Even in the best-case scenario for the 2020 election, in which America flushes Donald Trump out of office and we can feel like we’ve showered for the first time since 2015, the toilet plume of this presidency will likely hang over us for years to come. After numerous reports on QAnon adherents currently running for office, the nonprofit Media Matters, which is devoted to dispelling conservative misinformation, has reported that 64 current or former congressional candidates have publicly promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory in some form or another. That means 64 people formerly or currently running for Congress believe that some guy on 4chan has access to high-level classified government documents revealing the existence of a deep state run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles, and (depending on where you fall on the QAnon spectrum) that Donald Trump is on a secret mission to destroy them. Almost all—59 out of 64—are Republicans.
Most are long-shots, but 13 have made it onto the November ballots so far, some with nonzero odds or a measure of mainstream recognition. Among them are Republicans Johnny Teague, who got the Houston Chronicle’s endorsement in the primaries; Dan Severson, a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives now running in Florida; and Mike Cargile of California, who had the California GOP’s endorsement until Media Matters drew attention to a racist rant by the candidate. Perhaps the likeliest candidates are Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is known for even more racist rants and is expected to secure a seat if she wins a runoff race in August, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who recently unseated incumbent Scott Tipton in the primaries. (Boebert has appeared on at least two QAnon shows, but has since denied actively following QAnon.) That’s not to say that any of these candidates is a shoo-in, but they’ve attracted some amount of attention and support.
Of the 13 who made it onto the ballot, five are from California, two are from Illinois, and the rest are from Colorado, Georgia, New Jersey, Oregon, Ohio, and Texas. While the majority are running as Republicans, two are listed as Democrats, two as independents, and one as a Libertarian. Twenty-eight others lost or dropped out of the race, and one’s status is unknown; the rest are still awaiting their primaries.
Some of the candidates slip a subtle “#Q” into their Twitter bios; some share the unmistakable QAnon slogan “#WWG1WGA” (“Where We Go One, We Go All”); still others have gone on record to say that QAnon is a credible source of information. Missouri Republican congressional candidate Winnie Heartstrong, who has said that footage of George Floyd’s murder was a deepfake, has appeared on a QAnon podcast to offer praise. A few weeks ago, Antoine Tucker, Republican write-in candidate for New York, tweeted: “Yes I am a Q Supporter and as your Congressman I’ll make sure The Truth will never have to be Questioned in DC again.” Georgia’s Greene, who reportedly called the 2018 midterms an “Islamic invasion,” has shared a video urging her followers to pay attention to Q, a “patriot” whose identity “we do not know.”
While it may be tempting to say these candidates are just using a popular online community to shore up their support in otherwise long-shot races, social-media-driven conspiracy theories have had violent real-world impacts before. It is precisely this kind of unchecked trust in unsourced internet posts that led a man to fire an AR-15 rifle in a pizza parlor in 2016, believing that he was liberating children from a sexual abuse ring. The man, a father of two, later admitted that the “intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” expressed regret for how he “handled the situation,” and repeatedly stated that he was acting out of compassion and worry for the supposed victims. The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department called Pizzagate a “fictitious online conspiracy theory.”
Some of the candidates aren’t waiting for Q drops and seem to be scrounging for conspiratorial threads from whole cloth. In November, Darlene Swaffar, a Republican running in Florida’s upcoming primary, tweeted a numerological observation about the number of Trump’s tweets that day, tied to Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, were tied to the letter Q.
Many of the QAnon movement’s dangerous ideas—which have been disproven time and time again—are moving closer to the center of public belief, at times echoing in the words of the president and other mainstream conservative figures. As the Conversation has reported, QAnon at first denied that covid-19 is real, asserted that white people were immune to it, launched the #FilmYourHospital hashtag to gather evidence that reports of overwhelmed hospitals were fake, and then, as the Daily Beast reported, promoted a bleach mixture as a coronavirus potion. Doctors, and even Lysol, have warned that no one should ingest or inject bleach. People in Trump’s radius, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and White House social media director Dan Scavino, have directly or indirectly indicated their support for the QAnon theory. And the president himself has retweeted QAnon accounts with unsettling frequency.
While the Pew Research Center has found that 76% of Americans have never heard of QAnon, and only 3% say they know “a lot” about it, the movement’s covid-19 theories aren’t so far off from the political center. According to Pew, in April, nearly one-third of Americans believed a conspiracy theory that covid-19 was manufactured in a lab. Just last week, as Florida topped 200,000 coronavirus cases—about 1 out of 100 residents—a Miami Herald poll found that 28% of Floridians believe that the threat of covid-19 and death rates have been exaggerated to hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances. The Florida Department of Health now reports 301,810 cases.
Regardless of whether a band of QAnon believers make it to Capitol Hill, their hero is already in the Oval Office, and their ideas are spreading across the web. On the upside, there is evidence that credible sources can change at least some minds.