Believers in the bizarre pro-Trump conspiracy theory called QAnon were out in force at the president’s rally in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, waving signs and cut-outs of the letter “Q” in front of the television cameras.
The surprisingly large number of Trump supporters who believe in the off-the-wall conspiracy theory and the attendant media attention marks a new height for QAnon, which grew from the internet swamps of 4Chan and 8Chan.
It’s there, starting in October 2017, that an anonymous poster dubbed “Q” began leaving cryptic clues that Trump supporters used to construct an alternate interpretation of current events where Trump is constantly battling evil forces.
For QAnon believers, special counsel Robert Mueller isn’t really investigating the Trump campaign—he’s actually working with Trump to take down a cabal of deep-state plotters and pedophiles. Soon, QAnon fans believe, Trump will team up with the military to throw top Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama into Guantanamo Bay.
But what QAnon believers actually believe is constantly changing. After taking advantage of the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich and promoting dangerous ideas like Pizzagate, QAnon supporters have found a new tragedy to exploit: the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late president.
Until July, QAnon supporters believed that “Q,” the anonymous online forum poster whose cryptic clues make up the conspiracy theory, was a high-ranking Trump administration official, or maybe even Trump himself. But now, a good portion of QAnon believers have become convinced that Q is none other than JFK Jr, even though he died in a plane crash nearly 20 years ago.
July was a rough month for QAnon followers. After making a post on July 4, Q didn’t leave any clues for 20 days, marking the longest gap between Q hints since the scheme began in late October 2017. That left QAnon believers without much to do, leaving their imaginations to run even wilder than usual. It also meant that anyone who wanted to sway the often very gullible people who believe in QAnon had a chance to sway them in a new direction.
Around the middle of July, a new figure named “R” appeared in the 8Chan forum devoted to QAnon “research.” (“R” is the letter in the alphabet after “Q.”) The anonymous poster, who was soon dubbed “Ranon,” posited that Kennedy hadn’t actually died in a plane crash off the coast of Massachusetts. Instead, he’d faked his death to avoid the supposed deep-state cabal that is at the center of QAnon and teamed up with Trump to kick off a decades-long strategy. While Trump had laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, QAnon believers posited, Kennedy had become Q.
The idea that Kennedy and his wife were alive and living under pseudonyms added an unstable new element to a conspiracy theory that has already inspired an armed man to shut down a road near the Hoover Dam and encouraged QAnon believers to help fund a bizarre vigilante “sex trafficking” operation in Arizona.
YouTube videos about the new theory have garnered hundreds of thousands of views. On Reddit, QAnon supporters wondered about the portents behind Trump meeting Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. One popular YouTube video claimed that QAnon had proven “how JFK JR was revealed to be ALIVE.” On 8Chan, believers launched a new board devoted to considering the theory that Kennedy was still alive. Amazon T-shirt vendors began selling shirts that said “JFK Jr. = R.”
Incredibly, QAnon believers claim Kennedy has even appeared in public at Trump rallies, posing as just another Trumpite. They latched onto a picture of a bearded, middle-aged man in glasses standing in the stands behind Trump at one rally, claiming that the man was actually Kennedy in disguise.
In fact, the man looks nothing like Kennedy. But QAnon supporters ran wild with the theory anyway, trying to use facial aging programs to prove that he was Kennedy, who would be 57 today.
“JFK Jr was not a stupid man he KNEW what they did to his father,” one well-received Reddit thread read, claiming that the man at the Trump rally was “blatantly” disguised.
QAnon believers began sifting through details of the man’s life for proof that he was actually Kennedy. They looked at the people standing next to him at the rally, suspecting that another rally attendee was Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, who was also killed in the crash. They analyzed the man’s name for clues and saw one in footage of the man near a DoubleTree hotel—as in body “double.”
In late July, whatever person or group is behind “Q” returned to posting and denounced “R,” its newfound rival for impressionable Trump supporters. Still, the Kennedy theory persists among a segment of QAnon believers. On Wednesday, a day after the Trump rally in Tampa, QAnon supporters online were once again analyzing pictures of rally attendees for “proof” that the Kennedys are still alive.