The conspiracy theorists accuse Democrats and even fellow Republicans of being beholden to a cabal of bureaucrats, paedophiles and Satanists. President Trump has cheered them on.
A Republican Senate candidate recently declared herself "one of the thousands of digital soldiers" in service of QAnon, a convoluted pro-Trump conspiracy theory about a "deep state" of child-molesting satanist traitors plotting against the president. A congressional candidate in Colorado who made approving comments about QAnon bested a five-term Republican incumbent in a primary last month.
And then there is Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who is perhaps the most unabashedly pro-QAnon candidate for Congress and has drawn a positive tweet from President Donald Trump. She recently declared that QAnon was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles out."
More than two years after QAnon, which the FBI has labelled a potential domestic terrorism threat, emerged from the troll-infested corners of the internet, the movement's supporters are morphing from keyboard warriors into political candidates. They have been urged on by Trump, whose own espousal of conspiracy theories and continual railing against the political establishment have cleared a path for QAnon candidates.
And even as party leaders publicly distance themselves from the movement, they are quietly supporting some QAnon-linked candidates — demonstrating the thin line they are trying to walk between radical elements among their base and the moderate voters they need to win over.
Precisely how many candidates are running under the banner of QAnon is somewhat open to interpretation — estimates range to more than a dozen, with many more defeated in primaries — and nearly all are expected to lose in November. Some candidates have clear connections to the movement and use its language and hashtags on social media and in real-world appearances.
Scores more have cherry-picked some of the movement's themes, 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. Many have appeared on QAnon-themed podcasts and in news outlets. On Monday, Jeff Sessions, caught in a tight race to reclaim his former Senate seat in Alabama, recycled an old QAnon meme about himself in a Twitter post.
All of the candidates, though, present a fresh headache for Republican leaders. They were already struggling to distance the party from conspiracy theories steeped in racist and anti-Semitic messaging. Now they must contend with candidates whose online beliefs have inspired real-world violence, including the killing of a mob boss.
It is a development that threatens to further alienate the kinds of traditional Republican voters who typically care about lowering taxes, not chasing imaginary satanists from the government. Democrats are eager to pounce.
"We will point it out loudly and clearly," said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The moral of the story is the Republican Party is silent on all of this."
Yet Republican leaders also cannot afford to turn off voters who share those conspiratorial views if they hope to retain the Senate and retake the House. So while the party has publicly sought to keep its distance from most QAnon candidates, campaign finance filings show that some have clearly won its tacit backing.
In April, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a high-profile lawmaker and a favorite of the president, donated US$2,000 to Greene's campaign. A political action committee with which Jordan is associated, the House Freedom Fund, gave her thousands of dollars more.
A month earlier, the Republican National Committee gave US$2,200 to Angela Stanton-King, a House candidate in Georgia who has repeatedly posted QAnon content and obscure hashtags, such as "#trusttheplan." The Georgia Republican Party gave an additional US$2,800 to Stanton-King, who was pardoned this year by Trump for her role in a car-theft ring. She is expected to be roundly defeated in her heavily Democratic district.
Stanton-King has since denied believing in any QAnon conspiracies. Yet in recent days she was again tweeting about "global elite paedophiles," as well as a new conspiracy theory involving a purported child-trafficking ring run by an online furniture retailer.
Few of the QAnon candidates appear to share any formal ties with one another, beyond mostly being Republicans. But as they move onto ballots this fall, the candidates and their fellow travelers are increasingly taking on the trappings of a discrete political movement, though one with incoherent ideas whose adherents typically focus on wild accusations, not policy changes.
In recent weeks QAnon followers, including a Republican Senate candidate, have begun to publicly pledge allegiance to the movement, posting videos of themselves reciting what they are calling the digital soldier oath. On social media, where the conspiracy theory first took root, QAnon candidates and followers often amplify one another.
A favoured topic of the candidates on social media is Trump. From February to June, QAnon candidates quoted, retweeted or replied to Trump roughly 2,000 times.
Polling is the same song and dance as 2016. We’ve seen this before.— Marjorie Taylor Greene For Congress🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) June 29, 2020
Trump will win by a landslide!
No one wants to vote for a guy in a basement.. https://t.co/2zWUGIP8HB
In many instances, they sought to spread a core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy: that Trump, backed by the military, ran for office to save Americans from a so-called deep state filled with child-abusing, devil-worshipping bureaucrats. Backing the president's enemies are prominent Democrats who, in some telling, extract hormones from children's blood.
The president, for his part, has repeatedly retweeted QAnon supporters, and cheered on candidates who openly support the conspiracy theory, such as Greene of Georgia.
"A big winner. Congratulations!" Trump tweeted after Greene, whose ads have been banned by Facebook for violating the platform's terms of service, placed first in the Republican primary in a deeply conservative corner of northwestern Georgia. But she failed to clear the 50 per cent mark and is now the favorite in a runoff election for the Republican nomination in district long held by the party.
