August 26, 2020

IntelBrief: Red, White, and Q: QAnon Candidates Move Forward in U.S. Elections

Supporters of QAnon (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • QAnon sympathizers comprise at least 77 Congressional candidates vying for elected office in November, including some extremely fervent believers in conspiracy theories.
  • Followers of QAnon are gaining local political support, including recent endorsements by White House officials, including President Donald Trump, who is at the core of the movement’s theories.
  • QAnon intersects with the anti-vaxxer movement and anti-Black Lives Matter ideology, which heightens societal tensions related to public health and race-related issues.
  • The implications of possible QAnon electoral victories will reverberate far beyond the November election cycle.

At least 77 Congressional candidates vying for a spot on the ballot in November have espoused support for QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy movement centered on claims that a cabal of Democratic elites are surreptitiously operating a global pedophile ring. Among these candidates is Marjorie Greene, who seems likely to win a Congressional seat in Georgia. According to research by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Q-linked candidates can most aptly be divided into two categories: true believers of the movement versus those seeking to leverage the conspiracy in an effort to garner more votes. Analysts say Greene began in the former category and transitioned to the latter once she recognized the theory’s pull for capturing the attention and support of this specific demographic of voters. QAnon’s meteoric rise has been bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Google searches for popular Q-related slogans peaking in March, when businesses throughout the United States were forced to close, and again in June as the pandemic gripped much of the southern part of the country.

Despite efforts by social media giants to monitor and de-platform QAnon groups and content—Facebook recently took action against more than 10,000 QAnon-related Instagram accounts—the movement enjoys growing popularity on the internet. Part of the increased notoriety is due to endorsements from White House officials including President Donald Trump, who referenced QAnon in speeches and on social media. And the admiration is mutual. According to the New York Times, over the course of five months this year, QAnon candidates have quoted, retweeted, or replied to President Trump approximately 2,000 times on social media. President Trump, while denying that he knew much about the movement, went on to say that ‘these are people that love our country,’ a direct nod likely to serve as a morale boost for QAnon adherents and possibly win new supporters. With the addition of popular right-wing figures like radio host Bill Mitchell, online QAnon group membership has grown eight-fold since March. This is concerning, since with increased political clout comes staying power and influence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has indicated that QAnon is a potential domestic terrorism threat and there are growing homeland security concerns over the reaction of hardcore QAnon followers in the event of a Trump loss in the upcoming November 2020 election. Russian-backed media, including RT and Sputnik, have been promoting QAnon conspiracies in an effort to amplify disinformation.

With more political sway, QAnon supporters in government could seek to stymie public policy efforts related to COVID-19 and public health, while also using their platforms to spread disinformation about vaccines. If elected, QAnon political candidates could seek to create a political logjam in districts against a backdrop of COVID-19 and police brutality, which particularly overlap in Southern states like Georgia with a strong Republican majority. Therefore, the repercussions of QAnon electoral wins are most dangerous where Q has the strongest support. If QAnon candidates are successful in Senate and Congress, their ideology would secure another opportunity to be featured on the national stage. Prominent Republicans, including Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have strongly disavowed figures like Greene. But the QAnon fad has shown few signs of abating, and if the movement continues to gain ground and find sanctuary in the Republican Party, creeping in from the fringes, it could lead to a balkanization of the GOP. Some domestic political analysts have made comparisons to the rise of the Tea Party.

The election of QAnon candidates has the potential to sway public opinion to embrace fringe policies, including anti-vaxxer and anti-science views, as well as some bigoted racial and religious views. Nonetheless, QAnon candidates face significant headwinds as they seek to secure nationwide support. Indicative of this difficulty, in recent Guardian polls conducted in Florida and Texas, the group received a low trust rating of 22 out of 101. Though these states are hotbeds of QAnon believers, the only thing clear about the group is that the depth and breadth of its influence can be difficult to measure, although on social media, it seems to be gaining momentum. ‘Save the Children’ rallies have sprung up around the country, many with links to QAnon and its obsession with child trafficking. As QAnon members attend these events, it increases the visibility of the movement’s supporters as it seeks to inch closer to the mainstream, an incredulous proposition given the core beliefs of its followers. Activity in chatrooms may increase due to new members from mainstream demographics in society, including white collar professionals and baby boomers who were previously harder for Q to reach.