QAnon’s danger rises with divisive election
One of the most divisive presidential elections in U.S. history is likely to have a huge impact on QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory that has rapidly grown in the Trump era and is increasingly seen as a serious threat.
The theory is centered around the belief that Trump is working to expose and prosecute a cabal of elites in media, government and Hollywood running child sex-trafficking rings, but has grown to include more broad anti-institutional beliefs that have helped it spread amid backlash to the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s unclear exactly what might happen with QAnon regardless of who wins the presidential election, though experts who spoke with The Hill warned of a risk of civil unrest or violence tied to QAnon in the immediate aftermath of a win by Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“I think there is going to be a very high chance of QAnon activism in the real world and it will probably be the most dangerous point in QAnon’s history,” Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, said. “QAnon is inherently adversarial … the entire idea of the movement is that the true believers are soldiers in a war against the forces of evil.”
QAnon’s adherents have been tied to a limited number of violent actions to date, although they are considered by many — including the FBI — to be a significant domestic threat.
Still, Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland who focuses on domestic radicalization, said that violence in the aftermath of the election is unlikely, based on the movement’s track record.
“Despite attracting attention from thousands of individuals on and offline, there have only been a couple dozen arrests of QAnon followers in the last three years,” he told The Hill. “This group is not particularly inclined to be mobilized to violence, and there isn’t any evidence to suggest that they are especially skilled when it comes to plots or violence.”
Those who said violence is likely tended to agree that random incidences of violence are more likely from the QAnon community than any coordinated action.
“However, it’s possible in places like Portland, Ore., that both sides gather in one place, making larger scale violence more likely,” Donald Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas political science professor who studies domestic extremism, suggested.
More coordinated and violent responses to a Trump loss could instead come from domestic militia groups, many of which share some of QAnon’s beliefs.
The most influential voices in the QAnon community have been projecting confidence about Trump’s victory odds for weeks.
“They’re not even talking about a Trump loss,” Brian Freidberg, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told The Hill. “They’re expecting … that Trump is going to win in a landslide.”
The widespread belief among the theory’s adherents that the media is colluding with Democrats and the “deep state” makes it very easy for the group’s members to dismiss the majority of polls that have Biden ahead nationally and in key battleground states.
In a scenario in which Trump wins, the most direct effect will likely be QAnon gaining more followers.
“That will obviously be very validating for the QAnon community and cause their ranks to swell,” said Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “Since most polls show Biden with a strong lead, it would be further proof that the mainstream media cannot be trusted.”
QAnon is also on the congressional ballot, as a number of GOP candidates running for Congress have backed the movement.
GOP candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is expected to win a congressional seat in Georgia, could take on greater importance within the community in a scenario in which Trump loses, Friedberg said.
Some already established figures in the Republican Party may also find the prospect of tapping new and energized backers enticing, according to Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan professor and expert on misinformation.
“Any politician that’s quick to jump on the Q thing if Republicans do get their clocks cleaned is going to find a new base of support that they didn’t have previously,” he said.
A Biden win wouldn’t necessarily cut into QAnon support, although for some adherents it could be the incorrect prediction by “Q” that finally disillusions them with the movement.
QAnon is built to withstand an electoral loss, though, because of its portrayal of powerful sinister government forces, View explained.
“The QAnon community will probably interpret a Trump loss as a successful counterstrike by the ‘deep state’ and ‘cabal,’” he said. “QAnon followers won’t believe their worldview is mistaken, but rather that they must ‘fight’ even harder in the information war they believe they’re engaged in.”
QAnon would likely make some changes to adapt to a world without Trump as president, experts said.
“QAnon is bigger than Trump now, and has shown versatility in its ability to integrate additional conspiracy theories into its worldview, and it has survived through previous prophetic failures — so there is little debate at this point whether QAnon would continue to exist without Trump as president,” said Zarine Kharazian, assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “The question is what form it will take.”
For example, the movement could elevate a new figure, or group of figures, into the role that Trump played in allegedly exposing the child-eating elites. While Trump will still be a key component of the conspiracy, the existing narrative almost demands someone within government.
Joseph Uscinski, a conspiracy theory expert at the University of Miami, suggested that Michael Flynn — who has openly embraced QAnon — could play a more bigger role while noting that “disdain for the political establishment writ large” is a more important driver of the theory’s popularity than any individual involved.
Trump did not play an important role in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, one of the antecedents of QAnon, suggesting that QAnon could renew itself without his presence in the White House.
“The idea that there is a group of rich, liberal elites that harm children will have appeal after Trump, and so there is an opportunity for QAnon followers to rebrand after the election if Trump loses,” Jensen noted.
It may be possible that if Trump secures a second term, some followers will start clamoring for the promises laid out in early Q drops — posts by a shadowy figure claiming to have inside government knowledge on message boards that comprise the core of the theory — to be met. Failure to accomplish some of the more aggressive promises, like execution of political enemies, is likely to do little to dissuade QAnon’s most fervent supporters, however.
“Adherents will see [a win] as vindication, and there may be hope that Trump will act on some of QAnon’s pet issues,” Kharazian explained. “When he fails to do so, they will probably rationalize away/make excuses/put the blame elsewhere.”
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, said that one thing Trump could do is install more QAnon-curious officials in the Cabinet cleanout that many predict he would do with a win.
“What will be really shocking is if actions that only make sense within the QAnon worldview — locking up Democrats, for instance — actually come to pass,” he added.
Regardless of the election results, QAnon will not vanish overnight. Experts predict the conspiracy theory and its adherents will continue to spread misinformation, erode trust in institutions and threaten violence. Whatever administration is in power come January, the media and social networking platforms will all have to reckon with that reality.
“There’s not a scenario where this kind of a group and this kind of a conspiracy theory is going to go away simply because of something that happens on election night,” Pasek warned.