QAnon’s infiltration of the Republican Party has proceeded with frightening steadiness over the last couple years, its growing foothold marked by the arrival of conspiratorial politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene. According to Business Insider, Ron Watkins, widely believed to be one of the authors of the Q posts that started the movement, is one of nearly 60 Q sympathizers running for Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. QAnon’s adherents tend to espouse some selection of bizarre beliefs from the conspiracist’s buffet that includes accusations of pedophile politicians eating children, secret political tribunals in Guantanamo Bay, a great bloodletting, and Donald Trump swooping in to free us from evil. One day. Or maybe the day after. The prophecy is flexible, which is why it has evolved and endured.
This week brought us evidence that QAnon thought has spread further than we knew: into the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the very highest levels of the Republican Party. It is increasingly difficult to separate the movement’s demented beliefs from the ideology of the already democracy-averse GOP, its traces evident in legislation, media appearances, and leaked private communications.
The latest exemplar of the GOP’s descent into anything-goes nuttery is Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and a well-connected conservative activist who recently admitted to attending the January 6 Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C. Ginni’s right-wing beliefs have long been known, but leaked texts between her and then–White House chief of staff Mark Meadows revealed Thomas’s commitment to overturning the election, based on an apparently sincere belief that Joe Biden had stolen the presidency. She encouraged Meadows to help put a stop to Democratic perfidy. “The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History,” went one message to Meadows, encouraging him to stand strong.
The texts also revealed that she has traveled far down the QAnon rabbit hole. She made reference to “watermarked ballots” that signaled a secret Trump-led military “sting operation.” She described a plot hatched by the “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators” who were already being arrested and shipped to floating barges off the coast of Guantanamo Bay. She wrote messages supporting Sidney Powell, a lawyer whose deranged media appearances made her such a liability that she was forced out of Trump’s circle. But Thomas strongly supported Powell, a QAnon favorite. “Don’t let her and your assets be marginalized instead … help her be the lead and the face,” she wrote to Meadows on November 13.
Thomas’s willingness to embrace even the most wild-eyed, Big Lie–fueled theories only affirms what we already know about some of her political peers, including those who served in the Trump White House. Some went along out of self-preservation or an instinct for power, but other Trumpists, including perhaps Trump himself, actually accepted the proliferating lies about hacked voting machines, a communist influence project, corrupt state officials, and whatever else could be added to the witch’s brew of baseless speculation. Whether they believed these lies or not, the effect was functionally the same. In the months before and after Joe Biden’s election as president, the government was run by erratic coup plotters, some of whom thought that corrupt Democratic officials were being tried for treason secretly in Gitmo. The sheer absurdity of all this would be hilarious if it didn’t involve people in positions of real influence.
These include lawmakers and aspiring presidential candidates in the Senate. Earlier this month, Missouri senator Josh Hawley presented a long Twitter thread charging that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson “has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook” — a blaring Klaxon for QAnon adherents obsessed with child endangerment. He later repeated his criticisms on the first day of Jackson’s confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court, prompting a White House spokesman to assert that Hawley was engaging in a “QAnon-signaling smear.” Hawley’s remarks were later echoed by South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who, in addition to chiding Jackson for representing detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, told Jackson, “Every judge who does what you are doing is making it easier for the children to be exploited.” To cap it off, one of the Republican witnesses for the hearing was Alessandra Serano, an executive at Operation Underground Railroad, a well-funded anti-sex-trafficking organization whose vigilantism and weak relationship with reality resemble that of QAnon adherents.
The signs of the Republican slide toward full epistemic crack-up are all around us. One can see it everywhere lately, not only in the “why do you want to hurt children?”–type questions hurled by Republican senators at Jackson, but also in the revanchist anti-LGBTQ laws being introduced in Texas and Florida and in fearful talk of teachers “grooming” children on Fox News. The ginned-up moral panic, centered around the child-exploitation themes that helped give life to QAnon, is now a regular part of Republican political rhetoric.
This phenomenon’s origins go back decades, with important mile markers appearing under the George W. Bush administration, which gave us “truthiness” and the “reality-based community.” How else to explain General Mike Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and, briefly, national security adviser to the president, who now supports QAnon? Flynn’s full tilt toward Strangelovian madness may be partly because it’s popular on the speaking circuit, but he has also draped himself in some of the most unhinged and bloodthirsty language of the QAnon prophecy — and seemingly delighted in doing so. (He thought Myanmar’s military coup was a good model for the U.S., for example.) It may be just another right-winger’s embrace of the troll’s ethos — riling the enemy being the great credo of the modern Republican Party — but again, the effect is the same: The free-associative, crazed accusations of conspiratorial thinking stand at the core of modern Republican politics.
If you had any lingering pretensions that our political elites know better than the average QAnon-pilled zombie, it’s past time to let them go. The people in charge of the Republican Party are mostly old and poorly informed operators who believe some of the most asinine theories to emerge from social-media bilge. Granting them some measure of savviness — saying that this is red meat for the Republican base, or that it keeps the checks from right-wing billionaires coming in — is to offer too much credit. More than that, it risks absolving them through some nod toward political practicalities when, mostly, this is all pretty evil and disturbing.
The added trouble with Ginni Thomas, of course, is not just that she’s a well-connected right-wing activist who communicates abject lies to sympathetic presidential officials. It’s that her husband, whose own beliefs are more closely held but likely fairly bonkers, has the power to help implement her agenda and protect her from repercussions. Clarence Thomas’s defenders on the right have been keen to point out that he and his wife are not the same person, and that much is true — but can anyone say with any certainty whether this sitting member of the Supreme Court believes Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 election?
At the very least, critics have rightly objected to the fact that Thomas has refused to recuse himself from cases related to the January 6 committee. He’s in a position to not only provide legal cover for his wife but also her potential co-conspirators. If Thomas hadn’t been quietly tucked away in a hospital with an undisclosed illness, perhaps this glaring conflict of interest could have been dealt with publicly, but for now, Republican officials continue to make excuses to protect one of their own. And the depressing reality is that the rot is deep. Even if Ginni and Clarence Thomas are excised from American political life, their shameless confederates remain.
This post has been updated.