Sonny’s brothers had been into conspiracy theories since they were teenagers. It started relatively innocently: first it was Y2K; later, the Mayan calendar in 2012.
But before the 2016 election of Donald Trump — around the time a gunman entered a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. convinced that a child sex trafficking ring was being run in the basement — he began noticing an alarming shift in his brothers’ Facebook posts.
“And now it’s, Donald Trump is the messiah, and there’s a cabal of democrats who are eating children,” Sonny says.
In the eyes of Sonny’s brothers, his mother, and countless Americans, Donald Trump is working against a satan-worshipping cabal of Democratic pedophiles who run an underground child sex trafficking ring. According to their theory, elites extract adrenaline from the blood of children to create the psychoactive drug adrenochrome; they are attempting to replace “real Americans” with immigrants of color.
And who are these elites, this evil cabal? Who is financing this “deep state”? None other than history’s favorite scapegoat: the Jews. The theory Sonny’s Jewish family members swear by, known as QAnon, is “a rebranded version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the Russian antisemitic text cited by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” writes Gregory Stanton.
“The frequent mentions of George Soros and the Rothschild family are easy markers to link back to these conspiracy theories. They function as a shorthand for identifying who ‘really’ controls things, and fighting back against them,” explains Mike Rothschild, a journalist and researcher whose book ”The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything” will be released this summer.
Sonny’s once-close family members are “so far down the Q rabbit hole,” Sonny wrote on the Reddit thread r/QAnonCasualties, to the point where they dismiss the antisemitism at the root of the conspiracy.
He says one of his brothers even defended the conspiracy’s antisemitic ties on a social media post, writing, “Well, I understand why. I’ve had to redefine and examine Jews and Jewish history. A lot of evil shit going on and it makes sense why so many are antisemitic.”
“I was just so devastated by it,” Sonny tells me. “My grandmother was shot in the shoulder running from the Nazis. Luckily they went to Russia and survived. And rest her soul, she didn’t have to hear all this,” he said.
In the HBO documentary series “Q: Into the Storm,” filmmaker Cullen Hoback offers a theory as to why Q attracts followers from across the political spectrum: It appears to offer “concrete, good versus evil answers in a chaotic world giving its adherents a sense of control over the uncontrollable.”
In the past year, as a pandemic forced a nation into their homes with few options beyond doom scrolling, Q has gained countless adherents. For many, pre-existing beliefs in natural health, alternative medicine and vaccine skepticism were easy ways in, regardless of racial or religious identity.
“Q works by giving people a buffet of conspiracy theories to pick from, and you can choose the ones you want and discard the ones you don’t,” Rothschild says. “So while Q-believing Jews might not buy into the George Soros/Rothschild tropes, they can buy into the anti-vaccine stuff, the anti-globalism, the hatred of Hillary Clinton, or the vague fears of child trafficking.”
Sonny’s family members are not the only Jews who have fallen into the cult of Q. Some stormed the capitol during January’s insurrection. Melissa Rein Lively, a Jewish former QAnon believer, went viral after angrily destroying a mask display at a Target store.
Family members of QAnon believers have been seeking support through the Reddit thread r/QAnonCasualties. It has over 150,000 members. One user started a post seeking out other Jews in the group, titled “Jews dealing with or healing from Q situations make some noise woo woo (fml).”
“I’m on day 15 of not hearing from my mom…I’m so consumed in sadness,” another user wrote. “While my mother has not denounced her Judaism I still can’t believe she embraces a movement that is so evidently antisemitic but when I pointed that out to her she cut me off.”
Rein Lively is one of the Jews who was able to escape from QAnon ideology and has been telling her story to major media outlets ever since. After her Target video went viral, she was taken by police to a psychiatric hospital where she underwent weeks of intensive therapy, leading her to finally disavow QAnon, according to Haaretz.
But you can’t get people out of QAnon if they don’t want to get out, says Rothschild.
“If they do start to see the contradictions and it stops working for them, if you’ve kept the lines of communication open and presented yourself as a safe and non-mocking person for them to turn to, you might have a chance of helping them out. But it’s very hard, and doesn’t work that often,” Rothschild says.
“The risk is if you lose your temper at them, you’re probably going to radicalize them more,” says Reddit user Ravulous, who has been able to keep some of his younger right-leaning Jewish cousins away from radical views associated with Q by using tools offered by organizations like Street Epistemology and Life After Hate.
But it hasn’t worked for other family members. Ravulous says he spent 12 to 18 hours talking with another cousin, who became radicalized after the 2020 election and fell into theories like the white replacement narrative. He has since cut off communication “until things start to settle down.”
There’s no telling when that might be. Joe Biden has been sworn in and remains president despite Q’s prophecies of a “Great Awakening” — when martial law would be declared and child trafficking Democrats would be rounded up and arrested. QAnon hasn’t posted on its home message board since December. Despite that, Q is evolving into a new form, Rothschild says, “and nobody seems to know what that form is.” But its adherents have been appearing more and more in local politics.
It’s been five years since Sonny has talked to his mother. He cut off his older brother two years ago, whose life, Sonny says, has been destroyed by Q: his wife divorced him, he lost his kids, he now lives with a roommate.
He still is occasionally in touch with his oldest brother, but has come to terms with the fact that their relationship will never be the same.
“I feel like I’ve gone through the grieving process. I’ve gone through the mourning,” he said. “I feel like I’ve already lost them. They’re gone.”
*For their personal safety and consideration of family relationships, only Sonny’s first name and Ravulous’ Reddit username have been used.