Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Cover image: Melville House, photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The Storm Is Upon Us ventures into the eye of QAnon

Author Mike Rothschild is less interested with uncovering the identity—or identities—of Q than he is with tracing QAnon’s causes and effects

Cover image: Melville House, photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Anyone closely following the events that culminated in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol might agree that there is no calm before the storm. There is anxiety-riddled anticipation, immeasurable quantities of fear, a dread-darkened prescience of what’s to come—all tiny tempests within a broader superstorm—but nothing resembling calm. You didn’t need a weatherman on January 5 to know the nation was gonna blow.

Calm comes after, with the disposal of malevolent actors and the wreckage they leave behind, followed by reflection, and finally the inevitable flood of essays, documentaries, and books seeking to decipher the storm’s winds.

In The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became A Movement, Cult, And Conspiracy Theory Of Everything, Mike Rothschild cleverly traces a through-line from the Capitol riot back to QAnon, the internet conspiracy cult—created from equal parts white slavery myth, satanic panic, and MAGA-style conservatism—directly inspired, if not inadvertently conjured by, Donald Trump. On October 5, 2017, surrounded by the nation’s top-ranking military officers in the White House’s State Dining Room, Trump dropped a prophesy that, for true believers, would transform the failed businessman-turned-failed president into the Nostradamus the 21st century deserved. “You guys know what this represents,” he garbled while motioning around the room, causing heads of war to curiously crane their necks. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” He continued, chest puffed and rocking side to side like a schoolboy who’d just taken first prize in the annual Idiot Bee: “Could be. The calm before the storm.”

With the supposed leader of the free world spouting fortune cookie cryptograms for his small army of fascist-leaning fanboys, while standing beneath—let’s not allow the irony to go unspoken—George Peter Alexander Healy’s monumental portrait of Lincoln as philosopher-president, it became apparent for the umpteenth time that no storm lay on the horizon. The storm already inhabited the White House.

Twenty-three days later, an anonymous user named “Q Clearance Patriot” posted a comment that should have been buried beneath the hourly avalanche of detritus that filled a popular political message board on 4chan, a website trafficking as a safe space for Neo-Nazis, illegal porn traders, incels, terrorist wannabes, conspiracy theorists, and other shitposters:

Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM - 8:30
AM EST on Monday - the morning on Oct 30, 2017.

Regurgitated by the internet’s most dunderheaded of it-could-happeners, unremarkable, hackneyed posts like this—soon known as Drop #0—originated from the 2016 Republican National Convention’s unofficial rallying cry of “Lock her up!” A follow-up reply added ludicrous details to the developing “story”: “extradition already in motion… passport approved to be flagged… expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur.” The messages were nothing more than deplorable fan fiction, a LARP written on a lark.

The crowd at the Stop The Steal rally on January 6 in Washington, D.C.
The crowd at the Stop The Steal rally on January 6 in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

Clinton’s day of reckoning passed without incident, of course, as did all of the promised developments in what the next 150-plus drops, furiously posted through mid-November, called Operation Mockingbird: the arrests of former Clinton staffers John Podesta and Huma Abedin, the mobilization of the National Guard and naval fleets to counter a forthcoming surge of national and global uprisings, the mass execution of liberals, and the unmasking of a devil-worshiping, immortality-seeking cannibal cult led by Democratic and Hollywood luminaries who fed upon children. The Great Awakening, the messenger called it, was imminent.

The burgeoning QAnon community, named for the high-level security clearance purportedly possessed by the anonymous patriot, appeared unfazed that a top-ranking intelligence official who sought to expose a global child-kidnapping cabal issued his missives on a website flooded with pedophilia. Anons cheered when Q’s drops increasingly touted reliably racist and anti-Semitic tropes, targeting Barack Obama (predictably called “Hussein”), George Soros, and the Rothschilds (the author of The Storm Is Upon Us makes a point to relationally distance himself from the family that has spawned countless conspiracies). If posts read as if a cat had walked across Q’s keyboard, as in Drop #231, it was all the more proof that this was very real:

