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Will Sommer on Trump's increasingly shameless QAnon outreach
"The conspiratorial thinking that QAnon represents has become mainstreamed in the party."
What does it say about American politics that the Republican presidential frontrunner is comfortable publicly embracing a deranged conspiracy theory/belief system holding that prominent Democrats are part of a satan-worshiping, child-trafficking cabal that he’ll ultimately vanquish with violence?
Nothing good. But to go deeper on the significance of Donald Trump’s increasing use of QAnon symbols and themes, Public Notice contributor Thor Benson talked to Will Sommer, a politics reporter at The Daily Beast who’s working on a book about QAnon.
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“If we think it’s in Trump’s best interests to really heighten the polarization in the country and cast everything in these sort of doomsday terms if Democrats retain power, then I think it makes a lot of sense for him to promote QAnon,” Sommer says. “They literally think this is a battle between heaven and hell.”
Before we get to the Q&A, some brief context. While Trump winked and nodded and retweeted QAnon accounts regularly during his presidency, it’s become more overt in recent weeks. Each of Trump’s last two rally speeches wrapped up with him droning on hypnotically over funereal QAnon theme music.
As Trump spoke over the music at his September 17 rally in Youngstown, fans in the audience raised their hands and extended one finger toward their leader in a scene reminiscent of a fascist rally from the 1930s. For at least some of them, the gesture was meant to symbolize the “1” in the QAnon slogan, “where we go one, we go all.”
(Trump fans were prevented by security from repeating the gesture at Trump’s rally last Friday in Wilmington, North Carolina.)
Meanwhile, on his Truth Social social media platform, Trump in recent weeks has posted a string of QAnon memes, including the below image of himself wearing a Q lapel over Q slogans.
(“The storm” refers to the day in QAnon mythology when Democratic members of the cabal meet their violent demise.)
Then, as Sommer detailed, the night before his rally in Wilmington, Trump posted a video stuffed with QAnon imagery.
Notably, Trump is stepping up his QAnon outreach while his favorability numbers with the broader public are tanking. But Sommer suggested ego is playing a large role in his decision to buddy up with a conspiracy theory the FBI has described as a domestic terrorism threat.
A transcript of Benson’s conversation with Sommer, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
Do you see Trump’s use of QAnon music at his rallies as an increase or escalation of his embrace of QAnon, compared to his previous winks at the movement?
I do. This is pretty clearly a much more concerted effort. When Trump was still on Twitter, he would retweet Q people a lot.
But this is a new level where it’s not just some guy named “where we go one, we go all” who says, “I love Trump!” and Trump says, “Yeah, this guy gets it!” Now he’s reposting images of himself wearing Q pins and stuff like that.
Then there was obviously this use of the “WWG1WGA” song that had already been reported to have this QAnon connection. It’s not like that would be an accident.
Trump has relied on this plausible deniability about QAnon. He would say, “How was I supposed to know?” if he retweeted an account called Q Army or whatever. The reality is that more recently it seems much more deliberate.
Why do you think he’s doing this?
I think Trump sees QAnon as the sort of ultimate Trump fan club. These are guys who by comparison make many Trump devotees look pretty lightweight. The average Trump fan thinks he was the greatest president ever and can save America, but these are people who see him as a messianic figure who is basically going to defeat the devil. Of course, they also think all of the people opposed to him are satanic pedophiles.
We can’t see inside his head, but I think he’s in these kind of dire straits legally, potentially politically, and I think he’s trying to throw some bait to rev up his hardest core fans.
Do you think Trump is embracing them because QAnon fans might be willing to engage in political violence on his behalf?
Certainly he wouldn’t be wrong to think so. Trump’s embrace of QAnon at his rally [in Youngstown] came just days after a man obsessed with the conspiracy theory murdered his wife and injured one of his children.
There were many QAnon believers at the Capitol on January 6. Ashli Babbitt thought she was participating in the storm.
If we think it’s in Trump’s best interests to really heighten the polarization in the country and cast everything in these sort of doomsday terms if Democrats retain power, then I think it makes a lot of sense for him to promote QAnon. They literally think this is a battle between heaven and hell.
Is QAnon a growing threat, or just a persistent thing now?
In terms of people who identify as QAnon believers and wear QAnon pins and stuff, I think they’ve gotten a little quieter since Biden took over. But I think the threat is in a way worse, because QAnon has become a respected faction within the Republican Party. We can see this from the fact that basically no Republicans want to denounce QAnon — with a few exceptions like Adam Kinzinger.
Trump endorsed JR Majewski in Ohio, who’s a hardcore QAnon believer and who if he wins would grow the QAnon caucus.
More broadly, I think the issue is that the conspiratorial thinking that QAnon represents has become mainstreamed in the party — whether it’s a majority of Republicans believing the 2020 election was stolen, or Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s a crackpot but seen by many as a rising star and was the first QAnon supporter elected to Congress.
Is QAnon even about Q or the QAnon mythology anymore? Or is it now just a kind of hardcore, deranged Trump-supporting group?
That’s a great question. I do think QAnon has sort of moved beyond Q.
Now, you can buy into the basic QAnon mythology — which is that the world’s elites sexually abuse children and drink their blood and Donald Trump was recruited by the military to take them down — but then you can kind of branch off in whatever direction you want. You can make it about vaccines or you can buy into these utopian visions of the future to come once Trump does the storm. There are even wannabe Qs you can choose from. You can get your cryptic messages from Michael Flynn or Sidney Powell or Lin Wood.
What are their main platforms for communicating with each other now?
I would say it’s Telegram. Since Trump left office, people have generally tried to be less obvious about being QAnon fans. That makes it harder to figure out how widespread it is. A lot of these groups have realized that if you don’t call yourselves QAnon you can still promote all of this QAnon stuff and conspiracy theories online.
As someone who focuses on this stuff a lot, what do you think is important to understand about this?
It can be easy to say this won’t affect your life or will never happen to you or someone you love, but I’ve talked to so many people who have lost family members or friends to QAnon. Often someone will get into QAnon on the basis of really anything — there are yoga communities that have been overrun with QAnon. These are essentially normal people who get sucked into QAnon.
This is a dangerous, violent, murderous movement that Trump is willing to promote to increase his political odds.
Seeing history with my own eyes in LA
As many of you know, I was in Los Angeles over the weekend for the Online News Association’s 2022 conference, where I delivered a talk Saturday about the art of video clipping and how it became a key part of my career as a journalist. I’ve been told full footage of my event will be online before long, and I’ll be sure to share it with you all as soon as I can. In the meantime, a few clips are already on Twitter thanks to a thread put together by SnapStream.
The highlight of the trip, however, was being in Dodger Stadium for the very first time on Friday, when I was lucky enough to see Albert Pujols become just the fourth player in MLB history to hit 700 home runs. I even managed to capture video of the big moment.
As a huge baseball fan, it would’ve been cool just to take in an evening at such a beautiful ballpark. Being there to see history with my own eyes was an extra special treat and maybe the most awesome thing I’ve seen during a regular season game.
Another memorable moment from my trip was meeting and having dinner with Acyn on his home turf. He’s a great guy and it was nice to be able to put a face to all the DMs we’re exchanged over the years.
It was my first time hanging out in LA as an adult, and I was very impressed with the culture, cuisine, and weather. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to get back out there and see more of the city before too long.
That’s it for today
As a result of getting back late Sunday, my publication schedule is obviously a bit off this week. But I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap of what could be the final January 6 committee hearing, and then again Friday.