In many ways, the “Q” conspiracy theory is the antithesis of the typical attempt by a political candidate to recruit or motivate his or her supporters.
Q as the generic name of people who are either in the dark about the inner workings of the Trump administration or in some way sympathetic to the alleged plots to undermine and overthrow the president. It’s a labyrinth of overlapping claims, an internet of contradictions and suspicions that allows less-informed voters to find their own answers.
It would be one thing to condemn such a campaign; it’s another to recognize its widespread effect.
“I understand people have ideas about what the president is up to,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign staffer who now works for a Republican outside group. “They’re wrapped in all these conspiracy theories.”
The same thing happened in 2016. A smattering of ideas that could be seen as fringe then have seeped into the broader political discussion, even the most traditional outlets, and helped to grease the electoral machine.
The Q Conspiracy Theory website devoted to supporting Mr. Trump’s campaign has gained 1.6 million followers on Facebook and about 677,000 subscribers on YouTube. One website promoting conspiracy theories about Google allegedly has more than 1.2 million followers on Facebook.
Those followers are bigger than the 10-person team Mr. Trump brought in to steer the president’s political operation. They, in turn, are larger than “The Federalist,” a conservative magazine whose contents were so esoteric that even its own staff struggled to digest them.
“I think it shows in part what has gone wrong with politics when voters are getting bombarded with various negative stories,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “I think that is partly why people believe that things are a lot worse than they are.”
To some conservatives, the revival of “9/11 Truthers” or “Birthers” — conspiracy theories that they say may soon reach a Trumpian degree of fervor — represents a symptom of a more fundamental threat to American democracy. To others, it has demonstrated the perils of having politicians who speak in only shorthand terms to themselves.
Q poses as a gamer, and many of its adherents have ties to gaming and video gaming communities. At one point, the video game “Valkyrie,” an exploration of the dawn of the First World War, was branded with the Q logo.
In September, “surrounding the president with yes men” was among the top stories on reddit, where the subreddit r/Politics was filled with discussions of an alleged “deep state” conspiracy to oust Mr. Trump. On October 9, two days after President Trump threatened to expose American secrets, r/politics and the subreddit r/whiteskepticism both posted false stories about a Chinese analyst and the NSA inspector general. Both were shown to be complete fabrications.
“I think people do relate to a lot of that stuff, especially the way people have been demonized and demonized and mocked,” said Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican consultant who recently founded CitizenLink, a conservative grassroots organization. “I don’t think most people in the mainstream think this is true, but for a substantial amount of people who don’t care to read a lot of context it’s no problem to live out their own individual experiences.”
“Q” has spread far more slowly in traditional media and among elites, perhaps due in part to the theories’ seeming implausibility.
One of the theorists who suggested QAnon might be running a “deep state” plot against Mr. Trump was the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “The Q-word,” she wrote in June, is meant to suggest he is “diabolical.”