A big winner. Congratulations! https://t.co/ZsL3YA33H8— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2020
The movement defies easy political labels, and its adherents include a smattering of Democrats and independents. Mostly, what unites it is a hatred of the establishment.
"It's not like a QAnon supporter went down a path where they got into George Bush and then started to read Ronald Reagan's speeches, and then bought Milton Friedman's 'Capitalism and Freedom,' and then believed in satanic baby eaters," said Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami who studies fringe groups. "It doesn't work like that."
Trump "won by saying that he wanted to drain the swamp," Uscinski said. "By doing that, he essentially built a coalition of people with anti-establishment views." Those who believe in QAnon, the professor added, "are probably the most extreme part of that coalition."
In western Colorado late last month, Lauren Boebert, a gun-rights activist who has made approving comments about QAnon, beat a five-term Republican incumbent and will now defend the sprawling district in November. In recent weeks she told the QAnon-aligned web show "Steel Truth" that "everything I've heard of Q — I hope this is real."
In a recent interview, Boebert said she was not a follower of the group. But, she added, "I don't believe that's a radical notion to want to get rid of people trying to undermine the president of the United States."
In Southern California, Mike Cargile, who is challenging an incumbent Democrat for a House seat, includes #WWG1WGA in his Twitter bio, a shortened version of the QAnon motto "Where We Go One We Go All." He has repeated many of the group's racist theories about Obama and Black Americans.
In an emailed response to questions, Cargile said that he sought only to discover the truth and that Americans needed to resist "Marxists' efforts to deceive and divide."
He said "we'll see" what becomes of the QAnon theories. But, he added, all Americans should be alarmed by the efforts of the president's opponents in Washington, "and even more so when we discover that the saboteurs and propagators are the very men and women tasked with safeguarding our system of Justice."
In Oregon, the Republicans' long-shot Senate candidate, Jo Rae Perkins, posted a video in May declaring, "I stand with Q and the team."
She followed up with another video in late June in which she faced the camera and took the QAnon digital soldier oath. The oath is lifted from the pledge taken by senators at their swearing-in, with one small addition tacked on at the end, the letters "WWG1WGA."
Though the precise origins of the oath are murky, it spread from hard-core QAnon followers and into Republican ranks in a matter of weeks, illustrating how adherents of the conspiracy have enmeshed themselves — and their theories — in conservative circles.
There appear to be vague references to the oath on social media and internet message boards going back to early June. But it took off on June 24 after a so-called Q drop — that is, a post by the person purporting to be Q, the originator of the movement who claims to be a high-ranking official with access to top-secret information. The post was on 8kun, a new message board that has quickly become a home for all flavors of conspiracy theorists and extremists, especially QAnon followers.
Under the subject line "Digital Soldiers: Take the Oath and Serve Your Country," the user laid out the text of the oath. The user then added: "Take the oath. Mission forward. Q."
It quickly gained traction outside QAnon circles. Among the most recent people to take the oath was Michael Flynn, the president's first national security adviser, who is expected to soon begin campaigning for Trump. He posted a video on Twitter over the July Fourth weekend with guests reciting the oath and intoning the phrase "where we go one, we go all."
His lawyer said Flynn, whose case on a charge of lying to the FBI remains in limbo, was interpreting the works of a 16th-century poet, though she did not specify which bard he was referring to. Soon after the tweet, Flynn made his Twitter account private, limiting who could see the video.
How far QAnon candidates can go remains an open question; the vast majority of Republican voters have shown little inclination to buy into the movement's wildest claims. Yet some of its themes are now a regular feature of conservative political discourse, and even candidates who only espouse parts of QAnon's racist, anti-Semitic and violent conspiracies could pose real threats if elected.
"It is really more like flat-earth adherents who have a different way to interpret the world, which colors everything they see," said Alice E. Marwick, a principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
No matter how many of the candidates win, their mere presence on the political scene is helping to further spread a conspiracy that, at its core, sees the government as a dangerous enemy.
The latest example of how deeply QAnon themes have become embedded in Republican politics came Monday when Sessions, the former attorney general who is running to reclaim his former Senate seat in Alabama, recycled an old QAnon meme about himself, "Sessions Activated."
The "Sessions Activated" meme first became popular in 2018 when Sessions was still attorney general, and QAnon followers thought he was going to lead the prosecutions of deep-state bureaucrats and their Democratic backers. But after he resigned later that year, the meme faded away.
Sessions grabbed the meme off the shelf this week, tweeting it just before he faced a primary election against an opponent who has led in polls. His post has since been retweeted nearly 9,000 times.
Written by: Matthew Rosenberg and Jennifer Steinhauer
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES