Before President Trump came to the stage at his rally in Cincinnati on Thursday, several other speakers warmed up the crowd.
One was Brandon Straka, founder of the “Walk Away” movement. Straka was a liberal, until, as he told the crowd, he learned that the media falsely reported that Trump had mocked a disabled reporter during the 2016 campaign. (Trump did do that.) Straka is a minority within Trump’s coalition, a gay Democrat-turned-Trump-supporter, and he presented himself to the audience as a validator for Trump’s relationship with non-majority groups.
"This is not a president who panders to minorities because he needs them,” Straka said. “This is a president who serves minorities because he loves them. And he loves this country. We are all in this together."
"Where we go one,” Straka added, “we go all."
To the casual observer, that last line may seem fairly anodyne, a clunky but earnest way of capturing the sentiment behind “e pluribus unum.” But it is not anodyne. It is, in fact, the main rallying cry of QAnon conspiracy theorists.
QAnon, for those not familiar, is a sweeping conspiracy theory that posits that Trump’s position as president serves primarily as a vehicle for him to carry out a global battle against pedophilia. (It’s an evolution of the late-2016 “Pizzagate” movement that focused on quickly debunked theories about abuse at a D.C. pizza restaurant.) QAnon centers on an anonymous figure called Q, who they say sends sporadic messages to adherents implying that he’s positioned within the White House and that the dam of prosecutions for sex crimes is about to burst. Q’s predictions are offered in the nebulous, hard-to-verify way that you might expect from a carnival fortune teller.
A Getty videographer at the Cincinnati rally captured images of a number of other QAnon adherents, identified by homemade or mass-produced shirts with large Qs or the abbreviated version of the slogan Straka shared: WWG1WGA. QAnon believers are now common at Trump’s rallies. When Trump pointed to a baby in a Q onesie at his rally in North Carolina last month, the baby’s family became mini-celebrities within the Q community.
Various comments or actions from Trump are often reframed as evidence that he’s aware of and supports Q; his pointing to the baby quickly joined the upper pantheon of that claim. Having a speaker deliver the movement’s rallying cry at a Trump event will no doubt do the same.
Straka’s invocation of the slogan came only hours after Yahoo News reported on the existence of an FBI intelligence bulletin singling out both QAnon and Pizzagate as potential vectors for violence.
"The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the bulletin reads. It later describes warning signs: "[R]eports of a sudden rise in threats and unfounded accusations against a given individual or business may indicate impending conspiracy theory-driven crime or violence."
The bulletin cites a June 2018 incident near the Hoover Dam in which someone following QAnon’s nonsensical allegations blocked a road to demand that a government report on corruption be released. But there’s a better, more recent example of how QAnon may inspire violence.
In March, a man named Anthony Comello went to the Staten Island house of an alleged mob boss named Frank Cali. Comello shot Cali to death, as his own attorneys acknowledge. In a document filed with the court, though, Comello’s act isn’t described as being Mafia-related. Instead, his attorney alleges that Comello had fallen deep into the QAnon world and came to believe that Cali was an agent of the government involved in the broad conspiracy theory Q posits. Before shooting Cali, Comello had allegedly shown up at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s house in Manhattan to try to make a citizen’s arrest; Comello’s attorneys claim that he was trying to do the same to Cali when Cali suddenly appeared to reach for a weapon.
I spoke with an expert in the relationship between conspiracy theories and violence. Marymount Manhattan College professor Cheryl Paradis described the risk of these conspiracy theories in terms similar to the FBI’s, while being careful not to assume actual mental illness on the part of Comello.
“Research does show that of all the different types of delusions — for example, you could have grandiose delusions, you could think that you are the next messiah, Jesus Christ, or you have special abilities — their likelihood of acting violently is very low,” she explained. “People, on the other hand, who have paranoid delusions, who feel that they are being attacked or that their life is being threatened or that someone they care about’s life is being threatened are at an increased risk.”
“Whenever people are identified as targets, it increases the likelihood that someone might act against them,” she said.
Paradis, like the FBI bulletin, noted that the omnipresence of politics in American culture at the moment made it more likely that it would become a conduit for conspiratorial or delusional thinking.
At no point has Trump addressed the QAnon theory directly. Were he to do so, of course, he might only stoke the theory further. But that a speaker at a Trump rally could refer to the theory so directly, citing the slogan to a crowd sprinkled with Q adherents, demonstrates the scale QAnon has reached.
As we learned shortly before Trump spoke Thursday night, it’s an expansion of the conspiracy theory that has the president’s own law enforcement agencies worried.