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Will Sommer: The Dangers of QAnon

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Will Sommer is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and host of the podcast Fever Dreams. His new book, Trust the Plan, details QAnon’s journey into the mainstream, the threat it poses to democracy, and how we can reach out to those who have embraced the conspiracy.

Will Sommer:

They get into QAnon because it gives some kind of drama and some weight to their lives. They call themselves digital soldiers. And so, it's whereas the rest of us are just goofing off online perhaps. For them, this tweeting and posting all this stuff, it's like I'm battling the devil.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh. This is Burn the Boats. A show about making tough calls in tough times. America today, faces a critical test. Our democracy is under threat, but good people are rising to the challenge. Now, is the time to go all in. Now, we burn the boats.

My guest today is Will Sommer, a political reporter for The Daily Beast and host of the podcast, Fever Dreams. His new book, Trust the Plan, details QAnon’s Journey into the mainstream, the threat it poses to Democracy, and how we can reach out to those who have embraced the conspiracy.

Will, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Will Sommer:

Thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

I thought I knew about QAnon until I read your book, and it is so much worse and so much weirder than I ever expected. For those who aren't deep into the 8chan fever swamps, can you give us the Cliffs Notes version, where it came from? What are some of the foundational belief structures?

Will Sommer:

Sure, yeah. So, the elevator pitch on QAnon is, it started in October 2017 with this figure named Q and this is an anonymous person who appeared on the sort of anarchic, often racist, anonymous message board 4chan.

And he started leaving these posts, they were very cryptic and saying, “Hillary Clinton will be arrested by the end of the month,” all this kind of stuff.

So, these clues start emerging and over a series of several years, the clues are woven into sort of this worldview that we now call like what QAnon believers believe. And the short of it is that they think over hundreds or thousands of years, the world has been controlled by a cabal of very sinister people who worship the devil.

And that these now, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, these are the people in the Democratic Party, in Hollywood, and banking. And that they cause all the evil in the world. That sort of everything that happens, every war, every disease is their doing.

And that ultimately, they (and now, bear with me here) terrorize children and sexually abuse them and even eat them in satanic rituals, and they drink their blood in a way that essentially makes them stay young forever.

I should also say, so Donald Trump comes in here. So, Donald Trump, they believe was recruited by the military to take on this evil cabal.

And that someday, there's going to come a moment called The Storm when Donald Trump is going to arrest all these people and maybe execute them, send them to Guantanamo Bay, everyone, Barack Obama, Tom Hanks, Oprah, everybody. And then there's going to be this kind of utopian moment for everyone else.

Ken Harbaugh:

So, you've been essentially, an embed with this movement for years, since shortly after it really gained life. Embed is a military term. I'm drawing out my military background for a reporter who's forward deployed with units on the front lines, often in combat. And you have seen some of that combat close-up.

Can you give us a sense of who these people are. And if you can do it with some of the vignettes you share in your book, I would love that because I mean, seriously, you have this way of being both empathetic and just awestruck at the lengths these people go to dilute themselves.

Will Sommer:

Yeah. I mean, I think the average QAnon believer for at least the first couple years was often someone who's like a Trump supporter. They're older, whiter, more likely to be evangelical Christian, but really it takes all kinds of people.

I mean, I followed one family as they're adult son who's in his 20s, got sucked into QAnon, and it's often someone who, whether rightly or wrongly, feels sort of marginalized and that they don't get a lot of respect. Whether that be in their own lives or they feel that coastal elites are looking down on them.

And so, they get into QAnon because it gives some kind of drama and some weight to their lives. They call themselves digital soldiers. And so, it's whereas the rest of us are just goofing off online perhaps. For them, this tweeting and posting and all this stuff, it's like I'm battling the devil.

And so, I follow all these people who are just sort of sucked into it. I mean, it ranges from someone like Michael Flynn, the Trump former National Security Advisor who gets really into promoting QAnon seemingly to make money, even though privately he knows it's a lie.

Down to a guy who got so into it that he ended up allegedly murdering the head of a mafia family because he thought he was sort of carrying out Q’s orders.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that distinction's important and I want your help teasing it out between the true believers, the actual trigger men. And there have been a few sucked into QAnon who have actually gone out and pulled triggers. And what the movement has called or what you have labeled as the priests, the Mike Flynns among them, the ones who are really in it for the attention and the money, but know better.

