Since the presidential election, QAnon followers have been forced to reckon with an identity crisis. “Q” failed to post for over a week after the election, and in that time questions about his legitimacy began to emerge among his followers. If the master plan was for Trump to save the world from pedophilic-“deep-state”-Satan-worshipping Democrats, how could he have possibly lost? If “Q” truly knew top-secret government information, how could he have been so wrong in so many of his predictions? These questions led a significant number of QAnon supporters to question their allegiance to the conspiracy movement, but since then the movement seems to have shored up its support. Many QAnon supporters who were at first at a loss for how the election results fit into the crazed QAnon narrative have successfully generated a new theory that the Dominion voting machines gave millions of Trump votes to Biden, demonstrating their inability to give up on the idea of a Democratic “deep-state” conspiracy. Though, Trump’s right-wing populism and jeremiads directed towards Hillary Clinton and the “deep state” paved the way for the original spread of QAnon and continuously stoke its flames, in our current political environment right-wing populism will remain attractive to those who feel resentment towards our current political system regardless of whether Trump is in office. The deep connection the QAnon conspiracy theory has to right-wing populism and the widespread dissemination of false information underscores the lasting threat that QAnon poses to democracy in the United States.
While right-wing populists generally “rail against their partisan opponents and against ethnic and other out-groups,” QAnon takes the right-wing populist ideology to the extreme through its use of baseless conspiracies . Trump’s rhetoric possesses a high level of Manicheanism and anti-pluralism , but the QAnon movement goes even further by claiming that Trump is the moral savior against powerful individuals (namely Democratic politicians, while invoking their connection to minorities) involved in satanic rituals, pedophilia, and child abuse. This extreme good vs. evil dichotomy is even more dangerous to democracy than typical right-wing populism. The level of immorality and disinformation prescribed to the “outsider” magnifies the extent to which followers view the Democratic Party and minorities as an existential threat . Right-wing populism erodes democracy because it limits who constitutes the people, creating an anti-pluralist culture which justifies undemocratic behavior and leads to a reluctance to accept electoral loss . Additionally, QAnon’s use of extreme disinformation, which has been proven to influence elections , in conjunction with its anti-pluralist ideology decreases these individuals’ ability to accurately hold politicians accountable when voting . The ability that QAnon followers have demonstrated, to use fantastical conspiracy theories to this end, illuminates how the threat is made even more potent when right-wing populist ideology is combined with a fundamental detachment from reality. That one of these supporters now holds a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and that the theories have spread across borders underscores that this threat persists despite the loss of Trump.
Despite a large amount of evidence to the contrary, there exists a strain of thought that says the content of QAnon’s founding conspiracies are so absurd, so deranged, that it will be little time before its proponents come back to reality. This way of thinking argues further that a Biden win makes much of the conspiracy theory untenable and that, regardless, the QAnon associated member of congress does not have the potential to wield any real power. Thus, QAnon does not pose a serious ongoing threat to democracy. This sort of thinking is a mistake.
QAnon’s right-wing populist appeal allows it to attract a broader following than just those who believe the core conspiracies. Indeed, a new study by Brian Schaffner indicates that a majority of QAnon Supporters familiar with the key conspiracies, do not fully believe them. Both Hochschild and Mueller argue that right-wing populism appeals to those who feel resentment towards the current political system, those who feel left behind, and those who in some way feel disenfranchised . The quick spread of the Dominion voter-fraud conspiracy exemplifies that QAnon can offer a home to disaffected Trump supporters even as he has lost the election and even if they do not believe its most deranged theories. The movement of QAnon into the Republican mainstream poses a serious risk of continuing democratic erosion. Additionally, QAnon’s spread to the U.K. and Germany since the start of the pandemic demonstrates the movement’s malleability and ability to attract certain discontent individuals regardless of whether a right-wing populist leader is in power. With building support for the theory, we can expect to see a further polarized U.S. society , more dissemination of false information, a decrease of accountability for Republican politicians , and further breakdown norms of mutual toleration . Though we would need to address the polarized schisms in our society even if QAnon did not exists, QAnon threatens exacerbate these issues. QAnon’s extreme right-wing populism and dissemination of false information encourage identity based-democracy, as it taps into resentment to “send partisans into action for the wrong reasons,” increasing polarization and the inability to compromise , and as we can see that is unlikely to go away simply because the theories seem crazy or because Trump is out of office.
Though the Weimar Republic, unlike the U.S., was an immature democracy and had a number of differentiating factors leading to its fall, the role that mass media played in helping the Nazi’s gain legitimacy in the political system warns of the danger of the election of Marjorie Taylor Greene . In fact, the language used in QAnon’s pedophilic conspiracy mirrors that used in the Nazi’s description of their Jewish conspiracy. Rather than utilizing fascist anti-Semitic rhetoric, QAnon uses conspiracies and right-wing populism. The threat QAnon poses to the United States and its citizens is not of the same magnitude, but the political power that this propaganda has supported certainly encourages violence, false information, polarization, and identity-based democracy all factors which contribute to the erosion of democracy.
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 Gunther, Richard, Paul Beck, and Erik Nisbet. “Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election.” Ohio State University.
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 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016).
 Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2018) pg.6
 Maja Adena and Ruben Enikolopov et. al, “Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 4, November 2015, Pages 1885–1939, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv030.
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I really enjoyed this post! I particularly appreciated the attention you drew to the malleability of QAnon, especially as there is a strong narrative of a so-called “return to normalcy” with the election of Biden. I think it is important to note the parallels with Nazi Germany, as you did. I wonder if the role of misinformation in Nazi Germany can offer any historical solutions, or examples of things to avoid, when tackling the problem of QAnon.
Maggie, I enjoyed reading this well written post about the threat QAnon constitutes to American society and democracy. In particular, considering the FBI’s determination in 2019 that QAnon constitutes a domestic terror threat, the election of Marjorie Greene’s election to House of Representatives is a distinct warning about the increasing influence and reach of this conspiracy theory. Indeed, QAnon’s influence has facilitated the radicalization of at least five people to commit criminal and violent acts. As you highlight, Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and peddling of misinformation serves to exacerbate polarization and deepen belief among individuals susceptible to this type of thinking. As recently as his rally on December 5 in Georgia, Trump continues to claim victory in the election, and touts the fact that he received the most votes of any sitting President in history as evidence. The fact that Joe Biden received more votes is communicated by Trump as a statistical impossibility, an accusation rife with possibilities for alternative explanations like the idea of compromised Dominion voting machines.
As you mentioned, not all QAnon adherents are true believers, and some associate with the movement due to perceived grievances or marginalization. How can we reach these individuals, address their concerns, and walk them back from belief in divisive and dangerous conspiracy theories?
Maggie, your post “Conspiracy and Right-Wing Populism: The Lasting Threat QAnon poses to American Democracy,” includes several fascinating points regarding the profound effects of radical right-wing groups on American politics. Specifically, the discussion surrounding the supporters of QAnon and how their ideology is so far detached from the rest of society that they tend to believe that wildest of conspiracy theories. I definitely agree with you that there will be a residual impact that threatens the core structure of American Democracy.
The radical group of QAnon has rapidly emerged in the last decade and is structured by their beliefs in outrageous theories, like you mentioned. In a study conducted by NPR and IPSOS, seventeen percent of people believe, “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control out politics and media.” Furthermore, Kevin Roose writes in his article, “What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” that, “Former President Donald J. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 to break up this criminal conspiracy and bring its members to justice.” This illogical belief of Trump as the savior is extremely telling of the type of people who support QAnon. Also, the point you mention about right-wing populism’s threat to democracy because it is anti-pluralist is very significant. Because party systems are so weak, they become increasingly polarized leading to the emergence of leaders like Trump who attempt to undermine the rights of American citizens according to Lipset.
Miller, Saunders, and Farhart define a conspiracy theory as “An effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role. Similarly, “a secret arrangement between two or more actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions… A key point is that conspiracies speak to actual events that have occurred or are occurring.” I think you make a great point that not all supporters believe in the main conspiracy theories. The level of irrationality of some of the theories is absurd, and even those who pose these theories might not believe in them themselves. For example, in “PBS Frontline: The United States of Conspiracy” Infowars.com creator Alex Jones has created many offensive conspiracies that polarize the nation. However, many believe he does not believe in all his theories but uses them as a financial venture to earn revenue from loyal followers. He is dubbed a “conspiracy entrepreneur” who capitalizes on white American’s fears for the future and turns it into a business.
Another really intriguing idea you bring up is that just because Trump is out of office, does not mean that radical groups like QAnon will lose their threatening status. The voter fraud theory you reveal emphasizes that despite Trump’s absence of power, these conspiracies persist and reunite radical groups who felt bewildered after the results of the 2020 election creating a more polarized country. Kulke writes, “Polarization in the United States is no longer just about policy differences—it is undergirded now by actual antipathy and disdain for supporters of the opposing party.” The sense of hostility and hatred for non-believers of QAnon is distressingly more and more noticeable as politics becomes divided. These conspiracy theories have overwhelming effects that foster feelings of resentment towards new president Joe Biden and his manner of leading the nation.
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted research on the aftermath of the 2020 election and the status of QAnon despite its censorship from many outlets of media. They found that “The share of QAnon believers has increased slightly through 2021.” In fact, the strengthened bond between supporters led them so far as to some of them joining the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. These people share a common belief that their culture is being threatened by minorities and that Americans are losing their identity.
One thing I suggest for your blog post, Maggie, is that you offer suggestions on how to retract people away from certain conspiracy theories they believe in. I think education is a valuable resource to disproving these beliefs because education allows for critical thinking and promotes the willingness to accept facts based on legitimate evidence and change opinions. Additionally, if the levels of resentment towards political opposition can decrease, then the feelings of trustworthiness and acceptance can be more easily adopted as a vehicle for change of beliefs.
Overall, the connection you make between QAnon and right-wing populism is astounding as it has greatly polarized the United States and the current state of American politics. The threat of QAnon ideals remain, but if the two partisan sides can come to a balance between the evidence and the theories than political antipathy can be diminished. However, while QAnon jeopardizes American democracy with its core values, political polarization is reaching an all-time high.
Habib, M. (2020). Conspiracy and Right-Wing Populism: The Lasting Threat QAnon Poses to Our Democracy. Democratic-erosion.com. Retrieved 15 April 2022, from https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2020/11/18/conspiracy-and-right-wing-populism-the-lasting-threat-qanon-poses-to-u-s-democracy/.
Kulke, S. (2022). Republicans and Democrats Hate the Other Side More than They Love Their Own, New Analysis Shows. Nyu.edu. Retrieved 18 April 2022, from https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2020/october/republicans-and-democrats-hate-the-other-side-more-than-they-lov.html.
Lipset, S. M. (1955). The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy. The British Journal of Sociology, 6(2), 176–209. https://doi.org/10.2307/587483
Miller, J., Saunders, K., & Farhart, C. (2022). Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved 18 April 2022, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ajps.12234.
More than 1 in 3 Americans believe a ‘deep state’ is working to undermine Trump. IPSOS. (2022). Retrieved 18 April 2022, from https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/npr-misinformation-123020.
Roose, K. (2022). What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 18 April 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html.
Smith, D. (2022). Belief in QAnon has strengthened in US since Trump was voted out, study finds. the Guardian. Retrieved 18 April 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/23/qanon-believers-increased-america-study-finds.