At a town hall event in Miami broadcast by NBC News Thursday night, President Donald Trump was asked to disavow the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. He didn’t. In fact, he offered words of praise for the movement.
Followers of QAnon believe that Trump is waging a behind-the-scenes battle against a deep state of satanic pedophiles, consisting of leaders in Democratic politics, business, and entertainment. Once an outlandish conspiracy theory existing on the fringe, it has entered the mainstream and infiltrated the Republican Party with seemingly little resistance, despite the FBI identifying it as a potential source of domestic terrorism—one that has already been connected to deadly violence.
Hosting the town hall, NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie asked Trump to clear up a few things from the first and only presidential debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in which Trump failed to condemn white supremacy. Instead, he told the Proud Boys hate group to “stand back and stand by.”
“I denounce white supremacy, OK?” Trump said, falsely claiming that he had done so at the first debate.
Guthrie then asked the president about QAnon. Explaining that followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory believe “that Democrats have a satanic pedophile ring and you are the savior of that,” Guthrie asked, “Can you just once and for all state that this is not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?”
“I know nothing about QAnon, I know very little,” Trump said.
“I just told you,” Guthrie replied.
“You told me, but what you told me doesn’t necessarily make it fact, I hate to say that,” Trump said. “I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it.”
After some back and forth, Trump stated again that he was against pedophilia. “What I do hear about [QAnon] is that they’re very strong against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” he said.
As Right Wing Watch noted immediately after the exchange, “Nobody in QAnon World is ‘fighting’ pedophilia at all. They are simply accusing everyone they don’t like of *being* pedophiles. There is a difference.”
This isn’t the first time the president has failed to denounce QAnon. During a press conference in August, a reporter asked Trump about the conspiracy theory: “Mr. President, at the crux of the theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind, or a believer in?”
“Well, I haven’t heard that,” Trump claimed. “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. I’m willing to put myself out there.”
So, why isn’t Trump disavowing QAnon? Its believers’ devotion to the theory and to Trump are a valuable asset to a president and team that have no scruples.
More than just movement, it’s become a vast network that sprawls across several social media platforms with commentators amassing large followings by pushing the conspiracy theory, and Trump is at the center of it—the hero waging battle. It’s even entered such disparate spaces as the evangelical community, Seven Mountains Dominionism, mixed martial arts, and yoga and wellness spaces.
Johnny Enlow, a leading proponent of Seven Mountains Dominionism, recently said the conspiracy theory “connects to our overall message on the Seven Mountain Mandate,” claiming this is what happens when the church doesn’t run the seven mountains that shape culture—education, government, media, business, arts and entertainment, family, and religion.
Meanwhile, dozens of QAnon followers ran as Republicans for Congress, and a handful won their GOP primaries. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the GOP nominee for Senate in Georgia and a QAnon follower, is almost certain to be walking the halls of Congress next year.
And the growth of the QAnon movement is staggering for a conspiracy theory that originated on anonymous message boards in 2017. A recent Morning Consult survey found that 21 percent of Republicans who engaged with QAnon content online believed the sprawling claims to be very accurate, with another 17 percent believing them to be somewhat accurate.
The movement also began using the hashtag #SavetheChildren—co-opted from the humanitarian organization—this summer in social media posts and memes about pedophiles, asking why the news wasn’t reporting on it. It was a soft front, attracting followers to the movement by slowly introducing them to more QAnon-focused content, as newcomers engaged with the posts about needing to save children and unknowingly followed conspiracy theorists.
Beyond engulfing a part of his base and attracting new followers, the QAnon community’s mantra that members must always “trust the plan” means that ahead of Election Day, followers have faith that Trump will win and take out the deep state set on putting him out of office to prevent him from revealing their satanic cabal.
Pro-Trump commentator Bill Mitchell of YourVoice America has said that he sees “no downside” to QAnon, arguing that people should not criticize the movement because even if it’s false, QAnon is keeping people motivated and confident in Trump as November approaches.
And even if Trump loses in November, QAnon followers will believe that the deep state must have stolen the election, and that messaging is in keeping with Trump and the GOP’s fear-mongering about voter fraud through mail-in ballots.
Likewise, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter’s crackdown on the conspiracy theory—just yesterday, YouTube removed the accounts of a number of influential QAnon accounts, including Praying Medic—falls in line with the Big Tech narrative driven by Trump and conservatives that they’re being censored.
“Big Tech is silencing QAnon, Facebook is silencing QAnon,” Ed Martin, president of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles organization, complained in an Oct. 7 Periscope broadcast. “What’s the standard? The standard is thumb on the scale. The standard is anything they can do to put their thumb on the scale—that’s what President Trump is up against.”
Republicans were slow to disavow the conspiracy theory. After Marjorie Taylor Greene won her primary runoff in Georgia in August, they finally began denouncing QAnon, and in October, all but 17 signed onto a recent House resolution calling it a “conspiracy theory.” (Among those who did not were Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Steve King of Iowa.) But that may have been too little, too late.
The more that Republicans or Trump avoid denouncing the conspiracy theory, the more conspiracy theorists will shape the narrative. Conspiracy theorist Ann Vandersteel has been telling QAnon followers that they should take Republican Party leadership’s silence about QAnon as tacit approval.
And for Trump, that’s probably just fine. The more the movement spreads, the less Trump can do wrong by his already enamored MAGA supporters. Does it matter that he’s told the Proud Boys hate group to “stand by”? Does it matter that more than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19? Does it matter that he’s refused to say whether he’ll commit to a peaceful transfer of power? Thousands believe he’s saving children from Satanic pedophiles—what could be more heroic than that?