QAnon: Mothers Against the World

How one woman went from a left-wing icon to an alt-right activist

Wilma on the Bridge

Wilma is a good mother. When her daughter was first beginning to speak, Wilma, armed with an undergraduate degree in English, scoured department stores for vocabulary cards. At home, she would hold up the cards one-by-one, telling her daughter to focus on not only each individual letter’s sound but the entire word’s unique “power.” Now, with her daughter in her sophomore year of high school, Wilma has had to find new teaching methods: “When I want to spend time with her, just the two of us, we go for drives late at night. I’ll play great stuff for her, old stuff on the radio, and then she’ll put on k-pop. If there’s a song we really like, I’ll pull the car over, and we’ll watch the lyric video—that way we know what the words mean.” Her daughter is, diligent as ever, busy studying for exams and already thinking about colleges. Wilma doesn’t worry too much about her daughter’s college essays; she knows the value of language. Now, in order to instill this life lesson into the rest of the world, Wilma finds herself standing on a bridge over the northbound Kennedy Expressway heading to O’Hare. Last week, she hung a banner with the word “HOPE” for 25,000 commuters to see. She calls this her “one word” campaign, “These are words that we don’t usually see in everyday life, powerful words that can change how people feel.”

Every day for four years, Wilma has been hanging powerful words that can change how people feel on a prominent Chicago pedestrian bridge. When Bernie Sanders launched his presidential campaign, she was drawn to his anti-establishment ethos, his calls for universal health care, and his support of what she considered traditional American values: integrity, strength, trust, and truth. Powerful words. Against the backdrop of a chaotic Republican primary, she began to notice how the mainstream media had positioned Hillary Clinton as the de facto candidate, not giving Sanders the time of day. After Clinton took the nomination, Wilma decided that she would spread the word of Sanders’s betrayal by the Democratic party: “Every day that the media lies, I am on this bridge, and the media lies every day.” She hung banners, was featured in social media posts, and got interviews from local news outlets. The #BernieBros valorized this grandmotherly activist who vindicated their youth revolution; proudly, she remembers a Columbia film student shooting a short documentary of her. “Bernie Bridges” became something of a small national movement, and when she travelled, she found herself ending up on bridges across the country, shipping off her handmade banners to fellow supporters, “When I’m not here, I’m on a bridge somewhere.” She means this both literally and metaphorically. Her work can be found on dozens of bridges, and on the rare day that she doesn’t spend rush hour watching over the Kennedy, she’s having a “bridge day” at home, revamping her collection of stencils and turning thrifted sheets into propaganda.

Of course, Bernie didn’t win. Nor did Hillary. After decision day in November 2016, when her work was supposed to conclude, she found herself drawn to a new political outsider, the just-elected Donald J. Trump. In the intervening year, her work would take up many causes, but the work itself stayed the same: whether it was Bernie, Trump, unions, Paul Ryan, or health care, motorists could find her on that bridge, spreading the word.

Then QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory that cropped up in October 2017, caught her attention. Validating her disapproval of mainstream media’s corporate lies, she took up the QAnon banner (literally) and embarked on her latest and most controversial political journey. A 63-year old retiree, Wilma’s past four decades as a voting Democrat had somehow resulted in her calling out the nation’s leading political figures as pedophiles, Satanists, and murderers. But on the journey from political apathy to political crisis, one force guided her: family.

My first day on the bridge was a crisp fall afternoon warmed by an ambivalent sun and cooled by rapidly shifting winds. As I walked to her “pulpit,” Wilma was changing from a winter hat to a large hair clamp, a gentling breeze having just changed directions. Standing next to a long white banner with blocky blue text that read “TEACHERS,” her greying red hair frizzed out, and catching my eye, she dropped a lipstick-stained cigarette to the ground where it joined many others. She clapped excitedly, hands high and close to her chest, and with a widening grin insisted that she take a photo of her latest visitor. But before she could, I had to hold out my arm. With her camera slung around her neck, she rolled back my sleeve and gingerly slid a blue plastic bracelet around my wrist: “Storm Is Upon Us,” it read. “You’ve come on a great day,” she said.

