If American society is going to take one major risk in the name of reopening, ideally it should be to send children back to school. This issue is personal for me. I have three kids, one in college and two in a local public high school. It’s now early July, and we still have no idea whether or how they will be returning to classes that, ordinarily, would resume just weeks from now. My children’s summer has been idle. They have no jobs and not much summer programming to keep them busy. I try to convince myself they aren’t missing out on much. Hey, I grew up in the ’80s, I think, and all we did during the summer was hang out at the beach. Most days, I make it to about 10 a.m. before I rouse them.
I’m lucky, at least in comparison with working parents who have younger kids, because my teenagers are mostly coping and don’t need me—or want me—to keep them occupied. Our stresses as a family are merely those of inconvenience, and we still find our current situation unsustainable. Parents who have no control over their own work schedule are far worse off, as are younger children for whom an indefinite absence from the classroom holds many dangers—the mental-health and emotional risks of long-term isolation, the greater likelihood of abuse and neglect going undetected, the internet-access disparities that turn some of the most vulnerable students into virtual dropouts.
In the past week or so, more and more Americans have suddenly remembered that fall comes after summer. Recent headlines have heaped scorn upon the values of a society that seemingly prioritized inessential businesses over schools. “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars,”The New York Times declared. “Close the Bars. Reopen the Schools,” a piece in Vox implored. The hashtag #schoolsbeforebars is trending.
Reopening indoor bars—closed spaces where wearing masks and maintaining social distancing are difficult—was clearly a mistake. Yet approximately zero public officials believe that letting adults drink is more important than educating kids, and any implication that reopening bars and reopening schools are roughly equivalent tasks badly understates the enormous barriers to the latter. From the government’s perspective, the only thing bars need is permission to reopen. Once they get it, owners and employees can go back to work, and the money starts flowing.
Schools do not have a simple on-off switch. To reopen schools will not just take a lot of money. Classroom layouts, buildings, policies, schedules, extracurricular activities, teacher and staff assignments, and even curriculums must all be altered to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission. Stakeholders—including teachers’ unions, scared parents, and the colleges and universities that will someday enroll a portion of the 50 million students in the nation’s public K–12 schools—all have interests, some not easily avoided or ignored by a governor. Assigning a young, healthy high-school math teacher to substitute for a second-grade reading teacher with chronic health conditions—or inviting idle recent college graduates to sign on as teaching assistants—might sound easy on paper; in reality, the regulations meant to ensure that adults in classrooms are appropriately trained and vetted to work with children are also impediments to making rapid personnel moves in a crisis. Without clear direction and substantial financial support from the state or federal agencies, the easiest course for school administrators is to say nothing. According to a survey in mid-June, 94 percent of K–12 superintendents weren’t ready to announce when or how their schools would reopen.
Two things need to happen before students can go back to school: First, Americans and their elected representatives must consciously decide that children’s needs are worth accepting some additional risk. Second, states and communities must commit the money and effort necessary to reinvent education under radically changed circumstances. Even in states where case counts have plunged, doing what’s right for children will require a massive civic mobilization.
The problem isn’t that policy makers—many of them parents too—don’t know what families are going through. It’s that, fundamentally, the way public officials thought about the consequences of this crisis was flawed. Early in the pandemic, authorities viewed the closure of schools as essential to preventing the spread of a deadly new disease. The federal government and the states have no firm plans for restarting school in August and September because they had no such plans in February and March; public officials simply didn’t classify education as a crucial form of infrastructure in need of protection.
The Department of Homeland Security identifies 16 infrastructure sectors as “so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction, would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.” Those sectors include agriculture, communications, electricity, financial services, health care, transportation systems, water, and even dams. The official list guides how local, state and federal homeland-security experts spend their time and resources. For each sector, a major federal agency is in charge of determining the best way to prevent essential functions from harm and support their recovery if necessary. (Water security falls under the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, and financial services under the Department of the Treasury.)
Bars are not on the list of essential sectors. But neither are schools. The lingering uncertainty about whether in-person education will resume isn’t the result of malfeasance, but utter nonfeasance.
Four months of stay-at-home orders have proved that, if schools are unavailable, a city cannot work, a community cannot function, a nation cannot safeguard itself. That the federal government deemed schools a potential health threat to be shut down during a pandemic—but not an essential service—may reflect the American view of education as a state and local matter. More likely, the omission reflects a lack of imagination. In March, few foresaw that the shutdown measures would go on this long, and almost everyone assumed that the U.S. government in particular would spend the time far more wisely.
While Americans closed down their businesses in the name of flattening the curve, President Donald Trump pitted states against one another and drummed up opposition to public-health guidance. Had he done his job properly, the governors who spent March and April trying to outbid one another for masks and ventilators could have devoted more energy to education. Had Trump implored his supporters to wear masks and be patient, case counts might well be dropping across the country. Instead, as many states experience an upswing in the virus, plans to remake the education system—contemplating changes of a magnitude that would ordinarily take years to implement—are just now being written.
In my work in security and disaster management, I have advised a number of public and private entities about how to move forward during a pandemic. I am currently part of a consulting team advising the state of Massachusetts, where I live, specifically on its school reentry plans. As my children sleep in day after day, and their memories of their most recent in-person classes grow hazier and hazier, I am desperate for my state to reopen schools and hope it gets the details right. Massachusetts seems to have weathered one of the nation’s worst outbreaks reasonably well; infection rates have declined to the point that—with protocols in place to protect children, teachers, and staff—students might be able to go back to at least some normal classes. The harm they face from staying home is enormous. I would accept additional risk for the good of my three teenagers, and children younger than them would benefit even more from being in school.
The notion that schools can’t open again to students until a vaccine arrives should not be the guiding moral standard. The vaccine may never come, and the many other nations that handled their outbreaks far more successfully than the U.S. can show Americans what to do and what not to do when reopening schools. Americans must learn to manage around the virus, to mitigate its potential for spread. Fall isn’t far off, and school systems nationwide need to make up for lost time. A bar doesn’t need a groundswell of public support to reopen, but schools most certainly do.
Given the current COVID numbers, Trump through (at least) 2020, and Trumpism for the foreseeable future, I don't see the way out for responsibly governed states. Will it be possible to do better than 1/3 classroom instruction, 2/3 distance learning? Will that be useful for anything other than socialization?
The charge of lack of imagination sticks to me. I just can't see how virus mitigation (of a currently uncontrolled virus) and primary school openings can happen at the same time.
As I’ve written in the recent past, I believe that the current political uprising has a chance at being an enormously positive development. I worry though that it will be limited by the power of political Calvinism.
I know I’ve heard the term used before, though I can’t remember from who. By political Calvinism I mean the tendency within the left to see the structural injustices of the world as inherent and immutable, so baked into the cake of the current context, history, the United States of America, etc., that they will always exist. The stain of injustice can never be rubbed out. This is most obvious when discussing racial dynamics. White people are inherently in possession of white privilege, as many will tell you – most insistently white liberals, in my experience. Well, yes, today all white people enjoy white privilege, though the valence of that advantage varies with other factors in their lives. But the degree and intensity and in fact existence of white privilege is mutable; if we had a real racial awakening and all people worked to end white privilege, it would end. And not only do I not think this is a crazy thing to believe, I think believing it is a necessary precondition to being an agent of positive change!
Of course white supremacy is entrenched and systemic; it is neither coincidental nor easily overcome. But there is a difference between seeing these things as systemic and seeing them as divinely ordained. In our racial dialogue (again particularly among white liberals) the tendency is always to fixate on the difficulty of change, to luxuriate in despair. At some point people made the mistake of viewing extreme pessimism as radical. But in fact pessimism is an inherently conservative force, as it makes change seem impossible and agitates against trying. Real radicals never stop defining the better world that they see as truly within our grasp, and available sooner than we think. Posers act as if pessimism is the outlook of the truly committed. Fuck that. A better world is possible.
I’ve never heard a coherent answer to this: if your average uncommitted white American is told that their white privilege is immutable, that they will oppress people of color simply through existing, what is the motivation to try and change? Consider this from the standpoint of basic psychology. If you are told that you are in some sense fallen, simply by nature of your birth, then why exert yourself trying to change that fact? For someone who is not converted, the insistence that they are stained with political sin from birth simply pushes them to remain apolitical, to give up on racial politics and go back to grilling. People need to feel that their efforts have some meaningful possibility of creating positive change. The message should not be “you have white privilege and nothing you do will ever change that” but “you have white privilege but you can meaningfully contribute to ending it.” The latter is a call to action. The former is theatrics.
I believe that white privilege can be erased and that we can achieve true racial equality, that the traditional inequities of race are mutable and in fact chosen. If I didn’t, why would I bother to try?
The alternative to political Calvinism is to believe that, in fact, despite the existence of white privilege the individual actions of individual white people matter, that they can be better or worse. It’s to believe that the vagaries of white privilege, as serious as they are, can be overcome with dedication and integrity. In other words, the alternative is to believe that our tendency to oppress others is not fixed but rather determined by our behavior, and that the goal of our political outreach is to convince others that their behavior matters and that they should behave in antiracist ways. That’s the alternative to political Calvinism.
Of course, many progressive people now believe that changing minds is a mug’s game, that rather than trying to change minds we should only ever rally the already-converted and that doing so will result in victory. How that jibes with our commitment to deeply unpopular policies like defunding the police (a policy I support), I’ve never understood. But this too is political Calvinism, the idea that outreach and education are impossible and that the proportions of the righteous and the wrong are already predetermined. It is directly contradicted, to pick an obvious example, by public opinion about multiracial marriage. Looking at the world around us should convince you that we don’t yet have the numbers to achieve a just society. And if you think convincing and educating is impossible, it leaves you with the question: then why bother?
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight.
The origins of QAnon are recent, but even so, separating myth from reality can be hard. One place to begin is with Edgar Maddison Welch, a deeply religious father of two, who until Sunday, December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in the small town of Salisbury, North Carolina. That morning, Welch grabbed his cellphone, a box of shotgun shells, and three loaded guns—a 9-mm AR-15 rifle, a six-shot .38‑caliber Colt revolver, and a shotgun—and hopped into his Toyota Prius. He drove 360 miles to a well-to-do neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C.; parked his car; put the revolver in a holster at his hip; held the AR-15 rifle across his chest; and walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
Comet happens to be the place where, on a Sunday afternoon two years earlier, my then-baby daughter tried her first-ever sip of water. Kids gather there with their parents and teammates after soccer games on Saturdays, and local bands perform on the weekends. In the back, children challenge their grandparents to Ping-Pong matches as they wait for their pizzas to come out of the big clay oven in the middle of the restaurant. Comet Ping Pong is a beloved spot in Washington.
That day, people noticed Welch right away. An AR-15 rifle makes for a conspicuous sash in most social settings, but especially at a place like Comet. As parents, children, and employees rushed outside, many still chewing, Welch began to move through the restaurant, at one point attempting to use a butter knife to pry open a locked door, before giving up and firing several rounds from his rifle into the lock. Behind the door was a small computer-storage closet. This was not what he was expecting.
