The battle to save and resurrect America set up along the Tampa Riverwalk on a hot winter Saturday, a dim corner of the internet come alive in red hats.

In the headlines that day were a downed Ukrainian jet, more tension with Iran, impeachment papers — a fresh installment of the news onslaught that never seems to stop. Here, believers had an explanation for all of it. They wore shirts that said THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM and WE ARE THE NEWS NOW. They unfolded camp chairs to listen to speakers who claimed a deeper understanding of the world, one where nothing is random.

“This is the Great Awakening,” said one of the headliners to the buoyant crowd, “and it is unfolding exactly as it should, make no mistake about that.”

It was just after 3 p.m., with a light breeze ruffling the riverside trees and skyscrapers magnifying the sun. The Pirate Water Taxi, flying the stars and stripes, came in to dock. Families pushed strollers and walked border collies. Some, passing by, raised their eyebrows as they caught snippets from the stage.

Epstein… Assange… Barack Hussein Obama… treason… execution… divinely inspired… Trump.

“You know why I know we’re going to win? Because it’s either us, or them,” said Sarasota writer John Michael Chambers, laying out the stakes for these disciples of QAnon, a complex and utterly baseless conspiracy theory.

The couple hundred attendees at the Red Pill Roadshow represented the fringe of the fringe. It came as a relief, some told a Tampa Bay Times reporter, to finally be among compatriots. The world of “Q” was often lonely.

Their spiraling, interconnecting web of conspiracies features hidden executions, faked shootings, mind control and a vast globalist cabal of child sex traffickers hoarding power in the political and pop cultural elite, also known as the Deep State.

Making sense of their logic bends the brain, but QAnon followers report feeling an insider adrenaline as they piece together the “breadcrumbs.” They first surged into public view at a Tampa rally for Donald Trump in 2018 and show few signs of fading.

Trying to convince Democrats about Q would be useless, Chambers said into the mic. Instead, he told believers, they should spend time with Republicans, who may be open to seeing the light. Then a host led the crowd in their rallying cry:

“Where we go one,” he yelled.

“WE GO ALL!” the crowd roared.

• • •

A young man standing at the crowd’s edge in a SHEEP NO MORE shirt and American flag pants declined to comment. Asked where he was from, he smirked. “The internet.”

The internet is home to many micro-worlds, and this one spawned in the wake of Trump’s election when a user known as “Q” stepped into the anonymous soup of 4chan, a notoriously foul online forum.

“Q” claimed high-level security clearance and, in cryptic message board posts, dropped coded intel for “patriots” to unravel. From the rambling, jargon-filled clues, which keep coming, followers have crafted a grand theory of the universe that casts Trump as hero.

Plot lines differ, but as most interpret it, the Deep State dates back decades, corrupting every president since Ronald Reagan. They think Trump’s election came against the Deep State’s will, despite efforts to tank him with “fake news.” Now, they believe, Trump is waging a covert war against this shadow government, with a “storm” of righteous justice on the way.

They do not trust CNN, the Clintons or the Bushes. They develop far-fetched explanations for critiques of the president: The Mueller probe, for instance, must actually be a cover-up to buy time for a Trump-Mueller tag-team effort to bring down villainous, pedophile “Demonrats.”

At the weekend rally, supporters studied a vast, color-coded map of theories, made by one of the speakers. It claimed to unveil the “true global power structure,” drawing dizzying arrows between Atlantis, “Project Looking Glass,” black goo, ISIS, vaccines and Sandy Hook. As one New York Times writer put it, “a potpourri of internet derangement.”

The web of conspiracies often plays on dangerous tropes of anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia, for instance painting wealthy, liberal Jews like George Soros as supreme evildoers. It has already been linked to violence. Last July, a 24-year-old faced murder charges after shooting a reputed mob boss in Staten Island. According to NPR, the man’s lawyers said that, for their client, targeting a “deep state” crime boss had become no less than a quest “to save the American way of life.” In court, photographers zoomed in on the young man’s palm, where he’d scribbled a blue Q.

Not long after, the FBI warned that fringe theories, including QAnon, “very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to engage in criminal or violent activity.”

The president hasn’t discouraged these superfans, who include actress Roseanne Barr and retired pitcher Curt Schilling. He has retweeted QAnon accounts and posed with supporters.

The phenomenon’s allure hinges on its game element, patchworking random clues into a meaningful story, said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida.

“The same kind of pleasure that you would get from playing a difficult puzzle game or engaging in a mystery or going to a danger room or whatever it is: This is it,” Fenster said. “The reward is you are cued into things, and you know things, and others don’t.”

He’s surprised it’s endured this long.

“I just don’t know how they handle the regular disappointment,” he said. Followers may find small validation, or “Q proofs,” by matching minutiae of Q posts with out-of-context Trump comments, which they interpret as authorization of their crusade.

But many of their grand theories have come crashing down. John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, did not in fact reveal himself to be alive last July 4, as predicted.

“It’s a typical phenomenon with prophetic religions,” Fenster said. “When they get disappointed, it creates some sort of crisis. They can reconstitute the prophecy but only so many times.”

• • •

Speakers traded spots on the small stage. A sunworn man named Roy Davis who later said he lives on a boat near the St. Petersburg Pier stepped up in a WE ARE Q shirt, sunglasses pushed into his silver hair. New ideas can be hard, he said. He promised that once Q breaks into the mainstream, it’ll spread like wildfire.

Stageside, 30-year-old organizer Alysia Gamble smiled beatifically and wrung her nervous hands, fingernails painted red. When she’s not doing this, she’s an emergency nurse in Cape Coral, she said. She wore a TRUMP FOR HUMANITY shirt and said she prays for world peace.

“We’re all just slivers of God’s mass consciousness on this life mission of trying to figure out what’s good, what’s going on,” she said. “When you start understanding that a lot of what we’ve been taught is a lie, and there’s very dark entities attached to that. … It’s a search for truth.”

At the rally, supporters could buy laminated “Q-Webs,” self-published books about the “Great Awakening” and T-shirts with slogans like “The hunters have become the hunted!”

[JIARRA CHIANG | Special to the Times]

People spread blankets in the dry grass. A toddler batted a plastic orange truck along the park sidewalk. Ambivalent spouses sat on shady benches at the park’s edges, where the speakers didn’t boom so loudly.

At merchandise tents, TRUMP 2020 flags caught the wind.

Tourists pushed Spin scooters down the sidewalk while a hulking man called The Matrixxx explained at crushing volume about his push to uncover a second shooter in Parkland. He bragged about QAnon’s spreading influence.

“ ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ came from us!” he shouted, and people hollered.

Mixed into the scene were a couple of Proud Conservative Latinos and other minorities, though mostly the crowd was a collage of white faces in sunglasses and ballcaps, men and women alike.

Randy Russell, 58, had driven down from Jacksonville, where he used to work as a sheriff’s deputy. To hear him describe it, all of this is about revealing truth. It is about waking up the world and ridding it of corruption and monied, evil actors who would abuse kids.

“You will lose friends,” he said. But in his eyes, it wasn’t hard to see how much was wrong.

Every day come upsetting new dispatches of economic divides, endless wars and sexual abuses. Stories about corporate greed, toxic chemicals and enemies abroad. In Tampa, the Red Pill nation ⁠— a symbolic nod to their awakening ⁠— expressed a desire for unity, but their hopes were muddied with the sense that they couldn’t trust anyone but Trump and Q.

• • •

Sunlight slanted low across the listeners as long-haired, self-described “meme commander” Dylan Louis Monroe held forth on stage. He’d made the map of Q theory now sold in laminated form for $5, a small-print journey that led from Lockheed Martin to JonBenet Ramsey to Pizzagate to Human Sacrifice.

QAnon believers have strung together countless conspiracy theories into one master map of corruption. At the event in Tampa, they pored over the “Q-Web,” a chart by the “Deep State Mapping Project,” with entries ranging from Pizzagate to crop circles to Illuminati. [JIARRA CHIANG | Special to the Times]

His speech offered no more clarity. Someone in the crowd could be a robot, he warned. It was time to release the memes, because nobody wants to read long stories anymore. Don’t trust the Ivy Leagues, the Catholic Church, the fake news battleship, he said. Maybe not even Q.

“Q shouldn’t be held as messiah,” Monroe said. “It depends on us being independent thinkers.”

Kevin Higley stood in the grass toward the back, 46 and graying. He’s an operations manager in construction in Lakeland, he said, but in reality spends 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in the world of Q.

It can get lonely knowing his neighbors think he’s nuts, he said, but it was even lonelier before.

By the time he found Q, he’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, and was out of work for six months. He still cursed the Catholic Church for hurt he’d endured at age 14. (“You can imagine,” he said.) He had nightmarish fantasies of becoming a mass shooter. “I asked God to help me figure out what was wrong with me,” he said.

Online, he read about mind control. He stumbled across Q posts and felt seen. He held up his arm to show that the hairs were standing on end just remembering.

Now he pockets a small, white figurine of Archangel Uriel, bearer of wisdom and light. He thinks that’s who Donald Trump is, sent here to eradicate evil. The world is broken, the scale of corruption daunting, but he has to trust the plan.

“Honestly, sometimes I think I’m the craziest guy in the world,” Higley said. “But you stand with these other people who are thinking what you’re thinking, and you know what…”

Kevin Higley shows off his backpack, printed with a map of conspiracy theories linked together. He says he has trouble sleeping sometimes because he is so enmeshed in the complexities, but he believes that Trump will eradicate all evil. [CLAIRE MCNEILL | Times]

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

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