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, I have an immense amount of sympathy for the run-of-the-mill QAnon believer and definitely for the people around them who find their lives really upended by their QAnon beliefs.

These are often, in sort of a weird way they can really tell why they got into QAnon and say, “Well, this terrible thing happened in my life.” And whereas for other people, this would be a reflection moment or a moment to say like, “Man …”

For example, one guy I talked to had cancer and he couldn't get it treated. And so, rather than say, “Wow, it's like really messed up here that we don't have universal healthcare,” he then turned into this fantasy realm of saying, “Well, this cabal has the cure for cancer and Donald Trump's going to save my life.”

So, these people, often you can tell that the very real issue that's driving them to QAnon. But I have much less sympathy for the promoters, the priests of QAnon, the people who are making hundreds of thousands, in some cases, millions of dollars promoting this idea.

And often I think they believe it, sometimes they don't, but they're really just stirring up so much strife in the country, both at potentially the violent January 6th type level, even murders, down to just this kind of just run-of-the-mill cruddiness of people sort of abandoning their normal lives because they're convinced QAnon is real.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're a country with a long history of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory priests. What makes this iteration so much more dangerous than things we've experienced in the past?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, I think it's a couple things. I think one, is obviously, that QAnon has been embraced by people like Donald Trump. In the past, you haven't seen the president saying … I mean, Donald Trump obviously, is a huge conspiracy theorist himself. He entered politics through birtherism and now, he creates a permission structure for his believers to believe whatever they want.

Because he was asked about QAnon, and he said, “Well, maybe we are going after these high-powered pedophiles. What's wrong with that?” And so, then the average QAnon believer says, “This is true.” And they sink deeper into it.

I think also, social media, the way that you used to have maybe a crazy guy on the block and everyone else would tell he's crazy and there were high barriers to meet like-minded people. You'd have to go to a convention or send letters.

But now, with social media, you can just go on your phone when you're at the dinner table and your family says, “No, I don't think Tom Hanks eats babies.” And then you say, “Well, here it is on YouTube.” And you can get that kind of community that way.

And then finally, I would say QAnon has this genius to it of the moment of the storm and the clues that make it much more participatory where it if you look at the JFK assassination, let's say you spend 10 years figuring out who did it, okay you figured it out. Well, there's nothing that comes of that really.

Whereas, with QAnon, you can be a soldier, you can go harass Comet Ping Pong, you can go call Democrats pedophiles or you can even, in the book, to the extent of kidnapping children, stuff like that, or January 6th. And so, I think there's this dangerous element of like we will bring about this heaven on earth.

Ken Harbaugh:

There's so much I want to dive into there. But let's start with the political cover that QAnon has received from initially, the far right and increasingly, the Republican leadership. It is evolved into a weird symbiosis now.

We're at the point where the Republican party has such a razor thin minority in some of the areas it counts on that it needs these zealots. It needs their energy, it needs at the end of the day, their votes and they are stuck in this Faustian bargain.

Will Sommer:

Absolutely. I mean, for a long period of time, Republicans would sort of look away from QAnon, and I think there was a moment where particularly, if Donald Trump had come out and said, “This is nonsense. Stop believing in this. Get a life.” There might have been some people who moved on from it.

But for so long, even after QAnon supporters flooded Trump rallies and all got on TV and stuff like this, they said, “Well, maybe let's keep these people out of the cameras. Let's say they have to turn their shirts inside out. Let's not scare the normal people.”

But that then progresses to the point where you have to basically Republican leaders, as we've seen with other things, they've been afraid to confront in the party, they say, “Oh geez, these people seem to be really motivated voters. Let's avoid offending them.”

Kevin McCarthy for example, in the book I talk about how before Marjorie Taylor Greene, who's obviously a hardcore QAnon believer, before she won a primary, he said, “Oh, this QAnon stuff is garbage. This isn't for us.”

Then once she does win a primary and then becomes a member of his caucus, he says, “Oh, I don't even know what QAnon is. Why are we even talking about that stuff?” So, he's making room for it in the party.

Ken Harbaugh:

So, I got to just imagine that that political cover, it's not just providing a permission structure for folks who are already so inclined to believe this stuff and express it. Is it also, growing the movement? Because that's my big fear.

