Florence, Ariz. — One full day before Trump spoke to an estimated 15,000 die-hard Republicans in Arizona, a group of JFK Jr. obsessed QAnon fanatics arrived at the venue grounds here. They drove all the way from Dallas, Texas, where they’ve been holed up in a Hyatt hotel for over two months amid a series of failed prophecies that JFK Jr. would return from the dead. The first among them was Stephen Tenner, right hand man to the group’s leader Michael Protzman. “I’m the first person and only person,” Tenner said in a video posted on social media. “I’m the number one mofo.”
Tenner was later joined by Protzman and about two dozen members of this cultish group, whose months-long antics in Dallas have worried locals and drawn national attention. Protzman is a QAnon influencer who peddles a form of religious numerology known as “gematria,” which he infuses into his interpretations of QAnon theories. Protzman uses gematria to promote the idea that he is in direct contact with both the Kennedy family — which he believes are direct descendants of Jesus Christ — and members of the Trump inner circle. His group also trafficks in a wide range of outlandish conspiracy beliefs such as that long dead famous people such as Michael Jackson and JFK Jr. faked their deaths and are working with Donald Trump in secret to take down a global satanic pedophile cabal.
Protzman, who sometimes goes by Negative48 online, built a notable following through his Telegram channel and has drawn dozens of people to the large scale gatherings in Dallas, which has led one major influencer in the QAnon community — QAnon John, the organizer of the For God & Country Patriot Roundup — to call Protzman “crazy” and his followers “cult material.”
But in Arizona, Protzman and his group appeared to be welcomed warmly. The Protzmanians secured seats in what appeared to be a cordoned off section close to the stage. They were joined by a motley cast of other QAnon adherents including Jim Watkins, the owner of the 8kun forum where QAnon started, and his son Ron Watkins, who also goes by CodeMonkeyZ and is running for Congress in Arizona. Both of them were in Washington, D.C. on January 6.
The Protzmans’ presence at the rally underscores the terrifying fusion between extreme conspiracy theorists and a MAGA movement that controls the Republican Party. Trump’s rallies suggest he’s plotting a 2024 presidential in which he’d instantly become the GOP frontrunner. And if he retakes the White House in 2024, he’ll do so with the help of a movement whose tether to reality has snapped completely.
The Protzmanians were joined by thousands of other Trumpists for a rally that reached a level of paranoia and conspiratorial fervor unseen perhaps since January 6, 2021, featuring discussion of psy-ops, body doubles, and a host of baseless claims meant to rankle racial resentments. The event took place at the secluded Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence, a small town 61 miles southeast of Phoenix that is home to a large prison facility, a DHS detention facility, and just over 26,000 people.
Several sitting Trump-friendly Arizona Republicans spoke at the rally, including Representatives Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, and Debbie Lesko. Biggs and Gosar have been under renewed scrutiny for their communications with Ali Alexander, a leader of the Stop the Steal Movement who was in attendance at the rally. A number of political hopefuls took the stage, including State Secretary candidate Mark Fischem and Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
After reports of spotty attendance at multiple stops along the Trump O’Reilly History tour, the Florence rally was the largest Trump event in recent memory. The event was described by right-wing media network Right Side Broadcasting Network as “like Woodstock” but one where “everyone is not completely liberal and jacked up on drugs.”
Snarled-up traffic packed the two-lane roads leading into the Canyon Moon Ranch and plenty of people wore ridiculous outfits. In those senses, perhaps it was like Woodstock. Otherwise, I could not see the similarities.
On the ground, the event was equal parts straight-edge tailgate and campaign rally. No alcohol was sold and I didn’t see anyone drinking on premise. Before the main speakers took the stage, Protzman and other members of the cultish group spent the day trying to red-pill fellow rally attendees into the QAnon movement. Protzman was spotted conducting gematria clinics to whomever would listen. According to their Telegram chatter, the Protzmanians plan to return to Dallas after the rally, where they’ve been waiting for the reappearance of a number of dead celebrities. None, thus far, have come back from the other side.
The Watkins clique, who have dubbed themselves the “CMZ Army”, rubbed shoulders with the Protzmanians throughout the day. They too managed to secure seats in the VIP audience section. After the rally, Ron Watkins held an audio chat where followers speculated that Trump himself had been a body double. “I saw Trump. It’s not a body double. It’s actually him,” Watkins said.
