Donald Trump may be leaving the White House in a few days, but the umbrella of conspiracy theories he inspired is only just arriving in Washington.
The chief theory known as QAnon – that the US government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles only Trump can expose – began nearly four years ago as a fringe movement in the dark corners of the internet. Now QAnon has adherents in positions of power within the Republican Party and in the halls of Congress.
The January 6 domestic terror attack on the US Capitol was the violent manifestation of that movement and its attendant theories – including that the 2020 election was stolen. Thousands of its adherents, steeped in years of conspiracy theories espoused by Trump, stormed the Capitol ready for violence – seemingly certain they were the ones liberating the country. Many displayed clothing and paraphernalia associated with the movement. One of the more conspicuous rioters, wearing a horned helmet and carrying a six-foot spear, is known online as the “QAnon Shaman.”
“There is a violent anarchy to QAnon that is baked into it,” said Mike Rothschild, the author of a book examining and debunking some of the most prominent conspiracy theories.
How deep into the GOP’s infrastructure QAnon has penetrated is an open question. So too is how Trump’s departure from the presidency and banishment from most social media will affect the reach of conspiracy within the Republican Party.
“This stuff has always been part of the stew,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist in Washington. “Trump just turned up the heat and brought it to the surface.”
The value of courting QAnon, to the extent Republican leaders like Trump considered it, was in delivering votes from a disaffected, passionate base of support. The risk of doing so was that they’d get a seat at the table.
The House Republican conference now includes two QAnon adherents, freshman Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. While Greene has walked back her support and said the QAnon candidate label “doesn’t represent me,” she has praised “Q” as a patriot and spread baseless conspiracy theories linked to the movement. And though Boebert has claimed she’s not a follower and worked to distance herself from the conspiracy theorists, she has said of QAnon, “I hope that this is real.”
Now that they’re there, it’s going to be much harder to dislodge them.
“You can’t just push QAnon followers away,” said Rothschild. “We’ve seen, certainly in the Georgia runoff, where these margins are thin, you can’t piss off 1 or 2% of your constituents.”
A QAnon caucus
QAnon devotion will linger within the GOP long after Trump leaves office.
For one thing, it’s already in the party’s farm system. In the 2020 election, dozens of Republican candidates for local races all over the country flirted with the conspiracy theory. Dozens more held adjacent views and carried on other Trump-inspired conspiracy theories, from railing against the alleged fraud of mail-in ballots to wearing masks. Many of these candidates lost races in Democratic-leaning districts, but others, such as the Q-curious Dave Armstrong of the Wisconsin state assembly, won comfortably.
And now, some of these conspiracy-minded politicians have moved up to the major leagues in Washington.
“It’s like Trump looked for the most gullible members, found the Freedom Caucus, and decided even they weren’t up for the job so he cooked up this mutated QAnon caucus,” said one GOP operative.
So far, there’s been close to zero pushback against QAnon candidates from national party leaders – no denial of campaign funding or threats to revoke committee assignments. There’s recent precedent for doing so, when House Republicans in 2019 stripped Iowa Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments over his defense of white nationalism. King lost the GOP primary in 2020 in large part because of his banishment by the GOP conference.
No such fate yet awaits Greene and Boebert. In fact, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, defended both of his new members after their elections in November.
“Give them an opportunity before you claim what you believe they have done, and what they will do,” McCarthy, the top-ranking House Republican, said to reporters. (The GOP operative described McCarthy as “playing footsie” with the QAnon-supporting politicians.)
Others, including Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, have voted against official condemnations of the conspiracy theory. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona has dabbled in conspiracy theories that have been interpreted by QAnon supporters as signals of his allegiance, which he has denied. A staff member for newly-elected Rep. Bob Good of Virginia was among those in Washington on January 6 – along with her husband, a local Republican Party chairman.
There are plenty of Republicans in the conference disturbed by the prominence of “fellow travelers” of these conspiracy theorists and the long-term impact this will have on the party.
“If leadership doesn’t hold certain members accountable, there’s going to be a real problem,” one Republican House member told CNN this week.
Mia Love, a former Republican representative from Utah and a CNN contributor, said failure to deal decisively with toxic members puts the unity of the GOP conference at risk.
“Kevin, who I adore, who I have a lot of respect for, the only advice I can give him, if he wants to preserve the conference, he needs to deal with this,” Love said.
While the actual members of Congress who are aligned with QAnon is relatively small, the influence of the broader conspiratorial mindset is not. In the end, 147 Republican members in both the House and the Senate, including McCarthy, voted to object and overturn the election results following the assault on the Capitol. That’s 56% of all Republicans in Congress.
“It’s not just that there are some voters that get into this theory and so politicians don’t push back. People who are in power embrace it,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver. “It seems to be a path to success in the Republican Party.”
‘Everything became about everything’
The centrality of Trump to the QAnon theory cannot be overstated, which is why it’s an open question as to the movement’s staying power. As long as he was the President, however, party leaders have essentially welcomed conspiracy theorists into the coalition.
Across the GOP, the emergence of QAnon candidates was either gently condemned or tolerated. While Republican House leaders opposed Greene in the competitive GOP primary in Georgia and condemned offensive comments she made about Black people and Jewish donors to the Democratic Party, the National Republican Campaign Committee ended up spending thousands of dollars to support her election. The NRCC also backed Boebert’s general election campaign, and both were supported by Trump.
Whether the conspiracy survives in the next few years as a force in the party depends in part on how much Trump remains on the scene. For years, the President has been a crucial actor in the narrative of QAnon, and experts say it’s not certain how believers will factor him in once he’s no longer President.
Emerging in far-right online forums in mid-2017, QAnon presented itself as an outlet for Trump supporters seeking a unifying explanation for setbacks or disappointments in the administration. By the time the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, QAnon had absorbed much of the far-right conspiracy theories and concerns, says Rothschild.
“With the pandemic, everything became about everything,” he told CNN. “It turns into Bill Gates, it turns into China, it turns into 5G. This all sort of mushes together and it becomes impossible to separate.”
Once Trump began ramping up in his own false conspiracy theorizing about a “stolen election,” there was a ready and willing community of people online ready to subsume those lies and act on them. Republican and conservative allies of the President amplifying his false election claims gave more legitimacy to a movement of people who did not just believe in a conspiracy – they were preparing to fight against it.
But the January 6 assault on the Capitol showed Republicans and the country the consequences of tolerating conspiracy theories without fully understanding them or justifying the threat of danger from them. For some, it was a wake-up call that the contagion had spread and could not be contained.
But enough of a wake-up call? The slipperiness of “support” for QAnon means politicians – even Greene and Boebert – maintain the plausible deniability that they aren’t aligned with the violent end of QAnon.
“To the extent it shows up in Congress, it’s mostly in the form of ‘just asking questions’ or ‘providing a voice’ on behalf of constituents,” said Donovan. “For those where this is a vocal constituency there’s little incentive to confront the people who are voting for you. So I suspect it will be laissez-faire in most cases until another instance where it rears its head and can’t be ignored.”