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A new book explains how QAnon took hold of the GOP — and why it's not going away

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A substance with special, energizing qualities that can only be found in the brains of children who have been sexually tortured in satanic rituals is harvested from children and distributed to top Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and bankers in the cabal. This substance called adrenochrome is a liquid fountain of youth that will help keep the users alive. How did that become a foundational belief of QAnon? How did it reflect and add to the antisemitic beliefs of this conspiratorial group? How did QAnon enter mainstream politics?

These are among the questions journalist Will Sommer deals with in his new book, "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." He warns that QAnon isn't a one-time phenomenon. It's just the start of the all-consuming conspiracy theory movements to come. He's been following QAnon from its very beginning and was writing about the far right even before that. His reporting has made him a target of QAnon, making it essential for him to wear disguises when he shows up at their rallies. Sommer says he has an unusual passion for consuming huge amounts of right-wing media after having been raised in a conservative Texas family where road trips meant listening to Rush Limbaugh's talk radio show. Sommer is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and co-host of the podcast "Fever Dreams."

Will Sommer, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with January 6. You were outside the Capitol speaking to QAnon followers. You quote what one of them told you, which pretty well sums up a lot of the craziest of the QAnon beliefs. So just go through what this one person told you about why they were there to give back the presidency to Trump.

WILL SOMMER: Sure. So I spoke with a woman - and this is before the riot happened. I spoke with a woman named Teresa (ph) who had come from the Midwest to come out to D.C. But because she was a QAnon believer - and she was holding a giant Q on a staff maybe twice her height - she said she wasn't just there to, you know, see Trump reinstated or see him get another four years or disrupt the vote count. She said that she was there because she believed that world elites keep children in tunnels where they drain them of their blood - they call them mole children - and that she believed that, you know, the sort of the greatest forces in the world were committing horrible crimes against children and that there had to be this kind of climactic moment that she believed would be that day.

GROSS: And so this wasn't just about who would be president. As you say, it was a physical struggle with Satan and a fight for the soul of the world.

SOMMER: Exactly. So as a QAnon believer, Teresa didn't just think that, you know, electing a Republican president means she'll have Supreme Court justices she likes or lower tax rates. I mean, she saw this really as a struggle between good and evil and that she was a soldier on its front lines. And ultimately, she would face charges for her role in the riot. For QAnon believers like her, it's metaphysical. It's not just politics. It's about heaven and hell. And when I was there before the riot happened, I realized how many QAnon believers were there, and they were chanting QAnon slogans. And when someone they thought was Mike Pence pulled up, they freaked out and started really yelling about QAnon. So I had that sense of this really unsettled anger that QAnon had caused that ultimately did help end up driving the riot.

GROSS: Trump to QAnon believers - at least when he was president - was a savior. He was somebody who was going to right all the wrongs in the world and turn the world into a more utopian place. It was kind of like the second coming or something, and I just can't understand why, of all people, Trump became this messianic figure.

SOMMER: You know, it's fascinating. Some of them call him the God emperor of the United States. So rather than POTUS, they say GEOTUS. So, I mean, that is how deep their admiration and adulation for him runs. I think in terms of why QAnon believers see Donald Trump as, as you say, a messianic figure - it is baffling. It is a guy who in some ways seems so venal and is such a slave to sort of his basest instincts, you know, whether it's his ego or sexual gratification or greed. And yet they see him as a guy who will not just, you know, set America right or restore American values or what have you, whatever they might believe that to be. But they see him as a guy who, you know, will almost bring in a utopian world where diseases are cured and there's no war and we all live in peace.

GROSS: Do they still have that kind of faith in Trump 'cause after all, he was president for four years? We don't all live in peace. We don't live in utopia. Diseases haven't been cured. And Trump plans on running again. So what are the QAnon followers' thoughts about Trump now?

SOMMER: Yeah, so certainly I think people cycle in and out of QAnon. You know, I think January 6, they thought, was going to be the moment they call the storm. They thought that would be when Trump would execute his enemies, send everyone, like, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Tom Hanks to Guantanamo Bay. And when that didn't happen, they were shocked. And then they were really shocked when Joe Biden was inaugurated because they felt, well, you know, maybe this is all part of the elaborate plan.

