Republican Voters Take a Radical Conspiracy Theory Mainstream

QAnon, with encouragement from the president himself, has moved from online message boards to political rallies and congressional campaigns.

By Matthew Rosenberg

DALTON, Ga. — Sitting in the local Republican office most days is a lifelong conservative named Diane Putnam, who got her first taste of politics when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and she was a little girl telling people that she liked Ike.

She still does. But these days, what really grabs Ms. Putnam’s attention is talk of a satanic criminal conspiracy hatched by a cabal of “deep state” child molesters who are seeking to take down President Trump. In other words, she believes in QAnon. She insists she is just one of many.

“The large majority of people, they understand about QAnon,” Ms. Putnam, the Republican chairwoman of this small Georgia city, said in a recent interview.

“Those that don’t know,” she added, “they have not looked into really what it’s about.”

Across the country, Republicans like Ms. Putnam — longstanding party members who could hardly be described as fringe radicals — are embracing QAnon. The followers of this online phenomenon believe that the Democratic establishment and much of the Republican elite are deeply corrupt, and that Mr. Trump was delivered to save America from both. Urged on by the president, whose espousal of conspiracy theories has only intensified in the waning weeks of his campaign, QAnon adherents are pushing such ideas into the conservative mainstream alongside more traditional issues like low taxes and limited government.

QAnon’s growing influence inside the Trump campaign was underscored when the president again refused to condemn the movement after he was asked about it at his town hall in Miami on Thursday night. Mr. Trump, who over the summer praised QAnon adherents for their love of America, first claimed to know nothing of the movement and then, when pressed, said: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”

There was no acknowledgment of the real-world violence inspired by QAnon, which has prompted a pre-election crackdown by social media networks, with YouTube last week becoming the latest platform to attempt to stop its spread. But dozens of recent interviews in Georgia and other parts of the country offered insights into the pull of a movement that has migrated far beyond the confines of the internet and, much like the Tea Party before it, plays to the sense of grievance on which Mr. Trump’s political career was built.

People “feel left out,” said McKray Kyer, 24, the local Republicans’ vice chairman. QAnon, with its focus on criminal “elites,” helped them understand why. “It’s not about what we’re doing wrong — it’s the swamp.”

Mr. Kyer said he had looked into QAnon and was not sure what he believed. But many others interviewed said they believed in some or most of QAnon, and a significant portion of those who did not know the movement’s name were familiar with its themes, especially its talk of rampant child trafficking and devil worship among powerful elites.

Yet the movement is elastic, drawing on any number of well-worn tropes. Even people who explicitly dismissed QAnon as lunacy often volunteered similar conspiracy theories. There was talk of how the pandemic was an outright hoax or, at the very least, being wildly overblown. Many people repeated racist theories about former President Barack Obama or the anti-Semitic notion that the financier George Soros controls the political system.

“It’s a real undercurrent in the party,” said Jason Anavitarte, 42, a Republican running for the Georgia State Senate. “It’s QAnon; it’s other conspiracy theories. We hear them every day.”

Or as Michael Conley, 42, a Trump supporter and QAnon adherent from Hagerstown, Md., put it: “Everybody’s talking about it.”

Though there has been little public polling, there is growing anecdotal evidence that QAnon followers now make up a small but significant minority of Republicans. Adherents are running for Congress and flexing their political muscles at the state and local levels. The movement’s growth has picked up pace since the onset of the pandemic in March, and its potency is clear on social media — before Facebook banned QAnon content earlier this month, there were thousands of dedicated Facebook groups with millions of members.

The phenomenon can be seen at Trump rallies, where people wearing QAnon shirts and hats are commonplace; at one recent rally in Las Vegas, the parents of a toddler in a QAnon shirt gamely posed for pictures with stranger after stranger. It was on display outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where QAnon adherents gathered to support Mr. Trump after he was hospitalized with the coronavirus. (Other QAnon adherents questioned whether the president had been hospitalized at all.)

Susan Cooper, 59, an insurance agent in nearby Calhoun estimated that between 20 percent and 25 percent of her friends had bought into QAnon, though she had not. Others interviewed offered a similar assessment, and said it was a varied group — young and old, male and female, poor and prosperous, urban and rural.

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