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The Coming Storm is a BBC podcast hosted by Gabriel Gatehouse. “QAnon and the Plot to Break Reality” is an eight-part series (plus introduction) from January 2022 on the origins, history, and development of what would become QAnon and the build up to the events on Capitol Hill, Washington DC, 6 January 2021. The episodes also cover the interrelated discourses of interest to the critical study of apocalypticism, including prophecy, satanic scares, messianism, Christian Right, spiritual warfare, giants, the Great Tribulation, and witchcraft, to name but a few. The episodes can be streamed or downloaded here:
Introduction: Welcome to The Coming Storm
A year on from the Capitol Insurrection in Washington DC on 6 January 2021, Gabriel Gatehouse journeys into the dark undergrowth of modern America. He's looking for the origins of the story that drove the crowds to storm the heart of US democracy. From conspiracy-soaked barrooms in 1990s Arkansas, via spies in hotel rooms in the shadow of the Kremlin, to anarchic chatrooms on the early internet, this is a search for the answer to one big question: did this just happen, or is somebody trying to break reality?
When a mob storms the Capitol in Washington DC, reporter and presenter Gabriel Gatehouse sees someone he recognises: a man draped in furs with horns on his head. He is known as the Q Shaman.
Gabriel had met him at a Trump rally in Arizona, ranting about a conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton and a cabal of satanic paedophiles plotting to steal the 2020 presidential election.
The search for the origins of this strange and twisted tale begins in 1993, when the suicide of a White House aide during Bill Clinton’s presidency reveals the first signs of a new information ecosystem that is starting to spill over into the mainstream. Myths about his murder proliferate on the early internet. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. In Arkansas a parallel reality is forming, in which the Clintons are a corrupt and murderous couple who will stop at nothing in their quest for power.
Gabriel Gatehouse discovers a real conspiracy called The Arkansas Project. The aim is to inject lurid tales about the Clintons into the mainstream American press in the 1990s. These stories spin off in different directions. Down one road lie sex scandals and eventually impeachment proceedings. But thanks to an Evangelical coalition the story goes off in another direction, involving Satan and a looming battle between good and evil. A dark fantasy has taken hold which bubbles away under the surface, ignored by the establishment.
3. The Basement
A severely disabled boy from upstate New York is shocked when his online community of video game fans is flooded with porn. He gets sucked into a toxic world of mostly young men stuck in their parents’ basements, making memes out of snippets of popular culture and Nazi symbols. He becomes a major figure in a dark new counterculture germinating on a niche website called 4chan.
As the 2016 Presidential election approaches, a story grows on 4chan about Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, paedophilia, and references to pizza. The story bursts out into the real world when a man walks into a pizza restaurant with a gun.
4. Q Drops
In Oct 2017 Donald Trump says something weird in a room full of military figures: “Maybe this is the calm before the storm.”
A few weeks later a poster on 4chan who calls himself Q starts to tell a crazy story about a coming storm, in which Trump is engaged in an epic battle against a cabal of satanic paedophiles who have hijacked the American Republic.
A group of bloggers mainstream the theory and it starts having a life of its own with real world consequences. Qanon is born. But who is directing it?
A British spy is hired to dig dirt on Donald Trump’s Russia connections. His sources tell him Trump is a Russian agent, a puppet of the Kremlin.
America is gripped by this story. Half are convinced the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in order to defeat Hillary Clinton. But the other half believes the investigations into Russian collusion are a hoax, a conspiracy by the establishment to unseat a democratically elected president.
The QAnon community takes up this second narrative, in which a renegade General becomes a martyr and a figurehead.
Donald Trump’s fantasy about a vast conspiracy to steal the 2020 election merges with the fantasy of QAnon, about a looming showdown against the deep state cabal of satanic paedophiles.
After the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC, major figures from the QAnon movement gather in Dallas, Texas. Gabriel Gatehouse gets inside their conference to try to figure out who is now controlling this parallel reality. And he confronts General Flynn who is calling for his ‘digital soldiers’ to take over the country from the bottom up.
The Q Shaman, the man with the furs and horns who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is in jail. The movement he came to symbolise appears defeated. But in a small South Carolina seaside town, ‘establishment’ Republicans are fighting a losing battle for the soul of their party, after one of the bloggers who mainstreamed the QAnon conspiracy theory has been elected to a powerful local position.
Across America, people who believe Donald Trump’s parallel narrative about a stolen election are trying to take over the levers of democracy. Was this the plan all along?
Gabriel Gatehouse has something to confess. Throughout the making of the series he’s been developing his own conspiracy theory. It’s about a book, called The Sovereign Individual, written by two men who were also pushing stories about the Clintons in the 1990s.
Were the people who seeded the myths that led to QAnon involved in a vast conspiracy to break reality, to divide and conquer and divvy up the spoils?
Gabriel seeks to understand the book, a favourite amongst the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley. They think a new version of the web, based on crypto and blockchain, will bring about the next step in the societal shift driven by the internet. What would that mean for democracy?