But when that happened, they got really concerned. I talked to one QAnon believer who said she threw up because she was so upset. And yet the incredible thing about QAnon and what I explore in the book with conspiracy theories more broadly is how people deal with the cognitive dissonance of a prediction that you've really staked your life on failing to come true. And often people - they come up with a - they rationalize it, and they say, well, you know, maybe the deep state was tougher than we realized. That's why, you know, Trump couldn't take them down this time. And that's why in 2024, we'll just have to work extra hard to elect him.

GROSS: Ginni Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife, texted Mark Meadows, Trump's final chief of staff, that it looked like Trump had lost, but the election could have been a ruse to arrest top Democrats. And then she quoted from a QAnon website that Biden and his co-conspirators would be headed for Guantanamo Bay to face military tribunals. You just mentioned Guantanamo Bay. I mean, so two things here - one is a Supreme Court justice's wife is basically quoting QAnon beliefs. And the second thing is why Guantanamo Bay? Why does that - and military tribunals - why does that figure so much into QAnon? If you can - that's a lot to ask you in one answer. Yeah.

SOMMER: Sure. So first of all, yeah, let's take Ginni Thomas. So her text messages came out because the January 6 committee got them through Mark Meadows. And when I was reading them, I was so struck by how QAnon had really reached the top ranks of the government. It's - the QAnon person she was quoting from wasn't even a mainline QAnon person. It was sort of a fringe person who other QAnon believers think is a kook. And so that was striking to me as how - and I see this over and over - is how this thing that I think the average person dismisses as just internet weirdness and a bunch of - maybe not that many sort of unhinged people really has managed to amass so much influence in American politics that it - that someone - you know, Supreme Court justice's wife is advising the president's chief of staff about it. As far as Guantanamo Bay goes, I think a psychologist might be able to say what about the American psyche it is that - and how the war on terror has affected us that Guantanamo Bay looms so largely that people say, well, you know, we just got to - we got to cut through this mess of politics and gridlock. We just got to send these folks to Guantanamo Bay. But it really is a huge thing there. I think it is this appeal of frustration with American politics that people just - you know, essentially they want a military coup. And they want - they're obsessed with military tribunals as though, you know, everything else has been infected with liberalism or this nefarious cabal that QAnon is fighting against, that we can only trust the military.

GROSS: So getting back to Trump, Trump's Doral resort in Miami is going to host a pro-QAnon speaking tour. The tour is called ReAwaken America. It's hosted by Michael Flynn, General Michael Flynn, who was the first national security adviser to Trump. He didn't last long. And it's also hosted by Clay Clark. I don't really know who Clay Clark is, but what is this ReAwaken America QAnon tour and why is Trump hosting it at his own resort?

SOMMER: Sure. So ReAwaken America is sort of - it's a very popular pro-Trump road show, essentially, that travels the country. And it's all of these conspiracy theorists under the banner, as you said, of Michael Flynn and a guy named Clay Clark, who's a Tulsa radio host, who's sort of a - slash sort of entrepreneurship guru. And so it's stocked with a lot of - it's a lot of kind of COVID quacks, a lot of people, you know, pushing ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and a lot of leading QAnon figures. I went to its first event for the book in Tulsa in 2021. And I, you know, I kind of slipped past security. They said they were going to have a lot of security to keep out media and antifa because they were convinced that, you know, antifa would travel to suburban Tulsa to wreak havoc.

And I got in there. And it was fascinating. I mean, these were - Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in "Passion Of The Christ," spoke about his belief in adrenochrome, this idea that, you know, world elites are terrorizing children and drinking their blood. Lin Wood, who was - briefly worked for the Trump campaign got up there, this lawyer, and he gave a speech that was this - this is in front of thousands of people. And he's saying, you know, they're - the world elites are killing children, and we're going to get them. We're going to get the queen of England. We're going to get John Roberts. And these thousands of people were on their feet crying for blood. And so that's a taste of what a ReAwaken America tour is like. And now it will be officially hosted at a Trump property.

GROSS: And, of course, there's money involved. You mentioned that Michael Flynn was auctioning off a lot of items, including an autographed baseball bat, a bat autographed by Flynn himself that he sold for $7,000.

SOMMER: The amount of money involved in these events, I think people often really don't realize the - as you said, I went to an auction of QAnon paraphernalia. And they would have kind of a shoddily Photoshopped picture of Michael Flynn as a Revolutionary War hero, perhaps with a Q or a 17, which is a prominent Q symbol. And this would go for $5,000, $10,000. He sold a QAnon quilt for thousands of dollars. And an interesting thing about Michael Flynn is that we know privately that he feels that QAnon is fake and that it is a ruse because Lin Wood, one of his rivals, secretly recorded him saying as much. But he still appears at all of these events. I guess he has bills to pay. You know, I mean, his motivation here is a little unclear. But I think that really gives you a glimpse inside the leadership of this movement and that there's a financial incentive to recruit more people into it.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." He's been reporting on QAnon since it began. He's a politics reporter for The Daily Beast.

What is the state of QAnon now?

SOMMER: Sure. So after Biden's inauguration, I think QAnon believers were really shocked. And they sort of had to collect themselves. The anonymous figure Q had gone silent shortly before that and said, hey, everyone, stop identifying as QAnon believers. Still believe what you do and spread the word, but if you say QAnon, we're getting banned from social media, so don't be so visible. So QAnon went underground for a little while. But as Donald Trump returned to the public stage, we're starting to see QAnon rev up again. Trump is posting about QAnon on Truth Social, his platform. There was one analysis that said a third of all of his posts have been promoting QAnon. He's posting pictures of himself wearing Qs, stuff like this.

And we're also seeing the - I think the idea that we - that Republicans got from QAnon, that you could sort of just casually call your political opponents pedophiles or accuse them of being involved in conspiracies to corrupt children, that this is - has become mainstream in the Republican Party. I mean, we think about Ron DeSantis pushing this idea that every gay teacher is a groomer or that - or now we see Donald Trump revving up and sort of implying that DeSantis is a pedophile. So I think this conspiratorial nature of QAnon has really gone mainstream in the GOP.

GROSS: When was the last time Q sent a message? And what was that message?

SOMMER: Yes. So it was actually a few months ago. Q was offline for about a year. And there was briefly a Q impersonator in 2021. I was at a QAnon conference when it happened, and everyone was saying, oh, Q's back, Q's back. But that did not turn out to be the case. And then Q has revved up as of the fall and, you know, same kind of cryptic messages - stay the course, patriots, these kind of things. But in a way, QAnon no longer needs Q. I think as people started to suspect that - QAnon believers initially believed it was someone close to Trump, like Michael Flynn, for example, or maybe Don Jr. But increasingly, as they started to suspect that it was not really a high-ranking intelligence official, they started to distance themselves from Q. And they started to say, well, maybe Q was just a guy in his mom's basement, but what he taught us was real. The stuff about adrenochrome and the dungeons and all this stuff, that is true. So QAnon can continue even if its leader is exposed as a fraud.

GROSS: And in the U.S., there are factions and there are splits within QAnon. Can you tell us about some of those splits?

SOMMER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is one of the most fascinating things to cover about QAnon, is how QAnon more broadly, for someone outside of it, looks so ridiculous. But even within the movement, you have people who say, well, that group's looking - making us look silly; we're a serious operation here. So one of the major ones is a question of whether JFK Jr. faked his death in the '90s from a plane crash and is, in fact, still alive. And so this is a group - I would say it's - maybe 30% of QAnon believers believe that he is still alive.

And so you have guys who are - they exist in the real world, but people believe that they are JFK Jr. And so they'll show up at these rallies, and everyone says, wow, it's JFK Jr. I talked to - I was shadowing one of them, and these women were so excited to see him as though they had seen, you know, a real celebrity. And I said, you know, that guy looks nothing like JFK Jr. And she said, you know, haven't you ever heard of special effects? Haven't you ever heard of Tyler Perry and Madea?

GROSS: Well, you know, you say this whole JFK Jr. story is one of the stories that drives you crazy. You know, JFK Jr. died in 1999 in a plane crash. And one of the people who impersonates him, Vincent Fusca, developed his own following. People dressed like him on Halloween. There are numerological calculations based on his license plate with secret meanings. You actually talked to him. What impression did you take away from this guy?

SOMMER: Yeah, I've actually - I've talked to him many times, and he loves texting me to this day. So this is a guy who looks like, you know - and I don't think he would dispute this. He looks a little shabby. He's got a kind of a permanent 5 o'clock shadow. He wears a fedora. And so he's a guy who was a Trump superfan. He had a van covered in Trump pictures. And so it appears as though the Trump campaign started giving him a lot of VIP passes to events. And so he was always appearing behind Trump at rallies.

So then, one day, some QAnon believers said, hey, do you think that guy looks like JFK Jr.? And do you think that blonde woman near him looks like JFK Jr.'s wife? And so these people became convinced that he was JFK Jr. And what is maddening to me is that this is a guy who he knows he's not JFK Jr. He's the one guy who knows that more than anyone. But he still shows up at these events, and sometimes he'll wear a JFK Jr. shirt. And people say, wow, it's JFK Jr. And he says, well, maybe, maybe. And so I've run into him repeatedly, and he'll say, well, you know, I'd actually love to talk with you about that; can we meet up in an hour? And so I'll say, OK, sure. And then, of course, he never responds.

But sometimes when there's a rival JFK Jr. on the scene, he'll text me and say, oh, look - you know, look at this. Look at this guy. What's he up to? But I mean, he seems to be having the time of his life. He'll do karaoke at events, and everyone thrills to it as though they're seeing JFK Jr. perform karaoke.

GROSS: So is the whole bit here that JFK Jr. staged his own fake death so he could return as Q?

SOMMER: It's very complex. And I think you're making the mistake of (laughter) trying to make sense of it. But basically...

GROSS: I'm sorry.

SOMMER: Oh, no, no, no.

GROSS: No, I'm kidding (laughter).

SOMMER: There is an internal logic to it because the idea is that the deep state, the people who are out to get Donald Trump, the cabal, assassinated John F. Kennedy, the president. And so JFK Jr. saw this and said, you know, I know how sick these people are. I'm going to go undercover. And so he fakes his death in the '90s in this plane crash and then either becomes Q - some people believe that - or just works with his buddy Donald Trump to take down the cabal. And this idea of this kind of this hidden figure who's going to come back to life - I mean, there really are some messianic religious aspects to it. But people really buy into this.

I went to - in 2019, Trump had a very sort of Trump-ified July Fourth celebration in D.C. And all of these QAnon believers, among other people, came to D.C. for it. I was hanging out at the Trump Hotel, and I saw this woman wearing a JFK Jr. shirt, who was convinced that he was coming back That day. I saw a woman wearing a JFK Jr. mask, and I said, you know, excuse me, what's the significance of this mask? And she just said, he's alive, and sort of flitted away into the crowd.

So, I mean, this is a truly bizarre movement. And it is one that is sort of controversial even within QAnon. But people buy into it to the extent that dozens of people flocked to Dallas last year. They were convinced that JFK Jr. and all these other celebrities would come back to life. I talked to people who had lost family members to this group. I mean, it really is - as ridiculous as it seems, it is a viable movement for many.

GROSS: That's the thing. I've noticed I've laughed several times while we've been talking 'cause the conspiracy theories are really so ludicrous. At the same time, this is a really dangerous group. There have been murders attached to the group. The conspiracy theories are poisoning American politics and dividing the American people. So I want to excuse myself for laughing. It's just - I can't help but laugh at some of these beliefs. But it's dangerous.

SOMMER: That really is the sort of the thing you have to balance in your mind, is that it is so ridiculous, and there are a lot of moments of humor to it. I mean, just Vincent Fusca alone, this guy who, you know, he knows is sort of impersonating JFK Jr. - there is comedy there. But as you say, I mean, this is also a group that was heavily involved in January 6, several murders. Since I wrote the book, two different QAnon believers have been accused of murdering members of their family because of their beliefs. There is sort of this QAnon criminal underground. And then, in a sort of more mundane but similarly tragic way, there are also just all of these families that have been destroyed by QAnon, where suddenly someone in the family starts saying, well, you know, I got this crazy story about Hillary Clinton to tell you. And everyone thinks they're joking right up until they're not.

GROSS: Right. Well, let's take another break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Sommer. He's the author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." We'll be back after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF PARKER'S "ISTANBUL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." He's been reporting on QAnon from its start, which has led him to become a target of the group. Sommer is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and co-host of the podcast "Fever Dreams."

So two of the biggest conspiracy theorists in America were also two of the biggest promoters of QAnon and its conspiracy theories. And I'm talking about Alex Jones of Infowars fame and Jerome Corsi, who was one of the fathers of contemporary conspiracy theories. He was behind the Swift Boat campaign that derailed John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign by saying he wasn't really a Vietnam War hero, and he didn't commit the acts of bravery that he was awarded for. Of course, he promoted birtherism, saying that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya and was therefore not qualified to be president. So how did they become proponents of QAnon?

SOMMER: So Alex Jones, as you say, is sort of the the godfather of the current American conspiracy theory movement. It really all centers on him. And Jerome Corsi is a guy who is a sort of trusted adviser of Alex Jones, although they've since had a falling out. So when the Q posts start appearing in October 2017, it doesn't take long for Alex Jones to seemingly see this as an opportunity for content, which he's always on the lookout for. And so in - shortly after the posts start appearing, he has some prominent QAnon promoters, some guys from YouTube essentially who have latched on to QAnon, on his network.

So that is the moment that QAnon really explodes. And it goes from this thing where you really have to be just really devoted to to conspiracy theories to find this stuff online. It's hidden. It's hard to understand. It's difficult to get into. And then suddenly, it's being packaged in this way that almost looks like a news network. So initially, Alex Jones and QAnon are best friends. Jerome Corsi almost embeds with these conspiracy theorists who are decoding the messages. He's hanging out with them in their chatrooms. He's really pushing QAnon. He's, like, Alex Jones' QAnon correspondent.

But then after a few months as QAnon is exploding, everyone is profiting together, the people who win on Infowars are making money, Alex Jones is making money, it sort of seems as though Alex Jones and Q sort of look at each other and they ask, who's in charge here? And suddenly, they turn on each other. And I think there's a sense of who - they realize that QAnon is a valuable thing and it has this base that's growing. But the question is who's going to make money from it? And so Q says in a post, you know, you got to be wary of paytriots. And this is a unique spelling here. It's P-A-Y patriots. So it's like, who's making money? A fake patriot. And that is taken as a criticism of Jerome Corsi and Alex Jones. And suddenly, QAnon splits from Alex Jones, and they become bitter enemies. So for me, this is such an interesting thing to see because it is the internal dynamics of these movements where suddenly Jerome Corsi is cast out of QAnon, and everyone says he's a deep state operative. We can't trust him. We got to stick with the original QAnon guys.

GROSS: And Alex Jones actually sends the message, I'm sick of all these witches and warlocks.

SOMMER: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So now there's a new development. Alex Jones has a conspiracy theory about the conspiracy group QAnon. And his conspiracy theory is that Q was actually created by U.S. intelligence to discredit conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Can you explain what's going on there?

SOMMER: This is a very interesting tactic. He - yes, as you say, he's saying - now that he's been cast out of QAnon, he turns on it, and now he says, well, this thing that makes us all look ridiculous, that inspires all this violence, that is - that has nothing to do with me, even though, No. 1, he was promoting it and, No. 2, it draws on so many of the tropes and the plotlines, if you will, that he's been promoting for decades. He now says, well, that's meant to embarrass me. And that's what they call - and this is something that comes up a lot - a psyop. It's a psychological operation perpetrated by the intelligence agencies to undermine the real truth tellers.

GROSS: Yeah, it's kind of mind-boggling.

SOMMER: (Laughter) Yeah, it's very mind-boggling. I mean, the ways that these messages can shift based on who's telling them and sort of the fight over the QAnon audience is really something to behold.

GROSS: Let's talk about antisemitism and QAnon. Maybe we should start with adrenochrome, which we talked about a little bit, or at least which I mentioned in the introduction to the interview. But go over again the conspiratorial beliefs about this substance known as adrenochrome.

SOMMER: Sure. So adrenochrome is sort of the - is at the heart of QAnon. It's the answer to, why does the cabal do this? Why do they, you know, stage these mass shootings? Why do they do all this bad stuff? Ultimately, it's about adrenochrome. Now, adrenochrome is a real thing. It's a byproduct of adrenaline. And it's incredibly easy to make. You just expose adrenaline to oxygen. But it's a different thing in the QAnon mythos. It's like - it's the fountain of youth, essentially. They believe that adrenochrome is a substance you can only get from a child's pineal gland, and you can't just sort of tap the kid and take it out. You have to terrorize them in a satanic ritual. And it's almost like this fear substance that is produced. Now, once you get this adrenochrome, people drink it, and the world elites drink it. The top bankers, people in Hollywood, the Democratic Party, they drink it, and it gives them eternal life almost. And it makes them seem young and vigorous. And so they believe that sort of the whole - for thousands of years, the world has been controlled by this cabal with one goal, and that is producing adrenochrome.

GROSS: So the adrenochrome thing dates back to this medieval conspiracy theory of the blood libel. So what is the blood libel, and how does it connect to the whole adrenochrome conspiracy?

SOMMER: Sure. So the blood libel is this topic that emerged around the 13th century. So we're in medieval Europe. This child went missing in England, and this rumor began that the local Jewish population had kidnapped him and murdered him in a ritual to get blood to create bread for Passover. And this idea, obviously, as ridiculous as it sounds, it catches on across Europe and inspires these pogroms where Jewish people are murdered in the thousands, at least, to the extent that one of the popes had to come out and say, just, everyone, stop believing in this. But it's an idea that persists into the 20th century and was inspiring violence against Jewish people even after World War II. So this - but at its core, it is this idea of this kind of satanic or this occult ritual involving children's blood. And, of course, now, you can look at that and compare that to what they believe about - what QAnon believers think about adrenochrome. And there are some obvious similarities here. And then, you think about, well, who do these people - who do QAnon believers think runs the cabal? And it's almost all Jewish people. It's prominent bankers. They think George Soros, various Jewish - prominent Jewish people in the Democratic Party. So it really is...

GROSS: Jews in Hollywood?

SOMMER: Jews in Hollywood as well. Thank you. Yes. Yes, prominent Jewish people in Hollywood. So the - they really take it directly from the blood libel to the extent that - I mean, this isn't just a coincidence when QAnon people - 'cause they - QAnon believers want grounding for their beliefs even if it is a very bizarre, fake one. And so they look back to things like the Protocols of the Council of the Elders of Zion. They look back to these fake documents and say, see, this was talking about adrenochrome. This is real.

GROSS: By the way, if drinking adrenochrome from the brains of children who had been sexually abused by Satan is really - if that's a fountain of youth and gives you kind of eternal youth, which is one of the beliefs of QAnon, why have Democrats been accused of being a gerontocracy? I mean, look, Biden does not look young. Nancy Pelosi does not look young. They've both had work done. They still look like older people - Hillary Clinton, same. So, like, it doesn't match the world, the real world.

SOMMER: Yeah. I think often they're mistaking Botox, you know, fillers, etc.

GROSS: (Laughter) For adrenochrome?

SOMMER: For adrenochrome. But, you know, it is funny they - if they believe in adrenochrome, they sort of play it into real world events. So, for example, when the pandemic started and all of these TV shows had to start producing from home and talk show hosts, for example, weren't getting their daily makeup, they would say, wow, you know, this person really looks old. That's because the pandemic has disrupted the adrenochrome supply. I mean, they - the - QAnon's sort of a movement that - they just can't believe in Occam's razor, the most obvious solution. It has to be this the elaborate global adrenochrome supply has been disrupted.

GROSS: So where do you trace this conspiracy theory about having to harvest adrenochrome from children so that the elites can have a fountain of youth? Where does that originate?

SOMMER: Sure. So if you can believe it, it's Hunter S. Thompson and "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas." In his book, the Hunter S. Thompson character receives a drug called adrenochrome from another character, and that guy says, you know, you can only get this from a pedophile. Now, adrenochrome as a concept was kind of knocking around the counterculture. Various writers had used it as sort of a stand-in for a very powerful drug, I think, because it just sounds cool.

And so in that way, both the book and then the movie starring Johnny Depp really popularized this idea of adrenochrome and this link with pedophiles. And so that's really where QAnon people get it. I mean, as simple as that sounds, and as silly, that is where they draw it from. And so when you look at, you know, "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" YouTube clips about adrenochrome, all up and down in the comments, it's QAnon people saying, you know, Q sent me here and things like that.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's take another break here. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Will Sommer. He's the author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy Theory That Unhinged America." He's been reporting on QAnon since it began. He's a politics reporter for The Daily Beast.

So let's talk about attempts to find out who Q is. You've talked to people who've tried to track down Q's identity. You have tried to track down Q's identity. No one has yet succeeded. So this all traces back to the two places that Q has actually left messages, 4chan and then 8chan, which became 8kun. And these are both, like, very far-right, very conspiracy-oriented channels.

So again, in looking at who is Q since the most recent places, I think, still that he or she or they have communicated from is 8kun, people are looking at who runs it and who would know who is Q. Or maybe one of them is Q. So tell us a little bit about 8kun and its predecessor, 8chan, and how they have been linked to either knowing or being Q.

SOMMER: Sure. So 8chan/8kun is an anonymous image board, and so it's essentially this very anarchic message board based on Japanese anime communities. So it is just a deluge of content, a lot of it pornographic. And so this was run by a guy named Jim Watkins, who is an American who had a lot of, I would say, shadowy business interests in the Philippines. And so he was running this website. Q initially emerges on 4chan, which is a much more popular, albeit similar, image board. The 4chan people say - this is a bit weird even by our standards - and they kick it off.

So Q ends up on 8chan, where - there's an interesting moment. And this kind of keys into who the originator of QAnon is. There's a moment when Q is on 8chan where the administrators appear to hijack the account. And whoever originally runs Q says, wait, you know, I'm losing control. And the administrators say, OK, this is the new Q. So that's what leads people to believe - and to my mind, even though he denies this, this is the most compelling explanation of who currently controls Q - is Jim and his son Ron Watkins had seized control of Q to draw more people to their channel.

GROSS: Wait, seize control from who?

SOMMER: Right. So the best guess we have for who originally started it is a South African programmer named Paul Furber, who is sort of a - just a random guy who is interested in conspiracy theories. Paul Furber denies that he's Q. But he positioned himself as sort of a trusted acolyte of Q and someone who is sort of the interpreter for Q, his sort of oracle of Delphi. Now, once they move it over to 8chan, he then - whoever runs Q loses control of it. And Paul Furber suddenly says, this is not the real Q anymore. And he's kind of cast out of the movement. So the idea is that there were kind of two stages of who ran Q and that the Watkins family currently controls it.

GROSS: And what do the Watkins family, what do the father and son have to say about that?

SOMMER: Well, they deny it for the most part. I mean, they are a colorful pair, to say the least. Jim Watkins runs a pig farm in the Philippines. He's a guy who - if you sort of imagine a guy who runs a lot of anonymous websites. I should say, 8chan also became notorious as a place for mass shooters to post their manifestos and to livestream their actions. The New Zealand shooting, among others, was posted there. I interviewed Ron Watkins when he was in D.C. to speak to Congress about these mass shootings. And he's a guy with sort of a thin mustache, a - middle-aged. He was wearing a lot of QAnon paraphernalia.

But when I said to him, you know - are these pizza socks about Pizzagate, you know; are you wearing this QAnon pin because of QAnon? - he would say, well, I don't know what you're talking about, so a very slippery character. But ultimately, in the HBO documentary "Q: Into The Storm," which really investigated this pair, his son, Ron, sort of confessed. He said, well, you know, this is what I've been doing with QAnon to accomplish these missions and to help people support Trump. And then the filmmaker said, well, do you mean you're Q? And he said, well, you know - he sort of equivocated. So that's what leads me to believe that those two are behind it.

GROSS: If those two are behind it, if the people who run 8kun are behind it, does that mean that they're doing it just to get more followers, and therefore to maybe make more money?

SOMMER: Yes. I think initially the idea was that they sort of had a golden goose here in QAnon, in Q posting on their forum. And perhaps they believed, you know, what if we just take control of it and make sure it will stay here on our website forever. But it also seems that these two just love chaos. I think, in their own lives, they embrace chaos and love mischief and getting up to things and tricking people. Jim Watkins is a very right-wing guy himself. And so I think, perhaps, if he came to believe that this was something that was turning America to the right, that he saw it as something that was good.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY SONG, "FREEDOM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." He's been reporting on QAnon since it began. He's a politics reporter for The Daily Beast.

As I said before, you know, I've been laughing at some of the wild QAnon conspiracy theories. But I also have to say, it is not funny because this group has power. It is dangerous. It has committed crimes. Followers have committed murders. And so let's talk a little bit about the dangers. Let's start a little bit with family, because you've written about families where one family member becomes a part of QAnon, tries to convert the rest of the family. The rest of the family is mortified and doesn't know what to do to change the beliefs of the family member who's become part of QAnon, who's believing in these crazy conspiracy theories. So what are some of the patterns that you see in what family members who come to you tell you?

SOMMER: Sure. I mean, this is - it's such a tragic thing. And because there are so few resources for this issue, I often find myself fielding questions from family members who have lost someone to QAnon. So often it is someone who is perhaps into eccentric internet things already, albeit comparatively harmless ones, like Bitcoin or maybe sort of natural wellness, or alternative health things like oils or maybe a multi-level marketing scheme. And then suddenly they sort of happen across something on the internet that tweaks them in a unique way. And they say - you know, maybe it's a story about children being abused, for example. And maybe sometimes - that often is something that resonates with them because of something they've experienced personally. And then suddenly they just fall into QAnon.

