In November, Lucas Hartwell, a high school senior in Grand Blanc, Mich., noticed something strange about his school district’s newest board member.
Amy Facchinello’s Twitter feed was full of apocalyptic images and skulls made of smoke. There were cryptic calls for fellow “patriots” and “digital soldiers” to join an uprising, and vows that nothing could “stop what is coming.” In the posts she shared, the COVID-19 pandemic was cast as a dark plot engineered by Bill Gates, while George Floyd’s killing was “exposed as deep state psyop.” Facchinello, elected that month, was now one of seven people in charge of shaping Hartwell’s education.
After a few hours of research, Hartwell had a name for her bizarre ideas: QAnon. He shared her posts on social media, directing people to a Wikipedia page about the right-wing conspiracy theory, which alleges that a sinister cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running the country. But few in Grand Blanc, a town of 8,200 outside Flint, seemed as alarmed as he was. So Hartwell, 18, decided to bring up the matter at a school-board meeting in January. Reading from a speech on his laptop, he addressed a Zoom audience that included Facchinello. Hartwell noted the FBI had identified QAnon as a potential terrorist threat. How could she serve in this position, he asked, “when it seems you represent none of the values we stand for as a community or, even more importantly, as Americans?”
There was a brief silence. “Thank you. O.K. Next,” said the moderator, moving on to a question about vaccinations.
Today, Facchinello, who did not respond to requests for comment, remains in her post. But Hartwell isn’t giving up. “I think for these far-right conspiracists or radicals to be infiltrating the most basic unit of American government, on an elected level, that’s just really disturbing to me,” he says. “And they just sort of get away with it.”
It’s not only happening in Grand Blanc. From Michigan to California, and Las Vegas to rural Washington State, dozens of recently elected local officials have promoted elements of the outlandish Internet conspiracy theory that views former President Donald Trump as a messianic figure battling a cadre of deep-state operatives, Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who molest and murder children.
It’s a symptom of how widely the QAnon delusion has spread in the U.S. In December, an NPR/Ipsos poll estimated that 1 in 3 Americans believed in some of the key tenets of the extremist ideology; another survey, by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, found 29% of Republicans agreed that Trump “has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” On Facebook alone, QAnon groups amassed millions of members before they were shut down, according to an internal company audit in August. At least two dozen Republican candidates who embraced the conspiracy ran for congressional seats in 2020. Two of them won, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has falsely claimed Hillary Clinton murdered children and political opponents, dismissed mass shootings as “false flag” operations, suggested California wildfires were sparked by space lasers and voiced support for the execution of prominent Democrats.
Since Trump’s defeat, the QAnon movement has quietly entered a different, and arguably more dangerous, phase. Adherents now hold local elected offices across the U.S.–from mayors to city-council members to school-board trustees–with the power to shape policies that directly affect the lives of millions of Americans from positions that offer a measure of credibility to delusional beliefs. In some places, like Grand Blanc, the election of QAnon believers to local office has met little organized resistance. In others, it’s prompted street protests, frantic PTA meetings, tearful city-council Zoom calls, and hundreds of angry emails and petitions.
It’s impossible to estimate how many elected officials believe in QAnon or have promoted its theories in the past. No organization keeps tallies, and it can be hard to parse the point where Trumpian provocation ends and true conspiracy thinking begins. But it’s clear from more than two dozen interviews with residents of communities where QAnon-tied officials have taken office that America is only beginning to grapple with the havoc that the cultlike conspiracy theory has wrought. Almost every resident who talked to TIME about their own local official’s links to the movement also pointed out others in the area they had noticed sharing QAnon content: a state legislator, a county commissioner, a sheriff.
“The long-term impacts are really dangerous,” says Jared Holt, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council. “We’re supposed to have our leaders make decisions based on shared sets of facts. If we decide that for elected officials to believe in an outlandish byzantine conspiracy theory like QAnon is O.K., then the door is effectively left open for that shared sense of understanding to further erode.”
The QAnon conspiracy first took shape on fringe online message boards in 2017, when an anonymous poster claiming to be a high-ranking U.S. government official began to post cryptic messages about Trump’s alleged crusade against the deep-state cabal. The poster went by “Q,” a reference to a high level of government security clearance. A growing number of followers came together to attempt to decode Q’s posts, which spun together a dizzying array of old and new conspiracies. Followers believed Trump’s secret war would culminate in “the Storm,” an event in which he would finally unmask his enemies and bring them to justice.
