WILMINGTON, N.C. — Julie McDaniel can’t say for sure who started it. It might even have been her.
McDaniel was in the front section at a Trump rally earlier this month in Youngstown, Ohio, when the former president started wrapping up his speech by playing an instrumental score embraced by followers of the QAnon online conspiracy theory. She felt moved to raise her right hand and point to the sky — to God, she said. Soon everyone around her was doing it, too.
“It was spontaneous, it was like the domino effect,” said McDaniel, who also attended Friday’s rally here in Wilmington, N.C., coming from her home in the Chicago area. She objected to news coverage that condemned the gesture, with some comparing it to a Nazi salute. “It was an amazing, amazing moment, when you have the unity that everybody is there, and not only in this small group that was on the floor, but other people were doing it,” she said.
The group on the floor was an offshoot of the QAnon community called Negative48, a name that they say stands for the opposite of evil. They’ve become a fixture at Trump’s rallies this year. Numbering about 100, they can be spotted by their lanyards sporting as many as 16 commemorative buttons from each rally they have attended. Or see them wrap their arms around each other to sway to Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” blasting over the loudspeakers. Or lining up to take selfies in front of the stage with their leader, a man in American flag pants named Michael Brian Protzman.
The FBI has warned that extremist movements such as QAnon — which loosely revolves around the baseless belief that the world is secretly run by Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers — is likely to motivate some people to criminal and violent acts. The ideology has already been implicated in multiple crimes, including several people arrested in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and a recent murder in Michigan.
But the Negative48 group rejects such characterizations.
“Some people call QAnon a cult, but I like to spell it cult with a Q, Q-U-L-T, because it’s hard to find people that are on our same page,” said group member Kelly Heath from Georgia. “It’s a strange story. You’re not going to hear about it every day. It’s like saying that God’s coming, the world is changing, and we need it to change. There’s bad people that run the world, and they do bad things to kids, and it’s ugly.” Heath said the group included members who were themselves victims of sexual abuse as children.
As long as there have been Trump rallies, there have been roadies who follow him from city to city. Some have called themselves the “Front Row Joes,” like Saundra Kiczenski, who Trump called up to the stage in Anchorage in July because he liked her shirt covered with his face. Friday’s rally in Wilmington, N.C. was her 69th. Richard Snowden said the Wilmington rally would probably be his last, capping 80 events in 28 states across seven years. During his speech that night, Trump called out a few women from North Carolina who he said had been to 92 rallies, earning them a special invitation to Mar-a-Lago.
The Front Row Joes brought no agenda besides their undying love for Trump. The arrival of the QAnon group, however, has led to a silent standoff with Trump’s team, raising concerns that they could disrupt events, alienate other fans, distract from the former president’s message or generate bad publicity. The crew of crowd-control staff — male and female body builders in tight, silky green polos and black pants — keeps a close watch on the Negative48 group, telling them they can’t block the aisles with their dancing and, in Wilmington on Friday, working to head off another scene of index fingers pointing to the sky.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about the group.
The Trump team’s tensions with Negative48 come even as the ex-president has more and more explicitly courted support from QAnon followers with social media posts that adopt the movement’s slogans and imagery.
“Together we are standing up against some of the most menacing forces, entrenched interests and vicious opponents our people have ever, ever seen,” Trump said in his speech on Friday. “Despite great outside dangers from other countries, our biggest threat remains the sick, sinister and evil people from within our own country.”
QAnon followers search for hidden meaning in cryptic messages from a supposed military leader with the code name “Q” and in Trump’s own pronouncements. The Negative48 spinoff focuses on deciphering meaning using a takeoff of gematria, an ancient Hebrew tradition of assigning numeric values to letters. (Forty-eight, the group says, is the value of the word “evil.”)
One man with the group who didn’t identify himself illustrated how it worked using the name of this newspaper. “The Washington Post?” he said. “W is 23 in the alphabet. P is 16. Thirty-nine. Angel 39. Which angel? Lucifer was an angel.”
The group made headlines last year when members gathered in Dallas expecting to see the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. In January, they decided to start attending every Trump rally in 2022. Protzman, their leader, said he wasn’t available for an interview and declined to set another time to talk. Other members were mysterious about their reasons or goals for coming to Trump rallies.
“We learned gematria from Michael in Dallas,” said Melissa Cole, who was at the rally in Wilmington with two 13-year-olds and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in a stroller. “We have traveled around together, some of us go home, some of us go back and forth, but collectively we’re all learning together from him … We’re standing for the 2020 election, it was stolen from us.”
While the Negative48 group has become a prominent feature of recent Trump rallies, they clearly don’t represent the whole crowd. Many others interviewed in Wilmington were Carolinas residents, local Republican activists and Trump supporters attending an in-person rally for the first time.
But it would be equally inaccurate to describe the Negative48 group as total outliers. Other attendees who weren’t part of the group came wearing QAnon slogans or eager to discuss their belief, or at least curiosity, in the movement’s theories.
“Biden is a fraud, he’s an actor,” said a woman in an “I TQLD YOU SO” T-shirt who declined to give her name. “He died in 2019.”
Lisa Pyle, who came to the rally wearing a Q hat, said the Jewish New Year a few days after the rally would be the occasion when the Supreme Court would reveal that it had overturned the 2020 election.
“You know Joe Biden’s not the president,” she said. “That’s someone playing Joe Biden. It is. I know you want to laugh. I’m not joking.”
Her husband, Kip, chimed in to explain that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and many other members of Congress had already been arrested. The couple said Q was the force behind a long series of events in American history, including the Civil War, the JFK assassination, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.
Lisa: “You’ve heard of Agenda 2030?”
Kip: “Do you do any research?”
Lisa: “You know about the Georgia Guidestones?”
Kip: “You gotta do some research, brother.”
Elsewhere at the rally, Eileen McDermott said she’d only started to explore gematria, but she believed there were coded messages in Trump’s speeches, executive orders and musical selections. She said her devotion to Trump became a strain on her relationship with her daughters, but eventually they accepted that if they wanted to have a relationship with her they had to let her be her.
“I think Donald Trump wants people to use their brains to think, and I think he wants us to figure out what he’s saying,” she said. “It’s all going to be exposed, it’s just a matter of time.”
When an ad came over the loudspeaker for Trump’s official presidential photo album that sells for $75, McDermott proudly noted that she bought two copies: one to let guests leaf through and one to keep stored away in mint condition. She said she spent $2,000 to fly from Southern California just for Friday’s rally.
Arriving early, she went to a nearby beach to watch the sunset and she noticed a glow in the eastern sky — almost like there was a second sun. McDermott said she isn’t sure about that one yet, she needs to do more research.