After I wrote about QAnon, an online conspiracy theory that leaped on Tuesday from the far reaches of the Internet to the audience at President Trump’s rally in Tampa, an email arrived in my inbox from a man named Paul Burton.
He described a colleague and me as “Bezos’ boys,” referring to Jeffrey P. Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post, and asked, “How’s your fishbowl?” meaning, I presumed, a place open to public view and subject to critique. “LOL!” he added.
I responded, asking if he would be interested in speaking with me about his belief in QAnon. Much about the philosophy remains mysterious, even contradictory. But the central idea, which has no basis in observable reality, is that “Q” is the government insider, or cadre of insiders, leaving clues on digital message boards about a countercoup underway to vanquish deep-state saboteurs and their ring of elite allies, including Hillary Clinton and George Soros. (You can read more about the origins and meaning of QAnon here and here.)
Less clear to me, given the anonymity that shrouds the threads on which the theory has spread, was the nature of the people who find it credible. How did they come across Q’s “crumbs” of information? What made the tenets of QAnon — tinged with racism and anti-Semitism — convincing to them? What were their day jobs?
We had a short back-and-forth in which Burton suggested several resources to expand my understanding of Q and its mission, which I read. He said they would convince me that the theory had merit, which they did not; QAnon is a hodgepodge of outlandish ideas.
Then he called me. We spoke for 45 minutes early Friday morning.
Burton, 55, doesn’t claim to be representative of QAnon’s following. He lives outside of Atlanta and works in real estate and as an operations manager for a university. He hasn’t met any other believers in person but estimated they number more than 1 million. (Based on activity on message boards and membership in Facebook groups, this appears to be an exaggeration.)
But Burton is one example of the flesh-and-blood Americans who have bought into a theory whose growth online has had actual consequences, including inspiring an armed man to descend on the Hoover Dam in June, demanding the release of a Justice Department report about James B. Comey and Hillary Clinton that had already been released. In the spring, QAnon gave fuel to a fanciful effort undertaken by an armed group called Veterans on Patrol to find evidence of a child sex-trafficking ring in Tucson.
What became clear from our conversation is that Burton’s belief in QAnon stems from his frustration with how authority over information and verification is allocated. He resents what he perceives to be the self-righteous assumption of expertise made by members of the media and academia. He told me he worked in academia, and when I asked him to elaborate, he said he meant he was “an armchair philosopher. I make my impact where I can. I have no desire to be high-profile.”
Burton thinks that QAnon presages “the most devastating impact possible on the deep state, as they call it, and on the evildoers and on the fringe leftists and on the violent antifa groups and devastating effect on the Soros money as well as liberal Democrats.” He doesn’t think the “storm” — the community’s term, drawn from Trump’s reference last year to “the calm before the storm,” for the president’s conquest over the deep state — will involve violence, unless, Burton said, it comes from “the left.”
Perhaps more significant, though, Burton thinks QAnon marks the emergence of long-hidden communities of people who want to decide for themselves what the truth is.
“There are millions of very smart middle-class nerds — men and women of all races — that have normal lives, and they have no desire to work for The Washington Post or work on Wall Street or get their name in headlights and receive a plaque in front of 300 people,” he said. “They want to live their lives, but they happen to be extremely bright or creative or intuitive or unbelievable researchers who are just living humble lives. Now there’s an Internet, and they can plug into a community.”
QAnon, he said, is about circumventing the media’s standards of verification and “speaking directly to the people, just like Trump is doing.”
Burton lives in the Atlanta area with his wife — “she’s not very political,” he said — and two children. In his spare time, he likes to take his family to the park, where they play with a drone that belongs to one of his kids.
“I have a smartphone that I’m addicted to just like most people out there,” he said. “I read an article today that said that 50 percent of adult Americans’ time is spent on media of some type.”
He said he uses Twitter but abstains from most other forms of social media. “Twitter to me is a tailored news feed,” he said. “I try to stay plugged in with sharp, good people out there on the Internet — and in real life.”
The son of a civil engineer for the Navy, Burton grew up all over the country but completed most of his schooling in Southern California. He studied finance at San Diego State University. He liked to sing when he was young.
He said his father, now 88, was a “Southern Democrat,” a supporter of conservative white Democrats in the South, who became a “Reagan Democrat,” part of a massive defection of white voters from the Democratic Party that helped realign the two groupings in the second half of the 20th century.
“I grew up in the glow of the [Ronald] Reagan presidency,” said Burton, who was a registered independent for much of his life but declared himself a Republican 10 or 15 years ago. Part of what accelerated his drift to the right, he said, was the rise of the Clintons’ “corrupt empire,” as he put it, which he said was documented in “Clinton Cash,” a 2015 book by Peter Schweizer, a collaborator of Stephen K. Bannon, who was then head of Breitbart News and later became, briefly, Trump’s chief strategist.
The Clintons, he said, “subverted” Barack Obama, whose presidency, according to QAnon, caused mounting dissatisfaction in the military, where Burton has been led to believe the seed of “Q” was planted.
“Apparently military brass in the Pentagon got sick and tired of it, and they found a candidate that they could discuss everything with,” Burton said. “And apparently they went to Trump and asked Trump to run.”
I asked him why these renegades chose Trump. “They probably thought he would win,” he said.
Burton came to believe this, or at least most of it — “I don’t believe 100 percent of anything,” he told me — when he saw a post on Twitter in December of last year about someone or something operating under the alias “Q,” plotting a “countercoup of the clear coup that was underway.”
“I was just mildly interested,” Burton told me. “You know, with anything, my bullsh– detectors are up. And I always assume something is bullsh– until you sort through it, and you realize it is or isn’t, connect dots with things you know.”
There have been only a few other online theories, he said, that have piqued his interest. “Here and here,” he said. “Nothing like this.”
QAnon just struck him as immensely logical, he said: “Sometimes the best ideas are the most obvious.”
His method of political analysis, he said, is akin to the way he reads the Bible. “I don’t listen to what churches and priests interpret. I go to the most direct translation and read directly Jesus’ words and what Jesus did.”
He thinks Trump “is doing an amazing job,” and he believes the president is one of 10 people who compose Q. In his mind, two others are also civilian — most likely Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, top White House aides — and seven are military.
He said discounting QAnon comes from the same blindness that caused mainstream pundits to discount Trump. The problem, he said, is one of bubbles, and the fact that people in Washington assume that everyone thinks as they do.
“D.C. is seen as pigs at the trough, and Trump was seen as somebody who would go in and overturn the apple cart,” Burton said. “People don’t care that he talks about grabbing the ‘you know what,’ just like they didn’t care about [Bill] Clinton.”
Evidence that Trump’s plot is working, Burton said, lies in the planned retirement of some of his most vocal critics in Congress. Many Republicans, not all opponents of the president, are leaving their seats at the end of the year. “If you read through the Q posts,” Burton promised, “it’s clear he’s been sending signals for us.”
But for Burton, QAnon isn’t really about Trump. It’s bigger than the 45th president. Bigger even than American politics.
It’s about the screen that Burton believes conceals the truth about nearly everything we encounter. “I don’t read all the fluff,” he told me. “I go directly to the information and find out what they’re talking about. What are these posts, what are these tweets?”
“If you just clear your mind, tabula rasa, you’ll believe it, too,” he said.