But it was in the chaos of the past year that the movement drew widespread recognition. Conspiracies prey on people’s fears, and fear was everywhere in 2020–of the coronavirus, of civil unrest, of government overreach, of a stolen election. All these fears were absorbed into the QAnon universe and amplified by powerful voices, including Trump himself. Over the course of the pandemic, the President retweeted QAnon-linked accounts more than 200 times, according to a tally kept by Media Matters for America, a liberal nonprofit group. Many of Trump’s allies were even more explicit. Last summer, his son Eric posted a giant “Q” and the conspiracy’s rallying cry–“Where we go one we go all”–on Instagram. When pressed, the President refused to disavow the movement, calling its followers “people that love our country.” It was a message he would echo on Jan. 6, when his supporters, many of them inspired by QAnon, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent assault that left five people dead.
Trump’s defeat was a turning point for many true believers of QAnon. Some were shattered by Joe Biden’s ascension. Others were driven to take matters into their own hands rather than “trust the plan” for Trump to save them, as Q had long promised. “Wondering when we’re going to realize what’s really happened blatantly in front of our eyeballs and start making moves locally,” one poster wrote on a QAnon message board in January. Another urged fellow patriots to begin with city councils and school boards: “to not just hold the line but make some headway into the local governments.”
In fact, it was already happening. A wave of local officials with QAnon ties was elected in November, shaking up communities across the country. In Las Vegas, Katie Williams, 30, was elected to the seven-member board of the Clark County school district, which is the fifth largest in the country, with more than 300,000 children. A former Miss Nevada who claims she was stripped of her title in 2019 because of her conservative views, Williams shares the former President’s penchant for provocation. (The pageant says it’s because she broke its “no politics” rule for social media.) On her Twitter account, she has called COVID-19 the “China virus,” belittled transgender athletes and gone viral for taunting prominent Democrats.
Williams has also been nicknamed #Qatie by her local critics for a slew of posts laced with QAnon conspiracies. “Wayfair is selling children and if you don’t believe that you’re probably voting for Joe Biden,” she tweeted last July, one of several posts amplifying a preposterous theory that the online retailer was trafficking children inside cabinets. “Mandating masks are only helping child sex traffickers get away and hide,” she tweeted a day later–another popular QAnon talking point.
Williams “wants to be the next Marjorie Taylor Greene, and this is how she’s capitalizing on it,” says one Las Vegas mother, who requested anonymity because her child attends school in Williams’ district. Parents who have pressed Williams about her statements said she either ignored their questions or blocked them on social media, accusing them of being “bullies.” Discussions about Williams’ beliefs on a local parents’ Facebook group grew heated, with some community members dismissing criticism of her conspiracy posts as partisan censorship.
Williams’ critics concede she has been adept at channeling many parents’ frustration with how schools have handled the pandemic. “There are far more people who agree with her enough on other issues that they’re willing to not question her on the conspiracies,” a second Las Vegas parent says. Other parents and local education officials say it’s been challenging to untangle Williams’ support for fringe conspiracies from her broader political activism.
While she was running for the seat, a Zoom interview with the Clark County parents’ Facebook group was dominated by questions about her social media posts. Parents argued she was putting local families in danger by assailing “the China virus” as anti-Asian hate crimes spiked in Las Vegas. With an American flag behind her, Williams spoke in measured tones, promising to respect diversity and casting her posts questioning the coronavirus as “satirical.” Her posts spreading QAnon theories–which have not been deleted–were meant to be taken as a “joke,” her spokesman Noah Jennings tells TIME.
Rebecca Dirks Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA and one of the administrators of the parents’ Facebook group, suspects Williams is courting attention to elevate her political profile. She notes the discrepancy between Williams’ professional behavior at board meetings and her tirades on Twitter. “If you talk to her one-on-one, she is not crazy,” says Dirks Garcia. “She’ll be at a board meeting, she’ll conduct herself appropriately, and then in the middle of the meeting she sends off this crazy tweet, and you’re like, What the …?” Dirks Garcia believes Williams’ role on the school board is “clearly a stepping-stone” for bigger political aspirations.
