It took up 30 seconds Saturday night on the nightly news in Scranton — footage of maybe 20-30 white women (the kind our president likes to call “Suburban Housewives”) and their kids marching through a park in the Wayne County, seat of Honesdale, carrying signs such as “Keep Our Children Safe from Pedos!” The WNEP-TV anchorwoman — speaking to a region of northeast Pennsylvania that was so critical for President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — reported in her tone of TV authority on their march “to bring awareness around human trafficking.”

There were more than 200 of these so-called Freedom for the Children rallies across America, and a Sunday morning tour of Google shows the events garnered favorable, unquestioning coverage in Maine, Oklahoma City, Illinois, and elsewhere — often with a link to the organizers’ websites so the public could learn more! What TV viewers and local news readers didn’t learn is that the “Freedom for the Children” rallies were tightly interwoven with the bat-guano crazy conspiracy theory called QAnon, which posits (among other things) that top Democrats and government officials are part of a massive child sex ring that Trump is on a divine mission to destroy.

Small-city TV news producers weren’t the only ones arguably fooled by the “Freedom for the Children” crusade, part of a larger phenomenon of internet conspiracy theorists stealing the oxygen from established groups that have been doing the hard work of fighting actual sex trafficking for decades. In Utah, the state’s Republican attorney general had been promoting Salt Lake City’s rally for days, only pulling the plug when alerted by an NBC News report that the event planners were deeply involved in the QAnon theory.

The truth was out there, and not difficult to find for enterprising journalists aware of the political fearmongering simmering below the surface of “Freedom for the Children.” In front of the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, 47-year-old rally goer Kristen Cummings told the Huffington Post that QAnon is about “the restoration of America. ... I love the hope and the perspective it offers.” A 15-year-old who only gave her name as Isis got even closer to the core of QAnon when she said “the government keeps secrets from us,” and that the source of her political beliefs is watching politicians on TV “making weird moves on children.”

The QAnon surge, coincidentally or not, came hours before a Republican National Convention that — avoided by most GOP stalwarts, including its surviving ex-president — is desperately seeking to make a public case for a Trump second term. But in the end, whatever electronic wizardry is generated at the mostly virtual confab by former producers of Trump’s fake-reality show The Apprentice may not matter as much as the fever dreams of QAnon and their like-minded conspiracists. If Trump wins or, more likely, moves to claim victory in November — an outcome not to be dismissed, even after 175,000 COVID-19 deaths — these true believers in a uniquely American brand of baloney will be the difference makers.

It speaks to the American moment that you can’t write about QAnon without trying — with great difficulty — to even explain what the theory is to the at least 65 million and hopefully more Americans who remain vaccinated against such viral nonsense. In November 2017, an anonymous post from “Q” — claiming to be a government insider but almost surely not — entitled “The Calm Before the Storm” appeared on the popular conspiracy website 4chan to reveal that Trump had been sent to break up a “deep state” cabal that includes rings of pedophiles at the highest levels of Hollywood and the Democratic Party.

Spread by the nonstop wildfires of the World Wide Web, and a sea of “Q” T-shirts and flags at Trump rallies before the coronavirus shut those things down, QAnon has B-list celebrity boosters like ex-Phillie (sigh) Curt Schilling and Roseanne Barr, bizarre offshoots like the nonexistent “Pizzagate” sex ring in the basement of a D.C. eatery, or the notion that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his 1999 death to become “Q,” and a growing network of supportive sites on Facebook and elsewhere. The wacko theory has clearly become a security blanket allowing susceptible Americans to see Trump not as a corrupt, dishonest bumbler, but as a hero defending the threats to both their economic underpinnings and the white supremacy of the Caucasian working class.

This summer, the national risk from this insanity has escalated on two fronts. First, QAnon has moved with remarkable speed to integrate itself into the mainstream of the already Trump-weakened Republican Party. It’s been revealed that the state Republican Party in our second-largest state of Texas has adopted a QAnon mantra — “We Are the Storm” — as its new motto. In deep-red states, QAnon adherents have won several House and Senate Republican primaries; in Georgia, conspiracy backer Marjorie Taylor Greene — who’s called Trump “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out” — is on a clear path to Congress in January. Trump, not surprisingly, won’t denounce this base of supporters, and instead poured gasoline on the wildfire by telling a questioner that “I’ve heard these are people that love our country....”

But the second front opened by QAnon is arguably more alarming — infiltrating or co-opting long-standing movements against the actual sex trafficking that regrettably exists in modern society. The New York Times recently reported that QAnon followers have hijacked the well-established #SaveTheChildren hashtag, jammed up child-abuse hotlines, and made any news article about real sex-trafficking cases — albeit not involving top Democrats or movie stars — go viral on Facebook. Saturday’s “Freedom for the Children” rallies — covered so credulously by so many news outlets — marked a great leap forward in this crusade to make QAnon look respectable and gain thousands of new followers.

Why does this matter? For one thing, the more folks who believe that pedophiles are secretly running America and that no one is stopping them, the more likely that the most unhinged followers will resort to violence. We’ve already seen that QAnon followers have committed a couple of murders (including, bizarrely, a New York mob boss) and blockaded roads around Hoover Dam while threatening to “take out” Joe Biden. The FBI has already called the group’s adherents a potential terrorist threat — and that will only get worse, especially if Biden wins.

But even without bloodshed, QAnon is poised to wreak political havoc. With a life-or-death election little more than two months away, the dingbat theory will function as a political blindfold that will allow Trump voters across the Rust Belt to not see the rising coronavirus death toll, double-digit unemployment, and rising homelessness and food insecurity. You can surely see why Trump would give QAnon his blessing.

And what if Biden is able to circumnavigate the sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service, the Russian interference, and whatever Lukashenko-style moves Trump is plotting for Nov. 4 and beyond, and becomes the 46th president in January? QAnon is giving us a sneak peek into what the “Biden resistance,” or tea party 2.0, will look like if a Democratic government attempts the massive, New Deal-style reforms that will be called for in 2021.

The thousands of new members getting sucked into QAnon through Saturday’s “Freedom for the Children” rallies or the hijacked #SaveTheChildren hashtag will be a ready-made army to march against what they’ll brand as the “tyranny” of a national mask mandate or other public health measures, or — if a vaccine can even be safely rolled out — lead a new and even more dangerous anti-vax movement. Like the tea party before it, QAnon stands poised to march, overrun town meetings, and get out the 2022 vote to thwart any meaningful action on climate change, on structural racism and sexism, and economic inequality in America.

And one last thing about QAnon: It’s also here to remind all the back-to-brunch voters that simply replacing the Trump narcissism with an empathetic Biden isn’t the end of our long national nightmare, but merely the first step in a longer journey. The wars pitting reason against irrationality, science against ignorance, truth against dishonesty, and decency against fearmongering will take years to fight. And America’s survival depends on whether the truth can win this time.