In the months since, not much has happened to diminish that first factor. Trump left office, but he and his allies have continued to promote the clearly untrue claim that the election was somehow stolen. What hasn’t existed is a singular moment or location that might serve as a catalyst for the frustrated energy those false beliefs generate.
That energy is both obvious and dangerous. On Monday, the FBI released a warning focused on a subset of those who believe in that particular conspiracy theory: adherents of the QAnon extreme ideology, which the bureau has designated a domestic terrorism threat. At about the same time that Trump left the White House, Q — the shadowy figure whose cryptic statements about the nefarious activities of a global cabal were the seeds for the movement’s theories — also went silent. This is probably because the individual or individuals running the online account that posted Q’s comments had moved on.
But the effect was that a large movement of Trump-loyal conspiracy theorists was left to its own devices. The FBI’s concern is that they might transition from parsing Q posts to taking things into their own hands.
“We assess that some DVE [domestic violent extremist] adherents of QAnon likely will begin to believe they can no longer ‘trust the plan’ referenced in QAnon posts,” the warning reads, “and that they have an obligation to change from serving as ‘digital soldiers’ towards engaging in real world violence — including harming perceived members of the ‘cabal’ such as Democrats and other political opposition — instead of continually awaiting Q’s promised actions which have not occurred.”
Since even before President Biden took office, the federal government has emphasized the risk posed by domestic terrorists. Last October, the Department of Homeland Security released a threat assessment that focused specifically on concerns about violence from domestic actors, including white supremacists. It asserted that “ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the most likely terrorist threat to the Homeland, with Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.”
On Tuesday, the White House released a similar strategy document focused on curtailing domestic extremism. Included in that document were specific warnings about adherents of ideologies such as QAnon. It reiterated that the domestic terrorism threat was often a function of “lone actors or small groups of informally aligned individuals who mobilize to violence with little or no clear organizational structure or direction.”
“These individuals often consume material deliberately disseminated to recruit individuals to causes that attempt to provide a sense of belonging and fulfillment, however false that sense might be,” the report reads. “Their ideologies can be fluid, evolving, and overlapping. And they can, in some instances, connect and intersect with conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation and misinformation.”
Then, a starker warning.
“Newer sociopolitical developments — such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence — will almost certainly spur some DVEs to try to engage in violence this year,” the report warns.
This describes the dangerous undercurrent at play. There may emerge isolated examples of people committing acts of violence due to that energy, as has already occurred. What hasn’t appeared in the months since Jan. 6 is the other element that made that day so dangerous: the focal point of time and location.
Bringing us to Arizona.
Writing for the Bulwark, former Republican Party spokesman turned Trump opponent Tim Miller points to the ongoing review of ballots in Arizona’s Maricopa County as precisely that sort of crystallizing event.
If you’re familiar with that review, it’s probably because you’ve heard stories about the lack of seriousness it entails. Mandated by the Republican-led state Senate, it’s being conducted under the direction of a firm that’s never reviewed an election before, a firm founded by a guy who has explicitly endorsed debunked conspiracy theories. For more than a month, volunteers — funded by Trump supporters and a nonprofit group linked to the One America News — have been actively reviewing cast ballots in an obvious effort to introduce uncertainty about the results. In theory, the goal is to evaluate the legitimacy of conspiracy theories, such as that ballots were flown in from Asia and therefore might include bamboo fibers. But in practice, treating unserious claims as serious does nothing but scatter asterisks all over the results, which is the entire point.
That review will soon end, with those who’ve been conducting it almost certainly announcing that they’ve uncovered something sufficiently suspicious to call the results in Arizona into question.
“If this happens, the former president and his MAGA media echo chamber will once again stoke the flames of insurrection,” Miller writes. “Millions (tens of millions) of Republicans throughout the country will believe it. And some of them will demand action.”
Miller points to an exacerbating factor, reported by the Arizona Republic: Arizona has also become a focal point for QAnon adherents.
“QAnon followers have coalesced around a theory that the audit itself would trigger the major event long prophesied by Q,” the paper’s Richard Ruelas and Jen Fifield report. “Some follow every development of the audit on channels devoted to it on Telegram, a messaging application that has grown in popularity as Facebook and Twitter have culled users who post disinformation.”
The idea, in essence, is that the Arizona review will prove that one particular conspiracy theory — that the election results were suspect — was accurate. And that, in turn, will trigger a chain reaction leading … somewhere. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose company offered discount codes using Q-related phrases, has insisted that Trump would be president again by August, thanks to new discoveries this summer.
In other words, Arizona is poised to be a place and a time on which Trump supporters and QAnon can focus.
And similar focal points are in the works. If there is a chain reaction leading out from Arizona, that means other similar reviews in other places and other points of focus.
“In the words of adherents, Arizona would be the first ‘domino’ to fall,” Ruelas and Fifield write. “The excitement around this theory has grown in recent days, as interest in replicating Arizona’s election audit has spread to other states. Alaska, Georgia and Pennsylvania lawmakers toured the coliseum to find out how they could do an audit just like this one back home, and a Georgia judge allowed a conspiracy-minded group to recount absentee ballots. Similar calls for audits are happening in New Hampshire, Michigan and Wisconsin.”
As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out, some of those observers flown in from other states did so on the dime of Voices and Votes, that OAN-linked charity. OAN has covered the Arizona review nonstop, elevating its importance and earning plaudits from Trump. More audits, as Weigel notes, mean more OAN coverage. And again, it means more points at which that energy can coalesce.
In the days after the 2020 election, Maricopa County was first a focus of attention by pro-Trump activists. The close results in that state brought a number of protesters to the streets in an effort to exert pressure on vote counters. At one point, the group tried to push inside the building where votes were being tallied. Some of those in attendance were armed.
Eventually, the votes were all counted, and the results certified for Biden. The focus turned to the Capitol and Jan. 6. But now, the “audit” being conducted on behalf of Arizona Republicans returns the spotlight to Phoenix, where conspiracy theorists now pin all of their hopes for being proved right and for Trump returning to power. An announcement seems imminent.
A place. A moment. An energy. Just like the Capitol.