To many parents, this is hardly comforting. “If she knows that these conspiracy theories are not true, I feel like that makes it worse,” says Jennifer Kilkenny, 39, a digital-marketing specialist who has two children in the Clark County school system. “This is my kids’ education. This is a serious job.”
Tito Ortiz is a bombastic former Ultimate Fighting champion and longtime Trump supporter from Huntington Beach, Calif., a city of 200,000 an hour south of Los Angeles. Last year, Ortiz, 46, ran for an open seat on the city council. Like Williams’ politics, his is a mix of Trump-style goading and open support for conspiracies, including QAnon. He campaigned to “Make Huntington Beach safe again,” promising to save the city from Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa. He has refused to wear a mask, calling COVID-19 a “political scam” and a form of “population control by the left.” And he sold QAnon merchandise on his website, advertising shirts emblazoned with wwg1wga–an abbreviation of the same Q slogan Eric Trump posted on social media–which he modeled in beach shots, showing off his muscled physique. (Ortiz’s girlfriend, an Instagram influencer, lost access to her social media accounts for spreading the conspiracy theory through her lifestyle content, a trend that researchers have termed “Pastel QAnon.”)
Despite having no political experience, Ortiz received the most votes in Huntington Beach history in November’s election. He’s since been installed as mayor pro tem, which in the city’s rotating system puts him next in line to become mayor in 2022. But he has shown little interest in doing the actual work the role requires, according to multiple city-council members. (Ortiz did not respond to requests for comment.) The council can’t meet in person because he refuses to wear a mask. “We’re losing businesses that don’t want to come to Huntington Beach because they don’t want to be associated with someone who’s QAnon,” says council member Dan Kalmick. “It’s an embarrassment to have someone who is either so gullible–or so craven–representing our city in a visible way.”
When news spread in late January that Ortiz could face a no-confidence vote that would strip him of his mayor pro tem title, the city council was flooded with hundreds of emails both supporting and blasting him. “Clearly I made a terrible mistake moving my children here,” one resident wrote. Ortiz backers, for their part, slammed the move as “cancel culture” and “undoing the will of the people.” In an emotional council meeting held over Zoom on Feb. 1, Huntington Beach residents vented frustration and anger about Ortiz’s antics. “I used to be really proud of growing up here,” one woman said, calling it “really disheartening” to be represented by someone pushing dangerous conspiracies. But at the end of the night, the city council decided to table the no-confidence vote after publicly reprimanding Ortiz.
A similar controversy has been playing out in Sequim, Wash., where the mayor’s enthusiastic promotion of QAnon has shaken up the sleepy town of 6,600 on the Olympic Peninsula. Last August, Mayor William Armacost urged listeners of the radio program Coffee With the Mayor to seek out a YouTube video about the conspiracy. A local salon owner who has served as mayor since January 2020, Armacost called QAnon a “movement that encourages you to think for yourself” and praised “patriots from all over the world fighting for humanity, truth, freedom and saving children.”
Sequim residents didn’t know how to react. Many were already alarmed by Armacost’s handling of the pandemic, which included traveling to a massive motorcycle rally in South Dakota that became a superspreader event, then refusing to quarantine upon his return. Now they realized he had been sharing QAnon posts on social media with the #WWG1WGA hashtag for months. The situation came to a head in January, when Armacost and his allies on the city council pushed out Sequim’s longtime city manager, who had criticized the mayor’s support for the conspiracy. More than 100 residents, wearing masks and bundled against the bitter cold, held a protest outside city hall, some toting signs reading No QAnon coup.
As the standoff drew national attention, locals complained that being known as the town with the “Q mayor” would hurt tourism and local businesses. Others saw a deeper problem. “If you really don’t accept factual reality, how can you do your job?” asks Ken Stringer, who runs a local bicycle club. Promoting “wacko” theories should not be acceptable for someone in public office, Stringer says. “He’s using this position to change the form of our city government.” (Armacost told TIME that opponents were running “smear campaigns” against him, but declined an interview.)
In San Luis Obispo, Calif., as in Grand Blanc, it was teenagers who rang the alarm bells. In November, a 73-year-old retired teacher named Eve Dobler-Drew won a seat on the San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s board, overseeing 7,500 students. She had previously shared QAnon conspiracy videos, called Melinda Gates “satanic,” claimed that George Soros had paid racial-justice protesters and pushed disinformation about LGBTQ “conversion” therapy.
Izzy Nino de Rivera, the 16-year-old editor of the San Luis Obispo High School paper, who is openly gay, was livid. “I was so mad, and worried about my younger siblings, what they’re going to be learning,” she says. She joined with a friend, Drew Vander Weele, to write an op-ed protesting Dobler-Drew’s election. “We’re giving something like that a platform and saying that this is someone who makes decisions for the community,” Vander Weele says. “How is that O.K.?” (Dobler-Drew did not respond to requests for comment.)
At a school-board meeting held over Zoom, Nino de Rivera made a public call for Dobler-Drew to resign. More than a dozen community members backed the move. “This is not a person who should be influential in making decisions regarding the education of our children,” said Scott Bixby, a school parent.
But the board president urged critics to remember that Dobler-Drew had been duly elected. Since then, the city’s mayor, Heidi Harmon, has been circulating a petition to gauge support for Dobler-Drew’s recall, in which she calls her a “right-wing conspiracy theorist” who failed to disclose her “unhinged worldview” to voters. “We know that [San Luis Obispo] County is better than this,” the petition says.
In the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, allegiance to QAnon emerged as a common theme. Dozens of rioters carried flags and wore gear with Q slogans. One of the most recognizable figures was a shirtless, tattooed man who wore a fur hat with horns and became known as the “QAnon shaman.” It soon became clear in court filings that many of the insurrectionists were QAnon believers who thought they were participating in the long-awaited “Storm.”
The insurrection also made the conspiracy notorious, and dozens of state and local lawmakers quietly deleted QAnon propaganda or backpedaled from their embrace of the movement. But they remain in office, and efforts to dislodge them run the risk of appearing to validate a conspiracy grounded in both paranoia and the nation’s cultural divide. In some communities, Republicans have argued that branding someone as “QAnon” is a Democratic tactic to “cancel” their political opponents.
In other cities, the challenges of navigating the pandemic have swamped efforts to oust an offending official. When photos emerged in January of Williams posing at several events with a member of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, the Clark County school board seemed at a loss as to how to respond. Busy with school reopenings, it opted to ignore them. A Las Vegas parent who has pushed for Williams’ resignation sympathizes with the board’s predicament. “They’re trying to get all these kids back to school,” the parent says. “They can’t exactly address the fact that ‘O.K., one of our new board trustees is affiliated with terrorists.'” (Jennings, Williams’ spokesman, says she has cut off all communication with Proud Boys members since the Capitol insurrection.)
Las Vegas parents are waiting until Williams has served the required six months before they can push for her to step down. Other communities are in a similar holding pattern. Residents of Huntington Beach are circulating petitions to recall Ortiz, one of which has more than 3,200 signatures but seems unlikely to succeed. Armacost remains in office in Sequim, where locals have formed a group called the Sequim Good Governance League to elect new candidates and block the rise of other conspiracy theorists. “This has galvanized a local movement of people who are saying, ‘Well, enough is enough,'” says Stringer, who heads the league’s legal committee. “This is about combatting the spread of conspiracy theories and the effect that has on our governmental institutions.”
The quandary is real. Local elections that elevate cranks to office are no less legitimate than the one that Capitol rioters were trying to overturn. On the other hand, choosing to ignore blatant conspiracy-mongering, or writing it off as protected political speech, risks cementing appeals to mass delusion as an accepted path to office. “This trend of local officials who have a lot of direct authority over decisions in their communities using disinformation as a strategy to get those positions is toxic and dangerous,” says Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. And for many of these officials, who are able to get away with deleting old QAnon posts and dodging questions, a school-board or city-council seat may be a springboard to bigger platforms.
For now, those conspiracy theorists remain in charge of everything from children’s education to city budgets to the livelihoods of members of the community. Ava Butzu, an English teacher in Grand Blanc, said many faculty members had been aware of Amy Facchinello’s QAnon posts, but kept quiet out of fear for their jobs. “Everybody was terrified to speak at that first meeting,” says Butzu, who thanked Hartwell, the high school senior, for being the only person brave enough to call her out. Every time Americans choose not to speak out, they’re “ceding territory” to conspiracy theories, she says. “It’s a battle of inches.”
With reporting by Mariah Espada
This appears in the April 26, 2021 issue of TIME.