Law in Popular Culture

A look at HBO Max's 'Q: Into the Storm,' QAnon, conspiracies and sovereign citizens

  • Print.

Back in late 2018, my best friend, Frank, sent me a text message with one line of letters: “WWG1WGA.” At initial glance, I thought it was simply some bastardization on the old “What would Jesus do?” acronym. On second pass, I thought it was potentially a reference to World War I. I was confused and not so busy that I had the opportunity to ignore the message.

I responded with something short, and Frank’s answer was equally as cryptic as his first text: “The storm is coming.”

After a bit of back and forth, he sent me a link to a news story regarding a radical right-wing movement gaining steam on the internet. I gave it a read, and we had a few laughs at the ridiculous allegations underlying the group’s foundation. That was my introduction to QAnon, but sadly, it wasn’t my last exposure.

The show Q: Into the Storm

Flash-forward to 2021, and HBO Max is streaming Q: Into the Storm. The new six-part series examines the conspiracy theory’s genesis and infancy on the website 8chan and does its best to trace those beginnings to the present, where tens of millions of Americans have been deluded by an entirely baseless fantasy in which Hillary Clinton is a pedophile who lives off the life force contained in infant blood. And John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and well—and making various appearances at Trump rallies.

Each episode runs approximately one hour in length. According to his IMDb page, filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s background is focused on the intersection of technology and civil liberties. But he knows the attention deficit characteristics of the “true crime” audience, and the show attacks with full force. In comparison, the pace of Q: Into the Storm is the antithesis of the PBS documentary I recently reviewed.

Q is frenetic and scattershot, and the screen is constantly bombarded with cut scenes, on-camera interviews, news footage and most every other type of media you can imagine. That isn’t to say the series is devoid of substance. On the contrary, there is plenty to take away; it’s just that the material is simply so absurd that, at times, the docuseries’ goal gets lost in the woods.

According to the docuseries’ homepage, the objective is to “chart a labyrinthine journey to uncover the forces behind QAnon.” One would rightly believe charting such a journey would ultimately reveal the individual behind the movement. But I’m not so sure the voyage ever reaches that final destination.

Who is ‘Q’?

While the docuseries doesn’t nail down Q’s identity with an admission from anyone, it does give some pretty firm indications as to whom Hoback believes is behind the movement and the “Q-drops” that united so many people through a gospel of disinformation.

Still, when the dust settles, I don’t believe QAnon followers care about Q’s actual identity as much as some may profess. Plenty of interviewees acknowledge that Q is likely several individuals creating posts. The source of the “information” doesn’t seem to matter so much as the message itself.

When it’s all said and done, those who believe in this movement do so because they are tired of the status quo … they want to see a change in the establishment. They don’t feel as though their rights are being respected, and they want a paradigm shift. For whatever reason, they’ve strapped those hopes to a theory promising the arrest and prosecution of devil-worshipping, baby-killing elites.

A bit of a disclaimer: I’m going to catch a lot of heat online for the following position, but in the end, I guess I’ll get what I’m asking for. After all, I’m the one opening the gates so the trolls can march in.

March 4, 2021: ‘sovereign citizens’ and the seeds of idiocracy

In mentioning “idiocracy,” I am not referring to the 2006 Mike Judge cult classic. No, I’m speaking specifically to the (thankfully) debunked QAnon belief that former President Donald J. Trump would be inaugurated again as president on March 4, 2021. For now, we won’t get into the goalpost moving that’s occurred since the passing of that date.

Only the first four Q: Into the Storm episodes were available for streaming when I wrote this column. There was no mention of the March 4th conspiracy, but perhaps there will be within the final two installments. I doubt that, though, as Hoback has confirmed on his Twitter page that HBO didn’t even become involved in the project until late in 2020. That could still leave time to incorporate the March 4th conspiracy into the docuseries, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nevertheless, the larger question seems to be, “Where did the date come from?” As difficult as it is, society wants to apply logic in situations where it doesn’t belong. The March 4th date is based on an “odd unfounded theory drawn from the sovereign citizen movement, an extreme libertarian fringe that opposes federal laws, general taxation and even the U.S. currency on the grounds that they restrict individual rights,” according to an online BBC article.

Any litigator who deals with private clientele has likely come across a “sovereign citizen” or two in his or her career. I mentioned the movement in a previous column regarding pro se litigation. I’ve unknowingly accepted them as clients early in my career. Consequently, I’ve had them berate and threaten me based on my allegiance to the British Crown due to my membership in the British Accreditation Registry. The movement owes its following to the members’ habit of taking language from old cases, statues and other documents out of context.

I’ve personally had situations where believers have brought me portions of the United States Code to explain why their case should be dismissed. Usually, the excerpt deals with something entirely off point, such as admiralty law. Regardless, there is no talking sense to them. They’ve done their “research” and have the YouTube links to back it up.

Many of their beliefs are based on the notion of “government by consent” and the ability of the people (the sovereigns) to exercise their rights based on the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution. Again, they come to this conclusion by taking historical quotes from the Founding Fathers out of time and out of context. They fail to realize that what 18th-century patriots express regarding the extent of a foreign power’s control over their affairs doesn’t have anything to do with whether a person in the 21st century has to pay taxes or submit to a lawful traffic stop.

Furthermore, they are highly focused on the idea of “common law,” regardless of how and when those tenets come into contrast with their dual infatuation with a noncontextual reading of the U.S. Constitution. From arguments that gold fringe on a flag divests a court of jurisdiction to the idea that state-mandated license plates and drivers’ licenses violate the common law right to travel protected by the 14th amendment, trying to counsel them is extremely difficult.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, most QAnon believers can be categorized by their distrust for and disdain of the status quo. They are unhappy with the way their lives have unfolded, and they need a scapegoat. They cannot accept the concept that actions have consequences, and they are clawing for anything they can grasp in hopes of “intelligently” combatting the perceived powers that be.

In that sense, they are the same as sovereign citizens, and it’s not surprising the QAnon conspiracy theory has incorporated ideals from that movement into its ideology. It would have been interesting to see Q: Into the Storm explore this connection in an attempt to add a bit more depth to the docuseries.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.