The leading contender is already taking shape and working its way into the GOP: the lunatic conspiracy theory known as QAnon. It already has its first soon-to-be member of Congress, along with a raft of candidates who have captured Republican nominations for a number of offices, including in the U.S. Senate. And it has establishment Republicans confused and uncertain, aghast at what it represents but too cowardly to purge it from their ranks.
In case you’re not familiar, QAnon began a few years ago with posts on 4chan claiming that an anonymous government insider (“Q") was revealing the hidden forces behind all current events. The theory posits that Trump is a messianic figure at war with an international cabal of satanic, cannabalistic pedophiles; at any moment, the president (who in some tellings was partnering in this effort with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III) will expose his enemies and cart them all off to Guantanamo Bay. The FBI believes QAnon poses a domestic terrorism threat.
At Trump rallies, you could see signs and T-shirts promoting QAnon, and the Trump campaign has courted the movement’s adherents. For a president who is, himself, both a consumer and an advocate of all manner of conspiracy theories, it was an easy fit.
To get some clues about what might happen after the election, we can look at the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who this week won a runoff in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, all but guaranteeing her a seat in Congress.
Greene has a lengthy history of not just promoting QAnon but of posting racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim videos online. When she won the runoff, Trump tweeted his congratulations, calling her a “future Republican Star” and “a real WINNER!” Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Douglas A. Collins, competing for a Senate seat in Georgia, both applauded Greene’s victory. “It’s clear that we need more outsiders with business sense in Washington,” said Loeffler.
If Greene were alone, it might not be so important. But QAnon followers have won Republican nominations for U.S. Senate in Oregon and for House seats in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Media Matters for America has identified 70 Republican congressional candidates who have promoted QAnon this year.
And how have Republicans in Congress reacted? Only one, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), had the courage to say that there is “no place in Congress for these conspiracies.” In response, the Trump campaign attacked him. Politico reported that the House Freedom Caucus, the home of far-right congressional Republicans, is “actively supporting Greene and recruited her to run for the deep red seat instead of a more competitive one.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who had criticized Greene’s views before — released a statement saying he looked forward to her winning in November.
Mainstream Republicans were initially wary of its more extreme manifestations, but they were also terrified that if they opposed the tea party, they’d be punished by their constituents. So one Republican officeholder after another awkwardly declared themselves tea partiers. Even staid Republican graybeards got on board, performing deeply silly rituals evoking 1776 in a performance of Founding Father fetishism.
It’s difficult to imagine QAnon capturing the entire GOP the way the tea party did. One of the tea party’s advantages was that even if, in reality, it was made up of extremists (and more than a few conspiracy theorists), it also paid fealty to standard conservative ideas of small government and respect for the Constitution. That allowed any Republican to at least take it seriously, if not claim outright allegiance to it.
But QAnon is so bizarre and rancid that it may be hard to see the Congressional QAnon Caucus pulling in dozens of current members. Nevertheless, it’s a mark of how morally vacuous the GOP has become that its leaders can’t bring themselves to condemn a movement that proclaims that Democrats are cannibalistic, satanic sex traffickers.
Which, of course, only allows the movement to burrow its way further into the Republican Party. Think about what will happen in 2022 if Biden is elected this year. Just as the 2010 midterm elections were dominated by tea partiers who considered establishment Republicans weak and feckless — and won primaries because their supporters were the angriest and most motivated — one could easily imagine five or 10 or 20 QAnon Republicans winning races in the most conservative districts.
There will be some kind of backlash to a Biden presidency; we can’t predict with certainty what form it will take. But the lure of conspiracy theories is that they help their adherents make sense of a confusing world, convincing them that they have access to truths hidden from others and making them feel special and powerful.
Donald Trump was elected, in no small part, because he told disaffected white people that he could help them to take back the social primacy and dignity they felt had been stolen from them by forces larger than themselves: corporations, popular culture, increasing diversity, even modernity itself. What QAnon offers is not that different, even if it’s in a more deranged form.
So even if QAnon isn’t the vehicle for the inevitable conservative backlash, something like it — perhaps a QAnon Lite — could be. Don’t say you weren’t warned.