Friday was supposed to be a big day. “The morning of August 13 it’ll be the talk of the world,” Mike Lindell, the MyPillow impresario and purveyor of discredited conspiracy theories about a stolen presidential election, warned during a recent appearance on a conservative podcast. Lindell, who is being sued for billions in damages by Dominion, a maker of voting machines that the right-wing bedding entrepreneur has called fraudulent, promised a day of reckoning, when the “Communists” would be kicked out of power and Donald Trump would rightly reassume his place in the Oval Office. Trump, himself no stranger to barely intelligible theories of political change, was reportedly a believer, telling underlings that he would somehow be reinstated as president in August.
The day isn’t over yet, of course, but none of this has yet come to pass, and I feel fairly confident that it won’t. Instead, Lindell is once again left looking like a fool—that is, except in the eyes of MAGA die-hards, Q followers, credulous right-wing news hosts, and other fellow travelers who, ensconced in filter bubbles, have managed to finger-paint their own reality in which a series of ever-shifting prophecies will one day, somehow, lead to Trump’s restoration and the deaths of their enemies. (This isn’t that unusual: The date the world is supposed to end has changed a lot over the years.) Despite the obvious absurdity of these beliefs, and despite content crackdowns on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Q-style paranoid fantasies persist. It’s difficult to call the movement monolithic, given its fractured and proliferating narratives, but it’s clear that no amount of fact-checking or adversarial media coverage can break these people out of their epistemic prisons. This movement, this paradigm of wild and even violent political prophecy, is here to stay. Trump may be its worshipped figurehead, but for now, Lindell is its lead missionary—a born-again, bumbling millionaire salesman, his success as unlikely, and as indelibly American, as his confused political rantings. There seems little doubt that Lindell will continue to spread this deranged gospel for as long as he can—until, perhaps, Dominion’s lawyers seize his phone from his hands.
Some Republican politicians and MAGA personalities may embrace these beliefs out of expediency—it can pay to be a loyal Trumpist—but what may be more disturbing is the authenticity of belief demonstrated by millions of Americans who have succumbed to delusions about stolen elections, chip-laden vaccines, and a government cabal of child-eating pedophiles. Chalk some of it up to the proliferation of misinformation, but in the absence of decent social policy—of well-funded education systems, universal health care, measures to reduce inequality, and even a general sense of trust in government—these kinds of beliefs can easily fester. Conspiratorial thinking has long been a feature of the American political and cultural scene, and it thrives in times of social and economic upheaval. A cruel, incompetent reality TV presidency capped by a pandemic and economic meltdown—along with the regular climate disasters—is a perfect environment for people to believe that, sure, why not, Trump could be president again, without an election. To paraphrase Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who referred positively to the military coup in Myanmar, it happened there—why can’t it happen here?
Pillow king Mike Lindell remains one of those true believers. “Why do you think I keep going?” he asked a reporter about his crusade. “You think I like it?”
Besieged by lawsuits and banned by some mainstream social media platforms, Lindell still has had no trouble getting his message out. He recently held a multiday “cyber symposium” in South Dakota, where he presented his dubious evidence of widespread cyber meddling in the 2020 presidential election. Indicted border wall–scammer Steve Bannon was in attendance, and Ron Watkins—the most likely candidate to be the author of the Q posts that gave birth to the QAnon movement—spoke for several hours by videoconference.
The event was a disaster, hampered by technical difficulties, incompetent presenters, and a mess of histrionics from the typically amped-up Lindell. Jared Holt, who studies domestic extremism for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, called it “a slow-motion train wreck” and “a humiliating flop.”
But for people like Lindell, already so committed to the cause, there is no stopping now. It doesn’t matter whether one is a grifter or a true believer; there is room for all in the umbrella movement that has synthesized Stop the Steal, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, quarantine refuseniks, militia members, and other paranoid subcultures into one toxic stew of social media–charged hysteria. On Telegram, where he has more than 390,000 subscribers, Ron Watkins continues to style himself as a technical sophisticate digging deep into the still-disputed 2020 election results. He posts multiple times a day, earning hundreds of thousands of views for evidence-free accusations about Arizona election officials hacking into voting machines—that is, when he doesn’t spin off into baroque theories about stolen passwords, secret law enforcement raids, frame-ups, and other malfeasance. The truth, and some bizarre kind of political justice, is always just around the corner, which is why it must constantly be teased to his followers. As Watkins asked early on the morning of August 13, “Do you feel the tides turning?” (It’s nearly lunchtime as I write this. I still don’t.)
Is Watkins as committed to the cause as Lindell, or is he riding along for the clout and potential profit? Judging from the documentary series he featured in, I’d wager the latter, but perhaps it no longer matters. For the hucksters at the head of this particular pro-Trump movement, questions of truth or motive have long been abrogated. Lindell and Watkins, among many others, have managed to ride an endlessly permuting wave of viral misinformation, surviving changing circumstances and repeated humiliations to promise followers that their grievances can still somehow be avenged. In the process, they’ve helped thousands or even millions of people construct private realities of alienation and betrayal. Maybe, if times weren’t so dire, the utter falsity of Lindell’s and Watkins’s narratives would be more readily apparent. But for now, too many Americans are still able to believe—after all, the day isn’t done.