Trump supporter with a giant Q-shaped sign hanging around his neck looks sad and tired.

Why Trump’s Praise for QAnon Conspiracy Theorists Is Extremely Dangerous

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Asked outright if he supports QAnon’s fringe conspiracies, President Trump denied knowledge of QAnon principles while at the same time buttering up its adherents and making it all about him, of course. This is hugely egregious and irresponsible behavior, even from Trump.

Sometimes I imagine how we would sound summarizing the QAnon “movement” and their beliefs to a visitor from the distant past. “There is a global deep state being run by a secret cabal of pedophiles and also cannibals,” we would tell them, “and the only one standing up against these satanic forces, working secretly in the background to destroy them, is the most corrupt, crude, and incompetent president we’ve ever had. His constant blunders, snide attacks, illegal dealings, racist and misogynistic stances, criminal friends and staffers, and daily lies? Mere cover. Only Donald Trump can save us from these forces of fell darkness. And we know this because of cryptic messages from a person claiming to be a high-ranking intelligence officer that were first posted on an image board populated by the sort of Internet users who like to go on raids spamming gore pictures into social justice hashtags.”

Our visitor from the past would then ask us if we were feeling well and if we didn’t need to sit down a while.

Trying to write about QAnon always makes me want to sit down for a long time. Conspiracy theories are nothing new in America, and have particularly flourished and gained widespread traction since the JFK assassination and later the rise of the Internet. But QAnon is making a leap all but unheard of for fringe groups based on eccentric, unfounded claims: It is gaining mainstream attention and platforms, with candidates running for Congress who espouse its beliefs, and the President of the United States lending it credence through retweets of its supporters.

Now Trump has no doubt electrified the QAnon crowd by directly praising their patriotism and refusing to disavow their mind-boggling theories. Why? Well, in Trump’s own words on Wednesday, “I don’t really know anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”

There are few things that Donald Trump cares for more than his own perceived popularity. The man with grandiose boasts and bitter complaints about his “ratings” and approval polls must be tickled pink that he’s the central savior figure of an increasingly growing alternative “narrative” of our reality. From Trump’s perspective, he sees no reason to distance himself from a theory that views him as a crusading hero. In QAnon land, every mistake Trump makes, every seeming ineptitude, self-serving action, impeachable offense, disgusting comment, and even his more innocuous statements are actually winking messages about his battles behind the scenes to save America from its dastardly foes, who are usually, conveniently, Democrats.

It’s all a game of 4D chess on Trump’s part, you see, to fool his enemies and continue doing his good works. Because the first person you think of as a shrewd and subtle Chessmaster is the man who loudly proclaimed he could remember a sequence of words on a basic cognitive test. The same man with decades of failed dodgy businesses and multiple allegations of sexual assault prior to becoming president was somehow, I don’t know, faking all that since the ’70s until he gained office so he could become a moral crusader after winning an election even he expected to lose?

None of it makes any sense. But most QAnon adherents are already in so deep that nothing that happens seems able to shake their allegiance. Anything that doesn’t fit with their viewpoint just gets absorbed and repurposed, the same way a doomsday cult can shift focus when the predicted end of the world doesn’t arrive on its designated day. The group is, in fact, increasingly likened to a cult and even a religious movement. It’s quite possible that the future of America will see a Church of Q.

Much like a doomsday cult, QAnon folks are waiting for the arrival of “The Storm,” a sort of Judgment Day scenario that Kevin Roose in The New York Times describes as “an appointed time when Mr. Trump would finally unmask the cabal, punish its members for their crimes and restore America to greatness.”

It’s not hard to grasp why QAnon has grown so much in popularity. Years of increasing distrust aimed at scientists, the media, career bureaucrats, and liberal institutions—with the right-wing fanning these flames rather than helping to put them out—means that rebuffing the mainstream perspective has become its own sort of mainstream. And without a single high-profile figure to attack like Barack Obama, and with no one to blame for the country’s failings right now save the Trump administration and the Republicans in power, the conspiracies have to grow to indict many more people, and to suggest that the very reality of what we experience daily is false. How can you trust in Trump if he really is the weak, incompetent, vicious man he so often shows himself to be? Wouldn’t it be better for you if there was another man behind the curtain?

And it is true that we have different systems of justice for the wealthy and powerful in this country, and rampant economic inequality that particularly lends itself to exploitation of the vulnerable. The desire to expose systemic injustice and horrific offenses like the sexual abuse of children should prompt people to organize or join a social protest movement for positive change and accountability. But Q offers a different way forward, with the suggestion that change is already happening behind the scenes thanks to a secret plot to save us. You just have to have faith.

QAnon lets its adherents believe in something greater, in a special story only they get to be a part of, that they uncovered themselves through diligent “research.” If Q and his proclamations are real, then power is really on their side, working for them. It can’t be that policies shaped by plutocrats, ruthless capitalists, and white supremacists like Donald Trump are the actual nefarious presence afflicting this nation. QAnon lets people feel that they’re participating in the primary text instead of being relegated to the footnotes. And the text of the conspiracy itself evolves often, with new puzzling clues and codes to decipher, which Roose notes has lead to comparisons of a “massive multiplayer online game.” It’s not surprising that people get hooked.