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, I think when you see Republicans refusing to confront it or sort of playing this wink and nod game, for example not just Marjorie Taylor Green. In 2022, we had several QAnon believers who were on the ballot. Ian for the house, some of whom were embraced by the House Republicans just because they wanted to win those seats.

Or we had a secretary of state candidates in battleground states who were part of an explicit QAnon coalition to control elections and the Republican Party got behind them.

And so, I mean, the more and more sort of social value that the Republican party and its leaders give to QAnon, the more it spreads.

Ken Harbaugh:

How does religion factor in? Because there is this weird spiritual element to the movement. This idea of reaching some apocalyptic crescendo and the end of disease and all kinds of things that you see in the book of Revelation and the end times. How are the adherence motivated by religious belief?

Will Sommer:

Yeah. I mean, there's a huge overlap and there's a strong tie here between Evangelical Christianity and QAnon, going both ways. I mean, I think a lot of people who get into QAnon do it because they see it's sort of an extension of their religious beliefs as this idea that I think about, like the Left Behind series and as you said, this idea that we're in the end times.

And Satan is a real guy that we're battling with and he's constantly trying to undermine America and people are working for him and all this kind of stuff. I mean, that is right there in the QAnon ideology.

So, in particular with like charismatic churches and Pentecostal churches, there's a huge overlap. When I go to these QAnon conventions, they'll take breaks to do prayers and to do alter calls and all these things.

At the same time, there's also, people who I think are brought to Christianity by QAnon. People will say, “I was kind of this personal drift in my life, and I didn't know what the purpose of life is. And then I discovered QAnon, and I got so into the clues and the how evil the Democrats are. And then from there I get into churches, into Christianity.”

And this is causing issues within churches because I've talked to pastors who say people will come into church and they'll say, “This is a great sermon, but why aren't you talking about the pedophiles? Why aren't you talking about Hillary Clinton? Well, that's crazy.”

And then suddenly this creates an issue in the church because someone will say, “The pastor's soft on the pedophiles, he's in league with the cabal.”

Ken Harbaugh:

You grew up in a pretty conservative family, in a pretty conservative area. How has that informed your work on this or helped you gain access or understanding of what you're reporting on?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, I grew up consuming a ton of conservative media, and so, I think number one, it's given me a high tolerance for it. People say, “Oh, how do you stand listening to Fox News all day?” And stuff even crazier, much crazier than that. And honestly, I like it. For whatever reason, I find it's my entertainment. It's what I do for fun. So, if I wasn't getting paid for it, I'd be doing it anyway.

But I think on a more serious note, it gives me like I said, a lot of sympathy and understanding, I think how people can fall for this stuff and how someone can be a normal person in many other aspects and a well-meaning person while also, unfortunately having these really abhorrent beliefs.

It's sort of a gut check. I think of the people I knew growing up and some of whom were sort of low-level Republican politicians and activists and it sort of gives me a sense of what would lead someone to believe in this stuff.

When it comes to QAnon in particular, all of the talk about children being abused and we've got to save the children, I think appeals to a very primal, and I think at its heart what's meant to be a positive instinct for people, this idea.

Often people are very well-meaning, and they think, “Oh no, the children are being abused. We've got to save them.” And unfortunately, QAnon and its promoters twist that impulse into some very ugly ways.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, let's get specific, because I want you to put a human face on some of the victims of this conspiracy theory. And I mean, the adherence, first of all, not those who have been targeted and you're in that category. But who are some of the more sympathetic characters you've encountered who have been sucked into this whirlpool?

Will Sommer:

Sure. I mean, I talk in my book about this … is there anyone you have in mind from the book as I sort of try to think of somebody?

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I'm thinking of like the parents who've lost their kids.

Will Sommer:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. So, I've talked to a lot of people who've lost family members to QAnon. As I mentioned, I talked to a father, a guy who was sort of a blue collar guy in Illinois who was so offended by Trump that he had sort of been driven to the left and watched MSNBC. Kind of a classic character who was so offended by Trump.

And he never thought of QAnon as something that could happen to his family. And then one day, his son comes in and says, “Well, dad, I just want you to know some celebrities are going to start getting arrested pretty soon. Tom Hanks, he's going to Guantanamo Bay.” And he thought, “What the heck is my son talking? This must be some weird joke from the internet.”

