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The Dark Obsessions of QAnon Are Merging With Mainstream Conservatism

With Republican candidates and Trump embracing the strange, child trafficking–fixated movement, it can no longer be dismissed as merely a conspiracy theory.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
A group of protesters at a far-right rally on August 17, 2019, in Portland, Oregon

The online furniture seller Wayfair is not engaged in child sex trafficking. The high prices of some of its industrial-grade cabinets do not mean that they conceal children. And yet these absurd, evidence-free claims circulated so widely online that on Monday, Reuters published an extensive fact-check to disprove them, and Wayfair temporarily removed some products from its site to add more details to their descriptions. The wild allegations of a massive child sex abuse ring hidden in public can be directly traced to QAnon, sometimes called the “Great Awakening,” which was once dismissed as a conspiracy theory birthed from toxic message boards but is now closer to a genuine movement.

At this stage in its lifespan, QAnon can take an obscure post alleging absurd crimes to a social media trend, heard and shared by many people who have never heard of the movement. QAnon can no longer be shrugged off as a phenomenon confined to the internet, not with dozens of Republican congressional candidates embracing at least some of QAnon’s themes and President Trump attempting to marshal its power to help keep him in the White House. As the host of one streaming QAnon program put it to Trump campaign official Erin Perrine when she went on his show in October 2019, many QAnon adherents view themselves as the campaign’s “soldiers on the ground.”

The Wayfair meme was perfect for QAnon, driven as the movement is by people who believe they possess secret knowledge about how “elites” are buying, selling, abusing, and even devouring children. If you believe that, it’s not much of a leap to imagine the child trafficking is taking place inside an overpriced armoire. The danger escalates with the next logical leap: If that’s what the powerful are doing, what wouldn’t be justified in challenging them? QAnon has inspired its adherents to plot kidnapping “raids,” stage a standoff with an armored vehicle at the Hoover Dam, and attempt a citizen’s arrest that ended with a killing. The FBI’s Phoenix field office issued a memo last year about QAnon posing a potential domestic terrorist threat. None of this has kept QAnon isolated on the fringes; in fact, the group is now becoming a force in what passes for the mainstream of American politics.

The shared beliefs and attendant rituals of QAnon are core to the president’s base. The journalist Jeff Sharlet traveled to many Trump rallies over the course of months for a story in Vanity Fair and found “dozens of Trump supporters who believe that the Democratic establishment primarily serves as a cover for child sex trafficking.” Some of these Trump supporters, he writes, were familiar with QAnon’s ideology and worldview, “but most were not. It was, they told me, simply known.” Sharlet reads Q as a form of American gnosticism, “the gospel of Trump,” and like the Christian gnostic gospels, it represents “a form of secret knowledge reserved for the faithful, a ‘truth’ you must have the eyes to see in order to believe.” The “truth” of what QAnon adherents believe isn’t the point: It’s that they belong to the sect to whom “the truth” has been revealed.

The QAnon faithful’s belief in the omnipresence of child sex trafficking is not a feature of QAnon alone. As I have been arguing since before Q’s rise, an only slightly moderated form of the child sex trafficking paranoia that animates it is utterly mainstream. Before the Q antecedent Pizzagate became notorious—with an attempted armed rescue of nonexistent children sold into made-up sex slavery at the Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong—fighting sex trafficking through sensational rescues had become a national cause célèbre, as it had been widely venerated a century before, when the sex slavery fight was enshrined in federal law. Even the mainstream anti–sex trafficking movement is populated by those who have invented claims, like the disgraced Somaly Mam, upon whom Nick Kristof at The New York Times relied for gripping yet untrue stories of sex trafficking, or those who see criminal conduct when none exists, as Cindy McCain did infamously when reporting a mixed-race family as a suspected trafficking case. Unsurprisingly, anti–sex trafficking advocates capitalized on the Wayfair conspiracy theory to promote their efforts—including one backed by the president.

