In the late hours of Thursday night, Donald Trump reposted a montage of himself to his Truth Social followers that was extraordinary even for him. In a flash, images appeared showcasing “military criminal justice,” a “reminder” that the real insurrection occurred when Democrats cheated in the 2020 election and a cartoonish picture of Trump in a dark alley holding a baby with the line, “You Should’ve Stayed Away From The Children.”
The highlight reel also, of course, brandished the QAnon slogans “WWG1WGA” — where we go 1, we go all — and “the storm is coming.” The former president has been channeling the conspiracy theory a lot lately. At a rally last weekend, throngs of Trump supporters held up a “1” — a common QAnon tribute — in the air when they thought the “Q” theme song was being played. Days earlier, Trump posted a picture of himself on Truth Social wearing a “Q” pin with a “Q” slogan.
It’s all got Heidi Beirich worrying even more than usual.
Beirich is the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and has tracked extremist movements for more than 20 years. She’s frequently testified before Congress on efforts to counter extremist groups’ recruitment and reduce hate online. She spoke to POLITICO Magazine this week after helping to organize the second annual Eradicate Hate Summit in Pittsburgh, which featured addresses from senior law enforcement and counterterrorism officials.
In Beirich’s eyes, Trump has made a decision to cozy up further to the QAnon movement in a simple bid to boost his political fortunes — and perhaps partly out of desperation. “There’s pretty much nothing weirder than QAnon out there in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satanic worshipping pedophiles?” But, she adds, Trump knows these people make up part of his base, so he’s more than eager to rile them up.
Unlike many may have expected, or at least hoped, QAnon never faded away, even after Trump’s election loss in 2020 and its prophesies failed to come true. But conspiracy theories never really die, they only morph.
“It’s already a conspiracy. It’s already built on lies. So you just keep retelling the story in a different way,” Beirich says. “Trump already is the key figure for QAnon, and I think now he’s overtly assuming that role.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Gedeon: At a campaign rally recently, after it appeared that Trump had played a QAnon song, lots of people in the crowd held up a “1” to invoke a QAnon rallying sign. What did you take from that?
Heidi Beirich: Well, what I found disheartening, but also incredible, is that Trump seems to be, in recent weeks, intentionally trying to abuse the QAnon movement and move it as close to him as he can get it. So he not only played the song. as you pointed out, but the other day he was wearing a Q lapel pin with one of their phrases on it [in a Truth Social post]. He’s been doing a lot of the equivalent of tweeting right on Truth Social to attract QAnon adherents. I should say, this isn’t totally new for Trump, but it’s more direct than it’s been in the past. So he’s played this game before, but now he’s appealing really directly and in-person to QAnon adherents.
Gedeon: It does seem like Trump is leaning more into the support of the QAnon crowd. Why is it happening now?
Beirich: I think he’s definitely leaning in hard. There’s also evidence, not collected by me but by others, that show that Truth Social has quite a few Q accounts on it, too. The whole company is playing to these folks.
I think there might be a measure of desperation in this move, that Trump is having to align himself with people who literally believe crazy ideas. There’s pretty much nothing weirder than QAnon out there in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satanic worshipping pedophiles? Regardless, this movement is now found in about 70 different countries including as far away as places like Japan. It seems to me that he is trying as hard as he can to appeal to them. I have to wonder if this isn’t related to you know, pretty bad approval ratings that he has right now, and that he thinks it’ll lift up his ranks. He can’t possibly not know that there were a ton of QAnon people during the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, and he knows they make up a part of his base, so I think he’s trying something out to uplift himself by these very direct calls to the QAnon universe.
I’ll just add, there’s a lot of people who believe in QAnon — more than we would think. From a poll earlier this year, I think in February, it’s 1 in 5 Americans are QAnon adherents, and 1 in 4 are Republicans. So those are big, big numbers.
Just for context, research on the insurrectionist movement out of the University of Chicago looked at the people who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and they pointed to two things that those people tend to believe. One is the “great replacement” conspiracy theory — this white supremacist idea that’s often antisemitic, that Jews are replacing white people in their homelands with people of color, immigrants, refugees — but the other thing they tend to believe is QAnon. Trump knows this makes up part of his base. He knows, or at least people around him know, that it’s a force in the Republican Party. I think those things are motivating this activity as well.
Gedeon: What is the state of the QAnon movement right now? I’m assuming people think that QAnon has sort of died down.
Beirich: It’s not the case. You would think it would be the case, since Q hasn’t posted in forever. You would think that this would have gone away, but that has not happened. And it’s partly because there are politicians out there like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene who have pushed QAnon messaging. There are election denier outfits that are appealing to QAnon. And you would think that this idea, first of all, would have never taken off. Then secondly, you would have thought when Q sort of disappeared, it would die down. You would have thought when the FBI pointed to the potential violence that could come from the QAnon movement back in 2021 that this would go away, but it hasn’t.
Gedeon: We never found out for sure who Q was so what role does Trump play in promoting QAnon?
Beirich: First of all, we have to recognize that Trump is a messianic figure in the QAnon calls. He is the one who is going to save everyone. A lot of people thought QAnon would fall apart because Trump lost the election, and in their world, he was not supposed to lose. He was the savior, and he was going to set the world right, get rid of the pedophiles and globalists and all this stuff. It didn’t happen. But he remains that messianic figure
The thing about conspiracy theories is even if you promote some particular idea — think about people who say the end of the world is going to happen on a particular date, and then it doesn’t happen, sort of similar to QAnon in a way with Trump and the election — they can always just reinvent themselves. It’s already a conspiracy. It’s already built on lies. So you just keep retelling the story in a different way. Trump already is the key figure for QAnon and I think now he’s overtly assuming that role.
Gedeon: When we talk about the people who believe in QAnon, we have to remember that they are people, who just really believe what they believe. What is fueling QAnon and other forms of extremism? What is it that’s polarizing people?
Beirich: I’m not a psychologist so I can’t speak to sort of why people go down conspiracy rabbit holes, but they do. And there have been people who’ve come out of the QAnon movement who say they just got completely wrapped up in this thing.
One of the things that QAnon did in the past, they did these things called “Q drops”, where it would be like cues about what’s going to happen in the future. It had almost like a scavenger hunt kind of aspect to it — try to interpret these “Q drops” sort of like a game. I think a lot of people found that compelling and enticing and it drew more people in to the movement than maybe other kinds of conspiracies.
QAnon may be the largest conspiracy movement in the United States. I don’t know if it’s the largest conspiracy movement ever. I don’t know how many people believe that JFK wasn’t killed in the way he was, or that we never went to the moon, but it’s millions and millions of people who have fallen into this. So it has a mysterious attraction to it.
Gedeon: I know that you also look into far-right movements in Europe and the transatlantic area. Are there any similarities with extremist movements here and abroad? Are there any moments in history that can help us understand what we’re experiencing now?
Beirich: People often say you shouldn’t point to the 1930s and the rise of the Nazis as similar to what the United States is facing. But there are actually similarities to that time period. You have the rise of a leader who is overtly authoritarian, who is challenging a democratic system, by saying our whole election system is bogus and corrupt. You also have things going on on the streets like Proud Boy rallies that are sort of reminiscent with the brown shirts.
You have the rise of the far right in multiple countries. It’s not just here in the United States. You would have seen that in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats are going to form the government there after the elections about a week ago, and that’s a party that is literally rooted in neo-Nazism. There’s about to probably be another far-right winner in Italy, who has connections to a lot of extremist groups and who idolizes Mussolini. It’s hard not to think about the 1930s as somewhat reminiscent of what we’re experiencing right now. For me, this is quite frightening because we all know where that led, and it was horrific.
Gedeon: You don’t think we would actually go there in the U.S. though, do you?
Beirich: I don’t want to make the parallel too tight, but I think that we are facing the biggest threats to democracy in the United States that we ever have. I can’t think of any time in my lifetime where there were so many people who don’t believe that election results are what they say they are.
There are people running for office right now, some of them are actually QAnon adherents. They deny the election and some of them are running for offices like secretary of state and if they win, their plans are to make the elections partisan, to manipulate the vote for the outcome that they want, not the outcome that comes from the election. This stuff is real scary.
There’s other things to remember, like how a large percentage of Americans believe that violence may be necessary for politics. I mentioned earlier the fact that this white supremacist idea, “the great replacement,” is being spread by candidates and influencers like Tucker Carlson. These are frightening and disturbing portents that are occurring right now.
Gedeon: Is there anything we can do about radical conspiracy theories, or is it just a fact of life at this point?
Beirich: I think one thing that’s really important is that the social media companies be vigilant and keep the stuff off there. You can’t do anything about Truth Social and other places that don’t ban this stuff as part of their terms of service.
There’s also a leadership issue here and I so wish, in vain, that major figures in the Republican Party would say, ‘This is unacceptable. These are lies.’ It’s led to violence — everybody remembers the Comet Ping Pong shooting where [conspiracy theorists] thought that Democrats were holding children in the basement of this pizza place in Washington, D.C., and a guy went in there with a rifle and shot in the restaurant when people were there.
As a general thing, if you don’t want this stuff in your public life, don’t vote for candidates who push it.