T: B, F, J, 1,5,11-20, ^
_Conf_d-ww_CON_off[dark]_
_Conf_SIL-_EX
COMM_Castle_Active_7ZbV-WT9
RED1_RED2_
SAT_40k_se_c_[30m]
Godspeed.
P_pers: WRWY
Q

True believers didn’t mind that Q’s account was easily, often, and verifiably hacked. Or that there appeared to be an internal and very public struggle between the OG Q and a second, apostate Q, who moved the drop forum to an even more insidious website named 8chan. Or that despite the anonymity and ambiguity promised by the internet, the delusional drive to red-pill family and friends and coworkers resulted in far more damaged relationships than it did “awakened” converts.

“Follow the money,” Q wrote.

“Follow the bloodlines.”

“Follow the map.”

“Follow the owl.”

More than one commentator has likened QAnon to an interactive game or soap opera for lib-owning trolls. Is it any coincidence that the first flurry of Q drops arrived within the same six-month period that saw the penultimate installments of the Game Of Thrones television series, Marvel’s Avengers movies, and the most recent Star Wars film franchise? With the end of the three most popular fantasy worlds on the horizon, QAnon could fill that niche.

For those seeking a new universe to explore, the QAnon phenomenon came equipped with catchphrases—“like Steve Urkel or Iron Man,” Rothschild jokes in The Storm Is Upon Us. Most notably there’s “Where We Go One, We Go All,” a motto cribbed from the schlocky Ridley Scott disaster film White Squall. Bored boomers fell for this hollow rallying cry like sweat from Alex Jones’ temples. Video-savvy QTubers, self-publishing hacks, and merch hustlers rushed in to make a buck, and within a year of the first drop, the QAnon movement resembled nothing so much as a bizarro QVC. QAnon had gone mainstream, or as mainstream as a movement founded on the belief that Tom Hanks and Oprah moonlight as blood-sucking demons could go. But a Q bumper sticker would never be enough to satisfy a people fed on such violent pablum, and the movement soon begat what the movement deserved: digital soldier-jihadists, some of the nastiest individuals ever elected to public office, and at least one shirtless bro in face paint and horns.

Rothschild is less concerned with uncovering the identity—or identities—of Q than Cullen Hoback’s terrific HBO series, Q: Into The Storm, and more interested in tracing QAnon’s causes and effects: from blood libel to Pizzagate, the NESARA prophecy to stolen election claims, Christian millenarianism to the Plandemic. The Storm Is Upon Us details the lives of devastated individuals and families, documents the numerous crimes committed in Q’s name, and includes a chapter on how to rescue your loved ones from the rabbit hole. This is not a book that will bring your Q-crazed relative back from the brink, but it will provide the context to ensure that you understand the movement far more than they could ever hope to.

Q published his last drop on December 8, 2020, exactly one month before Donald Trump unleashed his final, ugly sore-loser of a tweet confirming that he would not be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration. This 4,953th drop was as derivative and dull-witted as the very first: a montage of Trump’s presidential “highlights” set to Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit single “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Sister’s lead singer, Dee Snider, responded: “Qanon are fucking idiots.”).

The world has felt a whole lot quieter ever since. March 4, another day of national reckoning according to many anons, passed without incident. The Great Awakening has become the Great Deplatforming. The Trumps have been banished to the hinterlands of OANN, which, for all its loathsome lib-baiting, skews just slightly right of what qualifies as American conservatism today (as I type this sentence, the network’s front page features a Reuters interview with Boy George on turning 60). And as scary as it sounds that 14% of Americans “fall into the category of ‘QAnon believers,’” as recently reported by The New York Times, who believe that “patriots may have to resort to violence,” we must ask whether that’s the same percentage of so-called patriots who have been threatening violence against their fellow Americans since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Nearly four years after its first missive, it’s safe to say that QAnon has created nothing new, has revealed nothing surprising about our nation that we did not already know. But Q did remind us of our capacity to breathe in this brief moment, to enjoy the tranquility, the warm winds of the next cruel storm too far out at sea to trouble us much. Feel that? That’s the calm that follows the storm.