Life in the small coastal town of Sequim, Washington, was upended last summer when Mayor William Armacost loudly and unapologetically promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory on a local radio broadcast. Six months later, in the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, Armacost denied he “endorsed” QAnon. And yet, he had called it a “truth movement” and shared posts related to the conspiracy theory on social media. Residents, a majority of whom voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, were deeply alarmed by his refusal to disavow a fringe and dangerous conspiracy theory, one the FBI has labeled a domestic terrorism threat, and his subsequent efforts to push his critics out of government.
In normal times, publicly supporting the false belief that our government is secretly run by a global cabal of sex-trafficking, blood-drinking, baby-eating pedophile and Satanist elites who can only be stopped by a former president would end the careers of anyone in politics and public service. But it hasn’t been “normal times” for a while now, which has allowed a small number of Republicans up and down the ballot to latch on to QAnon.
A recent Morning Consult poll found that nearly 11% of Americans surveyed believe QAnon delusions are “accurate” or “somewhat accurate.” That number might continue to decrease as the movement’s prophecies — mass executions of the imagined cabal, the restoration of Donald Trump as president — fail to be realized. But the political problem has never been that Q has widespread support. It’s that its small group of adherents are extremely noisy, and the ardent fervor of the movement’s true believers poses a grave challenge to the Republican Party, and through them, the nation as a whole.
“These people are very motivated because they believe these are apocalyptic matters,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the libertarian think tank Niskanen Center and author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party. “Very motivated people tend to get involved in both the state party structures, for example by running for a precinct committee chair position or positions in the state Republican party.”
The political problem has never been that Q has widespread support. It’s that its small group of adherents are extremely noisy.
Though consummate troll and conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is the most prominent face of the GOP’s Q faction, she’s far from the only elected official who shares Q beliefs. (Greene says she has “disavowed” QAnon, yet also continues to publicly share its conspiracy theories.)
The movement has seeped into local and state governments, with lawmakers who either explicitly use the language of Q or implicitly endorse it via the memes and hashtags they use. There’s Maryland state Del. Dan Cox, who last fall ended a tweet with #WWG1WGA — “Where We Go One, We Go All,” a rallying cry for Q believers that Sequim’s Armacost has shared on social media as well. Cox also called then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” on the day of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, when a mob stormed the building amid chants of “hang Mike Pence,” before apologizing in the face of public pressure. State Sen. Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, a likely gubernatorial primary candidate, in late December appeared in a Q-dedicated YouTube show to promote conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. State Rep. Kevin McDugle, an Oklahoma lawmaker known for creating a bill to protect drivers who run over protestors, has shared QAnon-related posts on Parler, the social network of choice for right wingers and white supremacists. And in 2020, the Texas Republican Party encouraged people to “text STORM2020” for election-related updates — a clear reference to the movement’s “We Are the Storm” slogan.
Some GOP officials have extended an olive branch to Q fanatics, without outright endorsing their beliefs. Take the Hawaii Republican Party last month. “We should make it abundantly clear — the people who subscribed to the Q fiction, were largely motivated by a sincere and deep love for America,” the party said in a now-deleted tweet. “Patriotism and love of County [sic] should never be ridiculed.” The post backfired, leading state party chair Shirlene Ostrov to resign shortly after. State lawmakers have also fueled the flames of the conspiracy theories by falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Republican concession to this fringe yet vocal part of their party might seem mystifying, but it’s all about electoral self-preservation. The gerrymandered districts GOP-controlled state legislatures have created in order to consolidate power leave incumbents vulnerable to challenges from the right while at the same time making them impervious to critique from the left, and eliminating any need to build bridges across the aisle.
“The fear for Republicans elites is that if they alienate even the smallest fraction of the electorate, they won’t come out to vote for Republicans — and Republicans need every vote,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at think tank New America. “An active minority can play a disproportionate role in elevating a primary challenge. And a lot of Republicans who are in elected office right now come from very conservative parts of the country where Q support is disproportionately higher than the country at large.”
It’s the next iteration of a dynamic within the party that has been ongoing since Sarah Palin electrified an angry white constituency in 2008, to be succeeded by Tea Party activists and candidates in 2010. That grassroots-led movement helped pave the way for Trumpism and provided an intellectual stepping-stone to ever further hard right turns, eventually creating an opening for QAnon supporters. “What you’ve seen over several decades is that moderates and liberal Republicans have been leaving the party, as elected officials have been retiring or losing in primary elections,” Drutman said. “They have been consistently replaced by much more extreme conservatives. And you’ve seen a growing influence of activists and activist groups in shaping the party’s priorities.”
The core difference between the Tea Party and QAnon is that the former was based on a policy agenda financially backed by powerful interests, while the latter is a fringe amalgam of conspiracy theories that have yet to be embraced by the elites. And yet, there’s also space for the Q believers to push extreme legislation, just like Tea Partiers did. The number of local laws curbing access to abortion skyrocketed in the last decade, as did efforts to limit voting rights. On that last point, history is repeating itself. Under the guise of “election security,” Republicans have cynically latched on to the false claims of a stolen election, currently a key tenet of QAnon, to introduce an onslaught of bills designed to severely curb voting rights.
By bending to QAnon fanatics and embracing their movement, Republicans have created a dangerous scenario that goes beyond what happened on the day of the Capitol insurrection. “If you are a lawmaker and you feel that is your responsibility to reflect the wishes of the most fervent of your constituents, then you too are going to push crazy theories like Democrats are evil and Hillary Clinton eats babies,” Kabaservice said. “That corrodes both the discourse and the lawmaking process. It starts to edge to a place where the political system loses legitimacy.”