Welch had traveled to Washington because of a conspiracy theory known, now famously, as Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. The idea originated in October 2016, when WikiLeaks made public a trove of emails stolen from the account of John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and then the chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign; Comet was mentioned repeatedly in exchanges Podesta had with the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, and others. The emails were mainly about fundraising events, but high-profile pro–Donald Trump figures such as Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones began advancing the claim—which originated in trollish corners of the internet (such as 4chan) and then spread to more accessible precincts (Twitter, YouTube)—that the emails were proof of ritualistic child abuse. Some conspiracy theorists asserted that it was taking place in the basement at Comet, where there is no basement. References in the emails to “pizza” and “pasta” were interpreted as code words for “girls” and “little boys.”
Shortly after Trump’s election, as Pizzagate roared across the internet, Welch started binge-watching conspiracy-theory videos on YouTube. He tried to recruit help from at least two people to carry out a vigilante raid, texting them about his desire to sacrifice “the lives of a few for the lives of many” and to fight “a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.” When Welch finally found himself inside the restaurant and understood that Comet Ping Pong was just a pizza shop, he set down his firearms, walked out the door, and surrendered to police, who had by then secured the perimeter. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” Welch told The New York Times after his arrest.
Welch seems to have sincerely believed that children were being held at Comet Ping Pong. His family and friends wrote letters to the judge on his behalf, describing him as a dedicated father, a devout Christian, and a man who went out of his way to care for others. Welch had trained as a volunteer firefighter. He had gone on an earthquake-response mission to Haiti with the local Baptist Men’s Association. A friend from his church wrote, “He exhibits the actions of a person who strives to learn biblical truth and apply it.” Welch himself expressed what seemed like genuine remorse, saying in a handwritten note submitted to the judge by his lawyers: “It was never my intention to harm or frighten innocent lives, but I realize now just how foolish and reckless my decision was.” He was sentenced to four years in prison.
While Welch may have expressed regret, he gave no indication that he had stopped believing the underlying Pizzagate message: that a cabal of powerful elites was abusing children and getting away with it. Judging from a surge of activity on the internet, many others had found ways to move beyond the Comet Ping Pong episode and remain focused on what they saw as the larger truth. If you paid attention to the right voices on the right websites, you could see in real time how the core premises of Pizzagate were being recycled, revised, and reinterpreted. The millions of people paying attention to sites like 4chan and Reddit could continue to learn about that secretive and untouchable cabal; about its malign actions and intentions; about its ties to the left wing and specifically to Democrats and especially to Clinton; about its bloodlust and its moral degeneracy. You could also—and this would prove essential—read about a small but swelling band of underground American patriots fighting back.
All of this, taken together, defined a worldview that would soon have a name: QAnon, derived from a mysterious figure, “Q,” posting anonymously on 4chan. QAnon does not possess a physical location, but it has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising. It also displays other key qualities that Pizzagate lacked. In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it.
Conspiracy theories are a constant in American history, and it is tempting to dismiss them as inconsequential. But as the 21st century has progressed, such a dismissal has begun to require willful blindness. I was a city-hall reporter for a local investigative-news site called Honolulu Civil Beat in 2011 when Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a presidential run by publicly questioning whether Barack Obama had been born in Hawaii, as all facts and documents showed. Trump maintained that Obama had really been born in Africa, and therefore wasn’t a natural-born American—making him ineligible for the highest office. I remember the debate in our Honolulu newsroom: Should we even cover this “birther” madness? As it turned out, the allegations, based entirely on lies, captivated enough people to give Trump a launching pad.
The power of the internet was understood early on, but the full nature of that power—its ability to shatter any semblance of shared reality, undermining civil society and democratic governance in the process—was not. The internet also enabled unknown individuals to reach masses of people, at a scale Marshall McLuhan never dreamed of. The warping of shared reality leads a man with an AR-15 rifle to invade a pizza shop. It brings online forums into being where people colorfully imagine the assassination of a former secretary of state. It offers the promise of a Great Awakening, in which the elites will be routed and the truth will be revealed. It causes chat sites to come alive with commentary speculating that the coronavirus pandemic may be the moment QAnon has been waiting for. None of this could have been imagined as recently as the turn of the century.
QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them. But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.
Many people were reluctant to speak with me about QAnon as I reported this story. The movement’s adherents have sometimes proved willing to take matters into their own hands. Last year, the FBI classified QAnon as a domestic-terror threat in an internal memo. The memo took note of a California man arrested in 2018 with bomb-making materials. According to the FBI, he had planned to attack the Illinois capitol to “make Americans aware of ‘Pizzagate’ and the New World Order (NWO) who were dismantling society.” The memo also took note of a QAnon follower in Nevada who was arrested in 2018 after blocking traffic on the Hoover Dam in an armored truck. The man, heavily armed, was demanding the release of the inspector general’s report on Hillary Clinton’s emails. The FBI memo warned that conspiracy theories stoke the threat of extremist violence, especially when individuals “claiming to act as ‘researchers’ or ‘investigators’ single out people, businesses, or groups which they falsely accuse of being involved in the imagined scheme.”
QAnon adherents are feared for ferociously attacking skeptics online and for inciting physical violence. On a now-defunct Reddit board dedicated to QAnon, commenters took delight in describing Clinton’s potential fate. One person wrote: “I’m surprised no one has assassinated her yet honestly.” Another: “The buzzards rip her rotting corpse to shreds.” A third: “I want to see her blood pouring down the gutters!”
When I spoke with Clinton recently about QAnon, she said, “I just get under their skin unlike anybody else … If I didn’t have Secret Service protection going through my mail, finding weird stuff, tracking the threats against me—which are still very high—I would be worried.” She has come to realize that the invented reality in which conspiracy theorists place her is not some bizarre parallel universe but actually one that shapes our own. Referring to internet trolling operations, Clinton said, “I don’t think until relatively recently most people understood how well organized they were, and how many different components of their strategy they have put in place.”
On October 28, 2017, the anonymous user now widely referred to as “Q” appeared for the first time on 4chan, a so-called image board that is known for its grotesque memes, sickening photographs, and brutal teardown culture. Q predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton and a violent uprising nationwide, posting this:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.
And then this:
Mockingbird HRC detained, not arrested (yet). Where is Huma? Follow Huma. This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet). Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals? What is military intelligence? Why go around the 3 letter agencies? What Supreme Court case allows for the use of MI v Congressional assembled and approved agencies? Who has ultimate authority over our branches of military w/o approval conditions unless 90+ in wartime conditions? What is the military code? Where is AW being held? Why? POTUS will not go on tv to address nation. POTUS must isolate himself to prevent negative optics. POTUS knew removing criminal rogue elements as a first step was essential to free and pass legislation. Who has access to everything classified? Do you believe HRC, Soros, Obama etc have more power than Trump? Fantasy. Whoever controls the office of the Presidency controls this great land. They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control. This is not a R v D battle. Why did Soros donate all his money recently? Why would he place all his funds in a RC? Mockingbird 10.30.17 God bless fellow Patriots.
Clinton was not arrested on October 30, but that didn’t deter Q, who continued posting ominous predictions and cryptic riddles—with prompts like “Find the reflection inside the castle”—often written in the form of tantalizing fragments and rhetorical questions. Q made it clear that he wanted people to believe he was an intelligence officer or military official with Q clearance, a level of access to classified information that includes nuclear-weapons design and other highly sensitive material. (I’m using he because many Q followers do, though Q remains anonymous—hence “QAnon.”) Q’s tone is conspiratorial to the point of cliché: “I’ve said too much,” and “Follow the money,” and “Some things must remain classified to the very end.”
What might have languished as a lonely screed on a single image board instead incited fervor. Its profile was enhanced, according to Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins of NBC News, by several conspiracy theorists whose promotion of Q in turn helped build up their own online profiles. By now, nearly three years since Q’s original messages appeared, there have been thousands of what his followers call “Q drops”—messages posted to image boards by Q. He uses a password-protected “tripcode,” a series of letters and numbers visible to other image-board users to signal the continuity of his identity over time. (Q’s tripcode has changed on occasion, prompting flurries of speculation.) As Q has moved from one image board to the next—from 4chan to 8chan to 8kun, seeking a safe harbor—QAnon adherents have only become more devoted. If the internet is one big rabbit hole containing infinitely recursive rabbit holes, QAnon has somehow found its way down all of them, gulping up lesser conspiracy theories as it goes.
In its broadest contours, the QAnon belief system looks something like this: Q is an intelligence or military insider with proof that corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state; Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them. (“These people need to ALL be ELIMINATED,” Q wrote in one post.) The eventual destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophesies, but can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in Q’s clues. To believe Q requires rejecting mainstream institutions, ignoring government officials, battling apostates, and despising the press. One of Q’s favorite rallying cries is “You are the news now.” Another is “Enjoy the show,” a phrase that his disciples regard as a reference to a coming apocalypse: When the world as we know it comes to an end, everyone’s a spectator.
People who have taken Q to heart like to say they’ve been paying attention from the very beginning, the way someone might brag about having listened to Radiohead before The Bends. A promise of foreknowledge is part of Q’s appeal, as is the feeling of being part of a secret community, which is reinforced through the use of acronyms and ritual phrases such as “Nothing can stop what is coming” and “Trust the plan.”
One phrase that serves as a special touchstone among QAnon adherents is “the calm before the storm.” Q first used it a few days after his initial post, and it arrived with a specific history. On the evening of October 5, 2017—not long before Q first made himself known on 4chan—President Trump stood beside the first lady in a loose semicircle with 20 or so senior military leaders and their spouses for a photo in the State Dining Room at the White House. Reporters had been invited to watch as Trump’s guests posed and smiled. Trump couldn’t seem to stop talking. “You guys know what this represents?” he asked at one point, tracing an incomplete circle in the air with his right index finger. “Tell us, sir,” one onlooker replied. The president’s response was self-satisfied, bordering on a drawl: “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”
“What’s the storm?” one of the journalists asked.
“Could be the calm—the calm before the storm,” Trump said again. His repetition seemed to be for dramatic effect. The whir of camera shutters grew louder.
The reporters became insistent: “What storm, Mr. President?”
A curt response from Trump: “You’ll find out.”
Those 37 seconds of presidential ambiguity made headlines right away—relations with Iran had been tense in recent days—but they would also become foundational lore for eventual followers of Q. The president’s circular hand gesture is of particular interest to them. You may think he was motioning to the semicircle gathered around him, they say, but he was really drawing the letter Q in the air. Was Trump playing the role of John the Baptist, proclaiming what was to come? Was he himself the anointed one?