But many elements of QAnon are dangerous, and any sanction from Trump is incredibly reckless. There have already been incidents of murder, violence, and harassment linked to QAnon, and as CBS News writes, “The FBI has warned that fringe conspiracy theories like QAnon pose a growing domestic terrorism threat.” It’s difficult to have room for nuanced debate when you’re alleging that your enemies are assaulting and eating children when they’re not running the world, and that’s the point. QAnon is being used to whip its followers into a frenzy as so many other conspiracies of the past have done—from witchhunts to Protocols of the Elders of Zion—sparking moral panics, hatred, and division without real evidence needed.

Yet, much like his “both sides” stance when it came to white supremacists, Trump refuses to denounce QAnon’s unhinged theories, and has now praised its devotees. This can only lead to further certainty of purpose within the group, while lending them an air of legitimacy for those who are curious or just now being exposed to QAnon ideas.

“I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump was asked point-blank if he agrees with QAnon supporters who believe that he’s secretly hunting down thousands of satanic, “deep state” pedophiles and cannibals so they can be executed for their crimes.

“Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it,” Mr. Trump said.

Trump added, “I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are actually.”

You’ll notice that at no point does Trump refute or repudiate QAnon directly. He needs their backing, and he suggests that he’s on board. It’s also preposterous for him to pretend that he “doesn’t really know anything about them.” The conversation around QAnon has been going on for three years. While I’d readily believe Trump hasn’t done any deep-dive research of his own into Q—we know he hates processing too much information—surely he’s been briefed on the matter and told innumerable times what’s going on after his retweets of Q supporters have caused controversy. (The White House has also invited QAnon proponents to visit, and deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino loves to promote QAnon memes.) So Trump is either lying (one of his favorite pastimes) or even more wildly incompetent than already assumed if he doesn’t know much about QAnon or what he’s doing with his praise. Either way, his lack of refutation speaks even louder than squirrelly statements.

The New York Times recently examined the increase in QAnon memes and slogans being embraced by the Republican party. But not all Republicans will abide these falsehoods, and some are even willing to speak to the dangers here—and Trump’s failure to mitigate them.

“QAnon is nuts — and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, after the president appeared to endorse QAnon this week.

“If Democrats take the Senate,” he added, “This will be a big part of why they won.”

Not enough Republicans are willing to speak up, however. The Times reports that several elected Republicans are afraid of the blowback that comes from their own party when they criticize QAnon, and thus dodge questions or comments on the matter. This fearful stance only helps propagate QAnon’s growing hold on the party. “QAnon followers are increasingly taking on the trappings of a discrete political movement, though one with beliefs untethered from reality,” the Times writes. They are no longer on the outskirts; this is a political movement with momentum, and that should be unsettling to anyone tethered to reality.

It’s impossible to imagine how QAnon can lead anywhere good, especially in the event that Trump loses reelection. Conspiracy theory expert Professor Jeff Uscinski told CBSNews, “The beliefs themselves are almost an incitement to violence. I mean, there isn’t anything worse you can say about your political competitors than that they are satanic sex traffickers who molest and eat children.”

Uscinski has his own theory on why Trump doesn’t try and sever the Q connection.

“They brought him to the prom and he needs to continue dancing with them,” Uscinski said. “So… that’s exactly what he’s going to continue doing.”

Uscinski said some of the QAnon claims aren’t even original. They’re similar to theories that showed up in Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” almost 30 years ago. Yet the professor says he’s done polling which shows that between 5% and 10% of Americans believe President Trump is a secret crusader, working to take down a cannibalistic cabal inside the government.

Trump alone can’t be blamed for the spread of QAnon. A lot of responsibility falls hard on the shoulders of social media networks that for years refused to moderate QAnon posts and groups, even when they violated existing policies. Networks like Facebook and YouTube helped to propagate the theories by recommending content and making it all too easy for an unsuspecting user to click on one thing and soon find themselves spiraling down a vast web of Q propaganda. While some networks have finally begun pushing back and removing or banning QAnon content, it’s too little too late. QAnon has already “converted” millions of people, and moves like these only play into a narrative of persecution, of the deep state no doubt exerting its devilish influence to chase QAnon users off to safer havens.

And QAnon is expanding beyond its central claims and spreading its message through a variety of mediums and topics, per the Times:

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have been flooded with QAnon-related false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election. QAnon supporters have also been trying to attach themselves to other activist causes, such as the anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements, in an effort to expand their ranks.

It’s still vitally important that Trump take a public stance against such hurtful conspiracies, but I can’t see that coming to pass. At the very least it should be demanded by leaders within his own party that he not further his imprudent praise and contribute to the spread. Yet even refutation would likely be too little too late: so many people are neck-deep in fantastical thinking that if Trump were to come out tomorrow and say, unequivocally, “The Q theories are false and I disavow them,” this would no doubt only be perceived as another 4D chess move.

People who support Trump’s terrible behavior and vile policies will continue to believe that it’s towards some greater end. They have to. Right now it’s a defense mechanism, a way of explaining the inexplicable. We can only hope those defenses don’t decide to go on the offense when their prophecies don’t pan out.

(via CBS News, image: Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.