Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy that Unhinged America

Author: Will Sommer
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers, 2023.  272 pages.
Reviewer: Matthew N. Hannah | September 2023

Trust the Plan is an indispensable guidebook for the strange conspiracism plaguing the 21st century. Taking its name from the mantra obsessively chanted by believers in the viral online conspiracy theory QAnon, Trust the Plan is essential reading for anyone interested in the broader social and political impact of conspiracy theories on a democratic society. At a time when more Americans have access to information, conspiracy theories are ubiquitous and often lead to acts of violence and discord. Written in an engaging and accessible journalistic style, Sommer’s book delivers a much-needed map of the labyrinthine beliefs of many Americans who have fallen down the rabbit hole of online conspiracism.

Of the three extant books on the QAnon movement, two are excellent sources for understanding the community surrounding the creation and legacy of the mysterious social-media entity known as Q. Of course, Mike Rothschild’s The Storm is Upon Us has become an important source on the background and events of QAnon’s rise to prominence, and, with the long-awaited publication of Will Sommer’s new book, Trust the Plan, readers now have an equally compelling and capacious analysis of the rise and persistence of the bizarre yet fascinating conspiracy theory. Over the past six years, Sommer has been a vital source on QAnon, being among the first journalists to take the movement seriously. Sommer recounts how his own obsession with understanding right-wing politics fueled his early interest in QAnon and prompted him to report on the movement for the Daily Beast. His journalistic output quickly became important source material for scholars hoping to understand how QAnon fits into the broader conspiracy theory ecosystem.

In many ways, Trust the Plan reads like a dispatch from the front lines of America’s long-simmering culture wars. Because Sommer is one of only a very few people to have actually witnessed many of the QAnon events, rallies, and activities firsthand—attending Trump rallies to talk with anons face-to-face or infiltrating Q conferences in which journalists are not especially welcome—he possesses a unique and capacious knowledge of both the movement and its followers. Sommer’s book oscillates between reportage on QAnon and accounts of personal encounters with individual anons and their families, and this personal experience lends additional gravitas to the book. Rather than describe events secondhand in a scholarly academic fashion, Sommer recounts personal conversations with anons and their families, and this personal experience with individuals who are caught in the maelstrom of participatory conspiracism goes a long way toward humanizing conspiracy theorists.

Indeed, Sommer’s humanity is what makes the book compelling. Despite the threats of violence Sommer has personally received in his years reporting on QAnon, readers get the sense that he cares about the individuals sucked into this conspiracy theory, and this personal connection to many anons adds an empathetic tone to the book. While he never fails to critique the political ideologies and financial grift within the QAnon community, Sommer attempts to understand the everyday Americans who fall victim to conpsiracism, to find a way to reach them and help them escape these conspiracy theories. In one particularly heart-breaking account, Sommer describes a woman named Kasey Mayer who reached out to him for help de-radicalizing her sister. Sommer reports that Kasey died while waiting for her sister to escape the influence of QAnon grifters and that her sister not only continued to believe but had also “red pilled” other family members.

Many podcast interviews with Sommer since the book’s release emphasize some of the more salacious and bizarre rabbit holes he’s explored, such as the story of Austin Steinbart, who claimed to be the author of the Q drops, receiving them from his future self through a time-traveling computer. Steinbart became known as “Baby Q” to his cult-like followers, who gathered on an Arizona compound in one of the more offline instantiations of QAnon. Or the story of Vincent Fusca who many anons believe to be John F. Kennedy Jr. in disguise. There are plenty of such bizarre, often fascinating, stories in the book, and the sheer scope of the QAnon conspiracy theory covered in Trust the Plan, from January 6th to COVID denialism, includes a long list of strange characters, grifters, drifters, and lost souls. But my own fascination with Trust the Plan was located in Sommer’s analysis of QAnon’s danger to American democracy, in which he assigns blame to the Republican Party and social-media companies who facilitated the rise and spread of QAnon across the internet and into American public life.

