DALLAS -- Weeks after they first gathered near Dealey Plaza, dozens of believers in the furthest fringe of the QAnon conspiracy theory remain in Dallas, expecting long-dead John F. Kennedy Jr. to reveal himself in the city where his father was assassinated and usher in the reinstatement of Donald Trump as president.
While their beliefs are patently absurd, the fervency and devotion of this particular group, along with their loyalty to a leader known as Negative48 and unwillingness to leave Dallas, is unique -- and cause for alarm and concern, according to an expert who has followed QAnon for years.
"I think what you're seeing here is really, undeniably a cult," said Mike Rothschild, author of "The Storm Is Upon Us", which chronicles the rise of, and fallout from, QAnon.
The leader of the group is Michael Brian Protzman, a Washington man who amassed a following on social media with his version of gematria, a Hebrew numerology language. Interpreting codes that include numbers and letters, and using elements of Christianity and QAnon, his followers have come to believe that Kennedy, who died in a plane crash in 1999, will reappear in Dallas and commence a new Trump administration.
Some of Protzman's followers believe President John F. Kennedy wasn't assassinated in 1963; others believe he was, but then resurrected as a messiah shortly thereafter. Despite the failure of either Kennedy -- or other dead celebrities who were expected, including Michael Jackson and Princess Diana -- to appear during the initial Nov. 2 rally that drew hundreds to downtown Dallas, a hardcore group of Protzman's followers remains in Dallas, expecting their arrival.
Even some of the more mainstream believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory -- which is based on the premise that a cabal of liberal celebrities and politicians partake in a child sex-abuse ring and will be executed upon Trump's reinstatement -- think Negative48 is too fringy, Rothschild said.
The group is also distinct from the larger umbrella of QAnon because it has a leader able to persuade hundreds of people from across the country to come to Dallas. Protzman's followers take direction from him; days after the initial rally, they lined up single-file in Dealey Plaza, appearing to await his instructions.
"There is absolutely behavior control and thought control," Rothschild said. "He's telling people what to do. He's having people stand in straight lines to have conversations. He's telling people when to go outside, when to look up, when to look down. It is unquestionably the behavior of a cult leader."
Another distinction between the Negative48 group and the larger QAnon is one that ostensibly makes Protzman's group more benign, Rothschild said: Neither Protzman nor his followers have shown a propensity for violence.
While many QAnon believers think prominent politicians and celebrities will be executed by military tribunals, the rhetoric from Protzman's group has been more low-key: They're simply waiting for a dead man to reveal himself.
"This feels almost like an old hippie love-in in some kind of way," Rothschild said. "It's much more about hidden truths and secret knowledge than it is about taking up arms against the government. That might come down the line -- I really hope it doesn't."
Rothschild says the group should be taken seriously -- not as a threat, but as a warning for how behavior can be influenced.
"If you've been in Dallas for weeks waiting for JFK Jr. and Michael Jackson to come back, what do you do when you go home to your family? Do you say, 'Sorry, I was wrong?' You stick with it," Rothschild said. "And the longer it goes on, and the deeper you get into it, the harder it gets to get out of it. That's when there is a potential for harm and for violence."
Protzman declined to comment and cursed at a Dallas Morning News reporter after being approached Wednesday night in the lobby of the hotel where he's staying near Dealey Plaza.
About two dozen Negative48 followers -- some of them with young children -- gathered Wednesday in the lobby of another downtown Dallas hotel. They scrunched over laptops, watching livestreams, scrolling through messaging apps and trying to decipher codes. They were in good spirits and effusively kind toward one another, the hotel staff and strangers.
More than anticipating the Kennedys' return or Trump's reinstatement or Protzman's next direction, they seemed to relish the time spent around like-minded people gathered for the same cause -- one they sincerely believe is true, righteous and just.
"It's very easy to mock these people as crazy cultists, but I think it's harder to look at them as people who are just looking for something and have found it in the wrong place," Rothschild said. "These people are looking for some kind of certainty. They're looking for some kind of reassurance that things are going to be OK.
"They're looking for hope," he said.
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