It’s impossible to know the number of QAnon adherents with any precision, but the ranks are growing. At least 35 current or former congressional candidates have embraced Q, according to an online tally by the progressive nonprofit Media Matters for America. Those candidates have either directly praised QAnon in public or approvingly referenced QAnon slogans. (One Republican candidate for Congress, Matthew Lusk of Florida, includes QAnon under the “issues” section of his campaign website, posing the question: “Who is Q?”) QAnon has by now made its way onto every major social and commercial platform and any number of fringe sites. Tracy Diaz, a QAnon evangelist, known online by the name TracyBeanz, has 185,000 followers on Twitter and more than 100,000 YouTube subscribers. She helped lift QAnon from obscurity, facilitating its transition to mainstream social media. (A publicist described Diaz as “really private” and declined requests for an interview.) On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #QAnon have garnered millions of views. There are too many QAnon Facebook groups, plenty of them ghost towns, to do a proper count, but the most active ones publish thousands of items each day. (In 2018, Reddit banned QAnon groups from its platform for inciting violence.)
Adherents are ever looking out for signs from on high, plumbing for portents when guidance from Q himself is absent. The coronavirus, for instance—what does it signify? In several of the big Facebook groups, people erupted in a frenzy of speculation, circulating a theory that Trump’s decision to wear a yellow tie to a White House briefing about the virus was a sign that the outbreak wasn’t real: “He is telling us there is no virus threat because it is the exact same color as the maritime flag that represents the vessel has no infected people on board,” someone wrote in a post that was widely shared and remixed across social media. Three days before the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Trump was retweeting a QAnon-themed meme. “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!” the president wrote on March 8, sharing a Photoshopped image of himself playing a violin overlaid with the words “Nothing can stop what is coming.”
On March 9, Q himself issued a triptych of ominous posts that seemed definitive: The coronavirus is real, but welcome, and followers should not be afraid. The first post shared Trump’s tweet from the night before and repeated, “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming.” The second said: “The Great Awakening is Worldwide.” The third was simple: “GOD WINS.”
A month later, on April 8, Q went on a posting spree, dropping nine posts over the span of six hours and touching on several of his favorite topics—God, Pizzagate, and the wickedness of the elites. “They will stop at nothing to regain power,” he wrote in one scathing post that alleged a coordinated propaganda effort by Democrats, Hollywood, and the media. Another accused Democrats of promoting “mass hysteria” about the coronavirus for political gain: “What is the primary benefit to keep public in mass-hysteria re: COVID‑19? Think voting. Are you awake yet? Q.” And he shared these verses from Ephesians: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.”
Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become an object of scorn among QAnon supporters who don’t like the bad news he delivers or the way he has contradicted Trump publicly. In one March press conference, Trump referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” and Fauci could be seen over the president’s shoulder, suppressing a laugh and covering his face. By then, QAnon had already declared Fauci irredeemably compromised, because WikiLeaks had unearthed a pair of emails he sent praising Hillary Clinton in 2012 and 2013. Sentiment about Fauci among QAnon supporters on social-media platforms ranges from “Fauci is a Deep State puppet” to “FAUCI is a BLACKHAT!!!”—the term QAnon uses for people who support the evil cabal that Q warns about. One person, using the hashtags #DeepStateCabal and #Qanon, tweeted this: “Watch Fauci’s hand signals and body language at the press conferences. What is he communicating?” Another shared an image of Fauci standing in a lab with Barack Obama, with the caption “Obama and ‘Dr.’ Fauci in the lab creating coronovirus [sic]. #DeepstateDoctor.” The Justice Department recently approved heightened security measures for Fauci because of the mounting volume of threats against him.
In the final days before Congress passed a $2 trillion economic-relief package in late March, Democrats insisted on provisions that would make it easier for people to vote by mail, prompting Q himself to weigh in with dismay: “These people are sick! Nothing can stop what is coming. Nothing.”
On a bone-cold Thursday in early January, a crowd was swelling in downtown Toledo, Ohio. By lunchtime, seven hours before the start of Trump’s first campaign rally of the new year, the line to get into the Huntington Center had already snaked around two city blocks. The air was electric with possibility, and the whole scene possessed a Jimmy Buffett–meets–Michigan Militia atmosphere: lots of white people, a good deal of vaping, red-white-and-blue everything. Down the street, someone had affixed a two-story banner across the top of a burned-out brick building. It read: president trump, welcome to toledo, ohio: who is q … military intelligence? q+? (“Q+” is QAnon shorthand for Trump himself.) Vendors at the event were selling Q buttons and T-shirts. QAnon merchandise comes in a great variety; online, you can buy Great Awakening coffee ($14.99) and QAnon bracelets with tiny silver pizza charms ($20.17).
I worked my way toward the back of the line, making small talk and asking who, if anyone, knew anything about QAnon. One woman’s eyes lit up, and in a single fluid motion she unzipped and removed her jacket, then did a little jump so that her back was to me. I could see a Q made out of duct tape, which she’d pressed onto her red T-shirt. Her name was Lorrie Shock, and the first thing she wanted me to know was this: “We’re not a domestic-terror group.”
Shock was born in Ohio and never left, “a lifer,” as she put it. She had worked at a Bridgestone factory, making car parts, for most of her adult life. “Real hot and dirty work, but good money,” she told me. “I got three kids through school.” Today, in what she calls her preretirement job, she cares for adults with special needs, spending her days in a tender routine of playing games with them and helping them in and out of a swimming pool. Shock came to the Trump rally with her friend Pat Harger, who had retired after 32 years at Whirlpool. Harger’s wife runs a catering business, which is what had kept her from attending the rally that day. Harger and Shock are old friends. “Since the fourth grade,” Harger told me, “and we’re 57 years old.”
Now that Shock’s girls are grown and she’s not working a factory job, she has more time for herself. That used to mean reading novels in the evening—she doesn’t own a television—but now it means researching Q, who first came to her notice when someone she knew mentioned him on Facebook in 2017: “What caught my attention was ‘research.’ Do your own research. Don’t take anything for granted. I don’t care who says it, even President Trump. Do your own research, make up your own mind.”
The QAnon universe is sprawling and deep, with layer upon layer of context, acronyms, characters, and shorthand to learn. The “castle” is the White House. “Crumbs” are clues. CBTS stands for “calm before the storm,” and WWG1WGA stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” which has become an expression of solidarity among Q followers. (Both of these phrases, oddly, are used in the trailer for the 1996 Ridley Scott film White Squall—watch it on YouTube, and you’ll see that the comments section is flooded with pro-Q sentiment.) There is also a “Q clock,” which refers to a calendar some factions of Q supporters use to try to decode supposed clues based on time stamps of Q drops and Trump tweets.
At the height of her devotion, Shock was spending four to six hours a day reading and rereading Q drops, scouring documents online, taking notes. Now, she says, she spends closer to an hour or two a day. “When I first started, everybody thought I was crazy,” Shock said. That included her daughters, who are “very liberal Hillary and Bernie supporters,” Shock said. “I still love them. They think I’m crazy, but that’s all right.”
Harger, too, once thought Shock had lost it. “I was doubting her,” he told me. “I would send her texts saying, Lorrie.”
“He was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Shock said, laughing. “So my comment to him would be ‘Do your own research.’ ”
“And I did,” Harger said. “And it’s like, Wow.”
Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Q frequently rails against legitimate sources of information as fake. Shock and Harger rely on information they encounter on Facebook rather than news outlets run by journalists. They don’t read the local paper or watch any of the major television networks. “You can’t watch the news,” Shock said. “Your news channel ain’t gonna tell us shit.” Harger says he likes One America News Network. Not so long ago, he used to watch CNN, and couldn’t get enough of Wolf Blitzer. “We were glued to that; we always have been,” he said. “Until this man, Trump, really opened our eyes to what’s happening. And Q. Q is telling us beforehand the stuff that’s going to happen.” I asked Harger and Shock for examples of predictions that had come true. They could not provide specifics and instead encouraged me to do the research myself. When I asked them how they explained the events Q had predicted that never happened, such as Clinton’s arrest, they said that deception is part of Q’s plan. Shock added, “I think there were more things that were predicted that did happen.” Her tone was gentle rather than indignant.
Harger wanted me to know that he’d voted for Obama the first time around. He grew up in a family of Democrats. His dad was a union guy. But that was before Trump appeared and convinced Harger that he shouldn’t trust the institutions he always thought he could. Shock nodded alongside him. “The reason I feel like I can trust Trump more is, he’s not part of the establishment,” she said. At one point, Harger told me I should look into what happened to John F. Kennedy Jr.—who died in 1999, when his airplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard—suggesting that Hillary Clinton had had him assassinated. (Alternatively, a contingent of QAnon believers say that JFK Jr. faked his death and that he’s a behind-the-scenes Trump supporter, and possibly even Q himself. Some anticipate his dramatic public return so that he can serve as Trump’s running mate in 2020.) When I asked Harger whether there’s any evidence to support the assassination claim, he flipped my question around: “Is there any evidence not to?”
Reading Shock’s Facebook page is an exercise in contradictions, a toggling between banality and hostility. There she is in a yellow kayak in her profile photo, bright-red hair spilling out of a ski hat, a giant smile on her face. There are the photos of her daughters, and of a granddaughter with Shirley Temple curls. Yet Q is never far away. On Christmas Eve, Shock shared one post that seemed to come straight out of the QAnon universe but also pulled in an older, classic conspiracy: “X marks the spot over Roswell NM. X17 Fifth Force Particle. X + Q Coincidence?” That same day, she shared a separate post suggesting that Michelle Obama is secretly a man. Someone responded with skepticism: “I am still not convinced. She shows and acts evil, but a man?” Shock’s reply: “Research it.” There was a post claiming that Representative Adam Schiff had raped the body of a dead boy at the Chateau Marmont, in Los Angeles—Harger shows up here, with a “huh??” in the comments—and a warning that George Soros was going after Christian evangelicals. In other posts, Shock playfully taunted “libs” and her “Trump-hating friends,” and also shared a video of her daughter singing Christmas carols.
In Toledo, I asked Shock if she had any theories about Q’s identity. She answered immediately: “I think it’s Trump.” I asked if she thinks Trump even knows how to use 4chan. The message board is notoriously confusing for the uninitiated, nothing like Facebook and other social platforms designed to make it easy to publish quickly and often. “I think he knows way more than what we think,” she said. But she also wanted me to know that her obsession with Q wasn’t about Trump. This had been something she was reluctant to speak about at first. Now, she said, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that. I pray about it. I’ve said, ‘Father, should I be wasting my time on this?’ … And I don’t feel that feeling of I should stop.”
Arthur Jones, the director of the documentary film Feels Good Man, which tells the story of how internet memes infiltrated politics in the 2016 presidential election, told me that QAnon reminds him of his childhood growing up in an evangelical-Christian family in the Ozarks. He said that many people he knew then, and many people he meets now in the most devout parts of the country, are deeply interested in the Book of Revelation, and in trying to unpack “all of its pretty-hard-to-decipher prophecies.” Jones went on: “I think the same kind of person would all of a sudden start pulling at the threads of Q and start feeling like everything is starting to fall into place and make sense. If you are an evangelical and you look at Donald Trump on face value, he lies, he steals, he cheats, he’s been married multiple times, he’s clearly a sinner. But you are trying to find a way that he is somehow part of God’s plan.”
