QAnon’s anonymous leader has been silent for more than six months. Now QAnon is in upheaval over what’s next.
When pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell took the stage at a QAnon convention in Dallas late last month, she was wearing a biker vest with a “Q” patch sewn on the back. And yet, when Powell began speaking, she did the unexpected: she trashed some of QAnon’s most cherished ideas.
According to the worldview held by many QAnon believers, Powell will actually lead the military tribunals at the heart of QAnon lore, imprisoning pedophile-cannibal Democrats in Guantanamo Bay and restoring Donald Trump to power. But at the conference, Powell broke some hard news to the QAnon faithful.
“There are no military tribunals that’s magically going to solve this problem for us,” Powell said, to scattered applause.
Powell even went against one of QAnon’s central pillars—the idea that believers should “trust the plan,” putting their faith in the idea that Trump and the military are carrying out a secret agenda to depose Democrats and bring back the Trump administration.
"I don't have any evidence that there's some grand underlying plan, pursuant to which all this is going to be made right,” Powell said. “I don't want to give anybody false hope that this is happening."
The crowd didn’t mind Powell’s off-message remark too much; that night, a picture of Powell riding a kraken sold at an auction at the conference for thousands of dollars. And Powell didn’t do much else to dissuade QAnon supporters of their bizarre beliefs. She claimed the election was stolen and raised the prospect that Trump would retake the presidency later this year.
But she did break it to the disappointed crowd that Trump wouldn’t get his second term extended to account for Joe Biden’s time in office. And Powell’s attempt to debunk the military tribunals and “plan” aspects of QAnon orthodoxy marks a new phase in QAnon’s tumultuous post-Trump era.
QAnon now finds itself without a central figure: Trump is out of office; And the anonymous “Q,” whose clues make up the conspiracy theory movement’s basis, has been silent since last December.
Followers of the nonsensical collection of conspiracy theories are now looking for guidance from a diffuse group of leaders in the QAnon movement. And the leaders—some pure hucksters and some pure screwballs—have very different visions for where the coalition should go.
For some leaders, it’s about reining in the most madcap beliefs. For others, it’s about using the momentum that QAnon has built in the GOP world to take over local offices and school boards.
A poll released in late May found that roughly 15 percent of people buy into the core QAnon idea that the world is controlled by a cabal of pedophilic elites. And QAnon has carved out ties with GOP officials. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and former Rep. Allen West (R-FL)—who resigned as the Texas GOP chairman just days ago to explore a statewide run—both appeared at the QAnon convention in Dallas.
QAnon has seen internal turmoil before, but in the past, “Q” was able to step in and settle disputes. One splinter group of followers, for example, believes that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in a 1999 plane crash to team up with Trump and take on the Deep State. In a QAnon clue, though, “Q” claimed that JFK Jr. was dead. (That Q “drop” seemed aimed at putting down the breakoff faction that had begun to draw increasingly negative attention to QAnon.)
With Q gone, however, no one may have more power in the QAnon mythos than Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Flynn openly embraced QAnon in the final months of Trump’s presidency, selling QAnon merchandise and taking a “QAnon oath” with family members on the Fourth of July.
But in mid-May, Flynn pushed back on some QAnon beliefs in an interview with podcaster Doug Billings. He explicitly dismissed the idea that the military secretly controls the country or that Trump somehow invalidated the election through the Insurrection Act.
“I’m just going to ask you some questions, and I just want you to tell me whether it’s nonsense,” Billings said. “Did President Trump ever sign the Insurrection Act?”
“No, nonsense,” Flynn said.
“Is the United States military running the country, is that nonsense as well?” Billings said.
“More nonsense,” Flynn said. “There’s no plan.”
After the interview, Flynn spoke multiple times at the Dallas QAnon conference, and helped auction off a quilt bearing a giant “Q” image. On the conference’s second day, he called for a Myanmar-style military coup to take place in the United States—a popular notion in QAnon-world.
The fight over QAnon’s direction has spilled over into QAnon’s social media channels. In the wake of Twitter and Facebook crackdowns after the U.S. Capitol riot in January, tens of thousands of QAnon believers ended up on Telegram, a messaging app and social media platform popular with the far right.
On Telegram, a virulently antisemitic QAnon promoter impersonating former Trump intelligence official Ezra Cohen-Watnick has amassed more than 300,000 followers, coming from nowhere to challenge some of QAnon’s most established promoters. The account has attempted to push QAnon, which has always held antisemitic overtones, into a far more anti-Jewish direction, posting crude caricatures of Jewish people and pushing discredited antisemitic conspiracy theories.
At the same time, Telegram has become a haven for QAnon promoters posting outlandish financial promises, claiming, for example, that QAnon believers will become wealthy if they buy a specific cryptocurrency or near-valueless currency like the Iraqi dinar. Others have claimed that the world economy will soon be radically restructured in a “global financial reset” that will abolish debts, meaning QAnon believers should feel free to take on huge debts and not worry about paying them back.
As QAnon’s Telegram channels have become a haven for even more obvious hucksterism than usual, prominent QAnon booster Jordan Sather has slammed his QAnon rivals in an attempt to push QAnon away from both the antisemitic “Ezra” account and the predictions of a financial utopia. As often happens in internal QAnon wars, various sides have accused one another of being deep-state plants meant to sow discord within QAnon.
“What do we see now with the Q movement and the patriot truth movement that’s out there on social media?” Sather said in a speech at the Dallas convention. “Just a lot of dumb clickbait, ugh! I am sorry but there is just so much disinformation that is out there, it’s really targeting the platforms that we’ve all been funneled into.”
Sather’s feud with his QAnon rivals has hardly made him QAnon’s voice of reason. During his speech at the convention, Sather promoted the nonexistent medical benefits of chlorine dioxide—a substance the FDA says is equivalent to consuming bleach.
Other QAnon promoters at the convention urged supporters to fact-check their ideas before posting them online to QAnon channels—an odd idea for a movement based on amateur sleuths investigating the idea that, say, Hillary Clinton eats children in a Washington pizzeria and Tom Hanks drinks blood to keep his youthful appearance.
In the place of QAnon’s original wild-eyed visions, the Q promoters respectable enough to make it onstage at the QAnon convention promised more modest goals for QAnon. They urged audience members to build up local QAnon organizations and take precinct seats in local Republican groups—far from the vision of a world reborn through violence that sparked QAnon, but one that’s likely more achievable for the QAnon movement.
In the spirit of QAnon new localism, one promoter urged Q fans to get involved with their local school boards, a battlefield where QAnon has already seen some early success. As the QAnon convention began in Dallas, a school board in Michigan was convulsed by the news that a QAnon believer had won a seat in the body. At the conference, QAnon promoter Zak Paine urged audience members to follow suit.
"Go to your local school board meetings," Paine said. "Get on the school board."