Nearly 5,000 National Guard troops are expected to stay in Washington for at least another three weeks amid concerns over potential violence from QAnon adherents, some of whom believe former President Donald Trump will be inaugurated on March 4.
House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., cited QAnon chatter surrounding March 4 during a hearing this week with defense officials flagged by CNN.
"Some of these people have figured out that apparently 75 years ago, the president used to be inaugurated on March 4," Smith said. "Now why that's relevant, God knows. At any rate, now they are thinking maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4 ... that is circulating online."
Pentagon official Robert Salesses said at the hearing that 4,900 National Guard troops will remain in D.C. through March 12 at the request of Capitol Police in response to "different missions" that the troops will support. He said there isn't a specific threat that the National Guard is tracking but the Pentagon will work with law enforcement agencies to evaluate any potential threats.
The Trump Organization appears to have taken notice of the chatter too. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has jacked up its room rates for March 3 and 4 by nearly $1,000, Forbes first reported. It was the only hotel in the nation's capital to increase rates for those days — and has not increased them on surrounding days. The hotel similarly raised its prices dramatically for Jan. 5 and 6, the dates around the deadly Capitol riot.
Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is effectively based on the fictitious idea that Trump is secretly fighting a satanic cabal of child-trafficking Democrats, have struggled to cope with President Joe Biden's inauguration. Many of them had expected that Inauguration Day would bring "The Storm," when, according to clues left by an anonymous message board poster known as "Q," Trump would lead the National Guard in mass arrests of his political enemies. The "storm" never came, leaving many to grapple with reality as Q stopped posting shortly after the election. Some QAnon followers have since hatched their own conspiracy theory, claiming that Trump will return for the "real" inauguration on March 4.
Setting unrealistic timelines for world-changing events is nothing new in QAnon world, said Julian Feeld, co-host of the "QAnon Anonymous" podcast, which details the "best conspiracies of the post-truth era." QAnon followers previously wrongly predicted that Trump would usher in "The Storm" in October 2018, which they dubbed "Red October," and again in December 2018, and then again in March 2019, just to name a few.
"It's kind of like an evangelical cult waiting for the rapture," said Robert Guffey, an author and lecturer at California State University, Long Beach, who tracks the movement. "It doesn't happen so you've got to push the day back, and then it doesn't happen again — push the day back."
But the March 4 conspiracy theory is unique, Feeld said, because it did not come from a clue posted by Q, but from followers themselves.
"They believe essentially that the 14th Amendment is the last valid amendment, and that basically, the last valid president was Ulysses S. Grant," Feeld said in an interview. "So the idea here is that Trump would be inaugurated as the rightful 19th president, after Grant, and they chose March 4 is because that used to be the day of the inauguration in the time period that they idealize."
That theory is itself based on an even more brain-melting conspiracy theory that seems borne entirely out of a tragically comical misreading of a 150-year-old law. The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871 formally incorporated the Washington, D.C., municipal government. Some QAnon followers have mistaken that to mean that as of that year the entire United States was incorporated like a business.
"They believe that the United States was turned into a corporation and that invalidated, in their minds, everything that happened after that," Feeld said. "They believe, essentially, that a company was created called the United States of America Inc., or something like that. And that meant that we stopped being a country, like, it broke the Constitution, and made everything after that basically an act of sedition and treason."
This baffling idea is actually not entirely new, and stems from a related set of delusional beliefs known as Sovereign Citizen ideology.
"Sovereign citizens have had crossover with QAnon for a while," Feeld said. "But this is the first time that it's so central."
The QAnon-Sovereign Citizen mind-meld may have been sparked by social media algorithms, which have long been criticized as radicalization engines for recommending increasingly extreme content to users.
"This is kind of an autonomous, QAnon-like decentralized problem that we have on social media platforms," Feeld said, "where algorithms and engagement contribute to floating the wildest things that agree with people's profound inability to face reality in a very difficult time." These systems kind of just self-replicate and they go on and on."
Feeld said it's possible that these conspiracy theories could produce lone-wolf style attacks, but he doubts there will be anything like a repeat of the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, mostly because Trump is no longer present as an inciting factor.
"The Capitol was a perfect storm of so many things," he said. "It is actually very difficult to get a group of people in America that worked up and that violent unless there is profound actual injustice or a president that goes, 'Hey, you should walk to that place close to here and get pissed off.'"
Guffey noted that some QAnon followers have already picked the next date if March 4 doesn't pan out: May 20, which is 120 days after January 20. That date stems from an economic recovery plan called NESARA, the National Economic Security and Recovery Act, proposed during the Clinton administration by an obscure engineering consultant named Harvey Barnard, who authored a book called "Draining the Swamp."
"Somehow this obscure failed attempt to basically reset and forgive the national debt has gotten woven into QAnon mythology," Guffey explained. "The way they see it, NESARA was enacted on Jan. 20 by Trump and under the precepts of this proposal, after 120 days, that's when the military can come in and take over. And then the entire country will be reset back to before the United States became USA Inc.