You can’t always tell what kind of Q follower you’re encountering. Anyone using a Q hashtag could be a true believer, like Shock, or simply someone cruising a site and playing along for a vicarious thrill. Surely there are people who know that Q is a fantasy but participate because there’s an element of QAnon that converges with a live-action role-playing game. In the sprawling constellation of Q supporters, Shock and Harger seem prototypical. They happened upon Q and something clicked. The fable plugged neatly into their existing worldview.
Q may be anonymous, but leaders of the QAnon movement have emerged in public and built their own large audiences. David Hayes is better known by his online handle: PrayingMedic. In his YouTube videos, he exudes the even-keeled authoritarian energy of a middle-school principal. PrayingMedic is one of the best-known QAnon evangelists on the planet. He has more than 300,000 Twitter followers and a similar number of YouTube subscribers. Hayes, a former paramedic, lives in a terra-cotta-roofed subdivision in Gilbert, Arizona, with his wife, Denise, an artist whom he met on the dating site Christian Mingle in 2007. Both describe themselves as former atheists who came to their faith in God, and to each other, late in life, after previous marriages. Hayes has been following Q since the beginning, or close to it. “Q Anon is pretty darn interesting,” he wrote on his Facebook page on December 12, 2017, six weeks after Q’s first post on 4chan. That same day, he wrote about a sudden calling he felt:
My dreams have suggested that God wants me to keep my attention focused on politics and current events. After some prayer, I’ve decided to do a regular news and current events show on Periscope. I’m trying to do one broadcast a day. (The videos are also being posted to my Youtube channel.) That is all.
Hayes is a superstar in the Q universe. His video “Q for Beginners Part 1” has been viewed more than 1 million times. “Some of the people who follow Q would consider themselves to be conspiracy theorists,” Hayes says in the video. “I do not consider myself to be a conspiracy theorist. I consider myself to be a Q researcher. I don’t have anything against people who like to follow conspiracies. That’s their thing. It’s not my thing.”
Hayes has developed a following in part because of his sheer ubiquity but also because he skillfully wears the mantle of a skeptic—I’m not one of those crazies. Hayes is not a QAnon hobbyist, though. He’s a professional. There are income streams to be tapped, modest but expanding. On Amazon, Hayes’s book Calm Before the Storm, the first in what he says could easily be a 10-book series of “Q Chronicles,” sells for $15.29. Hayes writes in the introduction that he and Denise have devoted their attention full-time to QAnon since 2017. “Denise and I have been blessed by those who have helped support us while we set aside our usual work to research Q’s messages,” he wrote. He has published several other books, which offer a glimpse into an earlier life. The titles include Hearing God’s VoiceMade Simple, Defeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare. Hayes registered Praying Medic as a religious nonprofit in Washington State in 2018.
Hayes tells his followers that he thinks Q is an open-source intelligence operation, made possible by the internet and designed by patriots fighting corruption inside the intelligence community. His interpretation of Q is ultimately religious in nature, and centers on the idea of a Great Awakening. “I believe The Great Awakening has a double application,” Hayes wrote in a blog post in November 2019.
It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.
Q followers agree that a Great Awakening lies ahead, and will bring salvation. They differ in their personal preoccupations with respect to the here and now. Some in the QAnon world are highly focused on what they perceive as degeneracy in the mainstream media, a perception fueled in equal measure by Q and by Trump. Others obsess over the intelligence community and the notion of a deep state. An active subsection of Q followers probes the Jeffrey Epstein case. There are those who claim knowledge of a 16-year plan by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to destroy the United States by means of mass drought, weaponized disease, food shortages, and nuclear war. During the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, some Q followers promoted the idea that Trump was secretly working with Robert Mueller, and that the special counsel’s report would both exonerate Trump and lead to mass arrests of members of the corrupt cabal. (The eventual Mueller report, released in April 2019, neither exonerated Trump nor led to mass arrests.)
These divergent byways are elemental to QAnon’s staying power—this is a very welcoming belief system, warm in its tolerance for contradiction—and are also what makes it possible for a practical man like Hayes to play the role that he does. QAnon is complex and confusing. People from all over the internet seek guidance from someone who seems levelheaded. (Hayes was quick to respond to my emails but declined requests for an interview. He complained to me that journalists refuse to see QAnon for what it really is, and therefore cannot be trusted.)
The most prominent QAnon figures have a presence beyond the biggest social-media platforms and image boards. The Q universe encompasses numerous blogs, proprietary websites, and types of chat software, as well as alternative social-media platforms such as Gab, the site known for anti-Semitism and white nationalism, where many people banned from Twitter have congregated. Vloggers and bloggers promote their Patreon accounts, where people can pay them in monthly sums. There’s also money to be made from ads on YouTube. That seems to be the primary focus for Hayes, whose videos have been viewed more than 33 million times altogether. His “Q for Beginners” video includes ads from companies such as the vacation-rental site Vrbo and from The Epoch Times, an international pro-Trump newspaper. Q evangelists have taken a “publish everywhere” approach that is half outreach, half redundancy. If one platform cracks down on QAnon, as Reddit did, they won’t have to start from scratch somewhere else. Already embroiled in the battle between good and evil, QAnon has involved itself in another battle—between the notion of an open web for the people and a gated internet controlled by a powerful few.
V. WHO IS Q?
Any new belief system runs into opposition. In December 2018, Matt Patten, a veteran SWAT-team sergeant in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, in Florida, was photographed with Vice President Mike Pence on an airport tarmac. Patten wore a patch on his tactical vest that bore the letter Q. The photograph was tweeted by the vice president’s office and then went viral in the QAnon community. The tweet was quickly taken down. Patten was demoted. When I knocked on his door on a gloomy day in August, no one answered. But as I turned to leave, I noticed two large bumper stickers on the white mailbox out front. One said trump, and the other said #qanon: patriots fight.
Late last summer, Q himself lost his platform. He had migrated from 4chan (fearing that the site had been “infiltrated”) to the image board 8chan, and then 8chan went dark. Three days before I stood on Patten’s doorstep, 22 people had been killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and police revealed that the alleged killer had posted a manifesto on 8chan just before carrying out the attack. The episode had eerie similarities to two other shootings. Four months earlier, in April 2019, the suspected shooter in a murderous rampage at a synagogue in Poway, California, had posted an anti-Semitic letter on 8chan. Weeks before that, the man who killed 51 worshippers at two New Zealand mosques had posted a white-supremacist manifesto on 8chan.
8chan had already lost crucial services, which had forced it to shut down. The CEO of Cloudflare, which had helped protect the site from cyberattacks, explained his decision to drop 8chan in an open letter after the El Paso shooting: “The rationale is simple: They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths.” Watkins promised to keep the site off the internet until after his congressional appearance. He is a former U.S. Army helicopter repairman who got into the business of websites while he was still in the military. Among other things, in 1997, he launched a successful porn site called Asian Bikini Bar. On his YouTube channel, where he posts under the username Watkins Xerxes, he frequently sings hymns, reads verses from the Bible, praises Trump, and touches on themes underlying QAnon—warning against the deep state and reminding his audience members that they are now “the actual reporting mechanism of the news.” He also shows off his fountain-pen collection and practices yoga. When he arrived on Capitol Hill, in September 2019, Watkins wore a bulbous silver Q pinned to his collar. His testimony was behind closed doors. In November, 8chan flickered back to life as 8kun. It was sporadically accessible, limping along through a series of cyberattacks. It received assistance from a Russian hosting service that is typically associated with spreading malware. When Q reappeared on 8kun, he used the same tripcode that he had used on 8chan. He posted other hints meant to verify the continuity of his identity, including an image of a notebook and a pen that had appeared in earlier posts.
Fredrick Brennan’s theory is that Jim and his son Ron, who is the site’s administrator, knew 8kun needed Q to attract users. “I definitely, definitely, 100 percent believe that Q either knows Jim or Ron Watkins, or was hired by Jim or Ron Watkins,” Brennan told me. Jim and Ron have both denied knowing Q’s identity. “I don’t know who Q is,” Ron told me in a direct message on Twitter. Jim told an interviewer on One America News Network in September 2019: “I don’t know who QAnon is. Really, we run an anonymous website.” Both insist that they care about maintaining 8kun only because it is a platform for unfettered free speech. “8kun is like a piece of paper, and the users decide what is written on it,” Ron told me. “There are many different topics and users from many different backgrounds.” But their interest in Q is well documented. In February, Jim started a super PAC called Disarm the Deep State, which echoes Q’s messages and which is running paid ads on 8kun.
Brennan has long been feuding with the Watkinses. Jim is suing Brennan for libel in the Philippines, where they both lived until recently, and Brennan is actively fighting Jim’s attempts to become a naturalized citizen there. “They kept Q alive,” Brennan told me. “We wouldn’t be talking about this right now if Q didn’t go on the new 8kun. The entire reason we’re talking about this is they’re directly related to Q. And, you know, I worry constantly that there is going to be, as early as November 2020, some kind of shooting or something related to Q if Trump loses. Or parents killing their children to save them from the hell-world that is to come because the deep state has won. These are real possibilities. I just feel like what they have done is totally irresponsible to keep Q going.”
The story of Q is premised on the need for Q to remain anonymous. It’s why Q originally picked 4chan, one of the last places built for anonymity on the social web. “I’ve often related Q to previous figures like John Titor or Satoshi Nakamoto,” Brennan told me, referring to two legends of internet anonymity. Satoshi Nakamoto is the name used by the unknown creator of bitcoin. John Titor is the name used on several message boards in 2000 and 2001 by someone claiming to be a military time traveler from the year 2036.
QAnon adherents see Q’s anonymity as proof of Q’s credibility—despite their deep mistrust of unnamed sources in the media. Every faction of QAnon has its own hunches, alliances, and interpersonal dramas related to the question of Q’s identity. The theories fit into three broad groups. In the first group are theories that assume Q is a single individual who has been posting all alone this entire time. This is where you’ll find the people who say that Trump himself is Q, or even that PrayingMedic is Q. (This category also includes the possibility, raised by people outside of QAnon, that Q is a lone Trump supporter who started posting as a form of fan fiction, not realizing it would take off; and the idea that Q began posting in order to parody Trump and his supporters, not anticipating that people would take him seriously.) The second group of theories holds that the original Q posted continuously for a while, but then something changed. This second category includes Brennan’s idea that the Watkinses are now paying Q, or are paying someone to carry on as Q, or are even acting as Q themselves. The third group of theories holds that Q is a collective, with a small number of people sharing access to the account. This third category includes the notion that Q is a new kind of open-source military-intelligence agency.
Many QAnon adherents see significance in Trump tweets containing words that begin with the letter Q. Recent world events have rewarded them amply. “I am a great friend and admirer of the Queen & the United Kingdom,” Trump began one tweet on March 29. The day before, he had tweeted this: “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE.” The Q crowd seized on both tweets, arguing that if you ignore most of the letters in the messages, you’ll find a confession from Trump: “I am … Q.”
