A small crowd gathered on Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on a cool early November day in 2021, full of excitement and powered by secret knowledge. It was almost a year after the last Q drop, and three years into the COVID-19 pandemic. But the people assembled that morning, in the solemn place where John F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly 60 years prior, weren’t worrying about getting sick. They certainly weren’t wearing masks. Those were slaver muzzles designed to make you stupid. What they did have were a few red ties, a plethora of bedazzled homemade signs and shirts, and the certain knowledge that everything in the world was about to change—within minutes.
The 100 people who had come together that morning were mostly older and mostly women. They sang classic pop songs of their youth, often over the interminable and daily livestreams they were putting out on Telegram and Zoom. They shouted various numbers and slogans seemingly at random—inscrutable codes with hidden meaning that only they understood. They broadcast their arguments with the “comatose vertical meatsacks”[i] who accosted them—their smug nickname for the normies who weren’t interested in the beautiful new world that was about to unveil itself.
More than anything, they waited.
They were waiting for John F. Kennedy’s son, JFK Jr.[ii], who, according to their self-made mythology, did not die in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. He was alive, and had been waiting for the right moment to return to public life. And even more exciting, he would return alongside other “dead” celebrities who had gone underground for various reasons—Michael Jackson, Prince, even John John’s long-dead father. Never mind that JFK would be 104 years old in 2021 and had been so riddled with health problems that it’s likely he wouldn’t have lived to see the 1970s. He was coming back. They were all coming back.
And the people waiting in the increasingly intense rain that day knew not only that he was coming back, but exactly when—on November 2, 2021at 12:30 PM local time, if you want to be precise. The prophecy of JFK Jr. returning had been foretold not by Q—Q had simply answered “no” when asked whether JFK Jr. was alive—but by one of Q’s many acolytes who found meaning in the random noise.
The person who persuaded those people in Dealey Plaza to leave their families behind and wait for a dead Kennedy was a Seattle-area demolition contractor with a history of anti-Semitism and an ability to decode the future in random numbers, ironically using a simplified version of the Hebrew-language alphanumeric cipher known as gematria, to create a vast mythology of hidden events and secrets. “A” equaled “1”, “B” equaled “2”, etc. Like many basic concepts in the conspiracy theory world, gematria (pronounced with a hard “G”) is real. But it’s also been twisted and abused by pseudohistorical crankery, first with “The Bible Code,” and now this—100 middle-aged Trumpers singing “Beat It” in the rain, waiting for dead people to return and make America great again.
Calling himself “Negative48”—the “48” being the supposed gematria value of the letters in the word “evil”—Michael Protzman[iii] was once just another QAnon influencer with a few thousand followers on Telegram. He was neck-deep in all of Q’s subsidiary conspiracy theories, lecturing his small following about the evils of “Jewish leaders,” promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy films, and telling people to buy worthless Vietnamese currency that would make them rich when it revalued. It was a rap that was instantly familiar to both Q believers and those who studied the movement. But for the same reason we turn up the volume when “Beat It” plays on the radio, Q believers went for it—the familiar brings comfort. So within a few months, a small, devoted following built up around Protzman’s Negative48 character created an entirely new mythology through a combination of gematria, Q drops, and wishful thinking.
The rain poured down and John F. Kennedy Jr. stubbornly failed to emerge. But just as Q believers had been doing for years, the group which came to call itself Negative48 stuck around. (Just like QAnon, the cult often used Protzman’s nickname to refer to itself.) Members swamped a Rolling Stones concert that night, claiming that Mick Jagger would reveal himself to be JFK Jr. They stayed through Thanksgiving, as Protzman began to control even the movements of his followers, telling them when to go outside, when to look up or down, and what to eat. They stayed through Christmas. To keep themselves going, they cranked out dozens of crowd-funding efforts, starting another as soon as one was de-platformed. They were generally ignored by local authorities who couldn’t do anything about the group until it actually broke a law. And they stayed as winter turned to spring. They might still be there now.
In the post-Trump world, the QAnon movement split along two parallel tracks. Sometimes they happened to intersect, but many other times they went their own way. Most believers went down one, a few went down the other. But both are critical to understanding why this movement persisted long after any hope of “The Storm’s” arrival had passed.
One track was a mainstreaming of Q’s core tenets to the point where the basics of QAnon—the drops, the obscure “comms”—were no longer necessary, or even desirable. Q was no longer the cool, secret club that you had speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It was just “conservatism” now. The tenuous coalition of MAGA-devoted Q believers and more progressive pandemic truthers that lurched out of Facebook in 2020 had become one unified front in 2021. In countless school board meetings, city council sessions, protests, “health freedom” conferences, and segments on major right-wing media, the same story was being told, and it was a story that even the most casual Q believer would have no problem embracing.A small, devoted following built up around Protzman’s Negative 48 character created an entirely new mythology through a combination of gematria, Q drops, and wishful thinking.
