The Republican embrace of QAnon goes far beyond Trump

Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 21 2020 09:46 PM

The Republican embrace of QAnon goes far beyond Trump 1
A stage is erected for a rally of QAnon supporters on the National Mall in Washington, Sept. 11, 2019. A small but growing number of Republicans are donning the QAnon mantle, ushering its adherents in from the troll-infested fringes of the internet into an offline political movement. Tom Brenner, The New York Times/file

Late last month, as the Texas Republican Party was shifting into campaign mode, it unveiled a new slogan, lifting a rallying cry straight from a once-unthinkable source: the internet-driven conspiracy theory known as QAnon.

The new catchphrase, “We Are the Storm,” is an unsubtle cue to a group that the FBI has labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat. It is instantly recognizable among QAnon adherents, signaling what they claim is a coming conflagration between President Donald Trump and what they allege, falsely, is a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophile Democrats who seek to dominate America and the world.

The slogan can be found all over social media posts by QAnon followers and now, too, in emails from the Texas Republican Party and on the T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts that it sells. It has even worked its way into the party’s text message system; a recent email from the party urged readers to “Text STORM2020” for updates.

The Texas Republicans are an unusually visible example of the Republican Party’s dalliance with QAnon, but they are hardly unique. A small but growing number of Republicans — including a heavily favored Republican congressional candidate in Georgia — are donning the QAnon mantle, ushering its adherents in from the troll-infested fringes of the internet and potentially transforming the wild conspiracy theory into an offline political movement, with supporters running for Congress and flexing their political muscle at the state and local levels.

Chief among the party’s QAnon promoters is Trump himself. Since the theory first emerged three years ago, he has employed a wink-and-nod approach to the conspiracy theory, retweeting its followers but conspicuously ignoring questions about it. Yet with the election drawing ever closer and Trump’s failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic harming his reelection prospects, the White House and some Trump allies appear to have taken to openly courting believers.

The president, during a White House news conference Wednesday, described QAnon followers — some of whom have been charged with murder, domestic terrorism and planned kidnapping — as “people that love our country.”

The president has retweeted QAnon followers at least 201 times, according to an analysis by Media Matters. Some of his children have posted social media messages related to the conspiracy theory. A deputy White House chief of staff, Dan Scavino, who has for years combed corners of the internet for memes that the president could promote, has three times in the past year — in November 2019, May and June — posted ticking-clock memes that are used by QAnon believers to signify the coming showdown between the president and his purported enemies.

“We once had Republican leaders that would work to keep extremists from the levers of power. Now they embrace them and their crazy and dangerous ideas,” said Rudy Oeftering, a Texas Republican who formerly chaired the Texas Association of Business and remains one of the state party’s precinct captains.

“The lunatics,” he added, “are truly running the asylum.”

There is hardly universal support inside the party for QAnon. Many of its leaders in Congress and powerful donors are privately horrified at the spread of the movement’s themes. And while some Republican voters are well-versed in QAnon, a majority of them are unfamiliar with the particulars of the movement.

“QAnon is nuts — and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., after the president appeared to endorse QAnon this week.

“If Democrats take the Senate,” he added, “this will be a big part of why they won.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, joined the fray Thursday, calling QAnon “dangerous lunacy that should have no place in American politics.”

Other Republican elected officials who have tried to push back publicly against QAnon’s spread have found themselves under attack. This month, when Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., posted a tweet that called QAnon a fabrication that has “no place in Congress,” a senior Trump campaign staff member immediately fired back at him, saying he should be focused on “conspiracy theories pushed by Democrats.”

Fearful of inviting similar blowback, few other elected Republicans have been willing to speak out publicly. Mostly, they avoid questions about it, demonstrating the thin line some officials are trying to walk between extreme elements among their base who adore Trump and the moderate voters they need to win over.

QAnon followers are increasingly taking on the trappings of a discrete political movement, though one with beliefs untethered from reality. There are more than a dozen Republicans running for Congress who have signaled varying degrees of interest in the movement. One candidate has attracted a campaign contribution from the Republican National Committee, and another has raised thousands of dollars from established conservative groups like the House Freedom Fund.

And now they are getting explicit support from the president. Asked during his Wednesday news conference about the QAnon belief that he is saving the world from a cult of pedophiles, Trump said he did not know much about the movement, before all but endorsing it: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing or good thing?” he said. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually.”

The reaction among QAnon followers was swift and predictable: They were elated, and the president’s comments became instant grist of the QAnon meme-making mill.

