In a corner of the sprawling QAnon ur-conspiracy that alleges Donald Trump is waging a secret war with a cabal of globalist child sex traffickers, humanity-controllers, and the “deep state,” is a theory about time manipulation.
One early message from ‘Q’, the anonymous, supposedly highly-placed operative whose cryptic notes have convinced many Americans of a coming “storm” in which the cabal will be arrested and put on trial, wrote a simple phrase: “Future proves past.” Follow that thread and very quickly you end up at a January 2012 interview with Bill Wood, aka Bill Brockbrader (per the Idaho States Attorney’s Office, Brockbrader was convicted of three sexual offenses against a minor in 1998, and then arrested again in 2012 for failing to register as a sex offender in Idaho). In the video, Wood/Brockbrader, claims to have been part of a secretive Navy SEAL team with psychic abilities. Wood describes “project looking glass,” a system he says the American military reverse-engineered from alien technology that allows someone to travel through time and space using their mind, or see all future outcomes produced by specific choices.
Wood claimed the looking glass showed the myriad timelines that exist in the universe converging near the end of 2012. No matter what choices were suggested, after 2012, the looking glass always produced the same result. This, Wood claimed, sent all “the elites of the world…into a blind panic” because “nothing could be manipulated beyond that point.” Beyond 2012, Wood said, lay “the awakening process,” in which we would learn the truth about “this massive dam of lies that has been built.”
“At first I thought it was the end of the world,” he said. “Now I see it as the end of ‘their’ world.”
The Q story uses the uniquely American version of individual rights as a connecting thread, convincing followers that their Americanness can be tied directly to Q’s end-of-history, good-and-evil narrative.
In the sprawling Q conspiracy, this awakening is what the so-called “deep state” is trying to stop, and what Donald Trump, who some even contend is a time traveler, is fighting for. It’s also what individual Q followers can do. Its slogan, “where we go one, we go all,” encourages followers to awaken themselves and their fellow citizens to their supposedly unique role in history, as arbiters of an ultimate truth.
Writing for The Atlantic in June, Adrienne LaFrance described QAnon as “not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion,” comparing it to the Evangelical movement. The Q story, “harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging,” and “breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times,” LaFrance wrote. She added that “it is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values.” The subtext of this last part is that, in rejecting these values, the Q movement dismisses the foundational ideas on which the U.S. was founded, even as it claims to defend it — that the Q conspiracy is anti-American.
But Q doesn’t seem to reject all Enlightenment values. In fact, the Q story uses the uniquely American version of individual rights as a connecting thread, convincing followers that their Americanness can be tied directly to Q’s end-of-history, good-and-evil narrative — where it also gets help from President Donald Trump. This relationship between Q, U.S. history, and Trump’s portrayal of it, cannot be disconnected. And it suggests that to free itself from the Q myth, America must reexamine its own. To save itself from the future, America must rethink its past.
But what past is that?
In 1979, poet Octavio Paz considered America’s history — or lack of it. He argued in the New Yorker that the European settler treatment of the indigenous peoples of America — that they were “exterminated” or “corralled in ‘reservations,’” — had a lasting effect on the United States. This original erasure meant that the U.S. “was founded on a land without a past,” Paz wrote. This created a problem for its citizens, and this hole in the nation’s history, Paz wrote, is why “one of the most powerful and persistent themes in American literature…has been the search for (or invention of) American roots.” The story of America is for this reason what each person makes it to be.
But people need to orient themselves on a timeline, which is difficult in a historical vacuum. And because America’s promise is that of fulfilling the individual pursuit of happiness, being unable to place yourself properly in its history means you aren’t just less individually fulfilled, you’re also less American. In America, perhaps more than anywhere, if you can’t see your future, you can’t properly see the past. This kind of historical purgatory makes people vulnerable. As Oxford historian F.M. Powicke noted 90 years ago, “the craving for an interpretation of history is so deep-rooted that, unless we have a constructive outlook over the past, we are drawn to either mysticism or to cynicism.” Bereft of a connection to history, we will look for stories elsewhere, including in dangerous places.
Donald Trump’s connection to the Q story is obvious to his followers and his tacit — or obvious — acknowledgement of it is clear to everyone else. A reporter asked Trump Friday whether he agrees with new Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vocal QAnon follower. Trump avoided the question, which is as good as saying yes. But it’s in Trump’s (mis)handling of history where his messaging merges with the Q folklore at a deeper, nationalist, level. Because as much as Trump frequently puts himself at the center of history, he positions his followers alongside him in time.
Trump places himself — and by extension, his supporters — at a historical vanguard.
“Trump is obsessed with a pseudohistory in which the past exists only as a prelude to his own greatness and the unique evil of his enemies,” Fintan O’Toole wrote this summer in the New York Review of Books. Often those enemies are Democrats. Sometimes that enemy is history itself. For instance, on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump cast himself as a victim of history, telling Axios: “This never happened before. 1917, but that was totally different, it was a flu in that case, okay? But other than 1917, there’s never been anything like this.” He also often selectively deletes history to claim that his accomplishments are beyond comparison — everything from economic indicators to farmer’s aid to the crowd at his inauguration. Trump is the best of all time, whatever he decides “of all time” means in that moment.
Trump’s approach to history is most relevant to Q in how he uses it to frame the future. All summer, Trump has erroneously claimed that widespread use of mail-in ballots will delegitimize the November election result. But he always adds the historical qualifier. Mail-in ballots, Trump has falsely alleged at various points in the last few months, will make the 2020 election the most “rigged,” “corrupt” “inaccurate and fraudulent” election “in history.” In this way, Trump places himself — and by extension, his supporters — at a historical vanguard. In this context, the words “in history” deliberately conjure a powerful, albeit fantastical, binary choice. That is, that the future of America, and therefore its past, will forever be corrupted and owned by evil forces.
This is the mysticism Powicke warned about, and it is now resonating with a fresh generation of Americans who, a decade removed from the Great Recession, trapped in the deepening inequalities of hyper-capitalism, and witnessing social unrest, have retreated into Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style of politics. As part of the Q movement, they are “a militant leader,” and “a member of the avant-garde,” to borrow from Hofstadter’s famous analysis. Trump has helped put them there. It’s a bleak, dangerous, space for people to be.
The United States is “a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals,” O’Toole wrote. It will end in one of two ways. “Either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.”
“The unhinged left wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments,” Trump told a rally crowd in Oklahoma this summer, after weeks of national protests following George Floyd’s death. “They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place.” On Wednesday morning, hours after Democrat Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate for his 2020 presidency bid, Trump tweeted a thinly disguised racist dog-whistle. “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trump wrote. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighbourhood.” Biden, he claimed, would “reinstall it.”
This is the unconsumed past, the end result of what Paz identified as America’s original sin of historical erasure. And it’s what may eat America alive, unless it opts to turn and properly face history. But what would that mean? How could the past be properly consumed?
The vastness of the Q conspiracy might be explained by its followers leaving no avenue unturned to find any evidence to prove the legitimacy of an objectively illegitimate system.
Talk of the end of civilization, historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote in 1959, “means only that university professors used to have domestic servants and now do their own washing up.” In other words, whether or not history is at an end depends on your perspective. If the status quo has been working for you, change is threatening. If the status quo has kept you marginalized and otherized, that change won’t feel like a historical endpoint, but a new beginning. Subscribing to the history of America from only one perspective (predominantly the white European one), might mean things as you knew them are coming to an end. To some extent, that’s true. But to borrow from Bill Wood, it’s not the end of the world; it just might be the end of yours.
“Colonial American society was a free, egalitarian, but exclusive society. Faithful to its origins, in its domestic and foreign policies alike, the United States has always ignored the ‘others’,” Paz wrote. The U.S., he wrote, must return to its origins, “not to repeat them but to rectify them: the ‘others’ — the minorities inside as well as the marginal countries and nations outside — do exist.” To recover itself, Paz continued, America must recover the ‘others’ — “the outcasts of the Western World.”
The idea that Q adherents might act as liberators for their fellow citizens is dependent on an idea of history that is deeply entwined with the American mythology of the individual — more specifically, the white one. This is the only way Q’s followers could see themselves, and Trump, as liberators when they’re the opposite. Indeed, the vastness of the Q conspiracy might be explained by its followers leaving no avenue unturned to find any evidence to prove the legitimacy of an objectively illegitimate system. Somewhere, something must explain how they became detached from history. But, to follow Paz’s logic, this detachment was inevitable — it just happened later to them than to the others.
The Q movement perspective is clearly warped, but it bends furthest from reality in its understanding of history. But — as ‘Q’ says — the future proves past. And time travel is possible. We can re-evaluate decisions after seeing the results they bore in the present, as well as what we can expect for the future. We can adjust our perspective on the past. There is no timeline in which we are so trapped that history cannot save us from. We can always go back.