The Democratic National Convention was a marvel of message discipline. The speeches and events had a clear theme: to portray today’s Democratic party as totally normal, mainstream, non-combative, and not radical at all. In a year of race riots and cancel culture, we may have a lot of reasons to be skeptical of this gauzy image of the party of the left. Yet there is something comforting about the fact that a large political movement has been able to settle on a non-repellent political message and actually stick to it. We haven’t seen much of that for the past four years.
All of this led Karl Rove to observe that this “enormous message discipline” is something “Republicans would be wise to emulate.”
Yeah, I didn’t think that was likely to work out, either. Even as Rove was speaking, Donald Trump was tweeting—expressing his support for Laura Loomer, a conspiracy-theorist nutjob, for winning the primary to run as the Republican candidate in Florida’s 21st district. Loomer has no real chance of winning, and it is a perennial problem for both parties that fringe characters sometimes manage to get themselves nominated in hopeless districts where nobody respectable can be convinced to run. But usually they don’t get the endorsement of the sitting president.
This followed Trump’s endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a devotee of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and it was followed by the president being asked outright about QAnon at a press conference and offering them a kind of tepid endorsement as patriots who “love our country.”
Thus, in one fell swoop, Trump injected an insane conspiracy theory into the mainstream of the right—though it is following the usual template for support of Trump himself: anti-anti-QAnon.
First, for those who don’t frequent the shadier corners of the Internet, what is QAnon? It started out as a standard “anon” scam, in which a random person on an Internet discussion board claims to be an anonymous insider giving out secret information. Such claims are, of course, highly improbable and impossible to verify, but they gain a ready audience among those who want to believe.
In this case, the anonymous source claimed a Q clearance in the federal government giving him access to secret information—hence the QAnon name. He spun a fantastical tale about how Donald Trump’s erratic actions all make sense as cover for a secret war against a “deep state” composed of Democrats who are—wait for it—Satan-worshippers running an international child-molesting ring. “Q” keeps predicting that Trump will order mass arrests of the villains in this conspiracy.
The endlessly ramifying QAnon conspiracy theory tells its gullible followers a whole lot of things they want to hear, from the innate depravity of one’s political opponents to the fantasy of a judgment day on which everyone you dislike will be arrested en masse and shipped off to Gitmo. But the biggest psychological need it serves for its devotees on the right is to reassure them that Donald Trump really does know what he’s doing. QAnon conspiracies excel at explaining how the president’s erratic and ill-considered actions are really proof of his superior tactical genius, which can only be appreciated by those with special insider knowledge.
You can see how this would appeal to Trump supporters, insulating them from the doubts about Trump that must be creeping into the edges of their consciousness. You can also see why the president himself would like it. Hence his response when asked what he thought about QAnon.
I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate, but I don’t know much about the movement. . . . I’ve heard these are people that love our country. . . . I don’t know, really, anything about it other than they do, supposedly, like me.
First, let me throw a little skepticism at the idea that our first extremely online president, a guy who’s skulking around on Twitter at all hours of the day or night, doesn’t actually know anything about a widely disseminated theory about him that has spread like a rash across social media.
But this is vintage Trump: his unwillingness to just say that he doesn’t know something and leave it at that, combined with his habit of measuring everything by the standard of personal flattery. The only thing he really needs to know about QAnon is that they like him.
Asked about the core QAnon idea that he is “secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” Trump replied:
I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.
This is Trump’s trademark ambiguity. He doesn’t know about it, but maybe it’s good. You can bet that QAnon followers lapped this up as confirmation that they were right all along.
But the real damage isn’t so much what Trump himself said. The damage is what his legions of followers—including those in the media and in the political establishment—will do to rationalize Trump’s flirtation with QAnon.
Get prepared for anti-anti-QAnon.
Anti-anti-ism is the preferred template for Trump support among those who still want to maintain some veneer of respectability. They can’t defend Trump’s own statements and actions, but they can find plenty to criticize in his critics. So they won’t defend or endorse QAnon, not really. They will just dismiss as hysterical anybody who thinks that it’s important for Trump to disavow QAnon.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany set the tone: “He believes his supporters are good, hard-working people that love this country. He is not in the business of ‘basket of deplorables’ politics.” So criticizing wacky conspiracy theorists makes you an elitist snob.
The general line you will see being taken is that real people don’t really know or care about QAnon and only “the media” is obsessed by it—though Q followers have been showing up at Trump’s rallies for years. And after all, why haven’t the Democrats denounced Antifa? (Anti-Anti-ism leans heavily on Whataboutism.)
This is just beginning, but we know by now that it will spread, especially since Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t the only Republican candidate with a weakness for Q quackery. When this president indicates that he won’t criticize anyone he regards as his fan base, no matter how crazy, the rest of the party tends to follow suit.
Why is it important that the president denounce a fringe movement like QAnon—or at least refrain from saying nice things about it? It is not merely a sign of “message discipline” but a sign of mental discipline.
Each party has its crazy wing and its (relatively) sane moderates, and we look to the statements of its leaders to figure out which faction is in the driver’s seat. The fact that the Democrats were able to put their sanest face forward for their convention and keep the radicals off to the sides is an indication that maybe there’s some truth to their message of moderation, that the inmates don’t yet run the asylum.
Donald Trump’s mental incontinence when it comes to conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and other disreputable people, and the successes that conspiracy-theorist candidates have been having in his party’s primaries, indicate that the guardrails that separate the sane from the crazy have been knocked down and that there is nothing to keep the irrational fringe from becoming the Republican mainstream.