U.S. President Donald Trump stoked the flames of a wide-ranging, fantastical and unfounded conspiracy theory on Wednesday, acknowledging the QAnon movement, which imagines him as a warrior for God against a global ring of Satan-worshiping pedophile elites.
The FBI has described QAnon as a domestic terror threat, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has also warned that the group is becoming increasingly popular with anti-government extremists. Its followers are also extremely loyal to Trump, whom they see as the mastermind in a secret war against child sex traffickers.
Trump claimed to be ignorant of the group and its beliefs on Wednesday, though he also said he was glad they saw him in a positive light.
“I’ve heard that these are people that love our country,” Trump said, in his first remarks on the movement. “I don’t really know anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”
A reporter pressed him on the issue by quickly explaining the outlandish basis of the conspiracy theory.
“It is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” she said. “Does that sound like something that you are behind?”
“Well, I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” Trump said.
“If I can help save the world from problems I’m willing to do it — I’m willing to put myself out there,” the president continued. “And we are actually, we’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country. And when this country is gone the rest of the world would follow.”
Trump was questioned about the movement after tweeting his congratulations to Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vocal QAnon believer who won the Republican primary for a Congressional seat in Georgia last week. Greene, who has a history of racist and homophobic comments, will become the first QAnon supporter in Congress if she can win the heavily Republican district.
The QAnon conspiracy theory remixes some of the beliefs from “Pizzagate,” a 2016 hoax that suggested Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Hungarian billionaire George Soros and many other left-leaning politicians and celebrities were grooming children for a sex ring run out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington.
One Pizzagate believer actually tried to save those fictional children by marching into the restaurant with a gun in 2016, only to discover that the restaurant had no basement at all.
A year later, an anonymous user claiming to be a high-level government official posted on 4chan, a troll-filled online forum, that Clinton and a shadowy government cabal known as the “deep state” were about to be arrested for pedophilia.
The user’s prophecy never came true, but people nevertheless pounced on his cryptic follow-up messages, spinning them into a broad, pro-Trump narrative that incorporates Evangelical Christian beliefs and many smaller conspiracy theories. The anonymous user has never been identified, but supporters call him or her “Q” — short for a security clearance code within the U.S. government.
“What’s central to the QAnon community is the belief that the whole political system is corrupt,” Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of a podcast on QAnon, told the L.A. Times last week.
The QAnon movement has been slowly growing online since 2017, but researchers say it has exploded on social media this year amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. QAnon has rapidly expanded to absorb many other false conspiracy theories, including skepticism of COVID-19 and anti-vaxxer beliefs.
Many of the group’s ideas come from people who try to interpret Q’s vague messages, according to Marc-Andre Argentino, a conspiracy theory researcher at Concordia University.
“A central component of QAnon is the crowdsourcing of narratives,” Argentino wrote in the Conversation earlier this year. “This bottom-up approach provides a fluid and ever changing ideology.”
Facebook on Wednesday deleted a few massive QAnon groups on its platform, but the company has stopped short of completely banning the movement. TikTok has completely banned the conspiracy theory, while Twitter has tried to crack down on popular QAnon accounts and hashtags. Google has also removed tens of thousands of QAnon videos from YouTube.
QAnon reportedly hijacked the #SaveTheChildren hashtag on Twitter last week to promote the group’s false child sex-trafficking claims.
Trump himself has retweeted QAnon accounts on several occasions, and believers often show up at his rallies with “Q” written on their shirts and signs.
Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said it shouldn’t be hard for Trump to condemn QAnon.
“QAnon conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and foster a climate of extremism and paranoia, which in some cases has led to violence,” he told the New York Times. “It’s downright dangerous when a leader not only refuses to do so, but also wonders whether what they are doing is ‘a good thing.’”
The president has a long history of flirting with or outright promoting conspiracy theories. He launched his political career by pushing the racist, unfounded theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He has also promoted unfounded claims about voter fraud in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and has amplified false theories and his own ideas around the coronavirus, without sufficient evidence to support them.
Trump’s remarks about QAnon sent the group’s believers into a frenzy of celebration on social media.
“Well we’ve been waiting for this moment for a while, to put it mildly thank you @realDonaldTrump,” one Instagram user wrote to her 19,000 followers, in a post reviewed by The Associated Press.
“Holy Smokin Q,” another tweeted. “Our President was asked 2 questions about the Qanon movement TODAY!! We LOVE you President Trump.”
Another Q-related Twitter account racked up more than 47,000 views on a clip of Trump’s exchange about the movement.
“Saving the world,” the group wrote, before echoing a QAnon acronym for its slogan: “Where we go one, we go all.”
Trump on Wednesday also nodded at a new, unfounded version of the birther conspiracy theory. He claimed to have heard a “very serious” rumour that Kamala Harris, the Democrats’ nominee for vice president, was not eligible to run for the position. There is no evidence to support that claim.
Staffers for Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee in the upcoming presidential election, accused Trump of embracing an extremist group, simply because they liked him.
“After calling neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville ‘fine people’ and teargassing peaceful protesters following the murder of George Floyd, Donald Trump just sought to legitimize a conspiracy theory that the FBI has identified as a domestic terrorism threat,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates. “Our country needs leadership that will bring us together more than ever to form a more perfect union. We have to win this battle for the soul of our nation.”
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016, also spoke out against the president’s QAnon comments.
“Why in the world would the President not kick Q’anon supporters’ butts?” Bush tweeted. “Nut jobs, racists, haters have no place in either Party.”
— With files from The Associated Press