The president, who in 2016 went on a radio show hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, went on to suggest that the problems QAnon backers wanted him to solve were urban crime and the recent civil rights protests in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, which the White House has sought to falsely portray as the work of radical leftists intent on undermining the very foundations of American society.

If only QAnon’s beliefs were that straightforward, benign or grounded in reality. The core tenet is that Trump, backed by the military, ran for office to save Americans from child-abusing devil-worshippers in the government and media. Backing the president’s enemies, the theory falsely claims, are prominent Democrats who extract hormones from children’s blood.

The theory spins off from there. In some versions, John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, is alive and hiding in rural Pennsylvania, biding his time until he reemerges to back Trump’s reelection bid. Other iterations feature celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. UFOs sometime make appearances, as does the 9/11 “truther” movement and anti-vaccine beliefs.

The movement defies easy political labels — there is hardly a straight line connecting traditional, pre-Trump Republican ideas to pedophile Satanists — and its adherents include a smattering of Democrats and independents. But many of its themes play best among those on the fringes of the Republican Party, such as claims that Jews, and especially financier George Soros, are controlling the political system and vaccines; assertions that the risk from the coronavirus is vastly overstated; or racist theories about former President Barack Obama.

And for all the theory’s disparate parts, what links them is the same kind of extreme anti-establishment bent that Trump rode to election in 2016, said Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies fringe beliefs.

“Trump and his surrogates haven’t created this, but they have certainly tried to activate it and use it to their advantage,” he added. “That’s why you have a lot of QAnon people popping up and mimicking Trump and his views, and running for office.”

QAnon adherents often portray Trump as a god-emperor figure who has been sending them coded messages of support. The QAnon slogan, “We Are the Storm,” grew out of a remark by Trump, who quipped during a 2017 photo op with generals, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

The Texas Republicans adopted the slogan in late July after electing a new chair, Allen West, a former congressman from Florida whose rapid political ascent during the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was matched only by his fast fall out of Congress two years later. Although West had not previously indicated any support for QAnon, during his time in Congress he often framed issues as being part of a struggle to save the country, a theme that courses through the conspiracy theory.

Now, eight years later, under his leadership the state party appears intent on bringing the QAnon caucus into the fold in Texas. The new slogan was quickly picked up by local chapters of the state party as well as some prominent Texas Republicans. Whether they believed it and knew where it came from or simply saw a play for votes in an election year in which Democrats are expected to make gains in Texas is an open question, though some disaffected Republicans in Texas said QAnon-inspired beliefs were spreading dangerously inside the party.

“There are several people in the party’s infrastructure whom I would not put it past to actually believe this nonsense,” said Elizabeth Bingham, a former vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party. “They seem giddy with the idea that they can tell as many people as possible that the Democrats aren’t just opposed to the privatization of social security or soft on Syria — that they’re in favor of child sacrifices. That the Democrats are evil.”

The true believers, she said, were being urged on by opportunists who feared primary challenges and losing elected office. “I think that’s worse,” she added.

A recent congressional primary runoff in Georgia appeared to highlight the pull of QAnon beliefs among Republican voters. The winner was perhaps the most unabashed pro-QAnon candidate in the country, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who in 2017 called the conspiracy theory “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out.”

Her competitor, a neurosurgeon, was just as conservative and pro-Trump as Greene yet did not share her belief in QAnon, mocking it as an “embarrassment.” He was trounced, losing by nearly 16 points and clearing a path to Congress for Greene, who is a near lock to win a House seat representing the deeply conservative district.

Few other QAnon candidates are likely to win seats in Congress. But at least two managed to defeat non-QAnon-believing Republicans in competitive primaries: Lauren Boebert, a House candidate in Colorado who made approving comments about QAnon, defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in a primary in June, though she is likely to lose in the general election. Jo Rae Perkins, a long-shot Republican Senate candidate in Oregon, declared in May, “I stand with Q and the team.” The next month, she posted a video in which she took what has become known as an oath for QAnon digital soldiers.

But far more than any congressional candidate, it is Trump and his campaign surrogates who are normalizing QAnon inside the Republican Party.

Language, images and ideas drawn from QAnon are now a regular feature of messages from the campaign. No voter, it seems, is too extreme to be ignored, as Eric Trump, the president’s son, demonstrated in June before a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

On Instagram, he posted and then later deleted an image that featured an American flag emblazoned with black text that read, “Who’s ready for the Trump Rally tonight.” Behind the words, fainter but clearly visible, was a large letter “Q.”

And just in case the message was not clear enough, running along the bottom of the flag was a popular QAnon hashtag, #WWG1WGA, which stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All.” The post was later deleted.