heroic truthteller. Q claims to have the highest level of security clearance in the Department of Energy, which means he has access to the deepest secrets of the state. In the interest of advancing the greater good, he discloses this information to the public.

In short, he claims to be a whistleblower.

In the popular imagination, national security whistleblowers are generally thought to be antiwar liberals — Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand analyst who exposed a top-secret historical study of U.S. policymaking in Vietnam (later dubbed the Pentagon Papers) and more recently, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, whose disclosures fueled a left-leaning disenchantment with the national security state.

But there is also a long history of right-wing whistleblowing, including those on the far right who peddled conspiracy theories, as well as some who revealed actual misdeeds. In fact, conservatives have long embraced conspiracy as a tool to gain power only to cast aside whistleblowers once it worked. Unwittingly, however, this strategy created an even more radical audience that believes anything purported right-wing whistleblowers say, whether true or absurd. The result has been a blurring of the line between whistleblowing and conspiracy theorists — something that protects actual misdeeds while spreading dangerous falsehoods.

Before Q, there was Otto Otepka. During the 1950s, Otepka served as the deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Internal Security under Dwight Eisenhower, where he presided over the last gasps of unapologetic McCarthyism in the federal government. Perpetuating the far right’s anti-communist deep-state conspiracy theory, he oversaw the dismissal of more than 1,000 State Department officers accused of being disloyal or posing security risks. He twice rejected the security clearance of Walt Rostow, a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter for Eisenhower, citing relatives with socialist backgrounds and connections with communists.

When the Kennedy administration eliminated his position, Otepka struck back. He began sending the security files of prominent administration liberals to the Senate Internal Security subcommittee. These files combined snippets of half-truths, distortions and outright lies in an attempt to equate liberal causes including internationalism, civil rights and social welfare with communist subversion.

While the Kennedy administration argued that this disclosure of classified information constituted a security breach, Otepka’s supporters in Congress and the press declared him a “true hero.” In a 1963 congressional hearing, Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) defended Otepka’s “whistleblowing,” one of the first times that term was applied to an employee of the national security state. Not yet in widespread usage at the time, “whistleblowing” had referred only to individuals who exposed financial fraud or corporate wrongdoing. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon reinstated Otepka and nominated him to the Subversive Activities Control Board.

Unlike Q today, Otepka was an employee of the State Department. The identity of Q remains unknown. He may be a high-level member of the Energy Department. But he could also be a “MAGA” supporter posting to Reddit from his bed. While Otepka’s disclosures contained some real evidence, albeit distorted, Q’s conspiracy theories lack even a tenuous connection to observable reality.

But both share a common worldview and set of tactics that undergirds the deeper political objectives of what passes as whistleblowing on the far right.

While Otepka thought he was aiming at a dangerously “liberal” establishment, he was actually, ironically, accusing hawkish internationalists of being soft on security. Serving in the National Security Council under both Kennedy and Johnson, Rostow played a major role in the escalation of the Vietnam War. Q has followed suit by targeting Clinton and Obama, both of whom perpetuated this tradition of militaristic human rights interventionism in Libya and Syria.

Otepka targeted liberals and liberalism with his conspiracy theories and manipulated evidence. To the Republican establishment, the ends — policing against dangerous subversion — justified the means.

But some right-wing whistleblowers challenged the conservative establishment itself — meeting a very different fate. In the 1980s, a band of right-wing mercenaries exposed the Reagan administration’s covert war in support of the anti-communist contras in Nicaragua — long before it became a front-page story. Jack Terrell, Steven Carr and Peter Glibbery had served as soldiers of fortune in a campaign organized by Oliver North, a high-level aide in the National Security Council. Committed supporters of President Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist interventions in Latin America, they nonetheless grew disillusioned by the corruption of North’s network.

And so, they spoke out. On a CBS show, Terrell warned: “We’ve got a cancer here. It’s like Watergate. It’s not going away.” Additionally, the Contragate whistleblowers exposed the existence of an elaborate drug smuggling and embezzlement operation being carried out by North and his cronies.

But, rather than being celebrated, they were discredited. The Washington Times and other right-wing media characterized them as low-class criminal thugs with a history of lying.

Mainstream journalists joined in as well, dismissing the overwhelming evidence that North knowingly collaborated with leaders of a massive cocaine smuggling operation. They attacked the messenger, not the message, and questioned the veracity of their claims. A piece in the Los Angeles Times portrayed the whistleblowers as “lost Rambos” and quoted a prominent Reagan ally who characterized Carr as “the dregs of humanity.” A decade later, racist stereotypes were used to discredit Celerino Castillo, a Mexican American former DEA agent whose revelations about North’s links to cocaine trafficking had struck a chord in the African American community at the height of the crack epidemic.

Libertarian critics of the deep state — right-wingers who followed in Otepka’s footsteps but were more willing to critique the right-wing establishment — were among the few to believe the accounts of the Contragate whistleblowers. Anti-government media outlets featured stories about the state’s retaliation against Terrell and Castillo. In recent years, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones even interviewed Castillo on Infowars several times, calling him a “hero” and a “patriot.”

And therein lies the problem. To find out more about individuals who blew the whistle on an actual government conspiracy, one needs to visit websites and social media platforms that peddle vile conspiracy theories, including the claim that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook elementary school and the vicious murder of an anti-fascist activist were staged by actors.

Why? The history of whistleblowing on the far right is one in which conspiracy theorists who advanced the agenda of the far right were celebrated as whistleblowers, while whistleblowers who threatened that agenda were discredited as conspiracy theorists, effectively blurring the lines between the two. This problem was exacerbated by the mainstream press’s refusal to take legitimate accusations against the national-security state seriously, leading it to focus instead on the backgrounds and personal foibles of whistleblowers.

In this context, the rise of Q represents a perfectly logical next chapter in the longer story of right-wing whistleblowing: Why not just invent a deep-state whistleblower out of whole cloth? Why bother to ground his claims in any evidence? If history is any guide, the nonbelievers won’t believe anyway. And the true believers will believe no matter what.