And obviously, it wasn't. And he starts seeing his son just argue with him all the time and sort of grow divorce from reality, not go outside, not have a job, because he was convinced nothing matters in comparison to this idea that The Storm is upon us and the world is going to be remade and the world as we know it is a lie. And so, I followed that family through that.

I talked to a woman in the UK who, when the pandemic started, she gets essentially tricked into believing in QAnon, and in a very similar way, becomes a shut in. She's terrified to go outside. And I think she had very good impulses at her heart, which is, she said, “This is the worst thing I could imagine. I'm so upset by this.”

And so, she became really isolated and spent all her time looking into QAnon. And fortunately, because she was so upset that it was real, she was obsessed with finding debunkings of QAnon. And finally, she found one that she believed and came out of it.

Ken Harbaugh:

And then there's the mom who literally lost her children. They were adopted into foster system, and QAnon drove her to arm up and to try to rescue them. That is an especially frightening story because it's where QAnon crosses over, spills over into violence.

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, as I mentioned, QAnon often preys on vulnerable people, people who are really in these crisis moments of their life. I mean, this woman you're mentioning, Cindy Abcug was a woman who was clearly dealing with some mental health issues already. She was under investigation for Munchausen's by proxy syndrome.

So, this idea that she was poisoning her toddler to get attention. She'd been investigated for having her baby somehow consume marijuana. There was a lot going on there that obviously, required some social services.

And so, at one point in Colorado, the child welfare took her child away. And rather than getting mental help or at least getting a lawyer, she's picked up by these QAnon believers and they say, “Oh, don't worry.”

And this is a case I saw happen over and over is saying to a mother, “You didn't lose your children because of some deficiency of your own, but because there's this cabal that steals children and your son is going to go be eaten by George Soros perhaps.”

And so, these very mercenary QAnon promoters see her as sort of a cause celeb, and they start raising money. And ultimately, according to the court case and the police, these QAnon believers travel to Colorado and they figure out the foster home where her son is staying, and they plan an armed attack on the home to quote unquote rescue him.

And fortunately, her teenage daughter tells the police. The QAnon believers and her flee the state and sort of began this months long odyssey across America running from the FBI, staying with QAnon believers in just sort of exploring this really bizarre underground of conspiracy theorists.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the most innovative features of this conspiracy theory is its ability to pull in elements of every other conspiracy that has gained a following and essentially provide a buffet menu of options that can satisfy anybody's paranoia.

Is there one of those theories in particular that just stands out at you as the craziest. Like the one that jumped out at me was the earthquake. So, the idea that when it rains, it's the government, the military flooding the tunnels. Is there one that you like more than the others?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, let's talk about that one. I think that's a great one. So, the QAnon believers are always looking for proof that the plan as they see it, that Donald Trump is executing the pedophiles, that there's this kind of secret war that we can't see that this is really happening.

And so, on January 6th, I talked to a woman before the riot happened, this QAnon believer with a big Q on a pole, and she had traveled from Ohio because she thought that day would be The Storm.

And what her real passion was this idea of these children that QAnon believers think thousands of children have been kidnapped and are being abused and having their blood drained from them to be drank by all these evil celebrities in underground tunnels.

They think there are thousands of miles of underground tunnels underneath the United States in military bases, all these kind of things. And so, they think that Trump is cleaning out the tunnels and rescuing what they call the mold children.

And so, every time there's an earthquake, they say, “Oh, that's probably because the military is bombing the tunnels.” Or when it rains, there's a guy who literally walks around DC and whenever there's some flooding, he says, “Oh look, this is because Donald Trump controls the weather and he's flooding out the tunnels.”

And as ridiculous as this sounds, these people have — this guy in particular, he walks around and he has thousands of fans who send him money to keep up with the clues as they come out.

Ken Harbaugh:

Does QAnon depend on Trump? I mean, he is at the center of so many of these conspiracy theories, but as adaptable as this theory is, does it have the ability to survive, even thrive beyond this one figure head?

Will Sommer:

It's a great question. I think QAnon has definitely moved beyond having the figure of Q behind it. I think that as it became clearer that Q was effectively a guy in his mom's basement sort of that classic trope, as that became more likely, QAnon believers said, “Well, maybe Q isn't really Michael Flynn, for example, but what he taught us is real.”

