Q: Into the Storm. HBO. Sunday, March 21, 9 p.m.
"I think QAnon is something that could only happen in our current day," says an enthusiast of the conspiracy crypto-cult interviewed in HBO's new documentary Q: Into the Storm.
I suppose the truth of that claim depends a bit on how you define "current day." But the certainty that international Jewry was plotting to enslave the world and had even boldly transcribed its plan in a book called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion swept the globe 120 years ago and is, even now, popular in Japan and the Middle East. The manic belief that the murder of John F. Kennedy more than half a century back was the sinister centerpiece of a coup by (take your pick) the CIA, the Mafia, Big Oil, or World Communism is still a planetary obsession. Then there are the 9/11 Truthers, the faked moon landing crowd, and of course the cabal of Freemasons who sank the Titanic. And don't get me started on the cover-up of Paul McCartney's death.
So filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who's been chasing QAnon around for several years now, may feel a bit self-important about the subject of his work. But that's my only real criticism of his six-hour series. QAnon itself may be simply one more iteration of the populist fever dreams that have set the far reaches of American politics ablaze from time to time and then quietly burn out. But the digital netherworld from which it sprang is fascinating, and Q: Into the Storm is a lively travelogue of that terrain.
QAnon sprang to life in October 2017, when someone calling himself (herself? themselves?) Q Clearance Patriot began a series of posts on the sketchy 4chan internet message board claiming to be a senior aide to Donald Trump. (The name Q referred to his claim to have a Q-level security clearance, which sounds super-spooky-secret unless you know that nearly 1.5 million people have one.) He asked the board's readers to help Trump combat a forthcoming coup by the so-called Deep State.
That was the start-up of about 5,000 posts—Q himself, using spy jargon, calls them "drops"—running through the 2020 election. They're usually cryptic—entire squadrons of "Q-tubers" produce videos seeking to interpret and explain each new one that appears—and their predictions are often wrong: Hillary Clinton was never arrested, John McCain never resigned from the Senate, and the Trump administration never bombed North Korea.
Yet QAnon, Q's collective followers, remain certain that he's a prophet, their window into the secret world of the Deep State. Hoback's camera moves tranquilly among them as they explain their own theories and trace their connections to other lurid digital dramas, most notably Pizzagate (the belief that a collection of senior Democrats was sodomizing and then cannibalizing children in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant, taken seriously enough by one Pizzagate believer that he shot the place up with a rifle) and Gamergate (a campaign of harassment against female video-game designers suspected of feminist leanings).
Hoback chats with past and present owners of the wild and wooly message boards—they feature everything from diaper porn to white supremacist manifestos—where Q posts appear. One of them insists that he tolerated QAnon only in the interest of free speech. His own politics were quite different: "My one idea was to round up all of the politicians and then machine-gun them. And then the replacements come in and we round them all up and machine gun them….I'd run for president as Machine Gun Jim." Proclaims another: "I don't seek infamy, but I will embrace it."
Hoback spends a lot of time mounting and then knocking down theories about the true identity of Q—everybody from Trump cronies Michael Flynn and Roger Stone to the owners of some of those message boards. It's diverting in an Agatha Christie sort of way, but ultimately beside the point. Whoever Q is, he clearly didn't really have access to secret White House dope. And as the Trump administration fades further into the background, so does the importance of Q's identity. Paranoia may strike deep, but then it moves on.