Trump supporters rioting at the US Capitol January, 6 2021

Sebastian Portillo/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Capitol rioters were motivated by QAnon’s conspiracies—but did they actually believe in it?

Many Capitol rioters mocked the movement in their Jan. 6 Committee depositions.


Mike Rothschild


Posted on Jan 17, 2023   Updated on Jan 17, 2023, 10:16 am CST

Many of the most indelible images from the Capitol insurrection involve QAnon—like the numerous pictures of the Q Shaman at the U.S. Senate dais or the Q sweatshirt worn by Doug Jensen, one of the first breachers to enter the Capitol. 

But the depositions of those involved with planning and carrying out the insurrection reveal a disparate story. 

As important as QAnon was to the stolen election movement and the events of that day, many of the leaders of the extremist movements that attacked the Capitol had nothing good to say about it, doing their best to distance themselves from the conspiracy, which believes former President Donald Trump was leading a secret war against Democratic pedophiles.  

The official report directly blames QAnon as a motivating factor in the riot, claiming the adherents to the movement “believed January 6th would bring the prophesied ‘Storm’— a violent purge of Democrats and government officials promised by the mysterious online personality known only as ‘Q.’”

The report added that “QAnon’s devotees flocked to Washington, D.C.” and organized “under the digital banner, ‘Operation Occupy the Capitol,’ which depicted the U.S. Capitol being torn in two.”

But believing in QAnon, and being inspired by it, are—in this world of mashed-up, intermixed online conspiracies—not entirely the same thing. And the report, unintentionally, makes clear the while many don’t explicitly buy into QAnon, the motivations remain the same. 

Leaders of the Proud Boys and other militia groups mocked QAnon, even though some of their followers were believers. And those who did admit under oath that they were believers weren’t entirely sucked into Q. Their depositions show that virtually none read Q drops on 8kun, few thought Q was actually leaking classified information, and many of them didn’t actually know much about it. 

This is only a sample of the feelings of the hundreds of Capitol rioters who were later arrested since many refused to testify or took the Fifth Amendment during questioning. But it reveals that, at best, QAnon was just only part of what drove them to try to overturn the election. 

They were also motivated by pandemic-driven anger, a general feeling that they’d been lied to, disbelief that President Joe Biden could actually win, and the biggest motivator of all—Trump told them to go.

This fits with the overall pattern of how QAnon worked, a few believers were completely enmeshed with it, while many others believed in its core tenets but didn’t actively identify as part of the Q movement. 

The leaders of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers actively loathed QAnon, believing the mysterious posts were either a psychological operation run by federal law enforcement or a scam. Or they thought Q was a conspiracy theory given too much credence by the leftist media and wrong all the time about everything.

Typical of groups more oriented toward violent extremism, Three Percenter militia member Michael Lee Wells described QAnon as “bogus” and a “scam” that pumped believers full of false hope of great things to come. Jason Van Tatenhove, the former Oath Keepers spokesman who testified in one of the prime-time committee sessions, claimed that QAnon “sounded like flat earthers” to him, and few in his movement wanted anything to do with it. Likewise, Proud Boys leader Matthew Walter, who said he left when the event began to curdle into violence, testified that QAnon was ridiculous to him. 

“Donald J. Trump is not Q,” Walter said in his deposition. “He’s […] not sending messages on 4chan about the secrets of the government.” 

Another top-tier Proud Boys member, Jeremy Bertino, who pled guilty to seditious conspiracy, simply wrote QAnon off as “misinformation” and “crap.”

Others not directly linked to known extremist movements felt the same way, that the failure of Q’s promises meant it wasn’t real. Joshua Macias, who was arrested in an SUV with a Q sticker on its back window for trying to bring a gun to a ballot counting center shortly after Election Day, and arrested again for breaching the Capitol, claimed he didn’t actually believe in QAnon. 

“QAnon is a theatre, people wanting to see something and look at something through theatre,” Macias told Committee members, adding that he “has [his] own belief system.” Rioter Robert Schornak, sentenced to 30 days in jail for illegally entering the Capitol, felt much the same, telling investigators that he only partially believed in Q even before the insurrection and that it “turned out to be B.S.”

“Nothing that it said was going to happen ever happened,” said John Wright, who pled guilty to felony charges related to Jan. 6. 

Illinois resident and founder Josh Ellis, who was on the ground using a walkie-talkie app to coordinate action that day, had nothing good to say about QAnon. “I’ve spoke [sic] out against them several times, and I just am not a—not a fan,” Ellis said, referring to theories he was hearing from QAnon as “nuts.” And insurrectionist Annie Howell, given a 60-day jail sentence, told the committee that QAnon “didn’t really vibe” with her.