VI. REASON VERSUS FAITH
In a Miami coffee shop last year, I met with a man who has gotten a flurry of attention in recent years for his research on conspiracy theories—a political-science professor at the University of Miami named Joseph Uscinski. I have known Uscinski for years, and his views are nuanced, deeply informed, and far from anything you would consider knee-jerk partisanship. Many people assume, he told me, that a propensity for conspiracy thinking is predictable along ideological lines. That’s wrong, he explained. It’s better to think of conspiracy thinking as independent of party politics. It’s a particular form of mind-wiring. And it’s generally characterized by acceptance of the following propositions: Our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places. Although we ostensibly live in a democracy, a small group of people run everything, but we don’t know who they are. When big events occur—pandemics, recessions, wars, terrorist attacks—it is because that secretive group is working against the rest of us.
QAnon isn’t a far-right conspiracy, the way it’s often described, Uscinski went on, despite its obviously pro-Trump narrative. And that’s because Trump isn’t a typical far-right politician. Q appeals to people with the greatest attraction to conspiracy thinking of any kind, and that appeal crosses ideological lines.
Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. Conspiracy thinking is at once a cause and a consequence of what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 famously described as “the paranoid style” in American politics. But do not make the mistake of thinking that conspiracy theories are scribbled only in the marginalia of American history. They color every major news event: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, 9/11. They have helped sustain consequential eruptions, such as McCarthyism in the 1950s and anti-Semitism at any moment you choose. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.
That was part of the reason Uscinski’s mother, Shelly, 62, was attracted to QAnon. Shelly, who lives in New Hampshire, was tooling around on YouTube a couple of years ago, looking for how-to videos—she can’t remember for what, exactly, maybe a tutorial on how to get her car windows sparkling-clean—and the algorithm served up QAnon. She remembers a feeling of magnetic attraction. “Like, Wow, what is this? ” she recalled when I spoke with her by phone. “For me, it was revealing some things that maybe I was hoping would come to pass.” She sensed that Q knew her anxieties—as if someone was taking her train of thought and “actually verbalizing it.” Shelly’s frustrations are broad, and directed primarily at the institutions she sees as broken. She’s fed up with the education system, the financial system, the media. “Even our churches are out of whack,” she said. One of the things that resonated most with her about Q was his disgust with “the fake news.” She gets her information mostly from Fox News, Twitter, and the New Hampshire Union Leader. “In my lifetime, I guess, things have gotten progressively worse,” Shelly said. She added a little later: “Q gives us hope. And it’s a good thing, to be hopeful.”
Shelly likes that Q occasionally quotes from scripture, and she likes that he encourages people to pray. In the end, she said, QAnon is about something so much bigger than Trump or anyone else. “There are QAnon followers out there,” Shelly said, “who suggest that what we’re going through now, in this crazy political realm we’re in now, with all of the things that are happening worldwide, is very biblical, and that this is Armageddon.”
I asked her if she thinks the end of the world is upon us. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” she said.
Joseph Uscinski is disturbed by his mother’s belief in QAnon. He’s not comfortable talking about it. And Shelly doesn’t quite appreciate the irony of the family’s situation, because she doesn’t believe QAnon is a form of conspiracy thinking in the first place. At one point in our conversation, when I referred to QAnon as a conspiracy theory, she quickly interrupted: “It’s not a theory. It’s the foretelling of things to come.” She laughed hard when I asked if she had ever tried to get Joseph to believe in QAnon. The answer was an unequivocal no: “I’m his mom, so I love him.”
Watchkeepers for the End of Days can easily find signs of impending doom—in comets and earthquakes, in wars and pandemics. It has always been this way. In 1831, a Baptist preacher in rural New York named William Miller began to publicly share his prediction that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent. Eventually he settled on a date: October 22, 1844. When the sun came up on October 23, his followers, known as the Millerites, were crushed. The episode would come to be known as the Great Disappointment. But they did not give up. The Millerites became the Adventists, who in turn became the Seventh-day Adventists, who now have a worldwide membership of more than 20 million. “These people in the QAnon community—I feel like they are as deeply delusional, as deeply invested in their beliefs, as the Millerites were,” Travis View, one of the hosts of a podcast called QAnon Anonymous, which subjects QAnon to acerbic analysis, told me. “That makes me pretty confident that this is not something that is going to go away with the end of the Trump presidency.”
QAnon carries on a tradition of apocalyptic thinking that has spanned thousands of years. It offers a polemic to empower those who feel adrift. In his classic 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, the historian Norman Cohn examined the emergence of apocalyptic thinking over many centuries. He found one common condition: This way of thinking consistently emerged in regions where rapid social and economic change was taking place—and at periods of time when displays of spectacular wealth were highly visible but unavailable to most people. This was true in Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, and during the Black Death in the 14th century, and in the Rhine Valley in the 16th century, and in William Miller’s New York in the 19th century. It is true in America in the 21st century.
The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.
Trust the plan. Enjoy the show. Nothing can stop what is coming.
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming.”
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
It is a challenge that the United States did not meet. During the past two months, I have had lengthy conversations with some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials—all of them people with firsthand knowledge of what our response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, could have been, and actually was. The government officials had served or are still serving in the uniformed military, on the White House staff, or in other executive departments, and in various intelligence agencies. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, given their official roles. As I continued these conversations, the people I talked with had noticeably different moods. First, in March and April, they were astonished and puzzled about what had happened. Eventually, in May and June, they were enraged. “The president kept a cruise ship from landing in California, because he didn’t want ‘his numbers’ to go up,” a former senior government official told me. He was referring to Donald Trump’s comment, in early March, that he didn’t want infected passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore, because “I like the numbers being where they are.” Trump didn’t try to write this comment off as a “joke,” his go-to defense when his remarks cause outrage, including his June 20 comment in Tulsa that he’d told medical officials to “slow the testing down, please” in order to keep the reported-case level low. But the evidence shows that he has been deadly earnest about denying the threat of COVID-19, and delaying action against it.
“Look at what the numbers are now,” this same official said, in late April, at a moment when the U.S. death toll had just climbed above 60,000, exceeding the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. By late June, the total would surpass 120,000—more than all American military deaths during World War I. “If he had just been paying attention, he would have asked, ‘What do I do first?’ We wouldn’t have passed the threshold of casualties in previous wars. It is a catastrophic failure.”
As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?
Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.
The modern aviation system works. From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s, 1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-10th that level. Last year, before the pandemic began, more than 25,000 commercial-airline flights took off each day from airports in the United States. Every one of them landed safely.
In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and of failure in the other. It has among the fewest aviation-related fatalities in the world, despite having the largest number of flights. But with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, it has suffered by far the largest number of fatalities, about one-quarter of the global total, despite having less than one-20th of the world’s population.
Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.
The organization below differs from that of a standard NTSB report, but it covers the key points. Timelines of aviation disasters typically start long before the passengers or even the flight crew knew anything was wrong, with problems in the design of the airplane, the procedures of the maintenance crew, the route, or the conditions into which the captain decided to fly. In the worst cases, those decisions doomed the flight even before it took off. My focus here is similarly on conditions and decisions that may have doomed the country even before the first COVID-19 death had been recorded on U.S. soil.
What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that—when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell—will be a central part of the history of our times.
But what happened in the two months before Trump’s statement, when the United States still had a chance of containing the disease where it started or at least buffering its effects, is if anything worse.
1. The Flight Plan
The first thing an airplane crew needs to know is what it will be flying through. Thunderstorms? Turbulence? Dangerous or restricted airspace? The path of another airplane? And because takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory, what can it expect at the end of the flight? Wind shear? An icy runway? The biggest single reason flying is so much safer now than it was even a quarter century ago is that flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the airline “dispatchers” who coordinate with pilots have so many precise tools with which to anticipate conditions and hazards, hours or days in advance.
And for the pandemic? Since at least the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. government has devoted scientific, military, and intelligence tools toward refining its understanding of what diseases might be emerging and where, and what might be done about them. One reason for this increased emphasis was the overall heightened (and sometimes overhyped) domestic-security awareness after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Another was the series of anthrax attacks soon after 9/11, in which envelopes containing toxins were mailed to media and political figures on the East Coast.
But the most important event was the H5N1 “bird flu” outbreak, in 2005. It originated in Asia and was mainly confined there, as the SARS outbreak had been two years earlier. Bush-administration officials viewed H5N1 as an extremely close call. “We were deeply and genuinely concerned about the potential for human-to-human transmission of the bird flu,” John R. Allen, now president of the Brookings Institution, told me. Allen is a retired four-star Marine Corps general who during the Bush administration led an effort to assess the lessons of the H5N1 threat. “We realized that if it had spread worldwide, the numbers would have been enormous. So the national-security system was pulled right into the process of improving our awareness mechanisms, and developing a national pandemic strategy.”
The awareness mechanisms were a combination of military and civilian, structured and informal, open-source and classified, with a heavy emphasis on the then-infant tools of artificial intelligence, or AI. For instance, in Bush’s second term, an unclassified government-funded project called Global Argus—named for the all-seeing giant of Greek mythology—began sifting through news reports, radio broadcasts, road-traffic patterns, business data, and other kinds of open-source information for signs of abnormalities that, in turn, could be early indicators of disease.
“Epidemics cause social disruption,” the program’s creators explained, in a PowerPoint presentation from that era that I have seen. “Social disruption is a common feature that can be tracked and used in lieu of direct reporting of disease.” As a person involved in the process explained to me, the direct and indirect indicators of social disruption could range from reports of hospital-admission rates to unexplained changes in food prices. “Suddenly the price of chicken goes down in Thailand, and it gets your attention,” a man who worked on Global Argus told me. “It may mean that farmers have seen that their flock is sick, and they slaughter them all at once and send them to market.” This project aspired to process 250,000 bits of news per day, in nearly three dozen languages, for advance warning of anomalies that could possibly indicate disease.
Fifteen years later, in the age of autonomous tracking of everything, that scale might seem quaint. A current app like Waze, for instance, is at any given moment combining readings from tens of millions of cellphones to gauge current traffic conditions on roads across the country. But Bush-era programs like Global Argus predated the introduction of the very first iPhone, and naturally algorithmic powers have increased at least as fast as civilian technology has. These days, “AI has the capacity to ingest virtually all open-source media around the world, all day every day,” a person with direct experience in the process told me. “That can provide us with the early warning that would give the opportunity for the U.S. to move out quickly with civilian medical specialists, and military-logistics teams if necessary.” Then, with these early warnings in place, this person said, “we could focus our advanced national-intelligence assets there and be able to go at a moment’s notice. We would prepare to go to ground zero, help them understand what was happening, and do everything to keep the disease from spreading.”
What might such help entail? The metaphor several people used was of firefighters from Oregon and Idaho traveling to help contain a forest fire in California before it can spread. The U.S. has many times in the past 20 years deployed scientists, doctors, and logistical-support teams to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East during the disease outbreaks.