And so, they've moved on from Q. But I think, I mean, Donald Trump really is at the center of it. When Joe Biden was inaugurated, that was a huge kind of crisis moment for QAnon believers as though, like it was proof that QAnon isn't real, although they've sort of have gotten together back from that and returned to their beliefs.

But ultimately, I think these conspiratorial beliefs, this idea of a cabal that drinks children's blood, that everything is connected and that there are all these sinister forces at play in the world, I think that can move beyond Donald Trump, even if it's not called QAnon anymore.

I mean, I think this idea we think of the big conspiracy theories right now, and how widespread they are. The idea that the election in 2020 and perhaps in 2022 all these elections were stolen. I mean, that really has become an article of faith in the Republican party.

So, even if it's not called QAnon anymore, I think this mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that QAnon has created, I think will be with us for a long time.

Ken Harbaugh:

I got to press you on a journalistic inconsistency, and this is very tongue in cheek, is adrenochrome — do you drink it, do you eat it, or you inject it? Because in your shows, I've heard you refer to all three. Please explain adrenochrome.

Will Sommer:

Sure. So, adrenochrome, it's a real thing, but it's sort of different from what it is in the QAnon mythology and what it is in the real world. So, in the real world, it's a byproduct of adrenaline. If you expose adrenaline to oxygen, it creates adrenochrome.

Ken Harbaugh:

And it sounds awesome.

Will Sommer:

Yeah. Well, right. So, I mean, in the real world, it has essentially very few medical uses and it's very easy to make.

But in the world of QAnon, they think adrenochrome is like the fountain of youth, and it's this substance that you can only get from terrorizing or sexually abusing a child during a satanic ritual. Like essentially, you have to be murdering this child, and then you tap it from their adrenal gland.

And that then if you drink this, it'll make you young forever. That this is how all these celebrities, they look so good. I mean, in reality, it's like plastic surgery, is botoxes, things like this. But they think it has to be a adrenochrome.

And so, that is sort of what they think the whole thing is about, that the cabal, why it's doing all these things, why they create these wars, why they try to take Donald Trump out of office. It's all to have this adrenochrome.

And in terms of how you consume it, it's a little unclear. I think it may not surprise you that there are some contradictions in the story. I think it's drinking, it's injecting, it’s all that stuff.

Ken Harbaugh:

When the struggle is framed as a battle to rescue tortured children, I mean, this is where the manipulability of the QAnon adherence, it actually elicits some of my sympathy, because who wouldn't fight for that.

I mean, I imagine that's kind of your vector into finding sympathy for them as well, right? If you hear that and believe it, you're morally obligated to grab a rifle and go storm a pizza parlor.

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, exactly. Like if you take it seriously, that is the next logical step, I think. And that's why you're talking about the case of Pizzagate and the guy who went into Comet Ping Pong and fired off some shots.

When you have people like Alex Jones telling people this, and then they're so shocked that someone would take them seriously. I mean, it is obviously, the logical outgrowth of convincing people that this is real.

And so, as you said, I mean, what QAnon believers are being told is that the most powerful people in the world, what the people in some cases we're supposed to see as kind of the role models in our society are in fact the most evil people in world history, that they eat children, they worship the devil, and that no one cares about it, no one's doing anything about it. Certainly not the police.

And so, then you can see why people, particularly someone who maybe already is mentally ill, or someone who is just especially credulous why they didn't say, “Well, I guess it's up to me to stop this. I mean, this sort of atrocity that's happening against children.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Do we know what happens over time with a conspiracy theory that is this pervasive or do we have any historical antecedents given that social media is a new phenomenon, the interconnectedness of a conspiracy theory like this has never really been put to the test before? Do you have a theory on where this goes?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, really, I don't. I think it's going to be with us for a long time. I mean, as I said, even if they don't call it QAnon anymore, I mean, we've seen this idea morph and change names, for example, Pizzagate is sort of the ancestor to QAnon.

And after this idea Hillary Clinton was eating children in the basement of a Washington pizzeria. But after this guy storms in with a gun and there's some lawsuits are filed, suddenly Pizzagate becomes a little toxic for the people who want to promote it. So, they sort of let it lie.

Then a year later, QAnon emerges essentially as Pizzagate number two, or as another reporter called it Pizzagate on bath salts. It's kind of this amped up Pizzagate.

So, I think it will be with us. I mean, absent some sort of just historic political shift in the United States, I think there's really an appetite unfortunately, for these conspiracy theories that explain why bad things happen to people.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you have any hopeful stories of people either extricating themselves or with the love and care of people around them being pulled back from the brink?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, I think it's very difficult to pull someone out of QAnon. I think when I talk to family members, I mean, all the advice is I think correctly is to not really confronted directly or not say, “Okay, sit down. We're going to have this two-hour debunking session.” Because often that gets people's guard up and makes them see you as an enemy.

But at the same time, it's difficult to maintain that relationship. But in cases when people do leave QAnon, it's often something very personal to them. QAnon believers call what they see as the evidence that QAnon is real as a Q proof.

So, let's say that Donald Trump tweets 17 words, and then Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet. I mean, this stuff does really make a lot of sense to people who are outside of QAnon, but for someone like that, “Oh, that's proof that QAnon is real.”

So, for a lot of them, they'll come out of it because something that was really core to why they believe in QAnon is suddenly debunked.

And so, for example, there was one QAnon believer who Q had predicted that Donald Trump would say at the Easter Egg Roll, “Tippy top.” He would say this phrase. And you hear that and you say, “Well, that's kind of like a very Trumpian kind of fake phrase. He probably says that all the time.”

But nevertheless, he did say it at the Easter Egg Roll. I think Q had predicted it would happen sometime within that couple months. So, it's very general prediction.

But when he did say it, this video then becomes a huge proof for QAnon believers. And they look at this and they say, “Wow, QAnon's real. Trump is signaling to us, his loyal servants.”

But one QAnon guy, he watched a debunking video that just showed that Trump says tippy top all the time. And so, then he goes, “Oh, well, if that's fake, what else is fake about QAnon?” And so, there are these moments, they're kind of small victories, but these moments where someone does come out of it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that is hopeful, but one of the reasons that counter-arguments and interventions are so ineffective is that for conspiracy theorists, this invested any evidence to the contrary of their worldview is evidence of an even deeper conspiracy.

Tell me about the softball coach who committed some horrific crimes, but as the evidence piled up against him, his QAnon supporters just saw that evidence as an indicator of just how deep the deep state was aligned against him.

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, so, this is a guy named Phil Godlewski, and he's such a great example of number one, how many charlatans are behind QAnon, but also, I mean, guys who QAnon is about protecting children. And then sometimes these guys have straight up criminal records involving sex with children.

But because of this idea that is both promoted by QAnon, but also, Donald Trump in general during the Mueller investigations and impeachments, this idea that you just can't trust law enforcement when it comes to investigating Republicans, that it's all trumped up.

And so, in this case, this is a guy who got really rich off of QAnon. He's bought multi-million dollar houses by selling silver and other medals to his fans by kind of suggesting that there's going to be this apocalypse.

But a local paper looked into his background, and this is a guy who a few years ago, was a baseball coach at a high school, and he essentially had a relationship that it certainly appears to have been sexual based on the charges with a teenage girl who was at the high school at a very vulnerable moment. Her boyfriend had died by suicide.

And he, judging from the court papers, seems to have kind of swooped in. He was in his mid-20s and he was charged and ultimately pleaded guilty to corrupting a minor, a lesser charge. And had he not become a QAnon promoter, no one would've known about this or cared several years later.

But after this paper writes about it, he then says, “Wow, this is all fake. I'm going to sue.” And so, all of these messages come out where he's saying to this woman who's now, in her 20s, “Oh yeah, we had all this sex and all this kind of stuff.”

And so, this guy is dead to rights in terms of having this relationship with a woman who was under the age of consent, who if this guy was a Democrat, would've been QAnon enemy number one.

But because he's a QAnon promoter, all his fans look at this article about him and these legal cases and my articles about Phil Godlewski, and they say, “Oh, just Will Sommer and all these other people, they're just agents of the cabal. They're going after Phil because he is telling the truth.”

They have a phrase they say, “When you're taking flack, that means you're over the target.” And so, whenever a QAnon guy gets in trouble, they say, “Well, this is just proof that what he's telling us is true.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I love the military pilot reference. That's not exactly how it works. But I am struck by your … and maybe you've coined this, I haven't seen many other people refer to offline communities as like the counter to these online QAnon communities.