"Trump will come back and the military will pull Biden out of the White House. Then all the debt goes away and the IRS is abolished. And then, at that point, Trump starts releasing all these hidden patents for free energy. It's going to be utopia and all the Democrats will be in Gitmo. Then, when that doesn't happen, they'll either create another fake date or cobble up reasons why Joe Biden is actually a hologram and Trump is actually in the White House."
The diverging conspiracy theories and growing skepticism inside the movement suggest that Trump's defeat has left the Q community in a state of chaos that could manifest itself in potentially violent ways.
"These communities are encouraged to share memes, they're not usually encouraged to violence," Feeld said. "But lately, there have been more calls that could be interpreted as calls for violence, because they're no longer on the platforms where that stuff would have gotten them banned."
Social media platforms have increasingly cracked down on QAnon-related content since the Jan. 6 riot, which has sparked an exodus of QAnon followers to platforms like Telegram, Gab and the recently-relaunched Parler -- which was also used to coordinate the Capitol attack. Other followers have started to avoid terms directly linked to QAnon, like "Pizzagate," but instead use terms like "pedo-gate" to avoid getting flagged on more mainstream social networks.
More importantly, QAnon has birthed an entire autonomous online subculture that no longer relies on clues from Q.
"As COVID continues, we're going to see a growth in some of the belief systems that exist within QAnon and always have, because it's a type of umbrella movement," Feeld said, noting that many have tied QAnon ideology into videos and posts about New Age beliefs and meditation.
"We have seen a generation of influencers that are younger, that are perhaps into Tarot cards and all this," he said. "But the end result is always the same. Their politics shift to the far right, and they think Donald Trump is some form of messianic figure or essential element in this great awakening."
Many of these followers view themselves as "digital soldiers" in a war that goes far beyond Trump.
"It's a broader war against what they see as Communist, anti-Christian, Satanic pedophiles that have taken over things like Netflix," he said, citing the QAnon community's uproar over the streaming network's film "Cuties."
"So it's not just about the president. There's a cultural war boiling underneath this," Feeld said. "We'll see less direct mentions of the word 'QAnon' but we will continue to see people being digital soldiers on a kind of battlefield where good and evil are the two sides and the stakes are saving our world under the light of Christ and God."
Guffey agreed that QAnon is going to evolve "without Q."
There's a large contingent of Christians involved in QAnon but "it's almost like a secular religion because you have people attracted to it who are not necessarily evangelical Christians," he said. "It also appeals to people who are into the paranormal, people who are into conspiracy theories, accelerationists. I know former Democrats who just went down the rabbit hole and are now completely for Q and for Trump."
The "Save the Children" campaign, a splinter movement from QAnon that has spread falsehoods and conspiracy theories about child trafficking, is a particularly effective recruiting tool because it is not overtly tied to QAnon or Trump.
"It's being fed by a new wave of young people who used to perhaps be liberal or not think too much about politics and have now become born-again Christians or digital warriors," Guffey said. "Then they sw-ng far-right and believe there is a kind of demonic invasion all around them. They're reading these patterns in the endless media they're being fed."
It's ironic, Guffey said, that QAnon adherents who often use military language and pride themselves on their pattern-recognition ability "seem incapable of recognizing the most obvious."
Social media platforms feed into this confusion because "all information is flat" in user feeds, Feeld argued. "Conspiracy theories sit next to historical facts very comfortably. Someone's blog post sits next to an article by a renowned journalist."
Some QAnon followers have even bigger plans, potentially following in the footsteps of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., in bringing fringe ideas into national politics. Gene Ho, a frequent speaker at QAnon events who has accused liberal elites of drinking children's blood, is running for mayor in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Jo Rae Perkins, who has pledged her support to QAnon, won the Republican Senate primary in Oregon last year. An analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters identified two dozen Republican candidates in last year's election cycle who had espoused or flirted with QAnon beliefs.
While QAnon has largely been a Republican-linked phenomenon, many true believers "consider most Republicans to be RINOs, or Republicans in name only," Feeld said. "They have a hatred for a majority of the Republican Party. If you've betrayed the MAGA movement in some way, you're persona non grata.
"They have a radical new project for the Republican Party and they see them as a vehicle that is not extreme enough and is not willing to get its hands dirty in the ways that they would imagine. They just don't understand why Hillary Clinton is not behind bars or why there are no trials in Guantánamo Bay. They're often fascists. Under the Julius Evola definition, you could call them 'super fascists,' since their fascism is completely outside the bounds of reality."
Guffey said he sees QAnon as "veering more toward the religious end of the spectrum rather than the political end of the spectrum, almost like if the Church of Scientology, back in the 1950s, had branched off into 50 different subsets, all of whom were accusing each other of secretly working with the government."
The disparate subgroups forming out of the core QAnon movement suggest that many followers may be outgrowing their singular focus on Trump, and that the movement may morph into something entirely different, even while retaining core QAnon beliefs.
"This will be with us for at least a generation," Feeld said. "These are beliefs that will be held by parents and their offspring. We'll have grandparents gathering children around the fireplace, telling them the story of how Hillary Clinton sheared the face off a baby and danced with it and ate the child. These are the stories that are being told in our culture for a variety of reasons. That's something we're going to have to contend with in a broader way than just labeling it QAnon."