Her handstitched banner was held in place on the chain-link fence with old Bernie buttons and more of those blue bracelets. As she explained the day’s work, hundreds of cars in rush hour traffic crawled beneath the bridge, many honking, waving, or clapping for that single word. In response, she made a vaguely rock-and-roll gesture with her hands, “the universal sign for gratitude.” Or just the Hawaiian one. A few days into the latest Chicago Teachers Union strike, the city was excited to see her fighting the good fight. At the start of that conversation, her status as a political outsider faded away. She asked about my teachers, she spoke about her daughter’s aspirations, and we were visited by an excited driver whose sister was an educator, causing her to pull over. She wanted a picture of Wilma, but Wilma was stern: she wanted a picture of her guest. Then, as the woman ran back to her idle car, Wilma stopped her, offering a bracelet. In vague terms, she told the woman to look up the website on there, and anxious to leave, the woman nodded amicably and promised that she would.

“This is part of my psychology,” Wilma said, “if Chicago sees me talking with people up here, they’ll think that I’m approachable and friendly. I know I look like a nut, but I don’t want to look crazy.” Without missing a beat, she began directing traffic in these confused hand motions, wagging a finger when traffic had slowed down up ahead, and giving two thumbs up when it was clear. This, too, was part of her psychology, “It lets Chicago know that I’m not causing the slowdown.” And then she reminded me why I was there, “By standing in solidarity with the teachers, I show Chicago that I care about what they care about. This makes them more open-minded when I put up my Q banners. It makes them more likely to look up my banners when they don’t understand them.”

QAnon began where most conspiracy theories now flourish: the internet. On 4chan, the oft-cited breeding ground for white supremacy and pervasive misogyny in this digital age, an anonymous user began disseminating mysterious questions and riddle-like headlines, signing off as “Q.” Q is allegedly the highest level of security clearance available to an official in the United States military, a fact that, despite Q’s incoherent predictions, gave internet users enough confidence to become staunch supporters of the anonymous prophet’s political agenda. In terms of content, QAnon is about the Deep State, pedophilic political leaders, CIA coups, Satanic rituals, and a New World Order. It builds on the legacies of popular conspiracy theories, becoming something of a catch-all: here is MK-Ultra, a CIA mind control program creating school shooters; here is JKF Jr., alive and well to carry on his father’s legacy of demilitarized intelligence agencies; and here are the notable Jewish families with vast amounts of wealth that funded the liberal media, performed blood rituals, hid UFOs, and on and on and on.

But in terms of content, QAnon is unimportant: much ink has been spilled detailing, debunking, and satirizing the conspiracy theory’s beliefs, and in discrediting its proponents’ worldviews, marginalized a vocal group of political outsiders largely misrepresented in popular media. Reporting on QAnon profiles maniacs, incels, and racists; it ignores teachers, workers, and parents. This tactic often seeks to dehumanize political “others,” and in doing so, chooses easy targets, members of society already viewed as less than human for some reason or another, making it easy to forget that many members of fringe groups are more similar to the mainstream than they are opposed. If one truly wanted to demonstrate how powerful, how pervasive, and how dangerous these political dupes can be, they shouldn’t choose psychopaths: they should choose mothers.

Of course, this is all to be taken with some hesitation. QAnon does promote abhorrent, illogical, and baseless beliefs. If Wilma is to be truly understood, her beliefs must be laid bare. Here are some of the things she has said to me over the course of our conversations:

  • She doesn’t vaccinate her daughter, feed her GMOs, or let her drink “fluorinated” water.
  • When she photographs “chem trails,” the FBI sees them on Twitter and reroutes their “mind-control smoke” by the next day.
  • The CIA has created the school shooting crisis by turning children into sleeper agents through drug-induced mind-control.
  • The Notre Dame fire was an attempt by the “good guys” to prevent a blood sacrifice held by Satanists. Singer Adam Levine is implicated because his devil-like voice can communicate with dark forces.
  • The extraterrestrials walk among us. Where would sci-fi stories like Stargate come from if not people who “know what we cannot know”?