“With or without Wayfair, child trafficking is real and happening!!!” Tim Ballard, a Trump-appointed White House anti-trafficking adviser and CEO of O.U.R. Rescue, posted to Twitter last week. “This is not a small thing or a conspiracy theory,” he added, “this is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.” Ballard never acknowledged that the Wayfair sex trafficking meme has no basis in fact, perhaps being careful not to alienate the constituency that drove the conspiracy theory to prominence.

Trump wanders back and forth across the same line: He gives credence both to the mainstream claims of the ubiquity of sex trafficking and the sex trafficking conspiracy theories. A regular QAnon talking point, for example, is that Trump is the toughest president ever on sex trafficking. Never mind that the Trump administration is abandoning victims of trafficking—QAnon adherents aren’t judging him by that (and indeed, only a vocal minority in the anti-trafficking community have criticized him for this). When Trump himself sends approving signals to the Q movement, that is enough to validate his “toughness” on trafficking. He has amplified QAnon accounts from his Twitter account at least 185 times, according to Media Matters researcher Alex Kaplan, and uses hashtags that originate with such accounts, like #Obamagate or #OpenAmericaNow. These are some of the same networks that helped drive the Wayfair conspiracy theory.

QAnon has similarly become integrated with the conservative movement as a whole. Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn recently posted a video featuring what’s become a kind of pledge of allegiance to QAnon and the movement tagline, “Where we go one, we go all.” A Washington Post analysis of 59 Q-sympathetic Republican congressional candidates revealed that, together, they had amassed nearly 600,000 votes as of July 1. Some of these figures just used a Q-related hashtag, but most, The Post reported, “engaged with Q supporters to a greater degree, including promoting the movement or wearing Q-branded clothing.” One, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, has been supported by Representative Jim Jordan and received backing from establishment Republican PACs.

“I think increasingly at least some Republicans see QAnon and its supporters as a kind of political constituency that they can appeal to to get some kind of political benefit,” Kaplan told Business Insider. “There is already something of a QAnon infrastructure that these candidates can tap into, whether it be QAnon hashtags or QAnon shows on YouTube.”

QAnon’s reach and power mean that debunking the individual conspiracy theories spread by the movement is not sufficient. QAnon is, if nothing else, a shared story, told and retold by its followers. What animates that story also demands a response.

Sharlet and The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance have both written about QAnon’s overlap with some strands of Christianity, including those which have for decades found a home on the right. QAnon, writes LaFrance, “may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.” The American Christian right, Sharlet recently told Bill Moyers, was already undergoing a transformation under Trump. “Evangelicalism might have an authoritarian streak,” said Sharlet. Its reverence for a supernatural God was, he believed, “this sort of circuit breaker that prevented them from going full fascist.” But now, “they’re willing to put their money entirely on an actual person, Trump, and to build it around his personality, and to build it around this man and his capability for violence and revenge.”

Q may not be a “political” movement, but it is a movement useful to politicians. It doesn’t need a coherent politics for that; its base is there for the taking, if a candidate can graft their campaign to its story. Even if these Q-adjacent conservatives don’t really believe in Q, all they need to get a boost from the movement is a willingness to look as detached from the truth as the president. They’ll get adoration from Q followers, so long as they appear to return it.

Trump, too, does not need to be a Q believer to share in its paranoid style of sex trafficking politics. At his rallies, he regularly invokes sexual violence to animate the crowd. “This obsession with what is done to the bodies of children by Democrats is, like the rape fantasies with which Trump has taken to lacing his rally speeches, grossly sexualized,” observed Sharlet after Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally. “It allows his followers to wallow in the most grotesquely taboo thoughts and to relish the revenge they’ll take on those whom they imagine actually committing such horrors.” While it’s important to fact-check such things, you can’t deflate the power of a fantasy with the truth.

That’s what’s so intoxicating and also potentially fruitful about Q for those seeking higher office: That fantasy of the power they hold, as the few to whom the truth has been revealed, could actually get them closer to real power. “Everything I have heard about Q, I hope that this is real,” said Lauren Boebert, in an interview after her primary victory in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. “If this is real, then it can be really great for our country.”