Gordon Allan, “Southcott and The Panacea Society”, CenSAMM/Queen's University Belfast symposium, The Gender of Apocalypse (published 10 Feb. 2016)
Panacea Society and Octavia/Mabel Barltrop reported in “Followers believed Edwardian widow was Daughter of God”, ITV News report (13 August 2014), featuring CenSAMM Academic Co-Director, Alastair Lockhart, available here
Garry Trompf, “Violence and Millenarian Cargo Cults”, 2017 CenSAMM conference, Violence and Millenarian Movements (published 8 May 2017)
“So-called cargo cults in the southwest Pacific region of Melanesia (from West Papua to western Fiji) are often classified as one form of millenarian movement. While debates about the extent of overlap aside, it is well known that collective indigenous energies yearning for and actively seeking European-style or internationally marketed goods ('the Cargo') can result in violent action. Desperation at being deprived of access to the new (and mysterious) wares, and outrage over reactive governments (mainly colonial ones) that try to put down group ritual attempts to bring on 'the Coming of the Cargo,' can incur physically violent outbursts. Accounting for the region's extraordinary cultural complexity, this paper discusses the various projections of the Cargo's arrival as commonly millenarian in character, and argues that the spilling over into violence of such movements of high expectation is very contextual, depending on the degrees of 'pacification,' on cargo cult leaders' assessments as to whether violence will produce anything beneficial, and on the raising of hopes that an activist group might be able to get around difficulties posed by superior government fire-power. The paper will discuss a spectrum of violent acts, from those more ritualized (but nonetheless formidable) to the formation of some kind of army ready to fight (albeit unrealistically and with expectations of harnessing extraordinary spiritual power). Any simple correlation between a greater extravagance of dreams and the high readiness to prepare for violent uprising will be questioned. The extent of the influence of 'Christian mission talk' is an important variable in Melanesian cargo (cult) movements, because hopes for a drastic eschatological-looking change involving the Return of Christ, the Second Coming or the last Judgement may demand that seriously irruptive solutions be left to God, not to armed men.”
Joseph Webster, “Violent Endings”, CenSAMM conference on Violence and Millenarian Movements (published 27 April 2017)
“This paper examines dispensationalist imaginings of ‘the last of the last days’, with a particular focus on their acutely violent character. For the Brethren and for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the most convincing ‘signs’ of the imminent apocalypse are violent ones. By drawing on a mixture of biblical and extra-biblical tropes and images – flames, horns, bullets, missiles – dispensationalism creates a semiotic landscape filled with natural, supernatural, and ‘man-made’ disaster. By analysing different images of ‘violent endings’ in circulation among the Brethren and the Witnesses, this paper asks two questions, namely, what are the effects of such violent imaginings, and what imaginings exists on the other side of such violence, after its perpetration? Drawing inspiration from Rodney Needham’s work on dual symbolic classification, this paper argues that dispensationalist violence demands its own partial disappearance by setting itself against its symbolic opposite of millennial healing, only to then reappear in a final act of dichotomising violence through a ‘renovation of the earth by fire.’”
Joseph Webster, “The Glory of Godly Women? Brethren bodies and apostate bodies at the end of the world”, CenSAMM/Queen's University Belfast symposium, The Gender of Apocalypse (published 10 Feb. 2016)
“By reflecting upon long term ethnographic fieldwork among Brethren fisher families in Gamrie, Northeast Scotland, this paper seeks to examine how apocalyptic ‘signs’ are imagined to be inscribed differently upon the bodies of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ persons. In the context of Brethren efforts to identify embodied ‘signs of the times’, why is it primarily the bodies of women – Brethren and non – which become key indexes of the soon to arrive eschaton? How, if at all, do the bodies of men become objects of millennial speculation, and what might this tell us about the gender of Brethren eschatology more generally?”
Andrew Wester interviews Sean Durbin, “How the Christian Zionist movement influences world leaders”, The Religion and Ethics Report ABC Radio
“When Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu falls on hard times – be it corruption charges at home or diplomatic condemnation abroad – he depends on his most faithful followers. But they’re not all Jewish. His biggest bloc of support is the four million strong community in the United States called Christian Zionists. These largely evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have emboldened Netanyahu to fight the West’s nuclear deal with Iran or attempts to establish a Palestinian state. They’re led by mega church pastor John Hagee. Sean Durbin is the author of the new book, Righteous Gentiles: Religion, Identity and Myth in John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.”
Podcast available here
Steve Hickey, “Hits like a Girl: Genesis 3:15 and the Demise of the Evil One”, CenSAMM/Queen's University Belfast symposium, The Gender of Apocalypse (published 9 Feb. 2016)
“This paper will examine strands of the more apocalyptic sectors of charismatic evangelical Protestantism with the aim of illuminating why it has generated significant performative resistance to oppressive gender structures. The paper will consider contemporary movements that draw upon texts like Psalm 68:11-12, “The Lord gives the command; the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host: “Kings of armies flee… and she who remains at home will divide the spoils!” This position has developed out of a reading of scripture in which women are understood as being given a central role in the ultimate defeat and overthrow of the Evil One. It thus represents a modern exposition and application of the ancient prophecy in Genesis 3:15—that the latter day woman is ultimately the one who rises up at the end of the age to finally crush the serpents head—and which is used to draw out the prophetic unction and destiny that rested on various women throughout salvation history, including and especially Mary, the mother of Christ.”
Seb Rumsby, "The Changing Dynamics of Millenarian Movements in the Ethnic Politics of South East Asia", CenSAMM conference, Violence and Millenarian Movements (published 27 April 2017)
“Millenarianism in South East Asia has generally been regarded by academics as a native reaction to the enormous social disruptions caused by colonial intrusion, doomed to failure and at best a step on the way to more ‘modern’ forms of collective social resistance. However, contrary to predictions that it would die out with the advance of nationalism, millenarianism has both pre-dated and outlasted colonialism, and continues to feature prominently in ethnic politics to this day. An analysis of past and present Hmong millenarian movements shows how the progressions from pan-ethnic to mono-ethnic, and violent to peaceful, reflect historical trends of ethnicization and territorialisation in South East Asia. It is equally important to consider how and why millenarian activity is remembered and interpreted by different participants and onlookers, as highlighted by the varying portrayals of recent events in Northern Vietnam gathered from online reports and interviews. Millenarian movements have played an important role in voicing social discontent, challenging power structures and moulding ethnic relations in South East Asia and will continue to do so, but they need to be examined and understood in their new socio-political contexts.”