Then again, she also has revealed that she:

  • Supports unions (for teachers and all workers).
  • Thinks both Democrats and Republicans are working to divide the country along talking points that miss the nuance of people’s everyday lives.
  • Believes in universal health care.
  • Believes in the redistribution of wealth.
  • Believes in the climate crisis and knows that large corporations should be held accountable.

Pitted together, these lists could endlessly contradict, complicate, and cancel out each other. On how to reconcile the two, Wilma has her own strategy: for her, everyone has the same ends (increased freedom, equality, and happiness) but different means. Sensing my intense distaste for firearms, she notes that we both want school shootings to stop—how we both would do that, well, that’s a whole different story.

Wilma has had to justify her work on the bridge by focusing on ends. Most of her stories and answers to my questions wraparound to the same pithy statement, “Wouldn’t you do the same for your children?” Her ideal political future is one in which “people don’t have to stand out on bridges.” Granted, she doesn’t have to stand out on this bridge, but her reasoning is clear: everything an activist does is done for future generations. While we’re here, this is what will temper the furor of irritated passers-by: A man, outraged by her banner reading “GREAT AWAKENING,” launched a volley of profanity at her, calling out Trump’s failing presidency and bevy of scandals. In response, she said that “GREAT AWAKENING” has nothing to do with Trump, it has to do with the people of the world being able to take action into their own hands. She said it has to do with protecting our children, because even if only one child was at risk, wouldn’t you want to help that child? And then she turned his criticism on him: why was he so quick to demonize her, making a connection to Trump that isn’t even explicitly there? (Trump has never acknowledged Q.) If you could be awakened, wouldn’t you want to know the truth?

A week later, we’re on a smaller pedestrian bridge that connects an old manufacturing lot with an overgrown suburban sidewalk, the path nearly hidden by plumes of bushes and prairie grass. This time, she greets me with a big hug, asks about my schoolwork, and in turn, I ask about her daughter’s work. “She’s a bright kid,” is all she has to say. Then, I help her place her banners. Loop the bracelet through the handsewn grip, pull through the fence, secure with the Bernie button. GOOD. Do the corners first so that the message is up quickly, then take care of the additional supports, making sure it’s taut. IS. When an emergency vehicle approaches, back away from the banners, so they know that you aren’t distracting traffic, giving them a blessing if you’re the religious type. WINNING. A message from Q. The leader of ISIS has been killed. Trump is on the up and up. I follow her instructions, hanging the “Q” as well, and am immediately greeted by a motorist down below who stares directly at me. With an exaggerated look of annoyance, he slowly draws a circle around in the air with his pointer finger directed at the side of his head. Crazy.

Wilma doesn’t let the naysayers get to her. As a kid, she helped her father with some of his legal duties; namely, she was be the audience for arguments when he was a defense attorney. More than anything else, he taught her how to communicate with the other side. Arguments were to be crafted in anticipation of rebuttal, and attacks were only to be made on the basis of evidence. Directing attention at someone’s character does little to help your argument if the evidence isn’t there. It only sows division. Her bridge is supposed to be a place where people can become aware of different ways of engaging with the world. Embrace the alternative.

Begrudgingly, she lives with the alternative. For thirty-five years, she worked as a waitress and was married to a now-retired war historian. They’re still married, but “Q” certainly isn’t the reason why. Her hashtag for him, often vocalized, is #stuckonstupid. She’s stuck with #stuckonstupid. They see things differently, but that doesn’t change how she feels about his character. In that regard, he’s still the man she’s always loved, and a good argument can get the two of them thinking about politics in unexpected ways. At some point, he became an analyst of her work. He calls her bridge her “political space,” and he tells her that the global populist movement mirrors successful strategies by former militaries to incite revolution. When Q determines that a news story is false, she’ll run the proof by him to try and convince him that there’s hope for him to learn. Still, she gloats about her “Qhusband,” a man whose wife is also #stuckonstupid, so the two of them get to bicker about their respective spouse’s ignorance and bond over their political ideologies. Forty-three years ago, a psychic predicted that she would end up in marketing. Standing on that bridge, she thinks there’s some truth to that claim.

Since becoming a spokesperson for the QAnon movement, her indoctrination into its family has been rapid. She speaks fondly of her friends found both online and in real life. Other former democrats have rallied with her, finding the light, and she laments those who haven’t been caught up to speed. Recently, Wilma woke up to a flurry of Twitter notifications from a group of supporters who had seen her bracelets and were willing to fly her out to the Dallas Trump rally; instead, she gave a package of 1,500 bracelets to a friend who was going and connected him with her Twitter fans. Before then, she peaked in popularity when Q posted one of her tweets: a photograph of a stock letter from the White House thanking her for her recent gift (also a box of bracelets). Knowingly, she said, “Trump is smart enough not to wear those in public; the media would tear him to shreds and ruin our movement.” She speaks candidly about fellow activists like they’re friends—Belmore Douglas, an English professor who was fired for showing QAnon videos in his class, is tagged in her Twitter threads with Jordan Sather, another activist. The two recently fought over the role of Christ in the Q movement, and, with a grimace worn only by the guardian of two quarreling children, Wilma remarked, “There are some disagreements, but we know that we all have the same goals.” And in those goals, everyone has a job. She considers herself an educator and activist, but others, like those who can decipher Q’s messages, are researchers. For her, QAnon is not just a movement; it’s a community.

Still, her favorite way to meet new supporters is out on the bridge. Everyday at around 4 o’clock, a Sysco sixteen-wheeler passes beneath the bridge, and the man behind the wheel makes sure to give a wave. A year ago he took the exit, parking his truck unlawfully in the suburbs, just so that he could thank her for her work. She refers to the motorists as her regulars, and she makes sure to take photos of particularly excited drivers so that she can remember them, just as she wanted to remember me. For her, political disputes are secondary to her key values, so even those who may openly ridicule Q don’t realize that they are allies in her fight against tyranny and corruption. A group of children peddling by on BMX bikes paused behind her, and, pointing to “GOOD IS WINNING,” a boy asked what it all meant. Calmly, she put out her cigarette and stooped to the child’s level, telling him that it meant the people who wanted to protect him were getting stronger. Confused, but apparently satisfied, the child said he would ask his mom about it and rode off. A few moments later an older man in jogging gear trotted up to us, and she shouted at him “Good is winning!” He laughed and wiped his brow, “Yeah next all we have to do is get Trump out of office.” Briefly, shock overtook her, and with a slight stutter, she admitted, “Well yeah, you might think that, but if you knew what I know…” As she offered him a bracelet, the two of us exchanged a contentious look, until he recognized the recorder in my hand, glanced at her, then nodded as I shook my head. Snapping back to her elevator pitch, he issued a number of “mhms” and took back off on his path. “It only takes one,” she said.

Patrick Jagoda, a professor of English and Cinema Media Studies at the University of Chicago, has recently become captivated by alternate reality games (ARGs). These large-scale games can cross continents, turning the entire globe into one massive roleplaying game. Except players don’t pretend to be anyone else, they pretend to be themselves. A perfect example is World Without Oil, an ARG that asked players to imagine the world in the midst of an oil crisis. The game designers released daily updates about international developments, health hazards, and changes in technology due to the oil shortage, while players documented their survival strategies. They built haphazard renewable generators out of household appliances, wrote poems lamenting the state of affairs, and drafted constitutions laying out governments based on sustainability for the post-oil economy. Players bond over shared narratives, slogans, challenges, and successes. A community of people develop who feel as though they’ve interrogated real-life issues, that they’ve accomplished something meaningful. Jagoda sees the parallels between QAnon and these games, but with much more dramatic effects.

Whenever Jagoda begins designing a game like this, he thinks about how players will communicate, how they’ll bond, how they’ll best believe the riddles and clues being disseminated, and how he can make them truly act is if it’s not a game. Q’s riddles, Wilma’s activism, social media’s growing web of connections, and devout researchers’ elaborate explanations of global events: all constitute the stuff of fiction, the components of a convincing lie. For a game designer, these would be the puzzles, objectives, achievements, and narrative that keep people interested in the story. From the standpoint of psychological game design, QAnon is a perfect example of immersive fiction. This fiction, however, doesn’t have a “game over” screen. Instead, these tactics are specifically used in ARGs to keep people playing, to make them doubt where reality ends and the game begins, to feel as though they’ve accomplished something when their achievements are often valueless. It’s not merely fools who fall for these games; it’s people with active imaginations, people who value community, people who want to make great change, and it’s people who feel isolated, powerless, or lost. It’s a mother looking for good news to bring home to her daughter, a woman who can look at the state of the nation and say, “I haven’t had hope like this in 40 years,” because the alternative reality to that is that the world is becoming a worse place for her daughter.

As she speaks, Wilma drops in Q slogans the way one might quote the Bible, another staple of ARGs. Her favorite is “Where we go one, we go all.” WWG1WGA. With traffic grinding to a halt, the sunset Chicago skyline is wrapped in a purplish hue, not a chem trail in the sky. Wilma reiterates Q’s phrase, and I wrap up my questions. Then she smiles, her usual toothless smile, laugh lines pulling at her fading summer freckles, and says, “Now they have to forgive me. I’ve been talking to you all day and they haven’t been able to see me, up here, focused on them.” I remark that our last visit was filled with car horns, many more than today. “When Chicago sees that I’m up here for them, oh just you wait Peter, you’re going to love it. They’ll start honking like they usually do.” As instructed, I sit down behind the “Q,” out of sight of drivers, listening for the change in soundscape as a train car rattles beneath us.

She moves next to her banner, “Everyone else, they just leave their red cups in the fences. I stand by my words.” Her hand gestures return, and she stares straight into the line of cars, one hand resting on the camera for when the waves and honks begin again. With that same toothless smile, she glances at me, then back at the cars. The silence is deafening.

Q3507 Logical thinking, why? Puppets follow orders. Think for yourself.

Max Weber, a founding figure in the field of sociology, spoke of an increasing “disenchantment” with global systems as they became more rational and complex. Once, the world of trade, politics, arts, and science could be explained by mystical influence and natural forces, but as we broke such complexities down to component pieces and understood the true causes of important processes, the layman was alienated from the most powerful forces in their lives. In the past, a farmer understood farming by his neighbors and noble; now, it must be understood by Monsanto, trade networks, tariffs, the USDA, the FDA, etc. Weber claims that this causes people to feel “disenchanted” by the world, as if it is filled with less meaning. The more opaque these systems become, the less people feel as if they have any stake or power in enacting change. Later sociologists studying conspiracy theorists would latch onto this notion, suggesting that such disenchantment drove conspiracy theories to attack the political elite, not out of malice, but out of the hope for greater meaning, for explanations to an incomprehensible reality. They hoped that horrible human actions could be explained by unpreventable mystical forces, that greed and corruption could be explained by drugs and genetic testing, that the evil was outside of us, that it could never really be known.

Q3404 How many coincidences before mathematically impossible?

I’m double-checking my notes and playing back some of my recorded audio, back against the fence, as the first car horn pierces the rumble of engines. Then another. Soon, Wilma, hands high and close to her chest, is clapping, “It used to be like a cathedral, now it’s like a rock concert!” Gratitude, honks, wave, clap, repeat. “I used to be scared when I was out on this bridge, feared for my life, though the cops would kick me off, and they did try, but at some point I knew there was a critical mass of people who believed.” How? “I just knew, I saw them in the cars, online, in the news. Mathematically impossible.”

Wilma is coming to visit my university with her daughter soon. She loves the architecture, the old ivy, and knowing that you’re surrounded by brilliant people. Her daughter has always wanted to go there and is particularly curious about the kinds of tests that professors give out. This is another trait that she’s inherited from her mother, who asked me after our first visit to bring her a test, one that would teach her something about herself but validate what she already knew: that she was smart. I told her that sociologists don’t administer IQ tests, and she said, “Just a test, any test, really.” The world becomes disenchanted, the narratives hard to follow, the clues hard to put together, and the good guys increasingly difficult to distinguish from the bad guys, but tests prove that you know the world. Tests demonstrate that what you’re doing is right. “I just want to know that I’m smart, that I’m up here doing good.” When it’s easy to remain ignorant, and it’s hard to decide how to do good, and people are out on bridges trying to build a better world for their children, and nobody knows how to move forward, then the choice to do something?

The choice has always been yours.

Peter on the Bridge