So what’s up with two congressional candidates who have embraced this relatively new conspiracy theory winning their primaries in 2020? One even has a good shot of going to Congress.
In May, Jo Rae Perkins won a Republican Senate primary in Oregon after saying she supports the conspiracy theory. And on Tuesday, Marjorie Taylor Greene made it to an August runoff in a competitive Republican congressional primary in northwest Georgia. Greene is now a pretty sure bet to make it to Congress: She beat her runoff opponent by 20 points in the primary, and the district is a safe Republican one.
Experts on conspiracy theories and political psychology warned about reading too much into these wins. “Two is not a trend,” said Joseph Uscinski at the University of Miami, who has written a book about why people believe in conspiracy theories.
He said there is probably more we can take away from the roughly 50 QAnon supporters who are running for Congress this year. Their campaigns suggest adherents of a fringe theory feel emboldened to come out of the shadows under Trump.
QAnon believers tend to support other conspiracy theories about government, experts said. And Trump has tacitly breathed life into these ideas. The central theme around QAnon fits his argument that he’s an outsider being dragged down by (mostly Democratic) lawmakers who feel threatened by him and the change he brings to governing.
Trump hasn’t explicitly endorsed QAnon, but he seems aware that its adherents align with his base. He has retweeted QAnon supporters, and there has been a growth of “Q” signs at his rallies.
Perhaps just as important, he has embraced other conspiracy theories. His first big step into politics was when he alleged that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. In just the past few weeks, he has pushed conspiracy theories about the death of a congressional staffer of a now-prominent MSNBC host, or that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester knocked unconscious by police was actually antifa.
“We have a current president who uses conspiracy rhetoric arguably more than any other president in modern history,” said Joanne Miller, who studies the political psychology of conspiracy theories at the University of Delaware.
All of those dynamics have encouraged QAnon supporters to step into the mainstream, such as running for Congress.
“These people feel emboldened,” Uscinski said. “They feel like their issues are getting addressed — and that is they hate the establishment and want to blow it up. Trump built this coalition with these folks, and they feel like they’re a part of it and this is their time.”
Liberal research firm Media Matters has tracked 50 QAnon supporters running for Congress. Most of them have lost their primaries already. A handful automatically made it on the general election ballot in California because of election laws that send the top two on, but for now most don’t seem to have momentum to actually win.
Greene in Georgia seems the most likely to actually make it to Congress. But experts are still hesitant to call that a trend signaling QAnon’s ascendancy into the mainstream.
The dynamics in the races where these candidates have actually won could help explain why they did. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is the heavy favorite to win reelection, so Oregon Republicans didn’t really try to put up a major candidate. (Still, Perkins beat three other candidates.)
The Georgia race is a bit more difficult to parse. There were six Republican candidates running for the seat left vacated by retiring Rep. Tom Graves (R). That tends to slice the electorate so that a candidate with a relatively small base of support can win.
Outside her QAnon affiliation, Greene fits the profile of a competitive Republican candidate. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described Greene, who owns a construction company and relocated to the district to run, as a prominent candidate. She said she has the endorsement of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a prominent conservative in Congress. And she received donations from a political group associated with another prominent conservative, Mark Meadows, who is now Trump’s chief of staff.
So maybe luck played a role in these candidates winning. Maybe some voters weren’t aware of their affiliations. Maybe some didn't care.
“It’s really hard to pin this on: They got elected because of QAnon,” Miller said.
But she said you could also argue the flip side: Shouldn’t these candidates’ embrace of such baseless allegations about government be disqualifying to serve in government? It’s not like they tried to hide or shy away from their beliefs.
“Q is a patriot,” Greene said in a YouTube video posted in 2017, referencing the anonymous leader (or leaders) of the conspiracy theory.
“We are seeing more and more people getting emboldened as we see more and more information get out there,” Perkins told the New York Times in an interview in May after she won, talking about QAnon supporters helping her win. “And as people put together more and more pieces of the puzzle, they can see, yeah, this is real.”
For those still perplexed about how QAnon has reached from the dark corners of the Internet to campaigns for Congress, it may help to step back and talk about the psychological reason people tend to grab onto conspiracy theories: “People believe because they feel powerless, uncertain, or they feel like they lost some control,” Miller said.
Certainly, a lot of Americans are anxious now. “It doesn’t mean we’ll end up believing in conspiracy theories,” Miller said, “but we all seek explanations, seek to understand why. Because if we can come up with a reason and an explanation, at the very least we think it’s going to help us regain some control. That ‘knowledge’ in some sense is control.”
Conspiracy theories can also help bolster people’s world views, Miller said. So if QAnon is gaining any momentum right now, perhaps it’s driven by Trump’s drop in poll numbers. Instead of reckoning with the fact the president may lose his reelection, QAnon offers an opportunity to blame a secret group of elites, alleged pedophiles or society for their struggles.
But experts The Fix spoke to say to keep in mind that QAnon is still on the fringes of society.
“I’d be worried if it was a trend,” Uscinski said. “I’m not sure that winning is a trend for these folks.”
“Are we going to see anytime soon a QAnon caucus in Congress, like there’s a tea party caucus?” Miller said. “I think we are far from that.”