The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rather than condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory, Trump elevates its dangerous central assertion

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden appeared at separate town halls on Oct. 15, the night that was supposed to be their second debate. (Video: The Washington Post)

By now, you’ve probably heard of QAnon, a broad, baffling conspiracy theory that centers on the idea that there exists an international cult reaching into the world of celebrity and politics that engages in child sex-trafficking. It roams widely, at times looping in theories about John F. Kennedy Jr., who supporters allege is still alive, or celebrities’ need to consume a chemical extracted from human blood. All of this orbits around a mysterious figure identified as Q, who releases cryptic notes from which adherents extract their own life-sustaining meaning.

It’s … a lot, so much that you’re probably familiar with it in only a fairly broad sense. But, again, you’re probably familiar with it to some extent and probably have an opinion on the extent to which the most powerful person in the United States should entertain it as legitimate.

If your opinion is that President Trump should break with his past practice and condemn the theory as both ludicrous and dangerous — a position held by the FBI — we have some bad news.

During a sharp exchange with NBC News’s Savannah Guthrie during a town hall event Thursday, Trump was peppered with a number of his more inscrutable and contentious claims. One was his refusal to advocate for wearing masks to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which led him to make false claims about the purported risks of wearing one. He was again pressed to reject white supremacy, prompting him to try to pivot to complaints about left-wing activists like antifa, a loose-knit group that has at times engaged in violence.

Then Guthrie asked about QAnon.

GUTHRIE: Let me ask you about QAnon. It is this theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior of that. Now, can you just once and for all state that that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?
TRUMP: I know nothing about QAnon —
GUTHRIE: I just told you.
TRUMP: You told me. But what you tell me doesn’t necessarily make it fact, I hate to say that. I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it. If you’d like me to —
GUTHRIE: They believe it is a satanic cult run by the deep state.
TRUMP: — study the subject. I’ll tell you what I do know about: I know about antifa and I know about the radical left. And I know how violent they are and how vicious they are. And I know how they’re burning down cities run by Democrats, not run by Republicans.

Five years into Trump’s political career, it’s rare to find any of his comments terribly shocking.

This response is shocking.

Trump expresses ignorance about the bounds of the QAnon theory. That the president of the United States should assert that he’s unfamiliar with a bizarre theory that has tens or hundreds of thousands of adherents, that has been described as dangerous by federal law enforcement and that centers on his administration suggests either that he’s stunningly uninformed or simply not telling the truth. Guthrie’s summary of the theory is fair and common; it’s impossible to think Trump’s never been presented with it before.

That he then isolates a central tenet — that the group is “fighting pedophilia” — suggests that he’s quite familiar with it. QAnon followers try to leverage legitimate efforts to combat human trafficking to increase the reach of their theory. They are mucking up sincere efforts centered on the issue to introduce wild accusations and increase their exposure. QAnon “fights pedophilia” in the same sense that an Instagram influencer pretending to help clean up after protests is fighting for social justice.

But, as with the white supremacy question, Trump doesn’t want to alienate people who support him, which QAnon adherents broadly do. His campaign has tried to walk a line between welcoming QAnon adherents and still maintaining some distance, not entirely successfully. So, once again, he says something nice about them, as he did in August.

The exchange continued.

GUTHRIE: Republican Senator Ben Sasse said, “QAnon is nuts, and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”
TRUMP: He may be right.
GUTHRIE: Why not just say it's crazy and not true?
TRUMP: He may be right. I just don't know about QAnon.
GUTHRIE: You do know!
TRUMP: I don’t know. No, I don’t know. I don’t know.

This was the approach Trump took when he was asked about the infamous former Klansman David Duke in early 2016: He feigned ignorance rather than reject someone who might be politically useful.

The point from Sen. Sasse (R-Neb.), though, is an important one. It’s not just that QAnon is obviously false and should be easy to reject. It’s that by praising the group, he reinforces its central tenet. If he nods at white supremacists, he’s not necessarily bolstering the concepts central to white supremacy. If he fails to say, “of course QAnon is ridiculous,” he’s not only giving the group a stamp of approval, he’s actively reinforcing the idea that he’s aware of the purported conspiracy. By saying they’re “fighting very hard” against pedophilia, adherents — attuned to picking out signals that reinforce their position! — are not going to have to look hard to find a positive message.

This is dangerous. QAnon adherents have been implicated in murders and kidnappings and threats. Believing something so detached from reality is like dividing by zero: It makes any leap of rhetoric seem feasible. A guy on Staten Island allegedly thought that a local mob boss was part of this cabal of sex traffickers and he (again, allegedly) shot the man to death in the street.

Guthrie tried to move on. Trump, angry, insisted they not.

GUTHRIE: Let me ask you another thing.
TRUMP: Let’s waste a whole show. You start off with white supremacy, I denounce it. You start off with something else — let’s go. Keep asking me these questions.
GUTHRIE: OK. I do have one more in this vein.
TRUMP: Let me just — let me just tell you, what I do hear about it, is they are very strongly against pedophilia. And I agree with that. I mean, I do agree with that. And I agree with it very strongly.
GUTHRIE: But there is not a Satanic pedophile cult being run by—
TRUMP: I have no idea. I know nothing about it.
GUTHRIE: You don't know that?
TRUMP: No, I don’t know that. And neither do you know that.

The president of the United States, asked if there is a satanic pedophile cult with roots in the U.S. government, says he “has no idea.” Further, that a journalist for a major news network can’t honestly claim not to know whether this idea is legitimate.

It’s hard to imagine an easier question for someone to answer. But again, Trump is either wildly underinformed (which seems particularly unlikely now, given the repeated attention that’s been paid to this) or simply unwilling to tell a large group of Trump-voting people that their ridiculous ideas are ridiculous. It’s not clear which option is preferable.

The exchange continued with Trump again trying to turn the exchange into an attack on his opponent.

GUTHRIE: Okay. Just this week, you retweeted —
TRUMP: Why aren't you asking me about antifa. Why aren't you asking me about the radical left?
GUTHRIE: Because you — because you’re volunteering it.
TRUMP: Why aren't you asking Joe Biden questions about, why doesn't he condemn antifa? Why does he say it doesn't exist?
GUTHRIE: Because you're here before me.
TRUMP: Ha ha. So cute.

Guthrie’s right. There’s no point in asking Trump about antifa because Trump always talks about antifa. But he and his campaign have left space for QAnon to exist, space the theory’s adherents have now occupied within Trump’s world for multiple years. That is worth asking about.

And Trump offered a stunningly bad answer.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off on Oct. 15 at the same time — on separate networks. Here is a round up of seven false claims. (Video: The Washington Post)