Cleveland Grover Meredith, Jr., who goes by Cleve, grew up in a wealthy suburb of Atlanta in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. His father owns a hundred-year-old company that makes utility poles, and his mother was a homemaker who later became an interior decorator. He had two sisters, one of whom died young, of brain cancer. He attended the prestigious Lovett School, in north Atlanta, where nearly all his classmates were white, and where, a few of those classmates told me recently, the N-word was occasionally heard in the hallways—making it “depressingly similar,” one said, to many schools in the area at the time. Meredith was an upbeat kid. One of his classmates, Dean Temple, who is now a stage actor, recalled a class trip to the U.S. Capitol. Most of the details were fuzzy, Temple said, but he could still recall “the smile on Cleve’s face.”
In high school, Meredith twice led Lovett to cross-country championships. “He was so damn fast, he seemed to be on his own,” a former teacher at Lovett told me, adding that Meredith “set himself apart and above others.” “He was a popular and good-looking guy,” Matt Arnett, who’s now a music producer in Atlanta, said. A former family friend told me, “He was about cars, running, and ego.” He drove a Datsun 280ZX, and won the “best car” award in his senior year. He started a detailing business, Temple said, mainly so that he could drive fancy vehicles, and he painted flames down the side of the family station wagon. Patrick Brown, who became a lifelong friend, described a trip to the Grand Canyon during which Meredith, goofing off with other kids, slathered himself with ketchup and lay down in the middle of the road. “The first people to pull up were the fucking game wardens,” Brown said. “I still have the citation. But that was Cleve. He loved to pull pranks.” Brown went on, “I don’t see him as a violent person. Just a high-energy guy. ‘Electric’ is the word I’d use. Tries to suck the marrow out of life.” He added, “At the end of the day, I don’t know if there’s a joke element to it.”
By “it,” Brown meant Meredith’s espousal, in the past decade, of extreme and increasingly paranoid right-wing views, including the set of wild delusions that circulate among those who believe in the QAnon conspiracy, which holds that many Democrats in Washington and Hollywood are satanists and pedophiles. Meredith has shared those views on Facebook and elsewhere; at times, there appeared to be an element of trolling involved. But he could also seem deadly serious. Last week, Meredith was one of the first thirteen people charged in connection with the violence that followed a rally on January 6th for Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. The next day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference calling on Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Meredith allegedly texted an acquaintance, “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi CUNT’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” He appended the purple devil emoji. He allegedly had two firearms and thousands of rounds of ammo in his trailer.
Brown, who voted for Trump but said he didn’t believe that there’d been widespread election fraud and that “there’s no place for violence at any of these demonstrations,” told me that he’s still trying to make sense of it all. When we spoke, he was not yet aware that Meredith evidently never made it to the Capitol. “Maybe he desecrated that place,” Brown said, of his friend, “and if he did I’d beat the shit out of him.” He went on, “But if I was gonna go to battle and war for this country, I would want him on my side, next to me, in the trench. He’s a warrior, in a way.”
Before graduating from Lovett, in 1986, Meredith served on the homecoming court, and he was active in vestry, a group connected with the school’s chapel that did volunteer work and assisted in worship services. “Always carrying that cross,” the family friend told me. For his yearbook page, he chose a quote from “Life in the Fast Lane,” by the Eagles: “Blowin’ and burnin’, blinded by thirst, didn’t see the stop sign, took a turn for the worst.” After Lovett, he went to Sewanee, an Episcopal liberal-arts college in the hills of Tennessee. He had not been especially interested in politics in high school, and didn’t seem to be at Sewanee, either, Arnett said. “It’s not exactly a bastion of militant conservatism,” he added. “I don’t think he changed much there.”