The U.S. military excels in logistics: mobile hospitals, teams of medics, food and water, masks and gowns. American scientists, at leading universities as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (despite its well-documented recent hollowing-out and politicization) are still seen as world leaders in many fields.
Shortly before Barack Obama left office, his administration’s Pandemic Prediction and Forecasting Science and Technology Working Group—yes, that was a thing—released a report reflecting the progress that had been made in applying remote-sensing and AI tools since the early days of Global Argus. The report is freely available online and notes pointedly that recent technological advances “provide opportunities to mitigate large-scale outbreaks by predicting more accurately when and where outbreaks are likely to occur, and how they will progress.”
James Giordano, a biosecurity expert at Georgetown University Medical Center who has been extensively involved in pandemic-response planning, told me this spring: “Absolutely nothing that has happened has been a surprise. We saw it coming. Not only did we see it, we ran the models and the gaming exercises. We had every bit of the structure in place. We’ve been talking about a biohazard risk like this for years. Anyone who says we did not see this coming has their head in the sand, or is lying through their teeth.”
The system the government set up was designed to warn not about improbable “black swan” events but rather about what are sometimes called “gray rhinos.” These are the large, obvious dangers that will sooner or later emerge but whose exact timing is unknown. Did the warning system work this time, providing advance notice of the coronavirus outbreak? According to everyone I spoke with, it certainly did. A fascinating unclassified timeline compiled by the Congressional Research Service offers a day-by-day and then hour-by-hour chronology of who knew what, and when, about developments in central China. By at least late December, signs were beginning to show something seriously amiss—despite foot-dragging, lies, and apparent cover-up on the Chinese side. A different kind of Chinese government might have done a different job, calling for help from the rest of the world and increasing the chances that the coronavirus remained a regional rather than global threat. But other U.S. leaders had dealt with foreign cover-ups, including by China in the early stages of the SARS outbreak in 2002. Washington knew enough, soon enough, in this case to act while there still was time.
Through routine work or personal emails and other means of contact, U.S. and other international scientists began hearing from their Chinese colleagues very late last year about a new outbreak of what was initially referred to as pneumonia or flu. On December 31, the open-source platform ProMED—the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases—carried a translated “Chinese media report about the outbreak.” According to all of the intelligence-community veterans I spoke with, signals like this would certainly have been enough to alert U.S. officials to a significant development. “From these early indications, a pattern would have been discernible, and we would have slewed the rest of the system to find out more about it,” one of these people said. “Particularly since we’d know what to look for. If Martians were invading, we wouldn’t know what that would look like. But we have been down this road before, with MERS and SARS and Ebola, and we know the indications that are visible and detectable.”
With cues like these, the intelligence apparatus directed more attention at the area around the city of Wuhan. “China is a very hard target,” a man who recently worked in an intelligence organization told me. “We have to be very deliberate about what we focus on”—which in normal times would be military developments or suspected espionage threats. “The bottom line is that for a place like Wuhan, you really are going to rely on open-source or informal leads.” During the Obama administration, the U.S. had negotiated to have its observers stationed in many cities across China, through a program called Predict. But the Trump administration did not fill those positions, including in Wuhan. This meant that no one was on site to learn about, for instance, the unexplained closure on January 1 of the city’s main downtown Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a so-called wet market where wild animals, live or already killed, were on sale along with fish and domesticated animals. It was at this market that the first animal-to-human transfer of the virus is generally thought to have occurred, probably from a bat. But by that time, as Marisa Taylor of Reuters first reported, the Trump administration had removed dozens of CDC representatives in China.
Nonetheless, information came in. By the final days of December, and no later than January 1, a warning would have appeared in the President’s Daily Brief—the classified summary of international developments distilled from all intelligence agencies and passed to the president and a handful of advisers. “It was in the briefings by the beginning of January,” a person involved in preparing the president’s briefing book told me. “On that there is no dispute.” This person went on: “But knowing it is in the briefing book is different from knowing whether the president saw it.” He didn’t need to spell out his point, which was: Of course this president did not.
To sum up: The weather forecast showed a dangerous storm ahead, and the warning came in plenty of time. At the start of January, the total number of people infected with the virus was probably less than 1,000. All or nearly all of them were in China. Not a single case or fatality had been reported in the United States.
2. The Air Traffic Controllers
From the sky you see only the natural features that separate countries and continents—mountains, water—and not the political demarcation lines. The system that makes flying safe has done so by means of a thoroughgoing, borderless internationalism.
Controllers and flight crews around the world are supposed to be competent in the same spoken language—English—and use the same formulaic instructions that serve as an unambiguous code. For instance: Aviation English prescribes “tree” as the pronunciation for three, in part because the th- sound can be difficult for non-native speakers. Controllers around the world say “Climb and maintain 4,000 feet” rather than “Climb to 4,000 feet,” because to could be misheard as two. Controllers in Paris sequencing a Korean Air plane to land between ones from Lufthansa and Aeromexico at Charles de Gaulle Airport must be sure that all the nationalities involved will follow the same procedures in the same way.
In cases of disease outbreak, U.S. leadership and coordination of the international response was as well established and taken for granted as the role of air traffic controllers in directing flights through their sectors. Typically this would mean working with and through the World Health Organization—which, of course, Donald Trump has made a point of not doing. In the previous two decades of international public-health experience, starting with SARS and on through the rest of the acronym-heavy list, a standard procedure had emerged, and it had proved effective again and again. The U.S, with its combination of scientific and military-logistics might, would coordinate and support efforts by other countries. Subsequent stages would depend on the nature of the disease, but the fact that the U.S. would take the primary role was expected. When the new coronavirus threat suddenly materialized, American engagement was the signal all other participants were waiting for. But this time it did not come. It was as if air traffic controllers walked away from their stations and said, “The rest of you just work it out for yourselves.”
From the U.S. point of view, news of a virulent disease outbreak anywhere in the world is unwelcome. But in normal circumstances, its location in China would have been a plus. Whatever the ups and downs of political relations over the past two decades, Chinese and American scientists and public-health officials have worked together frequently, and positively, on health crises ranging from SARS during George W. Bush’s administration to the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks during Barack Obama’s. As Peter Beinart extensively detailed in an Atlantic article, the U.S. helped build China’s public-health infrastructure, and China has cooperated in detecting and containing diseases within its borders and far afield. One U.S. official recalled the Predict program: “Getting Chinese agreement to American monitors throughout their territory—that was something.” But then the Trump administration zeroed out that program.
“We had cooperated with China on every public-health threat until now,” Susan Shirk, a former State Department official and longtime scholar of Chinese affairs at UC San Diego, told me. “SARS, AIDS, Ebola in Africa, H1N1—no matter what other disputes were going on in the relationship, we managed to carve out health, and work together quite professionally. So this case is just so anomalous and so tragic.” A significant comparison, she said, is the way the United States and the Soviet Union had worked together to eliminate smallpox around the world, despite their Cold War tensions. But now, she said, “people have definitely died because the U.S. and China have been unable to cooperate.”
What did the breakdown in U.S.-Chinese cooperation mean in practice? That the U.S. knew less than it would have otherwise, and knew it later; that its actions brought out the worst (rather than the merely bad) in China’s own approach to the disease, which was essentially to cover it up internally and stall in allowing international access to emerging data; that the Trump administration lost what leverage it might have had over Chinese President Xi Jinping and his officials; and that the chance to keep the disease within the confines of a single country was forever lost. “If Trump had been following the norm of previous presidents, we would have known about this informally, because our people would have been on the ground in China,” Shirk said. “But the Trump administration pulled them out, and the last epidemiologist who worked for the U.S. government left last year.”
In addition to America’s destruction of its own advance-warning system, by removing CDC and Predict observers, the Trump administration’s bellicose tone toward China had an effect. Many U.S. officials stressed that a vicious cycle of blame and recrimination made public health an additional source of friction between the countries, rather than a sustained point of cooperation, as it had been for so many years. Through Trump’s time in office, official American attitudes toward China have been a mixture of servility and truculence. Trump himself has been almost as personally flattering and subservient to Xi Jinping as he has been to Vladimir Putin. In his speeches and tweets he has emphasized that Xi is a “great leader” and his personal friend. (And if former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s account is to be believed, Trump told Xi that he liked the idea that Xi was holding Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang.) But at the official level, Trump’s administration has been as hostile to China as Trump sounds in his rally speeches, when he utters “Chy-nah” as if the word itself were profane. Visa allowances have been tightened; long-standing cooperative arrangements have been cut; “thought leaders” of the administration, from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo onward (but not including Trump, who is a “tone leader”), have suggested that it’s time for a new Cold War, with China as the existential foe.
“The state of the relationship meant that every U.S. request was met with distrust on the Chinese side, and every Chinese response was seen on the American side as one more attempt to cover up,” Paul Triolo, a former U.S. government official with extensive experience in Asia (and who is now with the Eurasia Group), told me. “There was a huge distrust of China as a malign actor on all levels, that you would never want to help them in any way. At the working level, this had a significant impact.”
In January, Trump-administration officials asked to send back into China some of the CDC observers they had previously withdrawn. The Chinese declined. “One of the puzzles has been why the Chinese initially said no when we finally offered to send people there,” Susan Shirk said. “I think they must have been alienated by our having pulled those people out.” Several weeks later, some observers did get in.
In normal circumstances—three words I heard often as a qualifier in these conversations, sometimes also phrased as “in a normal administration” or “with a normal president”—the president’s national security adviser would have called his counterpart in Beijing, and worked out a quiet modus vivendi for dealing with the pandemic. Or the president himself would have called his Chinese counterpart. What the U.S. would have wanted early in the process—at the beginning of January, while the Chinese were still covering up the extent of the disease, or in February, when the disease was beginning to spread more rapidly—would be (ironically) more U.S. scientists on the scene, and more Chinese openness to the world.
Would Xi Jinping have been willing to consider such requests, if he had received a call from the president? “I think there would have been leverage,” Ryan Hass, now of Brookings, who was the senior NSC staffer for China policy under Barack Obama, told me. “Not out of goodwill. Just pure self-interest. If we would have privately brought to the Chinese leadership’s attention that they had a potential pandemic outbreak in one of their provinces and we wanted to provide assistance in locating the source and scale of its spread, they would have answered the phone call.”
Several officials who had experience with China suggested that other presidents might have called Xi Jinping with a quiet but tough message that would amount to: We both know you have a problem. Why don’t we work on it together, which will let you be the hero? Otherwise it will break out and become a problem for China and the whole world.
These calls never happened. Donald Trump has claimed that impeachment proceedings, which ran through much of January, preoccupied him. That didn’t keep him from making five separate campaign trips to rallies during that same month, or from watching television (and tweeting about it) for several hours every day.
Beginning with Jimmy Carter’s administration and continuing through Obama’s, the U.S. and Chinese governments had woven an ever-denser web of institutional and personal connections. U.S. Treasury officials met regularly with officials from the Chinese ministry of finance; the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army had exchange programs; the Federal Aviation Administration trained Chinese air traffic controllers; and on through a long list, whose combined intention was to buffer inevitable superpower strains. Under Trump, most of these stopped. The only influential U.S. officials who had regular contact with Chinese counterparts were Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Robert Lighthizer, the trade representative. They were intent on getting the “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal signed, and all other business ran a distant second to that. Mnuchin and Lighthizer “didn’t want to be pressing Xi Jinping with anything else,” a former intelligence official told me.
“CDC asked for access, and was denied it [by the Chinese government],” Ron Klain, who coordinated efforts against the Ebola pandemic during the Obama administration, told me. “In normal circumstances, that request would have gone up the chain, and you would have had senior-level people in the NSC pressing at senior levels. My guess is that it wasn’t pressed in this case because the senior people were Mnuchin and Kudlow, and they had other priorities.” (Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council at the White House, was also pushing aggressively for a trade deal.)
“It would have taken diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government to allow us to insert our people” into Wuhan and other disease centers, Klain said. “The question isn’t what leverage we had. The point is that we gave up leverage with China to get the trade deal done. That meant that we didn’t put leverage on China’s government. We took their explanations at face value.”
Trump flattered Xi Jinping in public statements until the trade deal was signed, on January 15, and for a while kept on flattering him. On January 22, the U.S. had its first diagnosed case—a traveler who had arrived from Wuhan a week earlier. On that day, Trump referred to this traveler and said, “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control.” Eight days later, on January 30, he said, “We’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us.” The next day, Trump issued his partial ban on travel from China, but through February he was still publicly complimenting Xi Jinping. “He is strong, sharp, and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the coronavirus,” Trump said of Xi on February 7.
By the middle of March, Trump had switched to blasting the “Chinese virus,” which he continued doing through much of the month. On March 11, he gave a poorly received national address from the Oval Office, in which he bungled the announcement of an upcoming ban on most (or maybe all; it wasn’t clear) air travel to the U.S. from Europe. Several people who have dealt with past disease outbreaks told me that, in a normal administration, one option for mid-January would have been a temporary, but total, ban on all inbound international flights to the United States. “A serious option in all contingency planning would be total closure of the airspace,” a former senior official with experience in pandemic response told me. “We learned from the bird flu that as long as the airspace was open, we were completely vulnerable as a population. It is a draconian approach that could strand thousands of people. But as we look back—when taking early intelligence into serious consideration from the start—this one option would be an early choice for the president to make. It would be followed immediately by humanitarian support, and then transitioned through hubs to permit a measured flow of people to key locations. Follow-on screening would also take place prior to any further travel.”
Not everyone I spoke with agreed that a total travel freeze, similar to the multiday shutdown on air travel after the 9/11 attacks, would have been feasible. All agreed that Trump’s limitations on travel from China, in late January, and from parts of Europe, six weeks later, made a bad situation worse. The Chinese “ban” was a further irritant to the Chinese government (despite Trump’s ongoing personal praise of Xi Jinping), and because it wasn’t absolute, some 40,000 U.S. citizens and others flew into American airports from China, with minimal testing, screening, or quarantine provisions. The ban might even have worsened the situation, by impelling Americans (who might have been exposed) to get back while they still could. The president’s advance notice of the partial European ban almost certainly played an important part in bringing the infection to greater New York City. Because of the two-day “warning” Trump gave in his speech, every seat on every airplane from Europe to the U.S. over the next two days was filled. Airport and customs offices at the arrival airports in the U.S. were unprepared and overwhelmed. News footage showed travelers queued for hours, shoulder to shoulder, waiting to be admitted to the U.S. Some of those travelers already were suffering from the disease; they spread it to others. On March 11, New York had slightly more than 220 diagnosed cases. Two weeks later, it had more than 25,000. Genetic testing showed that most of the infection in New York was from the coronavirus variant that had come through Europe to the United States, rather than directly from China (where most of the early cases in Washington State originated).
Officials in New York and elsewhere made their own errors, but the game was already over. The strategy for a potential pandemic should have been like that for a forest fire: do everything possible to contain it where it first broke out. Once that chance was missed, it was gone for good.
3. The Emergency Checklist
For me, as an amateur pilot, the most gripping moments in the Tom Hanks movie Sully come immediately after the bird strike. The film recreates Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s feat of safely gliding a fully loaded US Airways plane to a landing in the Hudson River, after it flew through a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both of its engines. Obviously the moment of touchdown brings drama. But what I found most remarkable was the calm with which the captain and his first officer systematically worked through their cockpit emergency checklist, looking for every possibility to regain power as the plane headed down.
Aviation is safe because, even after all the advances in forecasting and technology, its culture still imagines emergencies and rehearses steps for dealing with them. Especially in the post-9/11 era of intensified concern about threats of all sorts, American public-health officials have also imagined a full range of crises, and have prepared ways to limit their worst effects. The resulting official “playbooks” are the equivalent of cockpit emergency checklists. Following steps in the cockpit checklist was not enough for Captain Sullenberger to restart his plane’s engines. But following the steps in the main U.S.-government pandemic playbooks would have saved tens of thousands of lives.
Anything that Barack Obama had recommended, Donald Trump was predisposed to ignore. Of the many lies Trump and his defenders have spun, none is more flatly false than the claim, as stated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in May, that the Obama administration “did not leave … any kind of game plan for something like this.”
In response to McConnell’s claim, Ron Klain tweeted about the official pandemic playbook left for Obama’s successors. McConnell, surprisingly, retracted his statement—but the White House spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, then claimed that whatever “thin packet of paper” Obama had left was inferior to a replacement that the Trump administration had supposedly cooked up, but which has never been made public. The 69-page, single-spaced Obama-administration document is officially called “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents” and is freely available online. It describes exactly what the Trump team was determined not to do.
What I found remarkable was how closely the Obama administration’s recommendations tracked with those set out 10 years earlier by the George W. Bush administration, in response to its chastening experience with bird flu. The Bush-era work, called “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza” and publicly available here, differs from the Obama-era playbook mainly in the simpler forms of technology on which it could draw. But the premises, recommendations, and warnings are fundamentally similar in each—and at complete odds with the “let’s just ignore it” nature of the Trump administration’s response.
The Bush report explained clearly why new diseases would inevitably emerge, and why they would constitute a severe threat to national security in the broadest terms. Its central premise was the importance of working seamlessly with other governments so as to contain outbreaks before they spread worldwide. “Given the rapid speed of transmission and the universal susceptibility of human populations, an outbreak of pandemic influenza anywhere poses a risk to populations everywhere,” the report explained. “Our international effort to contain and mitigate the effects of an outbreak of pandemic influenza beyond our borders is a central component of our strategy to stop, slow, or limit the spread of infection to the United States.”
I’m tempted to devote the next 20 pages of this article to quoting whole passages from the Bush report. But here is a sample—and remember, this was an official assessment by the U.S. government more than a dozen years before the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed:
The animal population serves as a reservoir for new influenza viruses … It is impossible to predict whether the H5N1 virus [in 2005] will lead to a pandemic, but history suggests that if it does not, another novel influenza virus will emerge at some point in the future and threaten an unprotected human population.
The economic and societal disruption of an influenza pandemic could be significant. Absenteeism across multiple sectors related to personal illness, illness in family members, fear of contagion, or public health measures to limit contact with others could threaten the functioning of critical infrastructure, the movement of goods and services, and operation of institutions such as schools and universities. A pandemic would thus have significant implications for the economy, national security, and the basic functioning of society.
It is almost as if we had been warned. Here is one more sample. I know that long block quotes can be off-putting. But consider the one below, and see how, sentence by sentence, these warnings from 2005 match the headlines of 2020. The topic was the need to divide responsibility among global, national, state, and community jurisdictions in dealing with the next pandemic. The fundamental premise—so widely shared that it barely needed to be spelled out—was that the U.S. federal government would act as the indispensable flywheel, as it had during health emergencies of the past. As noted, it would work with international agencies and with governments in all affected areas to coordinate a global response. Within its own borders it would work with state agencies to detect the potential for the disease’s spread and to contain cases that did arise:
Unlike geographically and temporally bounded disasters, a pandemic will spread across the globe over the course of months or over a year, possibly in waves, and will affect communities of all sizes and compositions. In terms of its scope, the impact of a severe pandemic may be more comparable to that of war or a widespread economic crisis than a hurricane, earthquake, or act of terrorism. In addition to coordinating a comprehensive and timely national response, the Federal Government will bear primary responsibility for certain critical functions, including: (1) the support of containment efforts overseas and limitation of the arrival of a pandemic to our shores; (2) guidance related to protective measures that should be taken; (3) modifications to the law and regulations to facilitate the national pandemic response; (4) modifications to monetary policy to mitigate the economic impact of a pandemic on communities and the Nation; (5) procurement and distribution of vaccine and antiviral medications; and (6) the acceleration of research and development of vaccines and therapies during the outbreak.
This was produced by an administration that at the time was still enmeshed in doomed warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Even so, it laid out a plan for dealing with security threats of a different sort.
The Obama playbook, like the Bush report, is chillingly prescient. Its emphasis is on the step-by-step “how to” of the government’s response. In an airplane cockpit, the emergency checklists have a series of decision trees and yes/no choices for coping with failures. If the engine fails, first check the fuel supply, and so on. The Obama playbook was something like that. To give just one example, here was the checklist on deciding when and whether to ban travel from infected areas:
Referring to the detailed pandemic playbooks from the Bush and Obama administrations, John R. Allen told me: “The moment you get confirmation of a problem, you would move right to the timeline. Decisions by the president, actions by the secretary of defense and the CDC, right down the list. You’d start executing.”
Or, in the case of the current administration, you would not. Reading these documents now is like discovering a cockpit checklist in the smoking wreckage.
4. The Pilot
You don’t need to have seen Top Gun or The Right Stuff to be aware that pilots can be too proud of their cool bravado. But a virtue of Sully is the reminder that when everything else fails—the forecasts, the checklists, the triply redundant aircraft systems—the skill, focus, and competence of the person at the controls can make the difference between life and death.
So too in the public response to a public-health crisis. The system was primed to act, but the person at the top of the system had to say, “Go.” And that person was Donald Trump.
“Here is the way I would put it,” a person who has been involved with the President’s Daily Brief process told me, referring to Trump. “The person behind the desk is the same person you see on TV”—emotional, opinionated, fixed on his own few hobbyhorses and distorted views of reality, unwilling or unable to absorb new information. “In a normal administration, the president would have seen the warnings unfolding from January onward. But this president hadn’t absorbed any of it.”
Allen, who during his military career had extensive experience coordinating and commanding multinational efforts, told me, “No matter how good your planning is, or how prescient your scientists and generals, in our system you depend on the commander in chief. After you’ve given your very best advice, if the commander in chief decides not to accept it, there you are.”