Alexander, who was recently deposed for his role in the Stop the Steal movement as it relates to January 6, also had a choice seat near the stage. Incidentally, Alexander was seated just two rows in front of me on the flight from Dallas to Arizona and did not appreciate my reporting that fact ahead of the rally on social media. He went on to attack this reporter as a “left-wing blogger” and a stalker on his Telegram channel while dropping links for his legal fundraiser. I wanted to ask Alexander a question at the rally because I wasn’t able to catch up to him in the airport. But I didn’t get the chance.
As the purple Arizona sunset spread across the sky, the headline speakers began to kick into gear, and it was time to go through security. When I tried to sign in I was stopped at the gate with about five other journalists from various local, national, and international media outlets. “No more press,” we were told. “The press tower is full.” We were baffled. Each of us had our press credentials approved. One in the group had a colleague in the press tower who said there was plenty of room. “Press is cut off,” we were told. I walked through the general entrance.
When I got inside, the energy was palpable. Lake, the gubernatorial candidate, had just taken the stage and was riling up the crowd. Lake led them in chants of “build the wall” and “lock him up” regarding Fauci. She aggressively pushed the unfounded narrative that significant fraud and cheating cost Trump the election and that there’s been a conspiracy to conceal it. After she concluded, she walked out to a campaign video set to Kayne West’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
(It must be noted: the music choices at the Trump rally were really something. Sure, I expected to be subjected to “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which Trump always plays for a big speech. I did not expect to hear Elton John’s “Rocket Man” nor the Undertaker’s theme song from WWE. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” seemed to hit the right tones, but the context was far off.)
Hats, shirts, and flags with political logos and slogans were abundant, if not in excess. The crowd was a veritable sea of Trump-inspired merch: campaign logos, QAnon iconography, countless riffs on “Let’s Go Brandon,” a particular unwillingness to “Bide by a Biden,” and other references too esoteric to comprehend. Some sported outlandish costumes, such as one man who was dressed as a mash-up of President Joe Biden and The Riddler.
In practically every aspect the paranoid side of Republican politics was on full display. In the parking lot, multiple cars were clad QAnon iconography while a variety of conspiracy evangelists did their work. I was welcomed by billboards hung on chain link fences comparing major tech companies to communism. A man bearing a sign claiming the vaccine is made using child sacrifice wandered the parking lot.
On stage, a slew of lies, conspiracies and misinformation were delivered with the aim to sow paranoia and fear about enemies both domestic and abroad. If it isn’t the Democrats cheating Republicans in elections, it’s the Chinese or the Russians or the North Koreans threatening to end our way of life.
The paranoid element is not new for Trump, nor for the Republican party in general. Just last month, Trump played the conspiracy theory hits during O’Reilly’s history tour. But the speeches and commentary in Florence cranked the conspiratorial element up to 11. Arizona State Senator Sonny Borelli gravely warned of “psy-ops.” Trump claimed white people are being discriminated against in healthcare. And some of the more out-there observers thought Trump was a body double or worried about famous people being replaced by human clones.
“The Democrats are all liars and cheaters” was the general message sent to a crowd who felt perfectly at home standing next to pro-militia flags flapping in the wind. As a deranged propaganda video reel played in which Biden is described as a “human pandemic,” it truly felt like I was witnessing people be radicalized in real time.
Notably, Trump didn’t advocate for the vaccine in his speech after receiving heat from fellow Republicans and right wing media for promoting the vaccine during the O’Reilly event in Dallas.
The sheer amount of misinformation compacted into the speeches was jarring. I couldn’t fact check them on the fly fast enough amid Trump’s stream-of-consciousness style. “The Democrats are left wing fascists,” Trump said breathlessly. “They’re beyond socialism.” Nevermind that fascism evolved explicitly as a right-wing response to left-wing socialism in Europe.
As I walked toward the exit at the conclusion of Trump’s speech, I noticed a young man dressed up in the style of the QAnon Shaman. I asked to take a photo and struck up a conversation on our way out.
“I never got into the QAnon thing,” said another man taking his photo. “I never understood it.”
And it was then — from a man with red-white-and-blue facepaint and a fake pelt for a hat — that I finally heard something in the neighborhood of reasonable: “I think it’s natural for people to believe in conspiracies when they don’t know the answer,” said the cosplay Shaman. “But yeah, it’s pretty confusing, and a lot of their predictions didn’t pan out.”