After college, he opened a car wash north of Atlanta. He got married and had two sons. He enjoyed driving “Jet Skis and motorcycles and big trucks and trailers,” Arnett said. “I never got the impression that all that was funded by the car wash. I think he had family money.” In recent years, Meredith raced Porsches and drove speedboats. “He loved his toys,” Brown said. On Facebook, Meredith posted pictures of those toys, and began sharing his opinions about the state of the country. After Barack Obama was elected President, those posts became “exceptionally racist,” a former classmate told me. She recalled one that referred to Obama as a “porch monkey”—she added, of the slur, “I thought that was of a vintage before my time.” She unfollowed Meredith but still occasionally saw his posts. It seemed to her that he “was disturbed by a world that had changed.”
Temple thought so, too. “I confronted him about his outspoken hatred of Muslims,” he said. It struck him as “a clichéd, right-wing-media, knee-jerk take on the ills of the world.” Meredith, to Temple’s surprise, responded with a seemingly open mind. “I thought, ‘Huh, that went well.’ But he really turned into a troll, and kind of a cult member, eventually.”
Arnett, who tends to vote for Democrats, told me that his own Facebook page was “a place where people from the right and left would debate. And Cleve was one of those people that would jump in with just the craziest, most outlandish things.” One of Meredith’s recurring themes was that the Confederate flag represented “heritage, not hate,” he said. Meredith made a version of this argument after a white man named Dylann Roof killed nine members of a Black church in Charleston—at which point, Arnett said, he unfriended him. “His posts just became so virulently racist and unmoored from fact, I drew the line,” he said. Meredith was upset by the unfriending, and the two men had a long private exchange about it through Facebook. “Honestly,” Meredith wrote, “I think the only way to solve these major issues and I’m not talking about just racial/social issues, I’m talking about the whole gamut (economic, military, debt, etc) is to flush everybody (both sides of course) out of Washington and start over . . . to hit the reset button. . . . Just not sure how we do that.”
A few weeks before Meredith sent that message, Donald Trump announced that he was running for President. Meredith was thrilled. “Somebody like Cleve was the perfect target for Trump’s rhetoric,” Arnett told me. “It’s much easier to understand why, perhaps, lower-income people would be susceptible to that talk,” he added. “But I think there are people of greater means, like Cleve, who see the way of life changing from white control of everything that has made them very comfortable.” Meredith also enjoyed “Trump’s owning of the libs,” Arnett said.
Though Meredith lost a few friends and followers on Facebook, he also gained new ones. Suleiman Fetrat, an Afghan-American former defense contractor, who has a degree in political science, is a few years older than Meredith—“old enough,” he told me, “to have been fooled by both sides.” A mutual friend connected him with Meredith in late 2015, and Fetrat described to me a warm online relationship that transcended their divergent politics. (An ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, Fetrat sat out the 2016 election, then voted reluctantly for Joe Biden in 2020.) They never met in person, though, and Fetrat took notice of Meredith’s evolution with a degree of detachment, watching him parrot The Gateway Pundit, Trump’s Twitter feed, Fox News, and, eventually, QAnon supporters—and finding it all more fascinating than frightening. “He took the red pill with the Q stuff,” Fetrat said. “I was grateful for that. My specialty is political ideology. I was an observer of this whole thing.” Fetrat knew many Trump supporters, “but Cleve was beyond that,” he told me, adding, “I hesitate to say this, but he and others like him are like the American Taliban.” The difference, Fetrat believed, was that Meredith’s tough talk was, in his view, basically bluster. He enjoyed tweaking Meredith, and being his “libtard” pal. “I don’t think Cleve would ever hurt anybody,” he said. “He’s all naïve braggadocio. Bark, no bite.” He added, “We always promised to meet each other. He would always say, ‘When it all goes down, I’ll protect your children.’ As much as we disagreed, he had my back.”
