President Trump's political rally in Florida Tuesday night turned into a coming-out party for one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories to emerge during his presidency.
Throughout the broadcast, Fox News (the only network to stream the president's rally live in its entirety) kept catching attendees in the crowd holding signs stating "We Are Q" and wearing T-shirts adorned with the letter "Q." One attendee can be heard shouting to CNN reporter Jim Acosta to ask Trump about QAnon.
The "Q" stands for QAnon, a supposed government insider with top security clearance (the alias is a reference to Q-level security clearance) who has access to the real truth about the Clintons, pedophile rings, Barack Obama, Tom Hanks, and a nebulous "deep state" out to get the president.
The QAnon conspiracy theory first emerged in November 2017 on the message board 4chan in a post titled "The Calm Before the Storm," a phrase Trump wryly tossed out without explanation during a photo-op with senior military staff last October.
Since then "Q" has dropped random clues on 4chan and 8chan known as "bread crumbs" his followers believe are linked to top secret information that reveals Trump's efforts to end a complex ring of human trafficking and child abuse that they say Democrats and Hollywood celebrities have attempted to cover up.
Supporters also believe Trump is not being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, they think Trump only acted as though he engaged in a conspiracy with Russia in order to get Mueller appointed, so the two could secretly work together to take down this supposed cabal of criminals.
The QAnon conspiracy theory is unusual in many ways, but according to University of Miami professor Joseph Uscinski, one of the most interesting ways it stands out is that typically conspiracy theories are for losers in a fight.
"Normally you don't expect the winning party to use them, except when they're in trouble," Uscinski told the Daily Beast's Will Sommer, who has done extensive reporting on the QAnon conspiracy theory.
It's easy to understand why the conspiracy theory is appealing to Trump supporters; it offers a counter-narrative at a time the special counsel's investigation over Russia's cyber attacks during the 2016 presidential election campaign is heating up.
An important part of the QAnon conspiracy theory is the belief that many of these accused pedophiles and deep-state murderers have already been arrested, and are forced to wear ankle monitors as they await judgment. It's the main reason so many QAnon posts involve a close examination of the ankles of political and public figures.
"Q" has many public backers who have helped pull the conspiracy out of the fringes of the internet and amplify it to mainstream Republicans, including comedian Roseanne Barr and antiabortion activist Cheryl Sullenger. Among the most vocal is former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling, who has promoted "Q" on many occasions on social media and his Breitbart podcast.
"It's a group of people that are very Christian, focused group of people, who believe the deep state is real — which I don't think we can deny anymore, that the deep state exists," Schilling said on The Curt Schilling Podcast in June, adding, "I've been looking into it, I'm going to continue to look into it."
While the conspiracy theory was mostly relegated to T-shirts and signs during Trump's most recent rally, the bizarre conspiracy theory has been making very public inroads over the past several months, with real-life consequences.
On June 15, a man armed with an AR-15 rifle and a handgun cited the conspiracy theory as he blocked traffic on a highway near the Hoover Dam using an armored truck. Others marched in Washington in April, declaring "We see Q people!"
Earlier this week, the Newport Beach Police Department told the Daily Beast it was investigating the appearance of a man outside the office of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford). The man appeared after "Q" shared photos and the location of Avenatti's law office on 8Chan.
"We will NOT be intimidated into stopping or changing our course," Avenatti wrote on Twitter.
The growth in popularity of QAnon mirrors another debunked conspiracy theory — known as Pizzagate — that emerged during Trump's president campaign. Supporters of Pizzagate falsely claimed there were coded messages in the emails of Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton, that pointed to a child-sex ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong.