I’ve spent years studying the dangers of conspiracy theory. It all started when I was contacted by a man named Richard McCaslin, who told me about his raid on a secret society retreat called the Bohemian Grove, dressed as his own superhero persona, the Phantom Patriot. Meeting Richard led me through the strange and often terrible world of Conspiracyland, documented in my book American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness. At this time, conspiracy theorists were often lone wolfs. That’s evolved in recent years into conspiracy cult thinking– what we saw on January 6 at the Capitol, the event I refer to as the “Q d’etat,” was a full on army of conspiracy theorists.
As I was glued to my TV in shock, I thought about Richard, who is no longer with us. If he was, would we have seen him dressed in his Phantom Patriot costume marching through a haze of tear gas in the halls of the Capitol building with the rest of them? Perhaps. Even after years of interviewing him, I found Richard’s thinking unpredictable at times. I think he would have liked the idea of a “patriot revolution” raiding the Capitol, but then again Richard clearly wrote in his last testament that he was no fan of Trump, who he thought was a Reptilian alien, and he viewed QAnon as a government manufactured “psy-op” program. Richard was so deep in the bottomless rabbit hole that the conspiracies had conspiracies.
Despite the ridiculous theories that this violence was caused by hundreds of Antifa disguised in MAGA gear, anyone can see that this was the work of Trump’s cult, QAnon, and his street gangs like the Proud Boys, other Alt-Right, white supremacists, neo-confederates, and militia groups. The first person to breach the Capitol was a guy in a Q t-shirt. The guy we’re all sick of seeing, Jake Angeli, wearing a buffalo horn headdress, no shirt, and star-spangled facepaint, called himself the “QAnon Shaman.”
After the Q army was cleared, authorities found pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, guns, a noose hanging from gallows on the scene. Plans included hanging Mike Pence, assassinating Nancy Pelosi, and kidnapping members of Congress (some even carried flex cuffs to help capture hostages).
5 people died. Ashli Babbitt was an Air Force vet and QAnon believer who had tweeted she was going to be part of “the Storm”– QAnon lingo for a revolution. She said “nothing will stop us,” but was shot as she tried to climb through a doorway in the Capitol. Rosanne Boyland, another QAnon follower, was in the crowd waving the Gadsen “don’t tread on me” flag, but was trampled to death in the crowd. Benjamin Phillips told a reporter that the event “feels like the first day of the rest of our live,” but died of a stroke. And the death of Kevin Greeson was said to have been caused by him falling while trying to steal a painting, his taser landing in his crotch, zapping him until he had a heart attack. The truth of that story is disputed, but it will live on as part of Q d’etat lore.
Lastly, Officer Brian Sicknick died fro his injuries after the crowd beat him with a fire extinguisher. 60 some other officers were injured, proving that this crowd doesn’t care so much about “blue lives” as they do about disparaging black ones.
How did the hell did we get here? I think the first problem to look at is the growing conspiracy violence over the last year. The sad thing about writing this column was that finding ten stories to write about was not difficult at all. Any one of these stories should be frightening and disturbing. But taken together as a whole, it points to conspiracy theory being an out-of-control public health emergency, a problem that has continued to grow and escalated into the Q d’etat and the potential threats we are being warned about that could unfold over the next week. The FBI reports that extremists like the Boogaloo movement are planning violence surrounding Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Here are 10 stories of conspiracy violence that I followed in 2020 that paved the path to the Capitol insurrection.
1.) Trump’s normalization of conspiracy theory: The seeds of the scene we saw at the Capitol January 6 began with Trump making conspiracy part of his everyday language. He popularized phrases ripe with conspiracy like “witch hunt,” “fake news,” “hoax,” “Obamagate,” and “election fraud.” He gave a platform to conspiracy theorists and outlets and promoted conspiracy ideas from the ridiculous, trivial ones that bugged his ego (“energy efficient bulbs make my skin look orange”) to the ones that ended in bloodshed (“mass election fraud stole the election from me.”)
See more: “Firehose of Falsehood: An Autopsy of Trump’s Conspiracy Theory Presidency (and Why It Will Haunt Us Moving Forward“
2.) Crazy Train: Not an April Fool’s– on April 1 a man named Eduardo Moreno, a locomotive engineer, hijacked a train and derailed it in Los Angeles. His plan was to jump the train at the end of the tracks and crash it into the USNS Mercy hospital ship, which had recently arrived to help with overflow COVID patients. Moreno thought the ship was part of a New World Order police state takeover. He told authorities his goal was to “wake people up,” and said “you only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”
See more: “Conspiracy Theory Trainwreck.”
3.) 5G Arsons: Conspiracies about 5G internet range from cancer and other illness from “5G radiation” to it being the cause or exacerbating COVID to government mind control programs. This has led to a string of arsons across Europe, burning down 5G towers (and towers misidentified as 5G ones) and internet service workers being harassed in the streets. Between spring and summer of 2020, there were hundreds of cell tower arsons in the UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Cyprus, Canada, as well as in the U.S., where there was an arson in Oregon and a wave of damaged or disabled towers in Tennessee.
4.) Q Goes to Congress: QAnon has emerged as the biggest conspiracy threat we face, as evidenced by the Q d’etat. Leading up to that have been several stories of QAnon believers kidnapping or running people off the roads because they suspect they are “pedophiles.” All this makes it even more disturbing that Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon follower, was elected to Congress to represent Georgia. Her collegue, Lauren Boebert (of Colorado) has also played with QAnon ideas.
In her short time in office, Rep. Greene has already had an incredibly stupid career– she caused a shouting match in the first hour of her first day on the job for not wearing a mask on the floor; on her second day she said Georgia’s election results needed to be overturned…but just the presidential ones, you know, not the ones that elected her on the same Georgia ballot. Her most recent antic is announcing that she will be introducing articles of impeachment against Joe Biden… on January 21, his first full day in office. Good grief.
Rep. Boebert is facing calls to resign for both inciting the crowd (among other things, she tweeted out “This is 1776!”) and revealing that Speaker Pelosi had been removed from the chambers during the insurrection, seen as tipping off those who were looking to kidnap or assassinate her. Almost 100 candidates with QAnon beliefs ran for office in 2020.
See more: “Well, it Happened: Meet Your First QAnon Congressional Representative.”
5.) Stupid Bay of Pigs: I think this May 4 story got glossed over in the craziness of spring 2020, but Operation: Gideon, or as it was soon nicknamed, “Stupid Bay of Pigs,” was an attempt by a private American company, Silvercorp USA, to send a team of American mercenaries and Venezuelan dissidents to overthrow the government of Venezuela. They hoped to be hailed as heroes and make some pretty sweet reward money.
They thought they could pull this off with 60 people. Needless to say everything went incredibly wrong and when the two fiberglass boats full of mercenaries arrived, 8 were shot dead and 17 captured while the rest scrambled their escape. One of the two Americans who led the way, was, you guessed it, into QAnon.
6.) Election Fraud Cop: The number one source amplifying election fraud conspiracies is of course Trump himself. Here’s just one example of where that rhetoric has led– in October, an ex-cop in Houston named Mark Aguirre decided he would become a detective vigilante, hunting down fraudulent ballots.
He began tailing what he viewed as a suspicious van for several days and became convinced that it was full of thousands of fake ballots. He eventually ran this vehicle off the road and pulled a gun on the driver, but when he opened the doors, he discovered…tools and spare parts for the man’s air-conditioning repair service. He’s an ex-cop for a reason. In 2002 he led a botched raid on a K-Mart parking lot, arresting 278 people, accusing them of being part of a street racing ring. The arrests led to millions of dollars in lawsuits for the city and Officer Aguirre was fired.
7.) Wolverine Watchmen: A gang of militia domestic terrorists calling themselves the Wolverine Watchmen actively plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. They went so far as to stake out Gov. Whitmer’s vacation home and made a plan to bring her to Wisconsin to placed under their own “trial.” Other ideas included storming the Michigan Capitol to take hostages, much like we saw attempted at the Q d’etat, and blowing up a bridge to distract law enforcement. Multiple members shared links to InfoWars, QAnon, and pandemic conspiracy theories on their social media.
See more: “A Militia of Phantom Patriots.”
8.) Anti-maskers: I’m just going to put this here. I regret to inform you this is just one of many dozens and dozens of terrible examples:
9.) The Nashville Christmas Bomber: As the details have been rolling in, we see a portrait of Anthony Quinn Warner, the suicide bomber who detonated an RV full of explosives in downtown Nashville as a conspiracy theorists who believed in Reptilian aliens, among other beliefs. It’s unclear what his exact motivation was or if his target was the AT&T center he parked next to, but his conspiracy believers are at least part of his mindset.
See more: “Nashville Bomber was a Conspiracy Believer, Reptilian ‘Hunter’“
10.) COVID Anti-vaxxers: A story close to home, here– a pharmacist at a health center in Grafton, Steven Bradenburg, pulled the equivalent of about 570 COVID vaccine doses out of their refrigerated storage to purposely ruin them, because he believed the vaccines were dangerous and could alter human DNA. It’s clear from his divorce proceedings that he had taken a scary turn into doomsday prepping, believing the government has a plan to shut down the power grid to create an apocalyptic police state. This story is still unfolding, but it leads me to what I think the biggest conspiracy threats of 2021 are.
One, I think we’ll see more stories like the Q d’etat and the Wolverine Watchmen kidnapping plot. All of these Trump QAnon/Alt-Right/Militia/White Supremacists aren’t disappearing on January 20 and in fact, many will consider themselves to be at war with the Biden administration. Two, much like the Bradenburg cases, there’s going to be lots of anti-vaxx issues with the COVID vaccine. We finally got the cure, but will people skip it because they believe they’ll turn into a crocodile or be microchipped by Bill Gates? Will it continue to be sabotaged by anti-vaxxers? Is our country just too dumb and selfish to get past a pandemic?
We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong. Please be safe out there!
Please Clap Dept: Thanks to Emily McFarlan Miller, who did a great interview with me about American Madness and conspiracy threats for Religion News Service: “Conspiracy theories and the ‘American Madness’ that gripped the Capitol.”
I’m happy to present episode 1 of the Tea’s Weird Week podcast! I talk more about the ideas in this column, then me and Heidi Erickson review weird news about monoliths, killer squirrels, black holes, state dinosaurs, and the fate of the Hall of President’s Trumpbot. There’s also trivia by Quizmaster Miss Information, plus a new track by Sunspot, “Hold on for Your Life.” Original music and sound editing by Android138.
Buy my books:
American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness: bookshop.org/books/american-madness-the-story-of-the-phantom-patriot-and-how-conspiracy-theories-hijacked-american-consciousness/9781627310963
Tea’s Weird Week: 2020 Review (e-book): https://www.amazon.com/Teas-Weird-Week-2020-Review-ebook/dp/B08SGL97YJ/ref=sr_1_1
Wisconsin Legends & Lore: www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467143448