The COVID-19 pandemic has created fertile conditions for the QAnon conspiracy to grow, from online message boards, into the streets at “Save the Children” rallies, and to protests, after the election results were called. It’s jumped the Atlantic, making inroads in France, Britain, and Italy. And it’s headed to Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has staked out her support for the sprawling conspiracy theory—which centers on the false belief that Donald Trump is secretly combatting a deep state cabal of satanic pedophiles—will be representing Georgia’s fourteenth district in Congress starting in January.
But there’s one arena in which the conspiracy theory failed to gain momentum: political fundraising.
In February of 2020, James Watkins launched Disarm The Deep State, a super PAC ostensibly to back QAnon-supporting candidates. (Watkins also owns 8kun, a message board website that is home to “Q,” the anonymous poster said to be at the center of the movement. Some evidence suggests that Watkins, his son, or someone that works for them, is posting as Q.) The PAC’s website lists 16 candidates it supported, some of whom never publicly backed QAnon. It vowed to “take the movement offline and out of the shadows.” With your help, reads the PAC’s website, “we will have the resources to place meaningful pressure on closely contested races.” In an April interview, Watkins said the PAC would fund “print advertising, billboards, and [ads on] sides of busses.”
But, according to the PAC’s most recent filings with the Federal Elections Committee, it didn’t end up providing print advertising, or billboard ads, or ads on the sides of busses. In fact, it raised just $4,236—pocket change in the country’s most expensive election in history. (The PAC was also seeded with a $500 loan from Watkins’ lawyer, bringing its total cash to $4,736). Even relative to other niche PACs, it’s a small sum: Truckers for Yang raised nearly $100,000. Despite its limited funds, Disarm The Deep State didn’t even spend down its bank account. According to FEC filings, it spent a grand total of $591. Washington Monthly tried to contact Watkins and his lawyer multiple times for this story, including emailing each of them a list of specific questions, but received no response.
One reason that the PAC struggled to raise significant funds could be that it doesn’t appear to have well-heeled donors. PACs reliant on small donors, like Disarm The Deep State, have a much harder time raising money, says Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. “Super PACs account for a larger and larger fraction of spending every cycle,” Mayersohn told the Washington Monthly, “but there’s also a very long tail of super PACs that don’t really raise or spend very much.”
The PAC’s modest fundraising could also have to do with the perception of super PACs within the QAnon community more generally, said Travis View, host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous. PACs are an instrument of the political establishment that Q’s followers believe they’re actively opposing. “Achieving electoral victories slowly over time isn’t as exciting as their vision of Q,” said View, “which is revealing the truth to everyone, their political enemies being arrested, and entering into some sort of golden age.”
“I think this might have been a personal project of Jim Watkins,” View continued, “and it just didn’t take off as well as he thought.”
The PAC’s first ad, published on its own YouTube channel, supports View’s theory. It targeted Bennie Thompson, a longtime Democratic congressman in Mississippi’s solidly blue second district. Thompson, the House Committee on Homeland Security chair, deposed Watkins last year after 8chan, another message board website that Watkins managed, hosted the manifestos of at least three mass shooters. Thompson’s opponent in the race, Republican Brian Flowers, had not made any pro-QAnon statements and was not among the candidates that the PAC claimed to be backing. On November 3rd, Thompson carried his district by more than 20 points.
Disarm The Deep State produced just two other video ads. One was for Dion Bergeron, a candidate in the Republican primary for Indiana’s first district who has often tweeted QAnon slogans. The other ad was for Reba Sherrill, a longtime QAnon follower who ran in the Republican primary for Florida’s twenty-first district. According to data from the Facebook Transparency Center, the two ads received a combined 15-21k impressions, which refers to the number of times the ad appeared on someone’s screen. While those numbers may seem large, research suggests that just 1.2 percent of people who see an ad on Facebook click on it, which would translate to around 250 people or fewer interacting with the PAC’s two ads. Bergeron came in fifth out of six candidates in his primary with 10.1 percent of the vote, while Sherrill came in dead last in her six-way primary, winning only 3.1 percent of the vote.
Ultimately, QAnon candidates got larger donations from mainstream GOP sources than they did from Disarm The Deep State. Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee’s PAC gave $5,000 to QAnon follower Jo Rae Perkins. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator from Georgia, donated $2,000 to Angela Stanton-King, a Republican running for congress in Georgia’s fifth district who promoted the QAnon conspiracy on social media. Both Perkins and Stanton-King lost by sizable margins in November.
Disarm The Deep State was not Watkins’ first attempt to influence an election. Fredrick Brennan, who founded 8chan before transferring its ownership to Watkins, said during a phone interview that Watkins put free Trump ads on 8chan in 2016. That year, 8chan was among the top ten sites driving traffic to the Trump campaign website. “Then Trump won a surprise victory, and Jim now believes he can influence elections,” Brennan said. After working with Watkins for two years, Brennan quit and has become a vocal critic of 8kun, Watkins’ new site. The two men are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute.
Donations to the PAC reduced to a trickle over the summer, with just $483 coming in between the end of June and October 14th, the last day for which spending is recorded in FEC filings. By October 14th, Disarm The Deep State had refunded some of the small donations it had received but had not repaid its $500 loan. Since the PAC spent so little of its funds, it still had $4,060 on hand.
If Disarm The Deep State still had money in its account on Election Day roughly three weeks later, Watkins would have had several options: he could donate the remaining funds to another group, or give donors refunds, or save the cash in the PAC for the next election cycle. It’s an open question, though, whether a large Q community will still exist when the midterm elections roll around in 2022. After Joe Biden’s victory, some in the online community have lost faith; Q had been predicting a blowout win for Trump. Watkins’ son, Ron, quit as 8kun’s site administrator. For over a week after election day, Q did not post.
Watkins, his lawyer, and anyone else involved in running the PAC have another option for what to do with the remaining funds: pay themselves. They’re not technically allowed to pocket the money, says Mayersohn, the Center for Responsive Politics researcher, but super PACs are subject to so few fiduciary responsibilities that there’s not much stopping them from paying themselves. They could write a check to themselves for “consulting fees,” or reimburse their own travel expenses. For a pro-Trump group, few endings could be more fitting than making a check payable to oneself.