And, you know, there's an entire industry built up online focused on sucking people into QAnon. And because the clues are so vague, you know, it just makes it really easy for someone to imprint their own experience on it and really have it resonate with them. And so suddenly, you know, there will be this moment where - you know, I kept in touch with a family who lost their adult son to QAnon over a year. And, you know, the son just came in one day and said, look; Mom and Dad, I want you to know that in the next couple of weeks, some pretty big celebrities are going to be arrested for being pedophiles. And the father said, well, you know, ha, ha. OK, you know, see you later. And then that was really the start of it for him, as his son sort of withdrew from the world and became obsessed with QAnon.

GROSS: This is a problem that has faced a lot of families whose children have joined cult groups. And there were, like, deprogrammers who were, you know, like, their profession was figuring out how to change the minds of people who believed false prophets and who had joined groups that were harmful to their health. Like, look at Jim Jones. He had all of his followers drink poisoned Flavor Aid, a form of, like, punch, knowing that it would kill them, and it did. Who are people turning to now to help their family members get out of believing these, you know, crazy conspiracy theories?

SOMMER: There really are not a lot of options. Even now, you know, I think there are a few more psychologists who are getting interested in this work. But, you know, in particular, during the Trump administration, when there were very few articles even about QAnon - and that's how so many people came to me - there was - it's just incredibly difficult. In the case of the family I mentioned, they took their son to a psychologist, and they said, you know, he's really into QAnon. He's talking about tunnels and cabals and mole children. And the psychologist said, all right, well, you know, first thing's first. I'm going to have to Google this QAnon thing.

And so they said, well, jeez, you know, if this guy doesn't know what he's doing, what chance do we have? So the advice is often to, you know, maintain the relationship, which can be very difficult, and sort of just hope that the QAnon believer will snap out of it themselves. But, you know, it's very difficult. It sort of requires the family member who's trying to bring someone out of QAnon to, you know, have this incredible patience. And, you know, you have to know about politics and medicine and all this sort of stuff. And it's just - it's a lot to ask of people.

GROSS: And also, you know, if your beliefs aren't based on logic, logic will have a hard time undoing those beliefs.

SOMMER: Exactly. I mean, so much of QAnon is about saying don't trust independent sources of truth - the media, the government, academia, scientists - because all of those people are lying, and they're conspiring to trick you. And so instead, you should trust random guy with a YouTube channel or random person with a Twitter or Telegram account. And so the appeal of QAnon, I think what people get out of it, the community, the sense of empowerment, sometimes that overpowers living in reality, and they sort of just escape to this fantasy world.

GROSS: You end your book by saying that QAnon isn't a one-time phenomenon. It's just the start of the all-consuming conspiracy theory movements to come. Why do you - what makes you say that?

SOMMER: Sure. Well, I look at the state of the right right now and the way that QAnon really thrived and the way that no one who could have stopped QAnon's growth bothered to do it. I mean, I think about someone like Donald Trump or perhaps Kevin McCarthy or Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, all of these people either chose to, you know, engage with QAnon in a positive way, like Donald Trump trying to whip up their numbers or posting pictures of himself memes - QAnon memes of himself, or to look the other way, someone like Kevin McCarthy who said, well, I don't know what that is and just sort of letting it fester. And I just don't see anyone who has the authority on the right to quash these conspiratorial beliefs. And, of course, I mean, most obviously here, January 6 and this belief that the election in 2020 was stolen is so prevalent on the right that I think even if it doesn't - isn't known as QAnon anymore, in the same way that Pizzagate went away and sort of reemerged as QAnon, I think this conspiratorial sense on the right and this restless and sometimes violent energy is going to remain with us.

GROSS: Well, Will Sommer, thank you so much for your reporting. And thank you for being with us.

SOMMER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Will Sommer is the author of the new book "Trust The Plan: The Rise Of QAnon And The Conspiracy That Unhinged America." He's a politics reporter for The Daily Beast. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actor Ke Huy Quan, who's nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," or actor Cate Blanchett and writer-director Todd Field, who were each nominated for Oscars for their work in "Tar," or Jeanna Smialek, author of a new book about the power of the Federal Reserve, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews. And don't forget our weekly newsletter about what happens behind the scenes on our show with links and stories from our producers. You can subscribe for free on our website, freshair.npr.org.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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