What bothers me so much about that framing is we used to just call offline communities neighbors or communities. And now, like the online version is actually where people get their sense of community. It is more powerful than the real world.

And I don't know that there's an answer to that. I don't know that there's a question here, but your framing of offline communities is just so dystopian to me.

Will Sommer:

Yeah. I mean, the answer to often to helping people get off of QAnon is getting them offline, trying to connect them with something that they enjoy outside of the internet. But look, that's really hard, particularly when we all carry the internet around in a phone in our pockets.

And so, I think QAnon is among other things sort of a symptom of a shredded social fabric in our country, where you don't have so many institutions and so many things that make up what we used to think of as our communities. Whether it's local media academia, politicians, even just community groups now. They're targets for QAnon and this stuff has all kind of fallen away even before QAnon got on the scene.

I mean, I'm thinking of this incident in California where a local school was going to hold a fundraiser in just sort of the most classic kind of like American sense of a community event. And then QAnon, James Comey totally unconnected, tweeted, he played some hashtag game about old jobs he'd had.

Suddenly, these QAnon believers, they're like, “There's got to be clues in here, he's got to be signaling that there's going to be a mass shooting.” And they become convinced that this is going to happen at this event that weekend.

And so, then they start saying, “Hey, school, there's going to be a mass shooting.” And this school understandably freaks out and cancels their event. And so, it's just this way of the internet just reaching out and just grabbing totally innocent people and terrorizing them.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, it's hard to believe, but the ‘24 presidential election campaign is already in full swing. Do you have a sense of whether regular voters, if there is such a thing anymore, care about this stuff? Are they aware enough to perceive the danger?

Does this register or can you still vote for someone like Donald Trump or Marjorie Taylor Greene who gives the wink and the nod to QAnon and consider yourself a mainstream Republican?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, you know what's interesting? I think it is a difficult thing because especially now, that Donald Trump really is signaling heavily to QAnon believers and his sites of Truth Social has explicitly been positioned to be a home for QAnon in a way that other sites are not anymore.

I think Donald Trump is really tying himself. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a hugely prominent and heavy fundraiser for Republicans. So, this is not some random small town Republican mayor as QAnon initially made its inroads into the party. I mean, these are sort of the heavyweights of the party who are embracing it.

And in terms of whether … I realize, and it probably shouldn't be the biggest issue for voters, but I do think the weirdness of the Republican party and the kind of the craziest, the January 6th of it all, I think that is already registering at the ballot box.

I mean, we saw in 2022 when what you would expect to be a big year for Republicans. I mean, obviously there were other things at play, Roe v. Wade being overturned, being one of them. But I think we're seeing the kind of average voter, the suburban voter really turned off. And I think the GOP's inability to control QAnon is a part of that.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you're in these crowds, and when you're talking to these QAnon followers, I know you have received quite a bit of harassment, but they also, want you to tell their story. How do you walk that line? I mean, it sounds like you have friends in the movement, confidants. How do you employ both sides?

Will Sommer:

Yeah, I mean, it's very interesting. They are people who often are very nice in a way. I mean, I think that would change if they decided that some of them certainly think I'm this kind of agent of the cabal.

But some of them can be very nice. It's just that they're convinced that Democrats drink blood and many of them sort of want this essentially fascist vision of America to take place. And so, they in many cases want to get their message out there.

For me, I certainly have to balance the risks of publicizing this issue and the idea that it'll recruit more people. Although to be frank, the people who are getting into QAnon are not reading The Daily Beast, or reading my book, or watching MSNBC.

I mean, they're taking their news from Fox News and stuff far, far to the fringe of that. But it is interesting. I mean certainly, I want to get the story out there. I have to keep my own safety in mind. I mean, I've been ejected from some of these events and fortunately, it hasn't gotten worse than that.

I mean, I went to this one in Dallas and suddenly they realized I was there, and I had hundreds of QAnon people yelling at me and chasing me out of the event. But yeah, I mean, it is definitely a fine line to walk there.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Will, it's been great having you on. Stay safe, keep it up, and we'd love to have you back.

Will Sommer:

Thanks so much for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

You bet.

That was Will Sommer. Make sure to check out his book, Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show. For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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