Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz are not the future of the Republican Party. Neither is Donald Trump Jr., Nikki Haley, or Marco Rubio. Nor will it be Never Trumpers like Larry Hogan, Mitt Romney or the folks behind the Lincoln Project.
The future of the Republican Party very well may be Marjorie Taylor Greene — the QAnon conspiracy theory believer and future Congresswoman from Georgia. Greene is one of eleven QAnon supporting Republican Congressional nominees on the ballot this fall.
The GOP embracing a movement considered a “domestic terror threat” by the FBI was not pre-ordained, but it is what they are choosing through reflexive cowardice and political convenience.
What is QAnon?
The Pro-Trump conspiracy theory is wide-ranging, very confusing and quite dangerous. But it centers around the idea that Donald Trump is secretly fighting a child-trafficking network controlled by a global cabal of Deep State elites. In the world of QAnon, Donald Trump is always in control and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats are always on the precipice of being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Information about this conspiracy is dispensed by a mysterious alleged individual named “Q.”
If you are interested in learning more, I recommend this explainer from the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer who has covered this story as closely as anyone.
QAnon is not an idle past time or harmless internet rabbit hole. Adherents have taken action offline in very dangerous ways. According to Media Matters:
The QAnon conspiracy theory has been tied to multiple violent incidents and threats of violence, including a man accused of murdering his brother with a sword, a man accused of murdering an alleged crime boss, a man who reportedly threatened to kill YouTube employees, an armed man who blocked the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle, and even a man who threatened to assassinate Trump, among numerous other incidents.
How Q Took Over the Republican Party
In 1991, David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, became the Republican nominee for Governor in Louisiana. Duke’s victory in the primary was a problem for a Republican Party that had spent decades using the racist dog whistle to lethal political effect. Even for the party that had aired the infamous Willie Horton ad, a KKK Grand Wizard running under the party banner was a bridge too far. Duke’s candidacy was rejected by Republican Party leaders and President George H.W, Bush condemned Duke in the harshest terms:
When someone has a long record, an ugly record, of racism and bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign. So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he's attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana. I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.
Unfortunately, the Duke example is the exception, not the rule when it comes to the Republican Party.
Flash forward to last week, President Trump gave Greene his wholehearted endorsement and refused to denounce her support of QAnon under repeated questioning from reporters. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Leader in the House, welcomed Greene to the Republican caucus.
Trump’s endorsement of Greene is part of a larger pattern for the President. According to Media Matters, Trump has retweeted QAnon followers more than 90 different times. And it’s not just Trump’s itchy Twitter finger, the courtship of QAnon supporters is part of his campaign’s strategy to win in November. The Washington Post reports that:
The Trump campaign’s director of press communications, for example, went on a QAnon program and urged listeners to “sign up and attend a Trump Victory Leadership Initiative training.” QAnon iconography has appeared in official campaign advertisements targeting battleground states. And the White House’s director of social media and deputy chief of staff for communications, Dan Scavino, has gone from endorsing praise from QAnon accounts to posting their memes himself.
Republicans supporting someone with a dangerously delusional ideology is not a unique feature of the Trump era. It is part of the very pattern of behavior that led to Trump taking over the GOP in the first place.
In 2011, Donald Trump was auditioning for the upcoming Republican Presidential primaries (and promoting his low rent reality show) by appearing everywhere and anywhere to spread the racist birther conspiracy theory about President Obama. Trump didn’t invent birtherism — it had been percolating in the dark corners of the Internet since Obama started running for President, but Trump took it mainstream. Trump’s racist lie found a willing audience among Republican voters. Trump rocketed to the top of the early polls for the 2012 Republican nomination. Republican leaders had a choice, they could stand up to Trump and make clear his racist dreck had no place in their party or they could stay silent and hope to reap the benefits of a base amped up on racist demagoguery.
The chose the latter and the rest is history.
Within months of Trump being laughed off the national stage after the release of Obama’s birth certificate, every Republican Presidential candidate feverishly courted Trump’s endorsement. Eventually, NeverTrump icon Mitt Romney appeared with Trump in Las Vegas to accept the endorsement of a racist clown further normalizing Trump and birtherism.
As recently as 2016, a majority of Republican voters still believed the lie that Obama wasn’t born in America. Old habits die hard — last week, Trump floated a similarly false and racist conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris. He has every reason to believe it will work with his voters once again.
It’s not just Trump, Republicans actively supported Iowa Congressman Steve King for years even though he was a white supremacist with a habit of retweeting Neo-Nazis. Like Trump, Republican Presidential candidates begged King for his endorsement. King was a Chair of Ted Cruz’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Paul Ryan, a man famous for moral cowardice, made King the chair of the Congressional Sub-Committee on the Constitution.
Please pause for a moment on that fact — Paul Ryan put a White Supremacist in charge of the Constitution. King is neither a historian nor a scholar. He has no particular expertise on the Constitution. Ryan presumably gave him this appointment to send a signal that racists were welcome in the Republican Party.
After Paul Ryan left Congress to profit off racism on the board of the Fox Corporation, Kevin McCarthy disowned King. But he only did so only because the White Supremacist was in danger of losing his seat to a Democrat. Like his endorsement of Greene, McCarthy’s disavowal of King was borne of political convenience not moral outrage.
Why Republicans Embrace QAnon
Republicans will continue to court QAnon for three reasons.
First, the Republicans are a conservative, White party in a country with a growing progressive, diverse majority. They have won the national popular vote in one Presidential election once since 1988. Every single day, their white base becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the overall electorate. To maintain power, Republican politicians must get more blood from an ever shrinking stone. As long as the Republicans are unwilling to adopt an agenda that appeals to a broad swath of Americans, they simply cannot afford to alienate any segment of potential Republican voters.
Republicans felt they needed Birthers to take on Obama. They believe they need QAnon followers to take on Joe Biden.
Second, the rise of QAnon in Republican circles is also a product of the Right Wing outrage media culture that began on Fox News and was supercharged by the perversions of the Facebook algorithm. The fastest way to the top in the Republican Party is becoming famous online. The best way to get attention online is to say outrageous things that fire up highly engaged audiences. QAnon has a massive Internet presence. An internal Facebook investigation uncovered by NBC News found:
Thousands of QAnon pages and groups on the site. When combined, these groups and pages have an audience of more than 3 million members and followers. Ten of Facebook’s most popular QAnon groups alone make up more than 1 million of those members.
Therefore, Republican politicians and media types that discuss or even allude to QAnon content get more RTs, shares, and likes, which means their content is seen by more people. For politicians, this means more attention. For media figures, this means more money. The incentives of the attention economy will continue to push Republicans towards QAnon.
The final reason closer association with QAnon may be the Republican is destiny is that no one in the Republican Party has the credibility, cache, and courage to stand up to the prevailing winds. Mitt Romney has been the only elected Republican to quasi-consistently stand up to Trump and Trumpism. He has paid a political price for his courage. In a March poll, Romney was actually more popular with Democrats than Republicans — less than a quarter of Republicans approved of their former standard bearer.
The most popular and important figures in the party — the ones with real sway — are the biggest fire breathers on Fox News. Many of those folks have played a leading role in incubating conspiracy theories in the Republican mentality. They are the ones that spread birtherism, Plandemic, and the Seth Rich and Pizzagate conspiracy theories. Some like Fox News’ Jesse Watters have already publicly supported elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
What You Can Do About It
To be honest, there is only so much Democrats can do to stop Republicans from doing dumb stuff, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to stop the spread of QAnon. Here are a few ideas (If you have more please share them with me):
Pressure the Social Media Platforms: The rapid growth of the QAnon movement is directly related to the ways the algorithms that power Facebook et al inadvertently push and promote conspiracy theories. Some progress has been made. Twitter recently suspended a large number of Q-related accounts including Trump sycophant Bill Mitchell. YouTube has made some changes, but more needs to be done. We know they have the ability to do so, because they have worked to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories around the use of vaccines. Pressure is required, because the platforms — Facebook in particular— are very wary of doing anything to spark the ire of Trump. There are many different ways to apply pressure — everything from advertising boycotts to simply flagging QAnon content through the platform’s reporting mechanisms. Although not directly tied to QAnon, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign has been organizing a very effective advertiser boycott of Facebook.
Get Republicans on the Record: Democratic activists can pressure Republicans elected officials to publicly disavow QAnon. Bipartisan voices dismissing the conspiracy theory are helpful. If Republicans refuse to do so, we need to make them pay a political price by highlighting their courtship of a movement considered a domestic terror threat.
Push the Media to Get it Right: The media did a pretty bad job during Trump’s birther crusade. Too often they amplified the racist lie without explicitly pointing out it was racist and a lie. Too many media outlets continue to value balance over accuracy when covering politics. As more and more Republicans cozy up to QAnon, there will be a dangerous tendency to discuss it through a “both sides” frame. They must call it a lie and we must call them out when they don’t. CNN’s Brian Stelter talked to some experts on how to best cover and talk about QANON. His column is worth a read.
The Republicans have been moving in one inexorable direction since the election of Barack Hussein Obama. With every passing year, they have become more dangerously radical. That process will almost certainly continue after Trump is gone. The GOP could stop it, but there is nothing in their recent past or present that suggests they have the courage to stand up to QAnon and its followers.