QAnon, a political conspiracy movement, has grown in popularity in recent years among political right extremists. According to the Grid investigative journalist Steve Riley–an expert on threats to democracy–data visualization reporter Matt Stiles, and misinformation reporter Alex Matthews the movement has turned politically acceptable by the Republican party in a growing number of ways. The movement, through the election of Donald Trump, was solidified as an established political coalition and now members have risen from the political fringe to run in state elections. The group has since amassed millions of dollars in funding from republican donors and millions more in support to move their efforts toward the grassroots where candidates are openly asserting their support for the movement. The expansiveness of the extremist movement of QAnon, the growing number of its members entering into politics as elected officials, and their susceptibility to populist rhetoric exposes a dire threat to democratic integrity in the United States.
Far-right extremism is a political phenomenon that has exploded in America in recent years. The far-right characterizes itself based on traditional values, conspiracism, and antiestablishmentarianism. Conspiracism is, what author Richard Hofstader calls, the paranoid style of American politics where there is a central image of a sinister conspiracy working subtly to undermine individual ways of life . The origin of the United State’s paranoid style is tied to the exceptional nature of America and how citizens relate to the state itself through Americanism . Author Martin Lipset explains this to be a creed dependent on two significant ideals foundational to America: “our revolutionary tradition which has led us to continually reiterate the superiority of American egalitarianism” and “the immigrant character of American society” . Recognizing this political-ideological motivation in the minds of most Americans changes how one understands the imperatives of contemporary politics.
This integral belief tied with the rapid expansion of America leading to the fragmentation of ethnic and cultural groups within the state has defined the geopolitical factors affecting political opinion . With the advent of the internet, connectivity between people of different places and the spread of motivated reasoning becomes consistent among certain groups through echo chambers . Positive reinforcement of confirmation bias paired with low trust in government is largely to blame for the creation of conspiracies through motivated reasoning where they capitalize on political intolerance . The epitome of these beliefs is evident through the movement of QAnon, a wide-reaching conspiracy theory movement that has gained momentum in the past decade over social media due to its strong belief that world governments are being controlled by a shadowy cabal of pedophiles (who will eventually be brought to justice by President Trump). This previously fringe phenomenon among a small group of people has recently reached the mainstream, with QAnon conspiracists flooding social media with false information in 2020. The Big Lie in particular, or the false impression that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, has become particularly divisive–splitting the republican party in two.
QAnon, acting as this coalition, has formed a solid constituency around the increasingly polarized and radicalized republican party of the United States. As such, their political preferences will define the types of candidates who will enter the party–evident in the growing number of members able to run under the republican party for state offices. The candidate type toward which these groups will gravitate is populist-authoritarian leaders. Oftentimes populists will take an issue and moralize the contents–attach a deep, religious or ethical meaning to the sides involved in which theirs is portrayed as the savior fighting the sinister opposition. The use of this moralization tactic creates an “us” versus “them” dynamic, similar to the two sides created by conspiracists in their conspiracy theories . The complement of these two conceptions paves the way for populist leaders to obstruct the legitimization of democratic competition–a necessary stabilizing mechanism for democracy–discrediting opponents on value-based judgments that are irreconcilable and can only spiral into conflict . Similarly, as author Muller points out, populists make appeals to drive their supporters through fear. Given the wealth of fear generated in conspiracy groups through the dire nature of conspiracies, the addition of an authority figure affirming these concerns only incentivizes further extreme behavior evident in the United States on January 6th.
American democracy continues to move forward into a dark time made darker by the implications of American paranoid politics. It is important to understand that extremist ideological beliefs in and of themselves are not a threat to democratic stability; freedom to form preferences and beliefs are necessary for Democracy . However, it is when one side cannot accept the institutions of democracy—and its inherently competitive nature—as being mutually exclusive from those extreme beliefs, and followers are mobilized against the stabilizing mechanisms of democracy that their actions degrade its quality. Increasing polarization, economic inequality, institutionalized racism, and educational disparities all pose salient issues that require collaborative efforts to solve–made impossible by the resentment exacerbated by extremism between parties . As candidates who champion intolerance of pluralistic ideals and adopt the fundamental belief that democracy can only be restored through anti-democratic means, the future of American democracy is left hanging in the delicate balance. Hofstader, Richard. “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.” Harvard University Press, 1952.  Lipset, Seymor. “The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy.” The British Journal of Sociology 6, no. 2 (1955): 176–209.  Ibid. 181  Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker.  Miller, Joanne M., Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart. “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust.” American Journal of Political Science 60, no. 4 (2015): 824–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12234.  Ibid. Miller  Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What is populism?  Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): 69–105. https://doi.org/10.2307/1951731.  Dahl, Robert. On Democracy. Yale University Press, 1998.  Iyengar, Shanto, and Sean J. Westwood. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59, no. 3 (2014): 690–707. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12152.