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Thursday, October 15, 2020

QAnon finds a new home in Trump’s MAGA movement


The QAnon world is no longer simply a social media community trafficking in conspiracy theories. It’s increasingly a new constituency for the GOP — one that’s fired up like the rest of the MAGA movement, warring with tech giants and ready to battle through Election Day on behalf of a struggling president.

Just this month, President Donald Trump has retweeted and highlighted several accounts with a history of posting QAnon content. He’s stoked conspiracy theories that originated in the QAnon world, even to the detriment of his own supporters. And along with other Republicans, he’s increasingly allowed into the arms of his MAGA movement a group that had been dismissed as fringe nonsense.

While both groups started from very different places, both MAGA and QAnon supporters share the belief that Trump is fighting conspiracies emanating from inside the Deep State — a notion Trump himself has invoked. “MAGA world kind of sees Trump as this epic hero, and QAnon does the same exact thing,” said Kristen Doerer, managing editor of Right Wing Watch, a nonprofit that tracks far-right groups.

The QAnon movement suffered another blow on Thursday when YouTube became the latest platform to block some content from QAnon believers. Facebook in August announced a ban on QAnon groups with “discussions of potential violence,” expanding it to a blanket ban on QAnon-affiliated groups and pages in early October. Twitter’s approach was narrower, simply banning nearly 7,000 accounts back in July. The Facebook and Twitter moves came in response to reports that QAnon pages had been spreading pandemic-related misinformation, as well as inspiring acts of violence nationwide.

But QAnon has already found other ways to survive. Parts of the GOP are falling into an uneasy relationship with the QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges in part that a cabal of demon-worshipping, pedophile elites live in Washington and will stop at nothing to maintain their power.

At a NBC News town hall on Thursday night, Trump himself refused to denounce QAnon when asked about the movement. “I know nothing about QAnon. I know very little,” the president said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”


The vast majority of current House Republicans have openly condemned QAnon, with all but 17 signing onto a recent House resolution calling it a “conspiracy theory.” But Republicans are starting with deal with potential QAnon adherents joining their party in Congress, and some have started reaching out to these believers. At least one sitting GOP member of Congress has appeared on programs that promote QAnon content, and even more candidates have gone to these networks to appeal for money. Major Republicans and ambassadors of the Trump orbit have appeared at events with QAnon adherents, and most notably, none has withdrawn endorsements of candidates specifically because of their affinity with QAnon — though they did make a point of withdrawing their endorsement of Greene for her anti-semitic and racist statements.

In effect, QAnon has become a voter bloc within the MAGAfied version of the Republican Party. As the official networks housing Q theories get taken down — platforms shutting down groups, Twitter cracking down on hashtags — the QAnon movement has found a home inside the MAGA movement.

As Trump has courted a wide range of supporters to expand his base, the beliefs of this mushrooming community are seeping into the Republican base. A recent Morning Consult poll found that 38 percent of Republicans believe that at least parts of the QAnon conspiracy are true, and 12 percent of all social media users who are familiar with QAnon have positively engaged with the theory on social media. A Pew Research survey last month found that 41 percent of Republicans believed that QAnon was “somewhat” or “very good” for the country.

Trump himself is at the center of the shift. He’s the public face of QAnon adulation, a focus since the beginning of the movement. At the core of QAnon’s belief is the hope that one day, the “Storm” will come, referring to a day where the satanic pedophiles get purged from government, arrested and possibly executed.

As the outsider, Trump would be at the vanguard. For months, QAnon supporters would obsess over his various gestures and nods, dissect videos to see whether he’d drawn a “q” with his fingers and eagerly disseminate content tied to moments when Trump mentioned storms and hurricanes.

Trump has, either intentionally or not, stoked that obsession through his online content. Over the past year, his habit of retweeting QAnon-linked content, and sharing conspiracy theories that originate from the Q swamps, has skyrocketed. On July 4 alone, he posted 14 tweets from accounts that were QAnon-linked. In the past week, he tweeted content from similar accounts: one that has theorized that Stephen Colbert had interviewed a John Bolton body double, and one from high-profile QAnon supporter Joy Villa.

Trump’s most attention-grabbing retweet of the week was from an account with Q references in its name, promoting a belief that President Barack Obama had actually killed Osama bin Laden’s body double. That retweet led Robert O’Neill — a Navy SEAL who claims he put the bullet in bin Laden’s head in 2011, and a high-profile Trump supporter himself — to openly denounce Trump and his QAnon adherents.

“You can sort of clock the velocity and intensity and craziness of the Q posts by the real political peril in which Trump finds himself over time,” said Rick Wilson, a former GOP strategist who is now part of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, and had for years been a subject of QAnon intrigue.

The hardcore QAnon believers, in turn, have become major MAGA power players. Some of the splashy QAnon celebrities, such as those who have been retweeted by the president, have gained a big enough following that they’ve been invited to conferences where they’ve spoken on panels with Trump allies such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Roger Stone. Kelly Loeffler, fighting for her Senate seat in Georgia, has been touting her endorsement from Greene.

Last month, Vice President Mike Pence was forced to cancel an appearance at a Montana fundraiser after it was revealed his hosts were sharing memes and following QAnon groups on Facebook.


Less publicly, the GOP has made outreaches to QAnon through less obvious means: appearing on podcasts and video channels that focus on making QAnon messaging and sharing it to millions of followers. At least eight GOP congressional candidates — including sitting Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) — have made appearances on QAnon programs in this cycle alone, according to Media Matters president Angelo Carusone. One, Utah candidate Burgess Owens, had appeared on at least two QAnon-linked programs — Patriots’ Soapbox, a livestreamed pro-QAnon show, and Flocktop, a podcast that has boosted QAnon content in the past — to raise money.

“There is no audience and no part of the Trump universe that is more dedicated, more active and in terms of just pure producing work, consuming content, hours spent, than QAnon adherents,” Carusone said. “And so if you're thinking about it from that perspective, this is the most diehard audience you could possibly have.”

Researchers who’ve followed the rise of the QAnon movement believe that part of the reason the MAGA movement has embraced QAnon is that while the FBI has classified the group as a domestic terrorism threat, it views the movement as an overly enthusiastic but relatively harmless group of pro-Trump enthusiasts who share his content in their spaces.

“That’s likely why pro-Trump commentator Bill Mitchell of YourVoice America argued that people should not criticize the QAnon movement because even if it’s false, Q is giving people confidence in Trump as Election Day approaches,” said Doerer of Right Wing Watch. “This seems to sum up the Republican strategy: Don’t criticize the QAnon movement because the movement is useful to Trump’s reelection prospects.”

It could also be that the movement was simply too big to ignore at this point, said Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast “QAnon Anonymous.“

“Imagine any political movement going from not existing to having elected representatives in just three years,” he said, referring to the extremely high likelihood that Marjorie Taylor Greene — a prominent proponent of conspiracy theories regarding QAnon and anti-semitic tropes — would be a member of congress in 2020. “That is a stunning political success story.”

Regardless of Trump’s fortunes, the QAnon community will be inclined to follow someone as a leader in Washington. “The true believers are too radicalized to let go of it now after dedicating years of their lives to the movement,” View said.



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