Everyone remembers where they were when Trump won the election. Alex and Mary* remember it especially well. It was the night their relationship fell apart.
Alex and I first met in 2012. I went to dinner one night with him and his fiancee, Mary. I remember her as a bright, intelligent woman with a passionate interest in animal rights. Fast forward to the evening of 8 November 2016, and a gaudy reality TV star was on the verge of being elected president of the most powerful country on Earth. As Alex and Mary watched state after state fall for Donald Trump, it became clear that the beginning of this new chapter in American history would mark the end of their marriage.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mary had become a dedicated conspiracy theorist, paving the way for her embrace of a bizarre conspiracy theory known as QAnon. “I had a nervous breakdown,” says Alex. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole Trump thing and all the weird stuff Mary was getting into. I just fell apart.” Mary is unambiguous about the reason their marriage ended. “It is 100% my fault. I came in as one person and left as another.”
Alex and Mary moved from Australia to California in early 2014. Alex had a job offer and they decided to take the plunge. From day one, Alex was pulling long days at the office and Mary passed a lot of her time online, frequenting a huge message board community called 4chan. A naturally inquisitive person, Mary enjoyed reading about fringe opinions with a specific focus on alternative medicine. After a series of bungled health diagnoses, Mary had lost faith in the authorities. She viewed the entire medical system as a web of malevolent conspiracies. 4chan had vibrant communities for discussing these issues and more. At the darker end of the 4chan spectrum there lurked several large groups dedicated to white supremacist hate speech, antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Mary’s network of 4chan friends became an increasingly important antidote to the sense of alienation she experienced in her new town. While Alex jeered Trump’s orange skin and ridiculous hair, an avid following was growing across America and the world.
In Trump, Mary saw someone who was finally going to shake up the establishment and put an end to the hegemony of the political elite. “I was praying and meditating for Trump to win,” she says. “That is where all of my consciousness was”. Alex admits he didn’t take it seriously. “If she brought up Trump, I just tried to shut it down,” he sighs. “ I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to seriously believe in that guy’s bullshit.”
One day in the autumn of 2016, Alex drove Mary out past the used car yards and fast-food joints to a convention centre near the airport. “I knew she had been doing some chanting or something with the Hare Krishnas and dabbling in Scientology,” says Alex. “It was her thing and I respected that. I just didn’t want to know about it”.
Mary wasn’t on her way to a Hare Krishna meeting. She was going to a presentation by David Icke, an English conspiracy theorist whose ravings include: the existence of a nefarious reptilian race invading Earth from a parallel universe; various antisemitic nonsense; the obligatory UFO fare; and a cabal of deep state villains.
Icke has attempted to foretell the end of the world several times (incorrectly, thus far). His predictions imagine absurd cataclysmic showdowns between good and evil. In 2019, the Australian government rejected Icke’s visa application on grounds of character. While an army of multi-dimensional lizard people may seem far-fetched, Public Policy Polling released a study in April 2013, which showed that 4% of Americans believed lizard creatures control the world. That is more than 12 million people.
Mary describes how she felt after seeing Icke speak: “I came away smiling. I felt like everything was clear, like it all made sense”. In October 2017, an anonymous blog post turned up on the message boards. It was posted by a mysterious member, named “Q”, who claimed to be a high-level US government whistleblower with secrets to share. Again, Mary felt like puzzle pieces were falling into place. “I had been waiting for this. I knew Q was coming,” she says.
David Singh Grewal, professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law, has published research on the dynamics of conspiracy theory. He explains how the over-simplification of a perceived enemy allows the conspiracy theorist to role-play “the one good cop that takes down the bad guys and makes America great again”. “The conspiracy theory gives the believer a feeling of empowerment,” he says. “They feel as though they have all the answers.”
Rather than being one specific conspiracy theory, QAnon is better thought of as a constellation of conspiracy theories. At the core of this ever expanding galaxy of conspiratorial solar systems is the idea that a shady cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles are working in the shadows to bring down Trump’s presidency.
The genius of Q is that it remains non-specific. Just about anyone can find a version of truth that suits their palate. For Mary, it was distrust in the medical system and disgust at child abuse. Others have been motivated by changing racial demographics, feminism, gun rights, Covid, 5G towers – you name it. BYO fears and grievances.
Three years and five thousand odd messages after the original post, Q content is a rambling mishmash of obtuse clues and inane conjecture. Every post is a regurgitation of publicly available information organised into a dramatic narrative, concocted to keep millions of followers coming back for more. And Mary is all in.
Alex and Mary’s relationship ended in divorce over their fundamental disagreements. Alex says he doesn’t think he could have changed Mary’s mind, but he is philosophical about the way society mocks conspiracy theorists. “I just couldn’t get past taking the piss out of it,” he says. “But I think that is the problem with QAnon and this whole Trump thing. Everyone on the left spends too much time making jokes.”
Asked if she thinks the wild web of QAnon conspiracies might be bullshit, Mary pauses for a moment. “Well, I guess it could be. But it’s a great story if it is”.
* Alex and Mary’s names have been changed for the purpose of this article.
• Matt Dooley is an Australian writer and journalist