In particular, Sommer’s diagnosis of the thorny “catch-22” that Republicans have wrought upon themselves strikes me as an important assessment of the current political situation in the United States. Sommer argues that Republican leaders found the conspiracy theory problematic early on, even banning QAnon flags and shirts at Trump rallies, but refused to condemn the movement’s ideological core, recognizing an important source of votes and revenue. Mainstream Republican leaders sought to thread the needle between alienating the Trump-loving QAnon caucus while attempting to distance themselves from the embarrassment occasioned by the conspiracy theory’s insistence on Satanic pedophiles operating within the Deep State who are secretly running the country.

Such a Faustian bargain produced a concomitant devolution of the Republican Party into a comfortable home for increasingly unhinged and dangerous conspiracy theories, which continue to erode America’s political health. “It comes with an entire religious and political agenda, a call for a world cleansed of everyone standing in the way of Trump and his supporters,” Sommer claims. “QAnon is a dark dream about sanctioned violence against political and cultural enemies.”[1] For Republican leaders desperate to retain political power, such a dark dream may have seemed a small price to pay for a loyal and militant voting bloc, but such a bargain has come with horrifying public costs in acts of mass violence, destroyed families, and authoritarian fantasies. And as Trump rails against the “cultural Marxists” who must be sought out and destroyed as part of his 2024 election campaign, it is hard not to see occasion for future horrors stoked by the Republican Party’s decision to foster conspiracism and hatred in its ranks.

As the 2024 election resurrects the possibility of a Trump return to the White House, QAnon—and the conspiracy theories it has spawned—will continue to plague American political life. Sommer points out that QAnon’s power and health is entirely linked to the Republican Party now: “QAnon’s growth is a story about how Trump and the Republican Party decided to capitalize on QAnon’s growth for their own benefit.”[2] Although scholars and journalists continue to hope that the QAnon movement will run out of steam as Q’s predictions have repeatedly failed to materialize, the toxic leakage of QAnon conspiracism into the broader political ecosystem cannot be denied, and Will Sommer’s book will prove important for recognizing the early warning signs of QAnon radicalization and finding ways to communicate with friends and family before they fall down the rabbithole. As far-right commentators such as Glenn Beck, Steve Bannon, and Tucker Carslon spread other conspiracy theories, such as the anti-globalist Great Reset theory or the white-supremacist Great Replacement theory, we will witness even further degradation of any coherent conservative politics and localized, personal interventions may become obligatory to ward off further violence and hatred from spreading.

Although Sommer reiterates throughout the book that he has been unable to find a solution to the conspiracism plaguing America, his account of QAnon’s rise and spread is itself an important source for developing tools and tactics to combat such conspiracy theories. His conclusion gestures toward some significant possibilities for government response to QAnon and other conspiracism. In particular, Sommer reiterates that many Americans are drawn to conspiracy theories as an explanatory mechanism for the very real struggles of daily life under late capitalism in which scarcity for the many and extravagance for the very few is (mis)interpreted as the machinations of a shadowy global cabal controlling everything to advance their own wealth and power. Instead of diagnosing America’s social and political problems as the product of governmental mismanagement and corporate greed, anons turn to more satisfying explanations in which contemporary problems are understood as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Rather than legislate our way out of this mess, Sommer articulates the need for interventions in establishing and maintaining a health society: “Ultimately, I think the best solution to conspiracy theories comes from building a government that fulfills its citizens’ basic needs, so people aren’t driven to find comfort in conspiracy theories in the first place.”[3] While it may seem impossible at times, we must demand such a government if we hope to escape the broad conspiracism plaguing America and the rest of the world.

Matthew N. Hannah is an Assistant Professor at Purdue University.

[1] Will Sommer, Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America 20 (2023).

[2] Id. at 217.

[3] Id. at 218.

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