It included examples of documented behavior in that vein. Two centered on criminal acts undertaken by people professing to adhere to QAnon.
QAnon is difficult to summarize because it is often tailored to the beliefs of the individual adherent. It centers on the idea that an anonymous actor within the Trump administration, identified as Q, shares updates and information about a secret government effort to uproot an international ring of child abusers and sex traffickers. It puts President Trump at the helm of that purported effort, pitting him against an extensive cabal of celebrities and government officials who engage in abuse or seek to protect the abusers.
It is an obviously false theory, and Q’s prognostications have been repeatedly debunked. But given the way in which it puts a primacy on self-education, it has spawned tens of thousands of do-it-yourself private investigators cobbling together allegations like characters from “A Beautiful Mind.”
Only recently, as reports have pegged the number of adherents, casual or otherwise, in the millions, has Trump been directly asked about the movement. It’s a tricky proposition. Any sign of tacit encouragement from Trump would probably serve only to legitimize QAnon’s belief system. Asked about it last week, he declined to reject the theory or its adherents, which journalists who track the group saw as likely to encourage their confidence in their theories.
On Wednesday, he went further.
“During the pandemic,” a reporter asked during a briefing at the White House, “the QAnon movement appears to be gaining a lot of followers. Can you talk about that and what you have to say to people who are following this movement right now?”
“Well, I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump replied. “But I don’t know much about the movement.”
That, of course, is the central concern for Trump. With the election looming and his strategy focused on maximizing turnout from his base, Trump’s reelection campaign has quietly given space to the theory’s adherents, understanding that they overlap with his supporters. This was the first time he had been explicit about his motivation, though: They get a pass at least in part because they stand by him.
“I have heard that it is gaining in popularity,” he continued. “And from what I hear is, these are people that when they watch the streets of Portland, when they watch what happened in New York City in just the last six or seven months … that these are people that don’t like seeing what’s going on in places like Portland and places like Chicago and New York and other cities and states.
“And I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it,” Trump said. “So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
He again came back to his assertion that QAnon supporters were focused on street violence in cities with Democratic mayors.
That isn’t true. So the reporter pressed him on the specifics of what many QAnon adherents believe.
“The theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” she said. “Does that sound like something you are behind?”
“I haven’t — I haven’t heard that,” Trump said. “But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?”
There was surprised laughter in the room.
“I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it,” he continued. “I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are actually. We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country. And when this country is gone, the rest of the world would follow. The rest of the world would follow.”
Again, this isn’t a lark. The spread of QAnon is seen by federal law enforcement as a threat to the public. There are obvious cases in which QAnon is used by disturbed individuals as a rationale for their actions, as in the murder of a reputed mob boss on Staten Island last year. This is the central concern, that fostering a belief that there exists a particularly evil group — its members defined by individual observers — will lead to some of those observers taking steps to confront the presumed evil. That some QAnon adherent will decide that some other person is part of the cabal Q is discussing. That is allegedly what happened on Staten Island.
Trump could have said that the theory was obviously not true and itself stood as a danger. He could have fervently denied that he or anyone in his administration was involved in any action like that Q describes. He could have indicated that his government was taking steps to contain the theory. But he didn’t. QAnon adherents like him and, hey, what’s wrong with being seen as a guy who wants to take on satanic pedophiles?
Trump tried multiple times to frame QAnon as overlapping with his (itself heavily exaggerated) war on antifa. Perhaps this seems like a clever bit of political judo. If that’s the idea, it’s a significant misread on both the QAnon ecosystem and the risk posed by giving it oxygen.