Democrats dismissed him as a zealous group of conspiratorial zealots. Moderate Republicans worried about its potential to damage their party’s image, while more conservative lawmakers cautiously sought to harness the energy of its roots. Charming media outlets covered her rallies, portraying her as an evolving strain of populist politics – a protest movement born of frustration with a corrupt, incalculable elite.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, her supporters started winning the election.
This is a description of the aa Party movement, which emerged in 2009 from the right-wing thresholds and continued to become a major and enduring force in American conservatism.
But it could just as easily be a description of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that has emerged as a possible heir to the aa Party mantle, as the most powerful grass roots in right-wing politics.
This week, QAnon is likely to take on its first member of Congress: Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who won a primary runoff in a heavy Republican constituency on Tuesday. Ms. Greene has publicly supported QAnon, appearing on QAnon shows and supporting the movement’s unfounded belief that President Trump is on the verge of demolishing a sleek cabin of pedophiles who worship Satan. Other QAnon-related candidates have won primary at the federal and state levels, though few in districts as conservative as Ms. Greene.
QAnon, who draws his convictions from the cryptic message board posts of an anonymous writer claiming to have access to high-level government intelligence, lacks the leadership structure and links to the dark money of the early ayaj Party . Realistic goals or anything resembling a coherent policy agenda are also missing. Her followers are online vigilantes caught up in paranoid and violent revenge fantasies, not conservative of my lower taxes or opponents of the Affordable Care Act.
But after Ms. Greene’s main victory, some Washington insiders have begun to question whether QAnon’s potential influence is similarly underestimated. They worry that, just as the Ayaj Party gave a racist “beer” movement that pushed conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama into the Republican stream, QAnon’s extreme views – which have led some followers to commit serious crimes – could be difficult to contain.
“They are delusional to dismiss it as a helpless prejudice,” said Steve Schmidt, a longtime GOP strategist and campaign veteran who has become a critic of Trump. “The Republican Party is becoming the home of a community of conspiracy theorists, extremist players, extremists and white nationalists that is opening up in a surprising way.”
To be clear: QAnon’s ideas are far more extreme than they ever were of his Party. Aaj Party supporters opposed Wall Street aid measures and the growing federal deficit; QAnon fans believe that Hillary Clinton and George Soros are drinking the blood of innocent children. While AJ Party supporters usually tried to oust their political opponents at the ballot box, QAnon supporters cheered for the leading Democrats to be imprisoned either in Guantánamo Bay or rounded up and executed.
But there are more parallels than you might think, especially when it comes to how the political institutions of their time reacted to the rise of each group.
When the aya Party emerged in early 2009, many commentators scoffed at the idea that it could sometimes achieve political power, calling it a “show of hysteria” by “inflating right-wing”. Michael R. Bloomberg, then mayor of New York, described the aaji Party as a passing fad, comparing it to the eruption of support for Ross Perot’s presidential campaign in 1992. Republican Party leaders took it on seriously, but they, too, seemed to think they could harness its energy without loving its more extreme elements.
Then, in January 2010, Scott Brown, a little-known Republican lawmaker from Massachusetts, won a Senate seat in a shocked shock to his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, in part because of support from the AJ Party. And it became clear to the members of both parties that they had erred in underestimating the potential of the Party aaj.
Today, experts tend to portray QAnon as an extreme but marginal move – a kind of John Birch Society for the 4chan era. And some polls have suggested the movement remains largely unpopular.
But QAnon followers have left the dark corners of the internet and created a huge and growing presence on major social media platforms. Twitter recently announced that it was removing or restricting the visibility of more than 150,000 QAnon-related accounts, and NBC News reported this week that an internal Facebook investigation into QAnon’s presence on its platform found thousands of active QAnon groups and sites. , with millions of followers among them.
Even after Ms. Greene’s primary victory this week, few lawmakers have accepted QAnon directly. (A Republican lawmaker, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, called it a “fabrication” that has no “place in Congress” on Wednesday.) But his followers have routinely used social media to push for extreme views – including opposition to masks, false fears of child exploitation and the “Spygate” conspiracy theory – in the conservative media. At least one Fox News commentator has spoken favorably of the move. And dozens of QAnon candidates are running as anti-creative outsiders in the Republican early this year, as did the Party candidates in the 2010 midterm elections.
The similarities between QAnon and the AJ Party are not merely historical. Some of the same activists are involved in both movements, and organizations like the Tea Party Patriots have provided food for QAnon’s social media campaigns, such as a recent viral video of doctors making false claims about Covid- 19.
One notable difference is that while the AJ Party gained influence during a period when Republicans were out of power, QAnon is growing during the Trump administration, with the tacit blessing of the president. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump congratulated Ms. Greene on her major victory, calling her a “future Republican star.” (He did not mention the video in which she called Mr. Trump’s presidency a “one-on-one life opportunity” to take on this global tax on Satan worshipers. “)
Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Tea Party and Remaking of Republican Conservatism, said QAnon represented, in a way, an extension of the Party’s skepticism of key authorities.
“The conspiratorial thinking movement at the center of the Republican Party is not entirely new,” Ms. Williamson said. “But the center of this conspiratorial thinking was something that stands out for the Party, aj, and is something even more surprising for QAnon.”
One advantage that QAnon has over previous insurgent movements is improved technology. Members of the John Birch Society had to turn to advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and the AJ Party – which started with a CNBC anchor telecommunications – relied heavily on existing conservative media apparatus to spread its message.
But QAnon is native to the internet and is moving at the speed of social media. Since 2017, QAnon followers have built an impressive media ecosystem that includes Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and Discord servers. These spaces serve as both a source of news and a virtual water cooler, where followers socialize, trade new theories and memes, and strategize to increase their ranks.
The other big difference, of course, is who is in the Oval Office. Mr. Trump has not addressed QAnon directly, but he has significantly avoided denouncing it, and has shared dozens of posts by believers on his social media accounts.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, said that while QAnon likely would not take over the Republican Party as well as the Tea Party did in 2010, it could continue to grow if senior Republicans were not willing or unable to contain it.
“It will not be distributed naturally by the system,” he said. “The Republican Party will have to take active steps to remove him from the system. And that is unlikely to happen under President Donald Trump.”
Bill Kristol, Mr. Trump’s conservative commentator and critic, was more skeptical about QAnon’s influence in the Republican Party. He stressed that in both parties in Congress there had always been extremists, whose influence tends to dilute with more moderate voices over time.
But that was in the pre-Trump era, he admitted. Who knew what QAnon could become, with a presidential approval stamp?
“Trump’s embrace is what makes this different and more disturbing,” Mr. Kristol said. “If Trump is the president, and he is embracing this, are we so sure it is not the future?”