Sitting in the local Republican office most days is a lifelong conservative named Diane Putnam, who got her first taste of politics when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and she was a little girl telling people that she liked Ike.
She still does. But these days, what really grabs Putnam’s attention is talk of a satanic criminal conspiracy hatched by a cabal of “deep state” child molesters who are seeking to take down President Donald Trump. In other words, she believes in QAnon. She insists she is just one of many.
“The large majority of people, they understand about QAnon,” Putnam, the Republican chairwoman of this small Georgia city, said in a recent interview.
“Those that don’t know,” she added, “they have not looked into really what it’s about.”
Across the country, Republicans like Putnam — long-standing party members who could hardly be described as fringe radicals — are embracing QAnon. The followers of this online phenomenon believe that the Democratic establishment and much of the Republican elite are deeply corrupt, and that Trump was delivered to save America from both. Urged on by the president, whose espousal of conspiracy theories has only intensified in the waning weeks of his campaign, QAnon adherents are pushing such ideas into the conservative mainstream alongside more traditional issues like low taxes and limited government.
QAnon’s growing influence inside the Trump campaign was underscored when the president again refused to condemn the movement after he was asked about it at his town hall in Miami this past Thursday night. Trump, who over the summer praised QAnon adherents for their love of America, first claimed to know nothing of the movement and then, when pressed, said: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”
There was no acknowledgment of the real-world violence inspired by QAnon, which has prompted a preelection crackdown by social media networks, with YouTube last week becoming the latest platform to attempt to stop its spread. But dozens of recent interviews in Georgia and other parts of the country offered insights into the pull of a movement that has migrated far beyond the confines of the internet and, much like the Tea Party before it, plays to the sense of grievance on which Trump’s political career was built.
People “feel left out,” said McKray Kyer, 24, the local Republicans’ vice chairman. QAnon, with its focus on criminal “elites,” helped them understand why. “It’s not about what we’re doing wrong — it’s the swamp.”
Kyer said he had looked into QAnon and was not sure what he believed. But many others interviewed said they believed in some or most of QAnon, and a significant portion of those who did not know the movement’s name were familiar with its themes, especially its talk of rampant child trafficking and devil worship among powerful elites.
Yet the movement is elastic, drawing on any number of well-worn tropes. Even people who explicitly dismissed QAnon as lunacy often volunteered similar conspiracy theories. There was talk of how the pandemic was an outright hoax or, at the very least, being wildly overblown. Many people repeated racist theories about former President Barack Obama or the anti-Semitic notion that financier George Soros controls the political system.
Though there has been little public polling, there is growing anecdotal evidence that QAnon followers now make up a small but significant minority of Republicans. Adherents are running for Congress and flexing their political muscles at the state and local levels. The movement’s growth has picked up pace since the onset of the pandemic in March, and its potency is clear on social media — before Facebook banned QAnon content earlier this month, there were thousands of dedicated Facebook groups with millions of members.
The phenomenon can be seen at Trump rallies, where people wearing QAnon shirts and hats are commonplace; at one recent rally in Las Vegas, the parents of a toddler in a QAnon shirt gamely posed for pictures with stranger after stranger. It was on display outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where QAnon adherents gathered to support Trump after he was hospitalized with COVID-19. (Other QAnon adherents questioned whether the president had been hospitalized at all.)
Susan Cooper, 59, an insurance agent in nearby Calhoun, estimated that between 20% and 25% of her friends had bought into QAnon, though she had not. Others interviewed offered a similar assessment, and said it was a varied group — young and old, male and female, poor and prosperous, urban and rural.
“It’s women that I talk to,” Cooper said. “These women are sharp ladies — these women are women out of Atlanta, out of California, and friends of mine that are literally all over the country because of the company that I work with — and they firmly believe this.”
QAnon is spreading among evangelical Christians, too. The Biblical Recorder, a Southern Baptist newspaper in Cary, North Carolina, recently warned of its dangers. “Christians should reject the movement’s fanatical and dangerous messages,” wrote Seth Brown, the paper’s executive editor.
Many of the Republican Party’s leaders and powerful donors are similarly concerned, as are a great many voters. Yet few high-profile Republicans have spoken out, demonstrating the thin line they are trying to walk between the moderate voters they need to win over and the members of their base who adore Trump.
“It’s a pro-Trump movement; QAnon is not of the Republican Party,” said Dr. John Cowan, 45, a supporter of the president who ran in this year’s primary for a House seat representing northwest Georgia. “It leaves no room between the president and Republican ideals and philosophy.”
Cowan, a neurosurgeon, has seen up close the political impact of QAnon. He was trounced in the runoff by Marjorie Taylor Greene, 46, perhaps the most unabashed QAnon supporter running for Congress. She was caught on Facebook videos that surfaced earlier this year making offensive remarks about Black people, Jews and Muslims and openly courted the most extreme elements of the party’s base during her primary campaign, presenting herself as the most loyal Trump supporter in the race.
The prophet of QAnon is “Q,” a purported government insider with a high-level security clearance who began posting cryptic messages in 2017 about the deep state trying to destroy the president. Followers pore over and interpret the postings — known as “Q drops” — and a core belief is that an apocalyptic showdown will smash the child-trafficking cabal and transform America. They call the transformation the “Great Awakening.”
At the center of the myth is Trump, often depicted as uniquely gifted with the abilities and fortitude needed to save America. The portrayal is taken straight out of his own playbook. From the moment he accepted the Republican nomination in 2016 and declared, “I alone can fix it,” to his claim earlier this month that catching the coronavirus was a “blessing from God” allowing him to stumble upon a miracle cure, the president has sought to present himself as a singular figure in history.
In August, the president described followers of QAnon — several of whom have been charged with murder, domestic terrorism and planned kidnapping — as “people that love our country.” His children and aides have shared social media posts related to the movement, their messaging becoming more explicit as Trump’s poll numbers have dropped. His former national security adviser Michael Flynn — a man seen in pro-Trump circles as a martyr unfairly persecuted in the Russia investigation — posted a video this summer of himself taking what is known as the QAnon digital soldier oath.
In the estimation of Putnam, what changed was the proliferation of news sources on the internet — “people’s eyes began to be open to what was really happening” — and, most recently, Trump’s decision to run for president.
“Once he came down the escalator and announced his candidacy, people knew from the beginning he would be different,” Putnam said. “He couldn’t be bought; he doesn’t take his salary. So he can’t be manipulated or controlled by financial contributions. He’s his own man.”