People I spoke with described the ways in which staffers tried to catch or sustain Trump’s interest. Everyone recognized that he would never even look at the President’s Daily Brief. The trick was seeing whether crucial information could spark interest among others on the staff and eventually drift its way to Trump. “Does he just willfully ignore all outside information?” Paul Triolo asked. “I don’t think he ever saw or read any of the intel reports. He does listen to Navarro”—Peter Navarro, the former labor economist who had become a leading hawk on trade policy toward China. On January 29—after the trade deal Navarro championed had been signed—Navarro sent Trump a memo warning of the pandemic threat spreading from China. Navarro had no public-health background, and the people I spoke with viewed the memo mainly as an extension of his overall perspective on China. Whatever its merits, there is no evidence that Trump read or absorbed this memo or any other written documents.
In a resigned way, the people I spoke with summed up the situation this way: You have a head of government who doesn’t know anything, and doesn’t read anything, and is at the mercy of what he sees on TV. “And all around him, you have this carnival,” an intelligence officer said. “Pompeo is very ambitious to take the reins of the anti-China campaign. Mnuchin and [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross are thinking about their trade deals. You end up thinking that the voice of reason is … Jared”—Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, whose many areas of responsibility in the administration have included the China relationship.
One truth through the decades, under presidents Republican and Democratic alike, is that what the president cares about, everyone else cares about, too. “As the president said in his State of the Union address” is the way White House staffers begin a typical conversation with staffers of Cabinet departments. Or, “as I heard directly from the president.” This president was saying that the disease didn’t matter, or would solve itself. No one was capable of attracting his attention, or changing his mind, or even using his indifference as a shield for behind-the-scenes preparation for a response.
A military official told me, “I have wondered, as a thought experiment: If the outbreak had been in Tennessee rather than Wuhan, would the outcome for the world have been worse, better, or the same?” This person said that he thought the disease might have spread even more rapidly. Why? “I think it would have been harder to convince Trump to lock things down here, than to throw a ban on China.” Blaming the “Chinese virus” (or, as Trump put it in Tulsa, the “kung flu”) and imposing an ineffective and even counterproductive “ban” was rhetorically and intellectually easy for Trump, after the trade deal had been signed. But the man who has refused ever to be photographed wearing a mask would have been—and has been—slow to impose any domestic controls.
The United States still possesses the strongest economy in the world, its military is by far the most powerful, its culture is diverse, and, confronted with the vicissitudes of history, the country has proved resilient. But a veteran of the intelligence world emphasized that the coronavirus era revealed a sobering reality. “Our system has a single point-of-failure: an irrational president.” At least in an airplane cockpit, the first officer can grab the controls from a captain who is steering the aircraft toward doom.
5. The Control Systems
The deadliest airline crash in U.S. history occurred in 1979. An American Airlines DC-10 took off from O’Hare Airport, in Chicago—and just as it was leaving the ground, an incorrectly mounted engine ripped away from one of the wings. When the engine’s pylon was pulled off, it cut the hydraulic lines that led from the cockpit to the control surfaces on the wings and tail. From that point on, the most skillful flight crew in the world could not have saved the flight. The commands they desperately tried to give as they pushed and pulled on the yoke in the cockpit had no effect on the plane’s doomed course.
It’s a grisly comparison, but also an instructive one in the case of the pandemic. Suppose the administration had paid attention when it mattered. Suppose Donald Trump had been willing to call Xi Jinping. Suppose Trump had put aside his categorical dismissal of his predecessors’ efforts and looked at the Bush and Obama playbooks. By the time the pandemic emerged, it may have already been too late. The hydraulic lines may already have been too damaged to transmit the signals. It was Trump himself who cut them.
The more complex the organization, the more its success or failure turns on the skill of people in its middle layers—the ones who translate a leader’s decision to the rest of the team in order to get results. Doctors depend on nurses, architects depend on contractors and craftsmen, generals depend on lieutenants and sergeants. A president depends on people who have developed the skills and muscle memory needed to shift a huge bureaucracy’s focus. Because Donald Trump himself had no grasp of this point, and because he and those around him preferred political loyalists and family retainers rather than holdovers from the “deep state,” the whole federal government became like a restaurant with no cooks, or a TV station with stars but no one to turn the cameras on.
“There is still resilience and competence in the working-level bureaucracy,” an intelligence-agency official told me. “But the layers above them have been removed.” Near the end of one full term in office, an unusually large number of senior deputy-secretary and assistant-secretary posts in Cabinet departments remain empty. Donald Trump’s zeal for filling lifetime-appointment judicial vacancies has not extended to the regular government. An unusually large share of those who have been appointed are political staffers, donors, or Trump protégés without experience in their field.
Traditionally, the National Security Council staff has comprised a concentration of highly knowledgeable, talented, and often ambitious younger figures, mainly on their way to diplomatic or academic careers. For instance, during both terms of the Obama administration, the main NSC staffer covering Chinese affairs was Evan S. Medeiros. By the time he joined Obama’s staff, he had a doctorate in international relations and had written many books and papers on military, political, and economic developments in China; he had lived and traveled in the region; he spoke Chinese. Under Donald Trump, the most influential staff figures on China appear to be Robert Lighthizer, the trade representative, who has decades of experience in that field but sees China and Japan almost exclusively through a commercial lens; Peter Navarro, who apparently came to Trump’s attention after Jared Kushner did an online search for books on China and came across Navarro’s inflammatory and thinly researched polemic Death by China; and Matthew Pottinger, a Chinese speaker who worked for years in China as a reporter for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal and then spent five years in the Marines. The three share a skeptical view of China—Lighthizer on trade, Navarro on everything, and Pottingerbecause of the repression and corruption he observed as a foreign correspondent. Even with Pottinger included, this was a shallower pool of China experience than under other administrations.
“There is nobody now who can play the role of ‘senior China person,’” a former intelligence official told me. “In a normal administration, you’d have a lot of people who had spent time in Asia, spent time in China, knew the goods and bads.” Also in a normal administration, he and others pointed out, China and the United States would have numerous connective strands—joint working groups on anti-terrorism efforts, or climate projects, or even, yes, pandemic-prevention strategies. “There would be some ballast in the relationship,” this person said. “Now all you’ve got is the trade friction”—plus the personal business deals that the president’s elder daughter, Ivanka, has made in China, as have relatives of her husband, Jared Kushner. What all these figures lack is any experience whatsoever with bureaucracies—that is, with running an organization any larger than their own, family-controlled enterprises.
Every president is “surprised” by how hard it is to convert his own wishes into government actions. In 1960, political scientist Richard E. Neustadt got John F. Kennedy’s attention with his book Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, which analyzed the range of tools a president must employ to persuade the Congress, the public, foreign leaders, and members of the permanent bureaucracy to work toward his goals. Before that, Harry Truman had famously converted this principle into a joke. When preparing to leave the Oval Office and turn it over to the newly elected Dwight Eisenhower, Truman pointed at his desk and said: “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say ‘Do this, do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army.”
Presidents cope with this discovery in varying ways. The people I spoke with had served in past administrations as early as the first George Bush’s. George H. W. Bush came to office with broad experience in the federal government—as much as any other president. He had been vice president for eight years, a CIA director, twice an ambassador, and a member of Congress. He served only four years in the Oval Office but began with a running start. Before he became president, Bill Clinton had been a governor for 12 years and had spent decades learning and talking about government policies. A CIA official told me that Clinton would not read his President’s Daily Briefs in the morning, when they arrived, but would pore over them late at night and return them with copious notes. George W. Bush’s evolution from dependence on the well-traveled Dick Cheney, in his first term, to more confident control, in his second, has been well chronicled. As for Obama, Paul Triolo told me: “By the end of his eight years, Obama really understood how to get the bureaucracy to do what he wanted done, and how to get the information he needed to make decisions.” The job is far harder than it seems. Donald Trump has been uninterested in learning the first thing about it.
In a situation like this, some of those in the “regular” government decide to struggle on. Others quit—literally, or in the giving-up sense. “The problem is not just the president, erratic as he is,” an intelligence official told me. “The ‘process’ is just so chaotic that it’s not a process at all. There’s no one at the desk. There’s no one to read the memos. No one is there.”
James Giordano, who continues to work on projects forecasting national-security threats, said that the right-wing “Fire Fauci” trend, though brief, had a powerful demoralizing effect on the experienced professionals who, in the federal government as in any large organization, get the daily work done. (The aviation counterpart would be a pilot who sneered away cautions from maintenance experts, weather forecasters, or air traffic controllers as fraidy-cat “deep state” talk.) During March and April, when Donald Trump thought it advantageous to have hour-long live White House “briefings” on the pandemic day after day, Dr. Anthony Fauci became world famous for his calm, clear, cautionary explanations. Trump loyalists began grousing that Fauci had “better ratings” than his boss. By mid-April, when Fauci had politely but clearly taken his distance from some of Trump’s most extreme promises and claims, #FireFauci began circulating on Twitter—and in mid-April, Trump himself retweeted one message in that vein. In practical terms, Trump couldn’t actually fire Fauci, who (apart from his personal eminence) held the sort of civil-service position not subject to presidential dismissal without cause. But having an online mob riled up against a civil servant is no joke. My own house, in Washington, is a few blocks from Fauci’s—and starting about that time, my wife and I noticed government security vehicles stationed outside it around the clock.
“That hashtag is indicative of the risk-averse climate I am talking about within government at present; clearly a result of top-down influence,” Giordano said. “If this could happen to Fauci, it makes people think that if they push too hard in the wrong direction, they’ll get their heads chopped off. There is no reason in the world something called #FireFauci should even exist. The nation’s leaders should maintain high regard for scientific empiricism, insight, and advice, and must not be professionally or personally risk averse when it comes to understanding and communicating messages about public safety and health.”
Giordano concluded, “If I sound frustrated, that is because I am”—and we spoke at a time when the U.S. death toll was “only” about 10,000. “It’s not just personal frustration. It’s professional frustration. In the midst of this emergency, we should have been able to act, swiftly and soundly—and we didn’t.”
Over nearly two decades, the U.S. government had assembled the people, the plans, the connections, and the know-how to spare this nation the worst effects of the next viral mutation that would, someday, arise. That someday came, and every bit of the planning was for naught. The deaths, the devastation, the unforeseeable path ahead—they did not have to occur.
Today, six months after the president was given his first warnings, more than 2.3 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus. More than 120,000 have succumbed to the disease. New infections are being reported at the rate of thousands per day—as many now as at what some saw as the “peak” two months ago.
The language of an NTSB report is famously dry and clinical—just the facts. In the case of the pandemic, what it would note is the following: “There was a flight plan. There was accurate information about what lay ahead. The controllers were ready. The checklists were complete. The aircraft was sound. But the person at the controls was tweeting. Even if the person at the controls had been able to give effective orders, he had laid off people that would carry them out. This was a preventable catastrophe.”
The summation by a former senior official was less dry and less clinical. He said to me, “Here we stand, on a mountain of dead.”