the national interest

QAnon Is Now Too Big to Fail

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Last summer, Politico reported that Latino Democrats in Florida began to notice that their community was being swamped with disinformation linking Joe Biden and his party to pedophilia and a nebulous global conspiracy. “The onslaught has had an effect,” said pollster Eduardo Gamarra. After the election, Democrats seemed shocked at the degree to which QAnon’s bilge had sloshed beyond the rim of its online cesspools and covered them in its filth. “We’re not some demonic cult like we’re portrayed to be,” complained defeated Alabama Senator Doug Jones. To slightly adapt a cliché of political consulting: When you’re explaining that you’re not a demonic cult, you’re losing.

In recent days, the tables have turned, at least momentarily. As reporters have unearthed more and wilder claims uttered by QAnon-supporting Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, Democrats have used its bizarre theories as a cudgel. House Republicans now find themselves in the agonizing position of trying to ease Greene off the national stage without either allowing her words to be linked to all its candidates or alienating her fellow conspiracy buffs.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has tried floating half-measures, such as asking Greene to voluntarily step down from her committee seats so as to avoid a House vote that would put his members on record and seeing if Democrats would help him out by letting her surrender one of her committee spots while holding the other. But the more important question is not how McCarthy will excavate himself from this dilemma, but how he found himself stuck there in the first place. If Greene was just a lone kook holding one House seat out of 435, what leverage could she have? If QAnon was just a gaggle of marginal lunatics, why wouldn’t he be able to denounce them? The answer, quite simply, is that within the Republican party, QAnon has become too big to fail.

Donald Trump spent months amplifying QAnon themes on his Twitter account and repeatedly refusing to condemn the cult. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” he said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.” Reporters took these comments as a cynical game. In fact, as we now know, Trump believed this. What’s more, Republican leaders knew he believed it. In a meeting at the White House last July, Trump touted QAnon to Mitch McConnell. “Are you familiar with that, Mitch?” asked the president, “You know, people say they’re into all kinds of bad things and say all kinds of terrible things about them,” Trump added. “But, you know, my understanding is they basically are just people who want good government.” This story did not come out in the media until December, during which time McConnell kept it quiet long enough to try (and fail) to secure Trump a second term.

In the meantime, the party’s exploitation of QAnon’s messaging was hardly a secret. It was an integral — and by all accounts successful — part of Republican messaging. Both Trump and his oldest son posted memes accusing Biden of pedophilia. White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller told reporters in October that Biden “would incentivize child smuggling and child trafficking on an epic global scale.” After Rudy Giuliani stole a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, Maria Bartiromo and Senator Ron Johnson told Fox News viewers it contained child pornography. Trump strategist, accused fraudster, and eventual federal-pardon-recipient Steve Bannon used QAnon lingo to titillate his podcast audience (“It’s gonna be a storm”) and defended its claims. (“How are they not at least, at least an aspect of their argument, at least appears, directionally, to be correct?”) By fall, Trump’s crowds were taunting his rival with chants of “Creepy Joe.”

Polls consistently showed a substantial chunk of Republican voters to agree with QAnon. In September, Pew found that 41 percent of Republicans described the group positively; the next month, Morning Consult found that 38 percent of them believed QAnon theories to be at least somewhat true. An Emerson poll of Georgia voters that same month found that a plurality of Republicans thought QAnon was “accurate.”

But it wasn’t just that the party’s voters liked QAnon. Its political class did too — or at least found it useful. Several Republican strategists admitted to Business Insider last fall that they saw the cult “not as a liability or as a scourge to be extinguished, but as a useful band of fired-up supporters.”

QAnon’s role in the party roughly echoes that of Joe McCarthy seven decades ago. Republicans regarded McCarthy privately as a clown and a demagogue, and their contempt frequently leaked out in the press. But they also relished his wild lies, which put Democrats on the defensive and associated them in the public mind with communism. Eventually, McCarthy turned his attacks on his own party, bringing about his political self-destruction. But before he did so, it was quite convenient for Republicans to have McCarthy firing up their base and wafting charges that the Democratic party was following orders from Joseph Stalin, which gave more traction to their slightly more hinged Red-baiting attacks on the New Deal.

QAnon’s smears play an analogous role. The wildest adherents can directly charge Democrats with belonging to a secret global pedophile cult, while more respectable Republicans merely issue sober warnings that Democratic policies would fail to contain sex trafficking. The beautiful part is that sex trafficking, like communism in the 1950s, is a real problem, albeit not on anything like the scale Republicans imply.

Now that Greene’s bizarre theories have attracted enough attention to discomfit her party, Republicans have to limit their exposure without putting off too many of their own supporters. Their reaction to this dilemma has been revealing.

The most belligerent Republicans have embraced their nuttiest colleague, treating an attack on her racist fantaisies as an attack on them. “All self-righteous Republicans beware: If this can happen to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, it can happen to any one of us,” warns Representative Andy Biggs (Republican of Arizona). Once the party starts rooting out the craziest of the crazy, who knows where it will end?

Most Repupublican elites have taken a less defiant tack, deflecting attention away from her without defending her. They have directed their ire not at Greene, nor at the Republicans who cultivated the QAnon cult, but at the media that has reported her beliefs. “Reporting that a politician believes in/flirts with conspiracy theories is legit, but the attention they get should be proportional to their ability to influence actual public policy,” suggests that barometer of median party opinion Marco Rubio. The news media should not “dog pile on a fairly insignificant story in order to magnify it far out of proportion to its importance,” scolds Republican apparatchik Noah Pollak.

The most unifying response to Greene within the GOP has been to draw an absurd equivalence between her rabid bigotry and the anti-Semitic undertones in a couple of Ilhan Omar’s comments. Republicans are demanding that if Green is stripped of her committee seats, Omar be stripped of hers as well. “Democrats also have their share of cranks in the ranks,” editorializes the Wall Street Journal, citing Omar’s comments that Israel “hypnotized the world” and that its support was “all about the Benjamins baby.”

Omar apologized for her remarks and even voted for a resolution denouncing them. Conservatives claim to believe in the apologize-and-forgive model for handling these kinds of offenses, but they seem much more enthusiastic about anathematization when it suits their partisan needs. In any case, the Republicans’ faux-concern over Omar, and their refusal to even acknowledge her remorse, serves no purpose other than to justify the vastly greater levels of bigotry they permit. A top-ten list of the most anti-semitic things ever said by either Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar would consist entirely of Trump quotes.

Republicans invoke Omar so they can retreat into whataboutism rather than confront a valued part of their coalition. Indeed, the Journal, while pleading for Republicans not to strip Lynn Cheney of her rank for the sin of calling for Trump’s impeachment, likewise takes a forgive-and-forget approach to Greene, who “deserves to be judged on how she handles herself in office.” (Note that, unlike Omar, Greene has not only refused to apologize but defiantly insisted she never will.)

McCarthy’s objective is to keep QAnon in the field while minimizing the exposure of his vulnerable members. It is far too late to make a clean break without suffering political consequences, a cost nobody seriously believes McCarthy would entertain paying under any circumstances. For better or worse, QAnon is part of the Republican coalition now.

QAnon Is Now Too Big to Fail