In Beirich’s eyes, Trump made the decision to draw even closer to the QAnon movement in a simple attempt to boost his political fortunes, and perhaps in part out of desperation. “Is there practically nothing stranger than QAnon in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satan worshiping pedophiles?” But, he adds, Trump knows that these people are part of his base, so he is more than eager to convince them.
Contrary to what many expected, or at least hoped, QAnon never faded away, even after Trump’s 2020 election defeat and its prophecies did not come to pass. But conspiracy theories never really die, they just morph.
“It is already a conspiracy. It’s already built on lies. So you keep telling the story in a different way,” says Beirich. “Trump is already the key figure in QAnon, and I think he is now openly assuming that role.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Gideon: Recently at a campaign rally, after Trump appeared to have played a QAnon song, many people in the crowd raised a “1” to summon a QAnon meeting sign. What did you take from it?
Heidi Beirich: Well, what I found discouraging, but also unbelievable, is that Trump seems to be, in recent weeks, intentionally trying to abuse the QAnon movement and bring it as close to himself as possible. So he didn’t just play the song. like you pointed out, but the other day he was wearing a Q lapel pin with one of his quotes on it [in a Truth Social post]. He has been doing much of the equivalent of tweeting directly on Truth Social to attract QAnon followers. I must say that this is not totally new for Trump, but it is more direct than in the past. So he’s played this game before, but now he’s appealing very directly and in person to QAnon supporters.
Gideon: It seems that Trump is leaning more towards the support of the QAnon crowd. Why is it happening now?
beirich: I think it’s definitely leaning a lot. There is also evidence, not collected by me but by others, that shows that Truth Social also has quite a few Q accounts. The entire company is playing games with these people.
I think there might be some measure of desperation in this movement, that Trump has to align himself with people who literally believe in crazy ideas. Is there practically nothing stranger than QAnon in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satan worshiping pedophiles? Regardless, this movement is now found in around 70 different countries, even as far away as Japan. It seems to me that he is doing everything he can to attract them. I have to wonder if this isn’t related to, you know, the pretty bad approval ratings that he has right now, and that he thinks he’s going to raise his ranks. There’s no way he doesn’t know there were a bunch of QAnon people during the storming of the Capitol on Jan 6, and he knows they’re part of his base, so I think he’s trying something to elevate himself with these very direct calls. to the QAnon universe.
I will just add that there are many people who believe in QAnon, more than we would think. Based on a survey earlier this year, I believe that as of February, 1 in 5 Americans are QAnon supporters and 1 in 4 are Republicans. So those are big, big numbers.
Just for context, research on the insurrectionary movement at the University of Chicago looked at people who were on Capitol Hill on January 6 and pointed to two things those people tend to believe. One is the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, this white supremacist idea that is often antisemitic, that Jews are replacing white people in their home countries with people of color, immigrants, refugees, but the other thing in the one they tend to believe in is QAnon. Trump knows that this is part of his base. He knows, or at least the people around him know, that he is a force in the Republican Party. I think those things are also motivating this activity.
Gideon: What is the state of the QAnon movement right now? I guess people think QAnon is extinct.
beirich: It is not the case. One would think that would be the case, since Q hasn’t posted in forever. One would think that this would be gone, but that has not happened. And it’s partly because there are politicians like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene who have pushed QAnon messages. There are teams that deny elections that attract QAnon. And one would think that this idea would never have been taken off in the first place. Then second, I would have thought that when Q somehow disappeared, it would be extinct. I would have thought when the FBI pointed out the potential violence that could arise from the QAnon movement in 2021 that this would go away, but it hasn’t.
Gideon: We never knew for sure who Q was, so what role does Trump play in promoting QAnon?
beirich: First of all, we have to acknowledge that Trump is a messianic figure in QAnon calls. He is the one who will save everyone. A lot of people thought that QAnon would collapse because Trump lost the election, and in his world, he wasn’t supposed to lose. He was the savior, and he was going to fix the world, get rid of the pedophiles and the globalists and all that. It didn’t happen. But he is still that messianic figure.
The thing about conspiracy theories is even if you promote any particular idea – think of people saying the end of the world will happen on a particular date, and then it doesn’t – kind of QAnon-like in a way with Trump and elections: they can always be reinvented. It’s already a conspiracy. It’s already built on lies. So you keep telling the story in a different way. Trump is already the key figure in QAnon and I think he is now openly assuming that role.
Gideon: When we talk about people who believe in QAnon, we must remember that they are people who really believe what they believe. What is fueling QAnon and other forms of extremism? What is it that is polarizing people?
beirich: I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t speak to why people fall down conspiracy rabbit holes, but they do. And there have been people who have come out of the QAnon movement who say they just got totally into it.
One of the things that QAnon did in the past, they did these things called “Q drops,” where they would be like hints about what’s going to happen in the future. He had almost a scavenger hunt look to him: he tries to interpret these “Q drops” as a game. I think a lot of people found it compelling and tempting and it brought more people into the movement than perhaps other types of conspiracies.
QAnon may be the largest conspiracy movement in the United States. I don’t know if it’s the biggest conspiracy movement in history. I don’t know how many people believe that JFK wasn’t assassinated the way he was, or that we never went to the moon, but millions and millions of people have fallen for this. So she has a mysterious attraction to him.
Gideon: I know you also investigate far-right movements in Europe and the transatlantic area. Are there similarities with extremist movements here and abroad? Is there a moment in history that can help us understand what we are experiencing now?
beirich: People often say that you shouldn’t point to the 1930s and the rise of the Nazis as similar to what America is facing. But there are actually similarities to that time period. You have the emergence of a leader who is openly authoritarian, who is challenging a democratic system, by saying that our entire electoral system is false and corrupt. There are also things happening in the streets, like Proud Boy rallies reminiscent of brown shirts.
You have the rise of the extreme right in various countries. It’s not just here in the United States. You would have seen that in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats are going to form a government there after the elections a week ago, and that is a party that is literally rooted in neo-Nazism. There is probably another far-right winner in Italy, which has connections to many extremist groups and idolizes Mussolini. It’s hard not to think of the 1930s as reminiscent of what we’re experiencing now. To me, this is pretty scary because we all know where that led to, and it was horrible.
Gideon: You don’t think we’d actually go there in the US though, do you?
Berich: I don’t want to make the parallel too narrow, but I think we are facing the greatest threats to democracy in the United States that we have ever had. I can’t think of a time in my life when there are so many people who don’t believe the election results are what they say they are.
There are people running for office right now, some of them are actually QAnon supporters. They deny the election and some of them run for positions like secretary of state and if they win, their plans are to make the election partisan, to rig the vote for the outcome they want, not the outcome of the election. This thing is really scary.
There are other things to remember, such as that a large percentage of Americans believe that violence may be necessary for politics. I mentioned earlier the fact that this idea of white supremacy, “the great replacement,” is being spread by candidates and influencers like Tucker Carlson. These are frightening and disturbing omens that are happening right now.
Gideon: Is there anything we can do about radical conspiracy theories, or is it just a fact of life right now?
beirich: I think one thing that’s really important is that social media companies are vigilant and keep things out. You can’t do anything with Truth Social and other places that don’t prohibit these things as part of their terms of service.
There is also a leadership problem here and I wish, in vain, that leading figures in the Republican Party would say, ‘This is unacceptable. These are lies. It has led to violence: everyone remembers the Ping Pong comet shooting where [conspiracy theorists] I thought the Democrats had kids in the basement of this pizzeria in Washington, DC, and a guy walked in there with a rifle and shot up the restaurant when people were there.
As a general rule, if you don’t want these things in your public life, don’t vote for the candidates who push you.