The other track was much farther on the fringe than even most Trumpists were willing to travel. This was where Michael Protzman and his devoted cultists in Negative48 rode, along with other, even more outwardly racist and ant-Semitic new Q promoters. On this track, Q drops were still gospel and the “comms” still were being decoded for all their secrets. And there were a lot of secrets. Trump and JFK Jr. spoke in number codes with Prince and Elvis, quantum medical beds and NESARA would deliver permanent health and prosperity to all, and Trump was still actually the president of a “devolved” military government. Fewer people were in this part of Q’s big tent, but they got a lot of baffled media attention for their bizarre antics—gematria cultists waiting for JFK and drinking industrial bleach out of a communal bowl[iv] to fight COVID will get clicks.
This track, the Negative48 track, was quite possibly sending its members to their doom. The other track, the mainstream one, was possibly sending everyone else.
Local Action = National Impact
That slogan was coined by QAnon hero General Michael Flynn. Faced with crushing legal bills and no help from Trump, Flynn often could be found headlining an endless array of gatherings with names like “ReAwaken America” and “God & Country Patriot Revival,” meant to display a folksy middle finger to the COVID-fearful establishment. At these events, which often sold VIP tickets[v] for thousands of dollars, a host of semi-well-known names from a variety of fringes spoke alongside Flynn. A typical conference would offer incendiary speeches from influencers in the stolen election universe, “constitutional sheriffs” claiming that the federal government is an illegal scheme, decodings from the last remaining QAnon promoters, independent media who had been “censored” by the mainstream for their views, and alternative medicine heavyweights spewing conspiracy theories about the government suppressing COVID cures. You even got the occasional serving Republican politician. All of them excelled at separating believers from their money.Q was no longer the cool, secret club that you had speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It was just “conservatism” now.
When he wasn’t selling Flynn-branded women’s running tank-tops or spreading deranged COVID conspiracy theories on Telegram, Flynn’s apocalyptic ramblings often focused on what he deemed “local action” having a “national impact.” At one June 2021 conference, headlined by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Flynn raged against the school board machine, thundering, “We cannot allow school boards to dictate what is happening in our schools. We dictate that.”
Inspired by the desire of Q promoters that America be “taken back” from what they saw as the godless transgender vaccinator hordes of the left, Q believers began making spectacles of themselves at school board and city council meetings. Using public comment time, they blathered conspiracy theories and threatened baseless lawsuits. The majority didn’t even have kids in their local district.
Q’s encroachment into local politics was its biggest mainstream growth vector in the post-Trump era. The media headlines might have been about Negative48’s antics or the squabbles between major Q promoters fighting over pieces of the same grifting pie. But the story with far more importance was unfolding in the sparely attended and barely observed mechanics of local government. The roots of democracy were being hijacked by fringe activists and conspiracy theory cranks—and they had a message that came straight from figures like Mike Flynn.
In the summer and fall of 2021, “local action” meant rambling speeches spouting Q-approved moral panic[vi] about “woke ideology” and Critical Race Theory, vaccines being forced on unsuspecting toddlers, the pandemic being prolonged to enforce the controlling mandates of Dr. Fauci, and masks making it easier for sex traffickers to target kids. Some of these videos went viral, getting millions of views—inflated in some part by liberals passing them around to mock them. Some believers took Flynn’s call even further, as they ran for office at the state, local, and party level. Stolen election believers—many of whom had endorsed QAnon on social media—were running for critical secretary of state positions[vii] in swing states, trying to seize the power to overturn elections.
And dozens of candidates who publicly endorsed some part of the Q mythology won elections[viii]—for the Clark County School Board, encompassing Las Vegas; the City Council of Huntington Beach, CA; the San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s board in sleepy San Luis Obispo, CA; the mayor of tiny Sequim, WA; and many more. They even got their hands into the mechanisms that ran elections—Q believer Ben Johnson[ix] was appointed head of the Spalding County Board of Elections and Registration, helping to set election guidelines in a critical Georgia county. What could go wrong?
Even QAnon luminaries got in on the act, apparently tired of waiting for “The Storm” to usher in utopia. Tracy “Beanz” Diaz had been one of the earliest evangelists of the Q movement, and in 2021, she was elected to the South Carolina GOP’s executive committee. She received only 188 votes, but like so many other barely visible elections, it was enough. And the likeliest candidate to have been the last iteration of Q, Ron Watkins, ran a chaotic and barely-funded candidacy for the Arizona 2nd Congressional District, on a platform centered on defeating “communism” in local schools[x] and slaying the Critical Race Theory beast. (Ron has no school-age children living in the United States.)
