The apparent inevitable ascent to Congress of a Georgia Republican who has promoted the outlandish conspiracy theories of QAnon could be a bellwether for American politics, in which extreme views creep increasingly into the mainstream, experts on extremism told CNN.
Marjorie Taylor Greene – who, in addition to promoting QAnon theories, has also suggested that President Barack Obama is Muslim, called Jewish billionaire and liberal philanthropist George Soros a Nazi, and questioned whether a plane really crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 – beat neurosurgeon John Cowan in a primary runoff on August 11.
A month later, her longshot Democratic challenger, Kevin Van Ausdal, dropped out of the race in the Republican stronghold, citing personal and family reasons, all but clinching Greene’s victory for the 14th district congressional seat in northwest Georgia.
QAnon adherents believe in a baseless conspiracy theory that there is a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who have infiltrated the highest reaches of American government and are working hand-in-hand with other elites in business and Hollywood. They believe President Donald Trump is secretly fighting to destroy this cabal and that messages are being delivered to them in code by an anonymous central character called Q.
Before she was a public figure, Greene posted a half-hour video online of herself telling followers about the QAnon conspiracy theory – saying, for instance, that “according to him (Q), many in our government are actually worshipping Satan.”
She did appear to step back from the comments in a Fox News interview posted August 14. While the piece characterized her as not talking about Q after she “started finding misinformation,” she has not herself, when asked multiple times since then, publicly disavowed the conspiracy theory, which the FBI has listed as a possible domestic terrorism threat.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said he believes Greene’s success may mark the beginning of a larger trend in American politics.
“She is a bellwether,” he told CNN.
“While most people who run under the QAnon banner will be rightly laughed out of the voting booth, the fact of the matter is that a movement this broad, with this many followers, is bound to elect QAnon participants,” Levin added. “They are growing, they are engaged, and unlike other fringe movements, they are fielding candidates, at all levels from local to national races.”
QAnon supporters emerging in political races
Several candidates have publicly expressed, in varying degrees, support for QAnon. Among them are Republican Lauren Witzke, who last week bested the party’s endorsed candidate for the Senate seat in Delaware held by Democrat Chris Coons. Witzke, who ran on a platform of ending immigration for 10 years, has been photographed wearing a QAnon t-shirt, though she, too, has sought to distance herself from her past comments.
Another primary winner, Jo Rae Perkins of Oregon, vanquished three other candidates in the Republican contest and will face off with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has held the office since 2009 in the blue state.
In a recent interview with CNN, Perkins chided a reporter for wearing a mask and said she believes the fatality numbers for Covid-19 have been “doctored.” Perkins also discussed QAnon – which is often referred to as simply Q – calling it “a resource for information.”
“I can read all these articles,” she said. “It’s kind of like a clearing house. And that’s what I really like about Q. That’s one thing that I like, the other thing is that there are questions in the Socratic method.”
At a Second Amendment rally Saturday in Catoosa County, Georgia, CNN asked Greene about her views, but she declined comment. Her husband told CNN, “have you seen the Fox News interview?”
In that interview, Greene denied that she is the “QAnon candidate,” saying, “never once during my campaign did I ever speak about QAnon,” adding that she has run on a “save America, stop socialism” platform of supporting President Donald Trump, securing the border by “building a wall,” opposing abortion and defending the Second Amendment.
Regardless of her current views on QAnon, many groups in the American militia movement support Greene and other candidates who espouse similar views, said Freddy Cruz, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I worry about what will happen, once she is placed in a position when she has a lot more authority,” Cruz told CNN. “In the long run (her political success) adds legitimacy to these kinds of ideas, which are incredibly dangerous.”
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociology professor and education at American University, said elected officials should use their elevated platforms to de-escalate conspiracy theories – not the reverse.
“It is always shocking when we see elected officials either promoting or failing to condemn conspiracy theories, because we rely on those people as the sources of our information about what’s true and not true,” she said.
Republicans warming up to Greene
Once publicly wary, the GOP establishment seems to be warming up to Greene.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said in mid-June that Greene had made “disgusting” comments regarding Black people, Soros and Muslims. But he told CNN last week that he wants to sit down with Greene and talk about her goals, noting repeatedly he’s been told she’s “very strongly” against abortion.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told CNN that she “denounced QAnon,” referring to the Fox News piece. Rep. Liz Cheney, a member of the House GOP leadership, also said she was satisfied with Greene’s comments on Fox News.
Some, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, remain skeptical.
“QAnon is a dangerous thing,” Kinzinger said in a recent CNN interview. “It undermines a whole belief in representative democracy.”
Although Greene’s rise was unexpected, it isn’t considered a huge upset, as she hadn’t faced an entrenched incumbent.
She initially announced her candidacy against Lucy McBath, a Democrat in the sixth congressional district of Georgia – which includes the northern suburbs of Atlanta – who ousted Republican Karen Handel in an upset victory in 2018.
Greene’s plans changed in late 2019, when Rep. Tom Graves, the 10-year Republican incumbent, announced that he would not seek reelection. Greene, 46, dropped out of the sixth district and announced her candidacy for the 14th district, where she moved in January.
Greene beat eight candidates in the June 9 primary, but faced Cowan in the August 11 runoff because neither had garnered at least 50% of the vote. Of the nine Republican candidates, she was the only woman.
Prior to her foray into politics, Greene – a mother of three who purchased her parents’ construction company, Taylor Commercial, which she now owns with her husband, Perry Greene – had cultivated a following on social media platforms by promoting extreme views.
On October 5, 2017 – four days after a mass shooter killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas – Greene posted a video on Facebook openly wondering whether it was part of a larger plot aiming to curb gun rights, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Is that why the country music festival was targeted – because those would be the people that we would relate to?” she asked in the video, the paper reported. “I don’t believe Stephen Paddock was a lone wolf.”
She later said she was satisfied with investigations by local and federal authorities that concluded that he was, the AJC reported.
In 2018, she hinted at a conspiracy theory often promoted by 9/11 truthers: “It’s odd there’s never any evidence shown for a plane in the Pentagon.”
She has also appeared in a video talking about “an Islamic invasion into our government offices,” and has stated that, if she were Black, she would feel “proud” to see Confederate statues, because “I’d say, ‘Look how far I have come in this country,” according to Politico.
Greene also initiated a petition to impeach House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for treason. In February 2019, she posted a livestream video on Facebook of herself delivering it to Pelosi’s office. It attracted 67,000 likes and other Facebook interactions; by December the petition had amassed nearly 300,000 signatures.
At the rally in Catoosa County rally, Greene’s speech didn’t address QAnon, but it touched on many of the polarizing themes that have made her controversial: Islam, guns, prayer in schools, “fake news.” She referred to Antifa as communists and Black Lives Matter as a “radical Marxist” group. Islamic nations, she said, “throw homosexuals off of buildings.”
“We will not tolerate rioting, burning and looting of our cities,” she said. “We will not allow the government to remove God out of our schools, our pledge and our lives.”
Greene said she refuses to allow the country to be “pulled down into the depths of socialism.”
“The Democrat’s platform is socialism,” she said. “Their policies and their agendas are socialism from every single angle of the Green New Deal to Medicare for all.”
She lamented how some find her social-media posts offensive, such as one removed by Facebook earlier this month depicting Greene holding a gun next to a separate montage of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the so-called “Squad.”
“But they’re not offended by the cries by the radical leftists to go out and riot and loot and burn in the street,” she said. “I’m going to tell you something – when I get to Congress, I will be fighting for every single person’s freedom of speech, because conservatives aren’t going to be canceled.”
CNN’s Nelli Black contributed to this report.