After 15 hours on his feet protecting the attendees at a QAnon conference in Dallas, Robert Patrick Lewis was tired.
But then the former Army sergeant, who did two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, heard disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn speak. Flynn, who himself took the QAnon pledge and has become part celebrity and part spiritual leader to the QAnon faithful, called for a military coup in the U.S., and suddenly he felt invigorated.
So he fired up a YouTube livestream and spoke straight to camera: “We need to talk about a revolution.”
Lewis is a full-fledged QAnon believer and founder of the 1st Amendment Praetorians, named after the elite Roman soldiers who protected the emperor. The group consists of former military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel whose stated mission is to provide pro bono security for “patriotic and religious events across the country.”
The group was founded last September and has since acted as security for more than a dozen events, as well as providing security for Flynn himself. The QAnon conference—called “For God & Country: Patriot Roundup”—was a perfect fit.
The Praetorians are a new paramilitary organization that Lewis says has grown to “hundreds” of members in just nine months, in almost complete secrecy. It is part of a growing network of right-wing extremists groups who are pushing baseless conspiracies about election fraud, and has direct links to violent militias, notably the Oath Keepers. Now Lewis, a QAnon believer, is helping establish a nationwide network of survivalist training camps to prepare patriots for the coming revolution.
In Dallas on Memorial Day weekend, Lewis’ crew of a few dozen Praetorians didn’t have any threats to deal with other than a couple of journalists—including one from VICE News—who were ejected from the event. But the conference helped boost the Praetorians’ profile, and it helped Lewis make some new friends.
During the event, he posted a picture of himself with Flynn and then-Texas GOP chair Allen West, holding a Pine Tree flag, a Revolutionary War-era emblem that has been appropriated by the far right.
While Flynn called for a military coup, what Lewis says he wants is not bloodshed but a grassroots revolution.
“I feel that we are going through a revolutionary country right now. It doesn't always have to be a kinetic revolution, it doesn't always mean bloodshed in the streets. Revolution can mean a completely different emerging viewpoint for a way of doing or a way of acting, I think that's what we're at,” Lewis told VICE News from his home near Los Angeles this week.
But Lewis’ so-called peaceful revolution is at odds with his rhetoric on social media posts, in online articles, and in interviews on right-wing news stations. His vision of a new American revolution is also infused with conspiratorial thinking and linked to known violent extremists.
In addition to his QAnon activism, Lewis is a COVID-denier who believes that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. He also believes that critical race theory is bogus, and that the mainstream media is in league with the deep state. He believes that Antifa is the greatest threat to U.S. democracy and firmly believes they were behind the Capitol riot on January 6. Lewis says he was in D.C. on the day of the Capitol riot, but there’s no evidence he was part of the group that attacked the Capitol.
Most worrying of all is that Lewis and the Praetorians are coordinating resources and information with more violent groups, far-right militias, and extremists. Lewis says he’s been in contact with Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government militia who provide personal security to Roger Stone and whose members have been charged with conspiring to storm the Capitol.
His contact with Rhodes has stopped since Jan. 6, which is when Lewis claims “the FBI started to frame the Oath Keepers and they went to ground.” While Rhodes has yet to be charged in relation to the Capitol insurrection, he has been named in documents filed by prosecutors, who have charged several other Oath Keepers with conspiring to attack the Capitol.
Lewis says he is in contact with several groups similar to the Oath Keepers, not to coordinate actions but to "share information amongst each other: ‘What are you seeing? Are you seeing what we're seeing ramping up? What are you guys doing?’ It's not coordinating together; it's more like sharing information.”
The Praetorians also work with a veritable who’s-who of conspiracy theorists, including renowned anti-vaxxer Sheri Tenpenny, who made headlines last week when she claimed COVID-19 vaccines made people magnetic.
And now Lewis is using that network to launch survivalist training for “patriots” across the country, to prepare them for when the revolution finally arrives.
"The people that came to this continent, and were able to form what became the United States of America had to be extremely resilient,” Lewis said. “They came here with what they had, and then everything else to survive had to be created. I feel like we've lost that in our country. My big worry is that if things ever do get really bad, it will be compounded by the fact that people don't know how to take care of themselves.”
Lewis said that as well as working with sheriffs across the country on this project, he is coordinating with Scott Kesterson, a prominent QAnon promoter and podcaster who stole $12,000 from a cancer charity campaign for his dying friend.
Tenpenny and Lee Merritt, an osteopath who is a member of the conspiracy-driven group America’s Frontline Doctors, are also part of this network, which Lewis said would teach people skills like basic medical training and farming.
Lewis’ conspiracy-infused “revolution” is being echoed by conservative groups across the country, including QAnon and the Republican Party, who are using the lie that last November’s election was fraudulent to rally people to action.
As QAnon conspiracies become subsumed as mainstream talking points by the GOP, right-wing figures have begun to amplify calls for followers to leave their computer screens and get involved by infiltrating school boards, joining local Republican parties, and even running for Congress.