In the spring of 2018, Meredith put up a billboard near his business, Car Nutz Car Wash, that read, simply, “#QANON.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story about it; Meredith told the paper that he was “a patriot among the millions who love this country.” Then he put the hashtag on the car wash’s marquee. A real-estate appraiser named Chris got into an argument with him about it, and later wrote about the exchange in a private Facebook group. “I told him that it is dumb to have the name of a batty insane organization flashing on their sign, that it drives away customers like me and makes them look like idiots,” Chris wrote. “Oh so you must be a Hillary supporter,” Meredith said to him, according to Chris’s account. “I bet you are on welfare, and you are unemployed.” Meredith “continued to yell at me as other customers were in their cars in line, hearing all of it,” Chris wrote. Soon afterward, Meredith began driving a blue two-door Saab decorated with a giant law-enforcement star bearing the name Donald Trump. He posted pictures of the vehicle on Facebook with the caption “There’s a new Sheriff in town.”
It was around this time that Meredith and his wife separated, and he moved from Cobb County—a once conservative area just north of Atlanta that has lately turned blue—to Hiawassee, a small, deeply conservative town in the north Georgia mountains. (His ex-wife did not reply to an interview request.) Meredith’s parents had, at this point, become concerned enough about their son to call the Hiawassee Police Department to give them a heads-up. “They wanted me to be aware of his involvement with Q, and the social-media posts he’d been making,” Paul Smith, Hiawassee’s chief of police, told me. (Meredith’s mother declined to comment for this story. His father could not be reached.) They described their son as “a great person who had fallen from grace into far-right-extremist territory,” Smith said, adding, “They were letting me know that he seems like he could be dangerous and he’s living in your city now.” Meredith’s parents told Smith that they had communicated with the F.B.I., and the Hiawassee police passed along word to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Smith said that there was an investigation but that he didn’t know the details; the G.B.I. did not respond to a request for comment.
In March, 2019, Meredith showed up at Lovett in his unmistakable Saab to protest an appearance by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, who was there to speak about current affairs. “Fairly anodyne stuff,” one of Meredith’s old classmates told me, of Meacham’s talk. But Meredith ended up skirmishing with campus security. “It got kind of scuffly,” the classmate said. Security escorted Meredith from the event—one classmate heard a rumor from friends that they took him to the OK Café, which, until recently, prominently displayed a carving of the old Georgia flag. “What’d they do,” this classmate speculated, laughing, “go prop him under a Confederate flag for some fried chicken?” Meredith was banned from Lovett after the incident. By March of last year, he was posting angry comments on his class’s Facebook page. “This was a page that has nothing to do with politics,” the woman who unfollowed him told me. “Meredith was posting things like, Democrats are idiots, they’re destroying America. Blah, blah, blah,” she said. “The page is devoted to who got married, who had a baby, who got a job! So it was weird.”
After the coronavirus pandemic hit Georgia, Meredith became a strident opponent of mask-wearing, and his Facebook posts started earning him temporary suspensions from the platform. After his first suspension, Fetrat told me, “He became more and more vitriolic, less willing to share where he got his info. Posting fewer links.” He was also posting pictures of increasingly aggressive activity on his toys, Fetrat said: “The last picture I saw on his Facebook feed, he’d flipped a Bobcat front-end loader. At a certain point, you stop doing that kind of stupid thing. But he didn’t. He’s immature.”
In June, after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, a group of Hiawassee residents held a demonstration in the town about police brutality. Meredith showed up in loafers and khaki shorts holding a IWI Tavor X95 rifle. Witnesses say that he held it up in a menacing way. The North Georgia News spoke to Meredith for a story about the demonstration; he told the paper that he was a “fifth-generation Atlantan” who supported “America, freedom and President Donald Trump.” As for the protest, he said, “It’s basically a political stunt done by the higher ups, just paying people to screw everything up.” He added, “I sincerely believe the New World Order, Cabal, Deep State—whatever you want to call it—wants society to devolve into a race war so that it’s much easier to take over.” In August, after an Illinois teen-ager named Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters for racial justice and injured another with an AR-15-style rifle in Wisconsin, Meredith posted a photoshopped “Robocop” poster bearing Rittenhouse’s face and the tagline “PART KID, PART COP, ALL PATRIOT.”