WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — It is a truism that the people who attend a rally for President Trump more than two years before he’s on the ballot again are generally strong supporters of President Trump. Especially when those supporters are willing to wait hours in thick humidity in a treeless parking lot here, as thousands did on Thursday night. Make America Great Again hats make a political message, sure, but no one is going to argue with the side benefit of keeping the sun out of one’s eyes.
In dozens of interviews with Trump supporters waiting to get into the rally — several thousand of whom weren’t able to — the broad strokes were generally the same. Red, white and blue. MAGA hats in various iterations. A rainbow of Trump shirts: Farmers for Trump. Praise for Trump’s agenda. Trump-Pence 2016. Trump-Pence 2020. Various disparagements of Hillary Clinton. Shirts with Trump’s head on a muscular body. Shirts with Trump standing in front of explosions. A shirt with Trump holding a drink and saying, “Dilly dilly.”
And then there were the Qs.
There’s this theory out there that Trump’s real focus in the White House is uprooting a sex trafficking ring that involves the assistance of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and targets prominent Democrats. The theory originates from random, cryptic posts from someone called “Q,” who shares his insights to anonymous websites. His or her insights. His or her or their insights. Depending on whom you talk to, Q is one person or dozens of people, some in the military, some in the White House. Q, one man at the Trump rally told me, is 50 million people in the United States alone.
It’s easy to exaggerate the presence of QAnon supporters at the rally here in the same way it’s easy to overestimate the presence of anything you’re actively noticing. Since QAnon sprang into the public’s consciousness during a Trump rally in Florida earlier this week, it has been a focus of curiosity. Now QAnon supporters stand out in a way they might not have before and QAnon supporters may be revealing themselves more eagerly than they would have a week ago.
At Thursday’s rally, though, it’s certainly the case that there were more overt supporters of QAnon than there were of Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner or Senate candidate Lou Barletta — who was ostensibly the reason for Trump’s visit. One guy with a “Lou” sticker didn’t want to talk; one woman in a Scott Wagner shirt explained that it was her only political shirt. She also called him “Scott Walker.”
QAnon fans were both more numerous and generally better able to explain their support. Explanations of what Q was and what he stood for were varied but, then, so were the explanations of what Trump was doing and had achieved among his mainstream supporters.
Mark Emmett, 55, said he was at the Trump rally because he likes the president’s focus on making things in the United States. We spoke after he finished signing a petition in support of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
“I’m in manufacturing,” Emmett said. “You can’t build your military if you don’t manufacture your own steel. You fire up the steel mills, you’re going to fire up not just the mills, you’re going to fire up the mines.”
He added: “Everything we buy says ‘Made in China.’ So hopefully everything we buy in the next 20 years will say ‘Made in America.’ ”
His son Colton, 18, suddenly took off his Make America Great Again hat.
“This is ‘Made in China!’ ” he said. He ripped out the tag.
Mark and Colton were also wearing QAnon shirts.
“I think what Q is is people exposing the truth,” Mark Emmett said. “Trump is just showing the way.” Trump knows about it, he said, because Q’s posts reveal that he does.
“There’s only 10 people who are Q,” he said, “and seven are military.”
Q was seen by those at the Trump rally as bolstering Trump’s presidency, not necessarily as distinct from it. Trump is aware of Q, which is known because of hints the president has dropped.
“He pointed at a guy with a shirt on in Minnesota? Minneapolis?” Chris Spaar, 62, told me. He and his wife, Lesia, 58, were wearing QAnon shirts, hers with a white rabbit on it. “The guy was in the VIP section and he pointed right at him.”
“I think Q is helping to feed the patriotism” that Trump was fostering, he said.
As they walked to take their place in line, a woman nearby blurted out, “Oh! Q shirts!”
“Most people know about” Q, Lesia Spaar said.
“In this crowd,” Chris added, “it would be a percentage higher than the normal public.”
The woman who expressed surprise at seeing Q shirts was Angela Mercado, 40. She wasn’t wearing anything that had a Q insignia on it — but only because she hadn’t had time to get anything before the rally.
Mercado first encountered Q because she follows Trump on Twitter. She noticed someone in his mentions talking about Q and began paying attention.
“I think that a lot of things that have been covered up for years are finally coming to the surface,” she said. “We’re more aware of things that are going on now than we ever have [been].”
That was the same argument offered by Roxanne Piccoli, 29, who attended the rally in a homemade Q hat and shirt. Her 9-month-old son, Indigo, was in a onesie on which Piccoli had drawn a large Q.
“It’s an epidemic of pedophilia,” she said. “The fact that that was acknowledged by someone important — someone who’s close to the president, I don’t know if you follow Q, but he’s proven that he’s in the White House, we just don’t know who it is yet — whoever it is, they’re acknowledging it and it’s bringing everyone together who knows this stuff and it’s just — it’s really powerful.”
“We’re not alone anymore,” she added.
Piccoli said that she used to be a liberal but saw them as complicit in the conspiracy that Q was uncovering. Jasmine Rochon, 42, who was holding a rainbow-colored Q sign outside the venue after it had reached capacity, said something similar: It wasn’t until Trump became president that she started supporting him — and started following Q after trying to figure out why, she said, the news media and Democrats were so opposed to him.
“They are not conspiracy theories, in short,” Rochon said. A few feet away, her kids were enthusiastically introducing themselves to a local television reporter.
They are conspiracy theories, of course. The wispy, hard-to-nail-down theories associated with Q are largely in the eye of the beholder but unequivocally lack any actual, substantive evidence. The magic of conspiracy theories is that of course The Washington Post would say that there was no real evidence underlying the ideas, but it’s because there isn’t.
To some extent, it’s a natural extension of Trump’s campaign: He wasn’t supposed to win because the Establishment was arrayed against him. Once he won, the Deep State was desperately throwing up roadblocks. Trump himself introduced the idea that there was a murky substructure that controlled American politics; that there’s now a strain of that thinking that runs through his support — in part to rationalize mainstream critiques — only makes sense.
“I view it as hope,” said Connor, 26, who declined to give his last name. “It’s like there’s a larger design. Despite all the chaos the country is going through, there is a backbone of what’s taking place behind the scenes.”
Connor, heavily bearded and sporting a Q T-shirt, denied that support for QAnon was ironic, a semi-serious way to put a finger in the eye of the establishment. He, like the others, thought Trump was well aware of Q and of the conspiracy. (Trump would sort of have to be, given how central he is to the alleged investigation.)
Not everyone at the Trump rally was familiar with QAnon. A group of young teenagers who said that they were familiar with some of the sites at the heart of the Q theories said they didn’t really know what the idea was about. One, James Smith, 18, said that he’d been looking it up in the car on the way to the event but found it sort of baffling.
But, then, that curiosity is the point. Trump rallies are something of host body for QAnon theories. I heard a woman ask a guy in a “Q+” hat — one of Q’s signatures, he told me — what Q was about. Signs promoting Q generally included URLs to Q-related sites and Reddit pages. The goal, in part, was to introduce other Trump fans to the idea; after all, if they accepted Trump’s frame for what was going on in America, Q wasn’t that much further down the path. Where should the line be drawn?
One of the first people in line, hours before Trump showed up in Wilkes-Barre, was Phyllis Biton, 56. She might be described as “matronly,” were it not for the QAnon shirt that she’d bought on Amazon.
She had been following Q’s posts since February, she said. By doing so, she said she was able to “find out news before it comes out,” including a theory about former FBI director James B. Comey.
In a political moment when comparisons to Watergate come all too easily, Biton offered one of her own, from a slightly different perspective.
“QAnon,” she said, “is like Deep Throat.”