But as thick as the gloom is, there are glimmers of hope to be found. The national coverage of QAnon believers and conspiracy cranks running for local office inspired candidates to run expressly on anti-conspiracy platforms. One such slate actually won city council seats[xi] in Sequim, the same small Washington town roiled by a QAnon-aligned mayor. The grassroots progressive electoral organization Run For Something, which formed in the wake of Trump’s win in 2016, singled out QAnon[xii] candidates and publicly vowed to recruit liberal challengers to run against them. And many Q-aligned potential politicos struggled to have their candidacies taken seriously. Ron Watkins may have as much name recognition as anyone running in Arizona, but his campaign had raised just $30,000[xiii] as of February 2022—lagging hundreds of thousands of dollars behind the leading GOP candidate in his district.
As the world entered year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans responded to the continued upheaval by utterly losing their minds. “Unruly passenger incidents”[xiv] on airplanes, a euphemism that almost always involved passengers becoming aggressive with airline staff over masks, were at their highest rate on record. Workers at vaccine clinics were attacked[xv] and called murderers by COVID deniers. Anti-mask parents physically assaulted teachers[xvi] over school masking mandates. And in an incident with echoes of the “Grass Valley Charter School Fundraiser” fiasco, Q-driven MAGA diehards forced the National Butterfly Center, located just north of the US-Mexico border in McAllen, TX, to close—because they believed it was a hub of drug smuggling and sex trafficking, and were threatening to storm it, guns in hand.
The madness gripping America wasn’t all linked explicitly to QAnon. But even when there weren’t clear links, it was impossible to deny that the violent chaos touted as the aftermath of “The Storm” (remember Drop #1’s promise of “Marines and National Guard” called up to police the streets after Hillary’s arrest) had seeped into everyday life in COVID-weary, Biden-hating, cancel culture-fearing conservative communities. There never needed to be another Q drop, another decoding thread, or another Q T-shirt printed. The brain worms were loose, and they were hungry.
In particular, Q’s residue was all over the Republican malaise related to COVID. As the omicron variant sent case numbers skyrocketing around the world in the winter of 2021, QAnon promoters were among the most visible anti-vaccine advocates[xvii] pushing out lies and conspiracy theories meant to dissuade people from getting vaccinated and boosted. Across countless Telegram posts and dozens of their “health freedom” tent revival events, the message was both clear and completely contradicted by the available evidence: they believed the pandemic was over, and any mandates related to vaccines or masks were totalitarian control mechanisms that were what was actually killing people. Only occasionally did reality creep in—as when a spate of virulently COVID-denying right-wing media personalities and conspiracy believers died of COVID, including conspiracy legend and QAnon promoter[xviii] Robert David Steele.
The stolen election industry and the grift around it were also thriving. They lasted well beyond the shelf life of the actual election, which even Trump seemed to admit he lost[xix]. Even as they feuded amongst themselves[xx] over money and credit, QAnon personalities like Mike Flynn, Lin Wood, and Sidney Powell still pumped out a relentless stream of conspiracy theories about Biden’s election win eventually being undone, promising they would “fix 2020” as a steady stream of donations rolled in. Other new conspiracy promoters found fame and fortune in the Biden-era landscape, using Q as a jumping off point for wherever they wanted to take their fans—and they didn’t all involve JFK Jr. ripping off his Mick Jagger mask.
One was the viral series of blog posts called “Devolution,” which posited that Trump was secretly running the country through a “devolved” military government while Joe Biden doddered away on a fake White House set. Unfolding over dozens of almost incomprehensible blog posts, videos, podcasts, and Telegram posts, “Devolution” was a comforting fiction that netted its creator, a North Dakota school employee who went by “Patel Patriot,”[xxi] thousands of dollars per month in subscriptions from fans waiting to see what would happen next. Another sect believed that Trump’s election wasn’t legitimate—in fact, no election since 1871[xxii] held any validity—because Washington DC had quietly become a corporation that year. The details are vague and meaningless, but the upshot was always the same: The bad guys will get theirs; the good guys will deliver the blow—and the special people will be rewarded for their belief.
That’s what’s kept Q’s mythology alive even as the Q persona itself receded in importance. Because that’s what conspiracy theories have always been about—feeling special. You know the secrets “they” don’t want you to know, you know what “really” happened in some historical event, you know that Fauci and Biden and Gates and all the other liberal do-gooders are actually genocidal maniacs, you know that Q and Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson are patriots, and you know more than “the experts”.
Q is like every other conspiracy theory in that way. And whatever absorbs and replaces Q will be like that, too. Conspiracy theories will always be popular, because they make you feel like you’re smart, important, and part of a community.
And it’s that sense of community that kept that flock of believers in Dallas, long after the rest of the world had forgotten about them and moved on to the next freak show. These people, like Q’s faithful, were in it together and for the long haul. They were in it for each other. Where we go one, we go all.
