As QAnon supporters began storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, Mike Rothschild was sitting at home on the other side of the country, putting what he thought were the finishing touches to “The Storm Is Upon Us,” his book about the conspiracy movement.
“I was watching it on TV and I had the sound off, as I was writing,” Rothschild told VICE News from his California home this week. “I kept looking up and it kept getting worse and worse. And I'm going, 'Is this actually happening? Am I just really tired and hallucinating this?'”
But the events of Jan. 6 were an all-too-real culmination of years of conspiracy theories and lies being spread online by QAnon adherents and amplified by figures like former president Donald Trump.. And for Rothschild, who has been documenting the QAnon movement from its very earliest days on 4chan in 2017, it meant a lot more work.
“Once I realized what was going on and how connected to QAnon it was, I realised I had to throw out the entire introduction I'd already written and completely rewrite the first chapter.”
Because QAnon played a central role in the storming of the Capitol, and because of the increased interest in the movement, Rothschild’s publisher decided to move up his publication date from September to this Tuesday.
In recent weeks, some have claimed that the QAnon movement is dead. The anonymous poster known as Q hasn’t been heard from in months, and Trump was not returned to the White House. But Rothschild says rumors of the movement’s death are greatly exaggerated: The Jan. 6 attacks, and the subsequent inauguration of President Joe Biden a couple of weeks later, simply marked the end of the first chapter of the story. QAnon is not dead, it’s just evolving.
“The central thing to understand about QAnon is that the QAnon that existed from October 2017 to January 2021 is done,” Rothschild said. “There is no storm, there's not going to be a great awakening, Joe Biden is not going to enact a purge of the deep state. That's over. There's no more Q drops, you know that most of the big Q promoters have been run off of popular social media. So all of that is done.”
But for the tens of millions of believers—some of whom have spent years researching the idea that a deep state plot to protect a group of elites running an underground pedophile ring would result in mass arrests and even executions—turning their back on QAnon was never going to happen overnight.
“[QAnon’s] believers are still hanging on to this idea of this great change event, making everything better,” Rothschild said. “It's just that what that event is has changed. For three-and-a-half-years, it was Donald Trump is going to tweet that the storm is upon us, the indictments are going to be unsealed, the arrests are going to happen, the worst people are going to be hanged on TV or whatever, and everything's going to be great.”
Far from being dead, the QAnon community is thriving online and off. Just weeks ago, when elected officials, including a sitting Congressman, together with many of the biggest stars in the QAnon universe, attended a huge QAnon conference in Dallas, where disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn called for a Myanmar-style coup in the U.S.
And now, believers are pinning all their hopes on the sham audit taking place in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which they believe is somehow going to bring about that change event.
“Now, the great prophetic event is that Trump is going to return to office. He's going to be reinstated, he's going to be restored,” Rothschild said.
This should really come as no surprise: Q was pushing election fraud conspiracies long before Trump or the rest of the Republican party got on board with baselessly spreading disinformation about stolen elections.
“The biggest conspiracy theories pushed by Q, during the pandemic, were not about the pandemic, it was about the election,” Rothschild said. “People came to QAnon because of the pandemic and they stayed for the stolen election conspiracy theories.”
Rothschild’s book is a sobering look at how the QAnon phenomenon began, and how it spread online to become a sort of all-encompassing conspiracy movement.
Even though he had been tracking the movement as closely as anyone since its inception, it was only while writing the book that he realized just how mainstream the movement has become.
“What really changed for me was realising just how much the mythology of QAnon had enmeshed itself in everyday American politics,” Rothschild said. “You have a major party in this country where the majority of the people who are in this party do not think that the President was legitimately elected.”
Unlike Cullen Hoback’s recent HBO documentary series about the origins of QAnon, Rothschild’s book doesn’t attempt to unmask the identity of the person or people behind Q. But six months on from the last message posted by Q, uncovering that identity no longer really matters. For the author, the book was more about helping those seeking answers about QAnon.
“What I wanted to do is write a book that told the story of QAnon to people who maybe had heard of it but really didn't know anything about it,” Rothschild said.
“They've seen the term floating around, they know it's bad, but they don't know why it's bad, and they don't know why anybody would be stupid enough to believe these things. What I wanted to do was give people the language to use to start asking those questions of people who could help.”
Last week, the FBI delivered more evidence that the threat from QAnon has not disappeared, but simply evolved, warning that as QAnon believers get more and more frustrated at predictions failing to come true, they are increasingly likely to move from being “digital soldiers” to taking action in the real world.
“We assess that some [domestic violent extremist] adherents of QAnon likely will begin to believe they can no longer ‘trust the plan’ referenced in QAnon posts and that they have an obligation to change from serving as ‘digital soldiers’ towards engaging in real world violence—including harming perceived members of the ‘cabal’ such as Democrats and other political opposition—instead of continually awaiting Q’s promised actions which have not occurred,” the FBI said in its report.
It’s a concern that Rothschild shares.
“I'm very concerned about true believers, getting to a point where they realize that Donald Trump is not going to be the president. And they're going to take it out on somebody.”