Others simply refused to talk about it when asked. First Amendment Pretorian militia member Phillip Luelsdorff took the Fifth when asked whether he believed QAnon was real—though Luelsdorff took the Fifth in response to every question he was asked. He was far from alone, as this was a common tactic taken by those the Committee interviewed, including prominent QAnon figures like Mike Flynn and Parler founder John Matze.

A number of rioters had suspicions about the most well-known Q-related figure at the Capitol insurrection: the infamous “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley. One of the earliest and most long-lasting alternative narratives about the insurrection is that the vast majority of “protestors” were there to peacefully express their outrage and that any acts of violence were carried out by federal agents. This fear of “plants” among the crowd fell especially hard on Chansley, who many saw as an outlandish and obvious fake persona sent by antifa to disrupt the peaceful protest.

In his deposition for the Committee, Wells makes a point of singling out “the guy with the hat with the horns on it” as an infiltrator who wasn’t to be trusted, despite Chansley having been active in the QAnon movement long before Jan. 6.

While many of the rioters clearly didn’t trust or believe in QAnon, some did. But those that did had varied paths for how they engaged with Q and the Q drops. Few spoke of reading drops directly on 8kun, but got their information from a variety of Q influencers and aggregators.

Rioter Dustin Thompson, who claimed he believed he was “following orders” from Trump to storm the Capitol, cited the major Q drop aggregator site and the influencer Praying Medic (who Thompson refers to as “Plane Medic”) as motivating his engagement with the QAnon world. Unlike many others arrested after Jan. 6, Thompson clearly identified himself as a believer who thought QAnon “was about the deep state and people that are controlling the government for evil instead of good.” 

Another rioter, Zac Martin, spoke not of reading the drops on 8chan, but of seeing them around, including on YouTube and being active in Q communities on Facebook, while falsely claiming that there aren’t any “Q posts about violence.”

But rioters not mentioning QAnon by name reveal how, nevertheless, an entirely conspiratorial bent has overtaken the far-right. 

Jan. 6 transcripts are full of references to COVID-19 being a hoax, the vaccine being harmful, antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors riling up the crowds, and George Soros paying for all of it, all topics emblematic of QAnon, even if not mentioned by name. 

Soros is a frequent target of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the pandemic was still raging at that point. More than QAnon, the pandemic was often cited by numerous rioters as motivation. Some became involved in the anti-lockdown movement that launched rallies across the country in summer 2020. But others spoke of the sudden influx of free time they had thanks to lockdown, where many rioters lost their jobs and had little to do but consume conspiracy theories. It clearly was the catalyst for radicalizing at least some Capitol breachers.

Thompson was laid off as a result of the pandemic and claimed that the time he had on his hands thanks to unemployment sent him down the spiral of Q-related conspiracy theories and reading far-right fake news sites like Zero Hedge—places where stolen election narratives exploded in the days after Biden’s victory. 

Likewise, New Jersey Proud Boys member Lawrence Stackhouse, sentenced to two weeks in prison for illegally entering the Capitol, began paying attention to QAnon during lockdown. “I got very, very bored, and I didn’t have any work,” Stackhouse told Committee staffers, “and I just—I just—it became a hobby almost at one point when I had nothing to do.” 

Stackhouse was spending 12 hours at a time “researching” Q and its related theories, to the point where his father “pretty much wanted to disown me.”

And John Wright spoke of the lingering effect of lockdown restlessness on rioters, including himself. With his business essentially shutting down due to the pandemic, Wright found himself with time on his hands and anger he needed to direct at someone.

“COVID gave people a lot of time to think, a lot of time to get angry,” he testified. “A lot of people were losing a lot of things that—you know, COVID really hurt us bad, as far as mentally and—I guess I got aggravated.”

When asked if he still “interacts” with QAnon theories anymore, Dustin Thompson replied simply “No. No.”

Stephen Ayers, who pled guilty to illegally entering the Capitol, claimed he was “on the fence” about QAnon before the insurrection, but that he believes it to be “total B.S.” now. Likewise, Stackhouse now “hates” QAnon and other conspiracy theories because he “allowed them to ruin his life.” And Howell, the rioter given a 60-day sentence, told investigators that she felt lied to by Trump and his team about COVID-19 being fake and “used to sway the election results,” as well as about the vaccine potentially hurting or killing her.

As with everything related to QAnon—and conspiracy beliefs in general—it’s all far more complicated than it appears to be.

And QAnon, the pandemic, and Trump have all blurred conspiratorial thinking to the point that the motivations may be impossible to ever fully understand.

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*First Published: Jan 17, 2023, 10:09 am CST