“It seems like we are going through a great awakening in this country.” Lewis said, echoing one of QAnon best-known phrases.
After Lewis finished his military service in 2009, he tried his hand at writing, publishing a trilogy of titles called “The Pact,” a fictional account of a joint Chinese-Russian-Hezbollah attack on the U.S.
Over the next decade, he also held a number of corporate roles, including working for UCLA Healthcare, and several marketing roles, including with several veteran-owned companies, according to Lewis’ LinkedIn profile.
During this time he was not in the public eye, but in 2019 he said he felt compelled to do something after seeing Vietnam veterans attacked for holding Trump signs.
Lewis couldn’t provide specifics for the incident, but in June 2020, an 82-year-old veteran was pushed to the ground at a Trump supporters’ rally in Fall River, Massachusetts. He was kicked in the ribs and legs by a man who had ripped the sign from his hands, according to the Herald News, a local newspaper.
Lewis initially planned to attend Trump rallies and provide additional support to the private security inside the events by focusing on protecting the people outside the rallies who camped out for days ahead of Trump’s arrival.
Lewis claimed people were being attacked going to and from their vehicles at these events or while they were waiting in line outside, but there are very few reports of incidents like this, and Lewis didn’t provide specifics.
But as the pandemic hit, and the rallies were cancelled, Lewis pivoted and launched the Praetorians.
In September, he published his first video talking about the Praetorians, describing them as “a group of military, law enforcement and intelligence veterans who refuse to stand on the sidelines and watch as your countrymen and women are intimidated from expressing their First Amendment rights.”
In the nine months since that video was published, the group has recruited “hundreds” of volunteers to provide security at events, though Lewis would not say what the exact figure is. He also refuses to name any of the individuals who’ve signed up, citing privacy reasons.
While he’s recruited a number of civilians, Lewis says he wants to focus almost exclusively on people from military, law enforcement, and intelligence backgrounds.
“Each of these people have kind of an inculcated foundation of professionalism, and we can depend on them to do the right thing if the pressure ratchets up,” Lewis said. The vetting process is rigorous, according to Lewis, and conducted by a group of private investigators—or “digital ninjas,” as Lewis calls them—who he says thoroughly review people’s backgrounds, including their military records, looking for histories of violence and brushes with law enforcement.
“We don't want people in our group that could possibly cause trouble or be prone to violence or anything like that,” Lewis said.
Lewis says the group is entirely crowdfunded and covers the cost of flights, food, and accommodation for all the volunteers, as well as the purchasing of equipment such as radios, surveillance cameras, and the uniform: black shirts with the white Praetorian logo on them.
The group’s first event, in October 2020, was organized by the Walkaway Campaign, an activist group led by Brandon Straka, a MAGA activist who was once a curtain-raiser at Trump rallies and was arrested for allegedly breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Including that initial event in Washington, Lewis says they provided support for 15 more events before the end of the year, while the Dallas conference was the group’s first of this year.
And at pretty much every event, Lewis had one enemy in mind: antifa, whom he sees as the biggest threat to the U.S.—together with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lewis has a wild origin story for the anti-facist group. He believes it operated first in Germany before many its way to the U.S. in the last decade, where it has been funded by money from the U.S. government as well as directly from countries like Cuba and China.
Lewis believes there’s a “cadre” of powerful people directing the movement, such as prominent 1970s feminist activist Susan Rosenberg, while the front lines of antifa are often populated with “useful idiots,” such as students or the children of wealthy families.
Like many conspiracy theorists—and many within the Republican Party—Lewis is fully convinced that the attack on the Capitol was conducted not by pro-Trump groups but by antifa.
“We saw at the Capitol on January 6 where they were trying to push people to do violence,” before citing a video he claims shows antifa activists “being led by Capitol Police magically to a door where the magnetic locks were unlocked at the right time.”
Lewis’ entire worldview appears suffused with conspiratorial thinking and he has long expressed support for the QAnon movement, dating back to at least 2018 when he wrote an article called “What is QAnon, Q, and the Great Awakening are Real?” for the Heroes Media Group.
And despite none of Q’s predictions coming true, Lewis’ outlook has not changed. “I think there's more to it, so people are willing to consider,” he said, calling QAnon “profound” and ”enormous.”
Piling conspiracy on top of conspiracy, Lewis also believes that FBI agents are infiltrating the QAnon movement to spread extreme conspiracies that were not based on Q drops, as part of a plan to discredit the movement—and this, of course, is all being aided by the mainstream media.
Lewis believes QAnon could be a U.S. government-funded operation, but he leaves open the possibility that it’s a disinformation campaign being run by a foreign state—though that, too, has a silver lining.
“If it was a disinformation campaign, it was an abject failure, because you have up to 20% of the population [who have] learned to research on their own and they learned not to believe anything they hear from the media at face value, which is proven very valuable given the large-scale lies we’ve seen from the media.”