Dozens of Donald Trump supporters championed the bizarre "QAnon" conspiracy theory at Tuesday's Tampa rally, a fact that instantly drew national media attention.
The Washington Post called "QAnon" a "deranged conspiracy cult" in a Wednesday news story that shot to the top of its "most read" category. Reason, the libertarian magazine, called Tuesday a "coming out party" for believers in the conspiracy.
QAnon supporters believe that at least one government insider, "Q," is using various platforms to feed "anons" — Q's followers — information about…well, all sorts of things. As the Guardian noted in this excellent explainer, it can be difficult to pin down what exactly proponents of QAnon take the consequences of Q's dispatches to be. But many have extrapolated the breadcrumbs supposedly left behind by the deep state agent (or agents) to mean that Hollywood celebrities are engaged in a widespread pedophilia ring; that bad actors once tried to shoot down Air Force One with Trump aboard — and other evidence-free notions.
Yet on Tuesday, QAnon was regarded as legitimate by rally goers.
Jamie and Jennifer Buteau of Ocala wore T-shirts and made signs promoting Q's cause at Trump's rally Tuesday. Jamie, who voted for Obama in 2012, said in an interview after the rally ended that he got turned onto Trump because of his "magnetic personality." He said he views Q's dispatches as a research guide.
"The media has already written it off as this bad thing, but it's all positive," Buteau said of QAnon.
The Buteaus said there are hidden messages all around Trump's presidency, and Q is helping his supporters decode them. When Trump misspells in a tweet, that's a sign, Jamie said. When the lights turned out during a press conference in which Trump walked back comments about Russia's 2016 interference in America's elections, Q was sending a message, Jennifer said.
Even things Q has gotten wrong can be seen by its supporters as evidence of his power. Jamie said that some of Q's intel "drops" are "misinformation" designed to throw deep state actors off the scent.
If any of that sounds far-fetched, that's because it is. But Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami who researches conspiracy theories, said it makes sense that QAnon supporters showed up at the Trump rally because polls show that Trump supporters are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
"Simply not trusting the media doesn't lead to QAnon," Uscinski said. "It's a very specific set of people who are going to buy into it. So largely, what you're dealing with is the dispositions that allow people to pick up these beliefs, rather than anything really convincing about the theory itself."
Uscinski noted that although QAnon, which cropped up on 4chan message boards in October of 2017, has shown some staying power — in part because of support from conservative celebrities like Roseanne Barr — most conspiracy theories have a short shelf life. He added that we shouldn't judge conspiracy theorists too harshly because we're all prone to believing in tall tales from time to time.
"We shouldn't treat our fellow Americans like zoo animals," the professor said.
Of course, the wild nonsense spread by QAnon's supporters can also be dangerous. Buzzfeed reported that a man was arrested in June after he drove to the Hoover Dam in an armored truck to demand that the government release "the OIG report," a calling card of QAnon supporters.
But for his part, Buteau isn't worried he's gone too far down the conspiracy rabbit hole — although he admitted QAnon research can be "addicting."
"This is the counterbalance to the fake news," Buteau said.