Over the four days it took for the US to declare a winner in the presidential election, it was hard to ignore Donald Trump. He began tweeting nearly every hour from the evening of 3 November, a combination of false claims in all-caps (“BIG WIN!”) and pseudo-legal declarations (“We hereby claim the state of Michigan”).
Trump’s press conference on 4 November, in which he claimed victory, was broadcasted with unprecedented caveats on news channel banners; the photographs of his solemn expression while golfing had liberals using his own catchphrase against him: “sad!”
[see also: Is Donald Trump conducting a coup?]
As Joe Biden pulled ahead, progressives began to hope that they could soon delight in the end of a political era. If you turned away from the presidential race, however, you could discern a more sinister reality, particularly in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District and its landslide win for Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Greene looks like your average 2020 Republican – her Twitter bio reads: “Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Trump, #MAGA.” During the week of the election, her social media accounts resembled Trump’s: a barrage of claims that the election had been stolen by the Democrats. What sets Greene apart, however, and has given her an international profile, is not her policies but her world view; she is the first representative to be elected to Capitol Hill while publicly supporting the conspiracy theory QAnon.
QAnon could be described as one of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories in modern history. It argues that a group of Satanic paedophiles, mostly made up of Democrats and Democrat-supporting celebrities, is running a global child-trafficking ring – and that Trump is using the power of the US government to fight them. The theory arose in 2017, when an anonymous online poster, “Q”, claimed to have evidence that such a group and counter-effort existed.
The FBI has categorised QAnon as a domestic terrorist organisation due to a number of cases of QAnon-related violence. This may sound like an over-reaction to the danger posed by what these conspiracy theorists believe, but the vast majority of the theory’s followers buy into its most extreme details.
A majority of Americans may have rejected Trump on election day, but in pockets across the country, after years of the president’s efforts to undermine truth and spread misinformation, the inevitable has occurred: professional purveyors of falsehoods are now America’s trusted lawmakers. Alongside Greene, QAnon sympathiser Lauren Boebert won her Congressional seat in Colorado and a number of QAnon-sympathising state senators will be sworn in to office come January.
One reason why Trump’s movement will not die with his presidency is that the movement was never about Trump himself. The “alt-right” – the typically white, male, far-right, libertarian, antifeminist, group who helped elect Trump – did not vote for the 45th president because they wanted a reality TV star in the White House, but because he would be influential in shifting the Overton window (the range of ideas that the general public deems acceptable). They aimed to normalise racial slurs, undermine the media, promote white supremacy and tear down long-held public truths through misinformation.
[see also: John Gray on the struggle for America’s soul]
Since Trump was merely a mascot and a megaphone to popularise their ideas, his winning re-election was not much of a concern; the “alt-right” had already won in 2016. Now, tens of millions of Americans are willing to vote for dozens of candidates who seek to undermine the truth. Within this new fertile ground, QAnon can flourish.
Already, QAnon believers are trying to spin Trump’s defeat into something that fits their narrative. The group maintain that Trump’s failure to win a second presidential term is all part of the bigger plan, and that Trump doesn’t have to be in the White House for the counter-operation against Satanic Democrats to continue.
Republican party leaders now have urgent questions to answer. Do they indulge these people who have become a significant portion of their base? Or do they push back, and try to return to the pre-Trump status quo? An undeniable new bloc has been created, one that is loyal to conspiracy theories, not party platforms.
While this problem may feel distinctively American, QAnon is spreading rapidly across the rest of the world. The Guardian found that one in four people in the UK believe in QAnon-linked conspiracy theories. Misinformation has become the global mainstream.
Amid the glee of a Trump loss, it is tempting to label his presidency as a blip in the progressive trajectory of history. Just one man, wreaking violent havoc, brought to an end in the most humiliating way possible, becoming a single-term president and one of the “losers” he mocks.
But in his four years in office, Trump has unlocked one truth about the US – that a potent, harmful mindset was raging under the surface of the republic’s civil disguise. This violent, conspiratorial moment has been years in the making. What America reaped on election night is just the beginning.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation