On January 7, 2018, Cheryl Sullenger, the senior vice president of the radical anti-choice protest group Operation Rescue, posted an entry on her organization’s website entitled, “These people are SICK!” #QAnon Takes on Planned Parenthood.” The post included a statement from Operation Rescue president Troy Newman thanking the anonymous chan poster “Q” for linking approvingly to a Republican-led congressional investigation into bogus allegations that Planned Parenthood trafficked in baby parts for profit. The investigation was sparked by an undercover operation by anti-choice activist David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress, a group Newman co-founded.
“We are grateful to Q and the Trump Administration for taking the evidence against Planned Parenthood seriously and bringing it to the attention of an audience that may otherwise never have been exposed to the truth,” Newman said. “We hope the QAnon exposure helps wake up Americans to the barbarity of abortion.” In other posts, Sullenger elaborated on the conspiracy theory that Planned Parenthood traffics in human organs with the political protection of liberal philanthropist George Soros.
Sullenger gave Q another shoutout after the conspiracy theorists linked to remarks by Susan Hirschmann, the executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum, presented during Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Hirschmann accuses Ginsburg of being in favor of child trafficking because of a report Ginsburg co-wrote for the federal government; she was hired to review the federal code and flag everything sexist. One obvious candidate was the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, which criminalized taking women and girls (but not men or boys) across state lines for “immoral purpose” a catchall that punished consensual sex between adults. Sullenger falsely claimed, citing Hirshmann, that Ginsburg sought to lower the age of consent to 12 years in order to facilitate sex trafficking.
Sullenger’s Twitter feed is full of references to Qanon, and the door swings both ways: On February 20, Q linked to one of Sullenger’s tweet. She commemorates this milestone in her Twitter bio, listing herself as “Q’d #3848,” a reference to the number of the breakthrough Q post.
Anyone who spends time in right-wing spaces has seen the proliferation of QAnon memes and hashtags like #WWG1WGA, #TrustThePlan, and #SaveOurChildren. Most movement leaders prefer to tread carefully, though, reluctant to give a full-throated endorsement to an ideology the FBI has identified as a domestic terror threat.
It might seem odd that the president of a prominent anti-choice group would openly thank a fictional character at the heart of an explosive conspiracy theory. But it starts to make sense when you understand the history of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and the role that the religious right has played in developing and disseminating them—and how it all connects to the anti-abortion movement.
A conspiracy theory goes mainstream
While it may be tempting to dismiss QAnon as the delusions of a radical fringe, Q is going mainstream. Awareness of the conspiracy theory has surged during the pandemic. An astonishing 56 percent of Republicans told Kos/Civiqs pollsters that QAnon is at least partly true. Only 13 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats said the theory was completely false. At least 24 Q-friendly congressional candidates are on the ballot in November, and many more are running as write-in candidates. Most have no hope of winning, but Marjorie Taylor Greene is all but guaranteed to win her House race in Georgia’s 14th District, thanks in part to Trump’s endorsement.
To properly describe QAnon, one must paint a picture, ideally in the style of Rubens—full of lurid sex and graphic violence but styled to make base voyeurism feel like Christian virtue. QAnon’s is a maximalist aesthetic—more is always more. Here are the critical points: The three evil Houses of Rothschild, Soros, and Saud are the hidden motive forces of history. Beneath the Houses, but still awesomely powerful, is a cabal of celebrity cannibal pedophiles that controls Hollywood and the media. That celebrity cabal colludes with the Clintons, Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and the “deep state.”
There are more layers. Planned Parenthood trafficks in fetal tissue, under the protection of George Soros. Bill Gates wants to put that fetal tissue in a COVID-19 vaccine, even though the virus is a hoax, or possibly caused by 5G. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, antifa is setting forest fires on the West Coast, and Democratic officials are encouraging riots and scheming to steal the election.
Standing against these evil forces is Q, short for “Q-Clearance Patriot.” According to followers, Q is an intelligence official or a small group allied with Donald Trump in his war against the deep state and the cannibal pedophiles. Q has ostensibly been communicating with the faithful through cryptic posts on anonymous image boards: first 4chan, later 8chan, and finally 8kun. These missives, known as “Q-drops” are usually brief dispatches filled with rhetorical questions, meaningless strings of symbols, and clues for unraveling the conspiracy. Q promises that “the Storm,” in which Donald Trump will kill or imprison his enemies, is coming.
Q does not claim divine inspiration per se, but his prophecies are heavily laced with Christian scripture references. The Rothschild-Soros elements and the Hollywood cannibal pedophile elements sound a lot like the “blood libel,” the medieval antisemitic myth that Jews drain the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes, and the classic antisemitic text, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bestselling early 20th-century forgery that was passed off as the secret machinations of a clique of Jewish leaders trying to take over the world.
After falsely predicting the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton in 2017, Q took a turn for the cryptic, churning out strings of meaningless symbols, insinuating rhetorical questions, and B-movie references. These “crumbs” read like gibberish to the uninitiated and had to be decoded by legions of faithful researchers, known as “bakers.” Many bakers developed large audiences and offered their own divergent interpretations of what Q was really saying. In recent months, Q has reasserted control over the narrative, stoking fear about chaos, violence, and the left—in terms that leave little room for interpretation.
So, why is Operation Rescue hyping QAnon, which, judging by Q’s body of work, is only casually interested in abortion?
Taking root in politics
Conspiracy theories have united the religious right and more mainstream Republicans ever since evangelists and D.C. think-tankers bonded over the particulars of Bill Clinton’s penis. These narratives are a tool that the religious right uses to mobilize support for the larger Republican political project. QAnon is also attracting a new and suggestible audience, who represent a recruiting opportunity for anti-choice organizers.
The religious right was a leading purveyor of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories in the 1990s—and QAnon is an anti-Clinton conspiracy theory on hallucinogens. “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM – 8:30 AM EST on Monday,” claimed the very first Q-drop. QAnon grew out of Pizzagate, the baseless theory that Hillary Clinton and the chair of her 2016 presidential campaign, John Podesta, were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a family restaurant in Washington D.C. A huge cast of Trump campaign staffers, family members, and hangers-on hyped Pizzagate in the final days before the election.
Social movements need shared narratives, stories that explain who the group is and what it wants. The anti-Clinton conspiracy theories that flourished throughout the ‘90s developed these key storylines through right-wing newsletters, documentaries, and talk radio. These myths illustrated what the right wing hated about Bill and Hillary Clinton: liberalism, self-indulgence, sexual deviance, and women’s liberation. In telling these stories, promoters of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories cast themselves as defenders of the traditional family, chastity, and tradition.
In April 1994, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry (who has since left the group) launched the Loyal Opposition bus tour calling for Clinton’s impeachment. The tour visited seven Southern state capitals, where Terry gave speeches calling for investigations into the president’s crimes. These accusations—like the baseless claim that the Clintons murdered their close friend Vince Foster, who had died by suicide a year earlier—appeared that year in a video, The Clinton Chronicles, directed by the late evangelical filmmaker Patrick Matrisciana. The Chronicles popularized the concept of the “Clinton body count,” a list of people allegedly murdered by the first couple.
Some of the biggest names in the religious right lent their support to the Clinton conspiracy cause: Pat Robertson promoted Vince Foster conspiracies on the 700 Club, and Jerry Falwell distributed tens of thousands of copies of The Clinton Chronicles.
Jeremiah Films, Matrisciana’s production company, also distributes the documentary Baby Parts for Sale, which hypes the false concept of “live birth abortion.” Produced in 2001, the video features anti-choice activist Mark Crutcher, the man who pioneered the concept of “spies for life”—undercover activists infiltrating abortion clinics—and inspired Daleiden’s work. In 2002, Crutcher’s organization Life Dynamics Inc. accused Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation of “operating an illegal pedophile protection racket” based on stings in which a caller pretended to be a 13-year-old girl pregnant by a 22-year-old man.
Caryl Matrisciana, who was married to Patrick, was an evangelical architect of the Satanic Panic of the late ‘80s through the mid-’90s, a time when evangelicals, therapists, and unscrupulous journalists, including Geraldo Rivera, convinced Middle America that daycare centers were havens for satanic pedophiles. The blurb for Jeremiah Films’ 1991 documentary Doorways to Satan claims that “law enforcement agencies are unable to keep up with the increasing numbers of heinous, Satanically inspired crimes.”
During the Clinton years, the religious right also had plenty of support from mainstream Republican operatives in its bid to depict the president and the first lady as murderers for hire, drug smugglers, and worse. One of the leading establishment Republican operatives to promote the Clinton conspiracies was Floyd G. Brown, who is better known today for his racist “Willie Horton” campaign ad and his central role in the Citizens United Supreme Court case. In the ‘90s, Floyd edited the Clintonwatch newsletter, which trafficked in conspiracy theories.
Floyd went on to dominate Facebook with far-right fake news. His Western Journal site amassed more than 36 million readers and followers, and three-quarters of a billion shares, likes, and clicks on the social network, according to the New York Times.
Brown’s career illustrates the longstanding interdependence of mainstream Republican politics, right-wing media, and conspiracy theories. When Barack Obama ran for president, Brown produced a “birther” ad questioning whether Obama had been born in the United States. Brown also served on the board of Joseph Farah’s WorldNetDaily, which became a nexus of birtherism and other conspiracy theories. Like Trump confidante Christopher Ruddy of NewsMax, the fervidly anti-choice Joseph Farah made his name with Vince Foster conspiracy theories.
Many people remember Hillary Clinton denouncing a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but few remember what she was actually talking about. She was referencing the findings of a 332-page White House report called “The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” which described how far-right think tanks popularized conspiracy theories that would otherwise be too sensational to get a hearing in prestigious national media outlets like the New York Times. Right-wing think tank operatives would germinate these stories, often in newsletters or magazines like the American Spectator. These tales would then migrate to indiscriminate online outlets like the Drudge Report. Sometimes they’d be picked up by the British tabloids, where Wall Street Journal editors got story ideas. Republican members of Congress would ultimately read the stories in the Journal and initiate investigations, which the newspapers of record would then happily cover.
Over a decade later, the Planned Parenthood sting came to prominence through a similar trajectory, with a few modern-day twists. The Center for Medical Progress distributed the footage and commentary online and stoked the phony controversy until it attracted mainstream media attention; congressional Republicans conferred mainstream credibility upon it by opening an investigation. Then, in 2018, a link to the investigation was distributed in a Q drop, imbuing it with mystical significance to the faithful. Trump also provides flashes of validation to the QAnon base, whether it’s retweeting the false claim that Joe Biden is a pedophile, or recently signing a “born alive” executive order that peddles in anti-choice tropes from the “baby parts” scandal.
Other anti-choice groups are also dabbling in conspiracy rhetoric. The extremist anti-abortion group Operation Save America refers to the coronavirus outbreak as “the Plandemic,” a nod to the discredited independent documentary that found an audience of millions through QAnon social media groups. OSA says it chose to hold an upcoming event in South Dakota because Gov. Kristi Noem stood up to “federal tyranny” and the “pandemic hoax” by refusing to shut down the state. OSA ties this to its “doctrine of the lesser magistrate,” which is an attempt to convince state and local officials, including sheriffs, to defy federal laws and Supreme Court rulings they deem immoral, including Roe v. Wade, gun laws, and gay rights legislation.
Threat to our democracy
The FBI flagged QAnon and other fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorism threat last year, warning that QAnon narratives “tacitly support or legitimize violent action.” Q doesn’t tell his followers to hurt people—he just accuses named individuals of heinous crimes, including pedophilia. Lurid tales about pedophiles legitimize violence in many people’s minds, people who are already primed to believe in them, just as anti-choice rhetoric about baby murder legitimizes violence against abortion providers.
One follower murdered his neighbor, a mob boss, then drew a large “Q” on his hand at a court hearing; another armed himself with 900 rounds of ammunition before blocking the Hoover Dam bypass bridge with his homemade armored car. An unemployed actor and wellness coach tried to burn down Comet Ping Pong in 2019. (Three years earlier, the restaurant had been the site of a Pizzagate-inspired armed raid by a man believing he was freeing trafficked children.) In August, a woman rammed in her car into vehicles she suspected were being driven by pedophiles. This month, armed vigilantes set up illegal road blocks and harassed journalists based on the rumor that antifa was setting forest fires. That’s all to say: Q-boosted rumors can get people with guns into the streets.
Operation Rescue and OSA are also openly trying to mobilize their followers: Operation Save America leader Jason Storms filmed himself in Kenosha, Wisconsin, extolling Kyle Rittenhouse as a hero just days after the teenager shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters. Operation Save America is still trying to convince sheriffs to make up their own laws.
With the election approaching, many Q supporters believe that Trump’s final battle between good and evil is at hand. With Trump refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power and the Republican National Committee stepping up efforts to intimidate voters at the polls, the potential for violence is real.
The QAnon conspiracy is spreading throughout the right wing, and the anti-choice movement is no exception. The ideology has already driven people to commit acts of real-life violence. The history of anti-choice terrorism in this country shows what can happen when large numbers of people become convinced that they are defending innocents in a battle between pure good and ultimate evil.
QAnon is a powerful recruiting mechanism for the extreme right, seducing previously apolitical people into an emotionally charged ideology that validates any conspiratorial beliefs they already have and seeds new ones. QAnon isn’t just a threat to reproductive rights—it’s a threat to the integrity of our democracy. We can’t govern ourselves if we no longer inhabit the same reality.