[i] Mike Rothschild (@rothschildmd), “Now they’re chanting “if you don’t know, you’re a comatose vertical meatsack.” There’s an in group and and out group, and if you’re out, you’re out,” Twitter, November 22, 2021, 10:47 a.m., https://twitter.com/rothschildmd/status/1462855331818524673
[ii] Meryl Kornfield, “Why hundreds of QAnon supporters showed up in Dallas, expecting JFK Jr.’s return,” Washington Post, November 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/11/02/qanon-jfk-jr-dallas/
[iii] David Gilbert, “Meet the Antisemitic QAnon Leader Who Led Followers to Dallas to Meet JFK,” Vice, November 5, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5qpe7/qanon-dallas-jfk-michael-brian-protzman-negative48
[iv] Justin Rohrlich, “Dallas QAnon ‘Cult’ Is Now Drinking Terrifying Chemical Cocktail, Family Says,” The Daily Beast, December 20, 2021, https://www.thedailybeast.com/dallas-qanon-cult-is-now-drinking-terrifying-chemical-cocktail-to-fight-covid-family-says
[v] Anders Angelsey, “GOP Members Attending QAnon Las Vegas Event Where Tickets Cost Up to $3k,” Newsweek, July 14, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/gop-members-attending-qanon-las-vegas-event-where-tickets-cost-3k-1609570
[vi] Ben Collins, “QAnon’s new ‘plan’? Run for school board,” NBC News, July 7, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/qanons-new-plan-run-school-board-rcna1352
[vii] Jennifer Medina, Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein, “Campaigning to Oversee Elections, While Denying the Last One,” New York Times, January 20, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/us/politics/election-deniers-secretary-of-state.html
[ix] Justin Glawe, “He’s Head of a Georgia Election Board—and Fixated on QAnon,” The Daily Beast, February 3, 2022, https://www.thedailybeast.com/ben-johnson-is-head-of-a-georgia-election-board-and-fixated-on-qanon
[x] David Gilbert, “QAnon Influencer Ron Watkins Is Berating ‘Communist’ School Boards,” Vice, January 27, 2022, https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5qddx/qanon-attack-school-boards-ron-watkins
[xi] Laura Bliss, “How a ‘Good Governance’ Movement Defeated Far-Right Forces in Their Town,” Bloomberg CityLab, November 4, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-04/washington-county-candidates-took-on-qanon-forces-and-won
[xii] “QAnon candidates are winning local elections — we can stop them,” Run For Something, July 7, 2021, https://runforsomething.medium.com/qanon-candidates-are-winning-local-elections-we-can-stop-them-797652bd64a7
[xiii] Cheryl Teh, “QAnon leader Ron Watkins claimed he would raise $1 million dollars while running for Congress. He’s raised just over $30,000,” Insider, February 2, 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/qanon-leader-ron-watkins-falls-short-1-million-fundraising-goal-2022-2
[xiv] Marine Hunter, “FAA numbers confirm it — 2021 was terrible for bad behavior in the skies,” CNN, January 13, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/unruly-airline-passengers-faa-2021/index.html
[xv] Leila Seidman, “Man attacks workers at Orange County COVID-19 vaccine clinic, calling them ‘murderers’,” Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-01-04/anti-vaccine-conspiracy-attack-orange-county-healthcare-clinic
[xvi] Kate Feldman, “Anti-mask Florida dad charged with child abuse for attack on student outside daughter’s high school,” New York Daily News, August 26, 2021, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/ny-florida-dad-child-abuse-school-anti-mask-20210826-vsyuyav2f5fanopjpy45efxsl4-story.html
[xvii] Geoff Brumfiel, “Inside the growing alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans,” All Things Considered, podcast, NPR, December 6, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/06/1057344561/anti-vaccine-activists-political-conference-trump-republicans
[xviii] Lindsey Ellefson, “Former CIA Officer Who Called COVID a ‘Hoax’ Dies From Virus,” The Wrap, August 30, 2021, https://www.thewrap.com/robert-david-steele-covid/
[xix] Ryan Chatelaine, “Trump finally admits ‘we didn’t win’ presidential election,” NY1.com, June 17, 2021, https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2021/06/17/trump-finally-admits–we-didn-t-win–presidential-election
[xx] Drew Harwell, “Since Jan. 6, the pro-Trump Internet has descended into infighting over money and followers,” Washington Post, January 3, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/01/03/trump-qanon-online-money-war-jan6/
[xxi] Mike Rothschild, “A fundraiser for a Catholic school is the force behind the swelling conspiracy that Trump is still really president,” The Daily Dot, November 23, 2021, https://www.dailydot.com/debug/patel-patriot-devolution-jon-herold/
The Storm Is Upon Us by Mike Rothschild is available from Melville House