Lucky 17, Q and the 'tippy top' White House: How conspiracy theories are being turbo-charged in Donald Trump's America
There are some riddles about America that I never imagined I would have to unravel.
In fact, there are many conspiracy theories that exist in the dark recesses here that I never knew about, even after reporting from the US for more than a decade.
Until recently, I was blissfully unaware of the significance of the number 17 to many Americans.
I had never pondered the letter Q as a political force.
I would have struggled to tell you why thousands of people were exhilarated when Donald Trump used the phrase “tippy top” from the White House balcony.
Today, having spent a month researching and filming American conspiracy theories for a documentary for ITV’s Tonight programme, I feel more informed and more confused at the same time.
I have a better grasp, certainly, of why Americans are drawn to the idea of conspiracies and secret plots.
But as these theories are turbo-charged by the internet, talk radio and social media, I don’t know where it ends.
Does America become increasingly paranoid and suspicious, seeing shadows and threats everywhere, or does it eventually rediscover its equilibrium and return to a belief in reason and science?
Let me explain those riddles.
Q is the name that many Trump-supporting Americans give to the secretive figure they believe exists inside the government, who is helping the president defeat his enemies.
They believe that Q will not only ensure Trump’s survival but that he - or she - will turn the tables and destroy the Democrats and the Deep State.
And since Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, his followers attach special significance to that number.
In the eyes of Q believers, his credibility was enhanced when a follower asked Q to get President Trump to say “tip top”.
Sure enough, Trump did use those words, although he had used the phrase before and there is no evidence of a link between the president and the Q conspiracy theory.
America has always been awash with such ideas.
From the hysteria of the 17th century Salem witch trials, through to the paranoid McCarthy era, to the JFK assassination and 9/11, there is a direct connection.
All have fuelled Americans’ obsession with conspiracies and raised doubts about whether official explanations are accurate.
But today something much more remarkable has occurred.
Suddenly, the conspiracy theorist-in-chief is on the inside.
He works from the White House. He is the President of the United States of America.
Donald Trump has weaponised conspiracy theories for his own political benefit.
Indeed, he came to political prominence by riding on the back of the Birther Movement, the pernicious lie that claims that Barack Obama was born in Africa and therefore was an illegitimate president.
Whether it is believing votes have been deliberately miscounted in the mid-term elections, or that there is a Deep State conspiracy against him, Trump is playing to the anxiety of millions of Americans who already have a profound distrust of the government and mainstream sources of news.
Many recent acts of violence have been triggered by those who believe in wild conspiracy theories, including most recently the gunman who murdered 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
So there is grave danger ahead if the battle for truth is lost.
In our film, we speak to those who believe passionately in the existence of Q; we hear from those who have been traumatised by conspiracy theorists; and we speak to scientists and intellectuals who are fighting back.
Besieged by talk of Fake News, with a president who portrays much of the media as the Enemy of the People, America is at a crossroads.
Trump and the Truth: America’s Conspiracy Wars - Tonight airs Thursday on ITV at 7.30pm.