QAnon, the election, and an evolving American conservativism

Committed QAnon supporters and a majority of Republicans who believe the unsubstantiated QAnon conspiracy theory is mostly or partly true, are not happy with President Donald Trump’s reelection defeat. Central to the QAnon theory is a belief that President Trump would bring about “The Storm,” a day of reckoning in which his political enemies will be arrested and indicted at Guantanamo Bay, one of many predictions that have failed to come true. Similar to how Harold Camping, an apocalyptic radio preacher who wrongly predicted the end of the several times, continued to collect millions in donations from faithful followers following his failed doomsday predictions, the QAnon conspiracy theory will continue to transform American conservativism, despite President Trump’s reelection loss.

What is QAnon?

QAnon is a loosely organized, far-right conspiracy theory that originated in October 2017 on the online message board 4chan. An anonymous post signed only by “Q,” a reference to the highest-level security clearance in the Energy Department, alleged the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton. Soon after, a number of conspiracy entrepreneurs began requesting donations to conduct “research” into the subsequent trail of “breadcrumbs,” or coded messages, Q sends to supporters through “Q drops.” This sparked the convoluted conspiracy theory in which believers “do their own research” in online echo chambers – significantly driven by social media content algorithms – and spawned easily refutable claims ranging from JFK Jr. faked his death and would reemerge from hiding to serve as Trump’s 2020 running mate to prominent Democrats forced to wear ankle-bracelets following indictments for child-sex trafficking to Covid-19 anti-mask beliefs, leading to the FBI to label QAnon a domestic terrorist threat.

The conspiracy theory’s popularity exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing a 200 to 300 percent increase in online interaction on the largest QAnon related social media pages, leading to some platforms to take steps to moderate the theory. Offline, QAnon supporters took to the streets over the last six months in #Savethechildren protests, in which supporters co-opted and obfuscated real concerns about human trafficking with fabricated claims of a Democrat and Hollywood-run Satanic pedophile cabal, and in the process, moved the conspiracy further into mainstream salience and deeply polarizing many Americans, including those who feel like they have lost a loved one to the conspiracy theory.

QAnon and the election

According to a recent poll, only 17 percent of people who intended to vote for Trump in 2020 answered that they definitively did not believe that Democrats were involved in child sex trafficking rings. This overlap of conspiracy theory, openness to misinformation, and Trump-era conservatism should not be a surprise. Research suggests that people susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories have feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty – particularly related to intergroup conflict, a distrust of institutions – including the government and the media – and feelings of being locked out of or ignored by the political process; feelings that resonate with some voters wooed by President Donald Trump’s anti-establishment, populist, and authoritarian appeals.

However, it is the failure of President Trump, those close to him, and a number of GOP figures to fully condemn and dissociate the party from QAnon and in some cases, offer support for the conspiracy theory, that raises eyebrows. President Trump has magnified the theory through his Twitter account, praised QAnon supporters who “like [him] very much” and “love our country,” and refused to denounce the conspiracy theory’s unfounded claims during a live town hall. Likewise, Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Advisor to the President, posted a video featuring QAnon slogans in July and in October, White House adviser Stephen Miller claimed that “Joe Biden would be the best friend that child smugglers and child traffickers have ever had in the White House,” echoing unfounded QAnon claims linking Democrats to child trafficking.

Across the United States, 25 Republican candidates with ties to QAnon appeared on the November ballot, with two candidates winning. Marjorie Taylor Greene – who received a $2,000 campaign donation from House Freedom Caucus (HFC) chairman and Trump ally, Rep. Jim Jordan, $1,000 from HFC member and Rep. Andy Biggs, and thousands more from the House Freedom Fund, the PAC arm of the HFC – won in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District and Lauren Boebert – who said, “[QAnon] can be really great for our country” – won in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Both have also claimed to not be involved with QAnon.

While Donald Trump may be leaving Washington D.C. in January, QAnon will still have a voice in the halls of power – a voice that is being embraced with open arms – or at least not ostracized – by many in GOP leadership.