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Under pressure, Trump revives QAnon cult — around himself

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Followers of Donald Trump point their fingers to the sky as the former US president speaks at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio./AFP
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Sep 21, 2022 - 12:37 PM

WASHINGTON — Ensnared in legal probes as he mulls a second White House run in 2024, Donald Trump is injecting new life into the fading QAnon conspiracy cult — whose members have embraced him as a new icon.

While the anonymous founder of the conspiracy — known only as “Q” — has disappeared from view, a Trump rally last weekend in Ohio clearly showed that it remains a force, behind the former president.

Trump’s supporters solemnly thrust their index fingers into the sky as he ended his speech to the electronic strains of a song identified by Media Matters, a progressive research group, as “Where We Go One We Go All,” or WWG1WGA — the QAnon motto.

The Republican ex-president used the same work in an August 9 video released right after the FBI raid on his Florida home. And he has played it elsewhere, with QAnon followers taking note online.

Meanwhile Trump has increasingly amplified QAnon postings on his Truth Social network. On September 13 he reposted a doctored picture of himself with a prominent “Q” on his lapel.

QAnon’s original followers subscribed to bizarre theories of a Democratic satanic child sex abuse network — an outlandishness summed up by images of one of them invading the US Capitol in a shamanic headdress.

But experts say the movement is now embracing more Trump-centric theories of election denialism and the notion of an unaccountable Washington “deep state” — ideas central to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or MAGA movement.

The overlap between QAnon and MAGA is now “hard to distinguish,” said Rachel Goldwasser, who researches right-wing extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Trump is now “sort of the hero of the conspiracy theory,” she said.

Absence of ‘Q’ 

The QAnon movement took root in 2017 with cryptic posts on the fringes of social media by the anonymous “Q”.

Followers, who by 2020 numbered hundreds of thousands, embraced the belief that the world was controlled by a secret cabal of the rich and powerful, and groundless conspiracy theories about Covid-19.

Many would attend Trump reelection rallies carrying  “QAnon” banners and wearing “Q” t-shirts. Trump didn’t endorse them, but never distanced himself either.

After Trump lost the election, and particularly after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters, the movement lost momentum. “Q” messages stopped, and a person associated with the website where they had appeared urged followers to move on and accept new President Joe Biden.

Pushed off mainstream social media, QAnon followers turned to Telegram and then, when it launched in February 2022, Truth Social, in numbers far diminished.

But the movement has refocused around Trump’s campaign to convince people he was defeated due to fraud. QAnon-ists promoted the same conspiracy theories as Trump, analysts say, and explicit mentions of QAnon itself dwindled.

“The most impactful way the ideology has evolved is in its connection with things like election denialism,” said Alyssa Kann, who researches domestic violent extremism at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Influencers 

This has been helped by QAnon influencers, who organized events focused on Trump’s complaints.

John Sabal, formerly known online as “QAnon John,” held a large “Patriot Voice” rally in Dallas, Texas last year and plans another in November. Advertised speakers: former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and former aide George Papadopoulos.

Trump’s one-time national security advisor Michael Flynn — who once made a video with his family swearing the WWG1WGA oath — has criss-crossed the country promoting Trump and Trump-backed election candidates and the same conspiracy theories.

He doesn’t openly mention QAnon, but also doesn’t shy away, often using the QAnon-favored phrase “the storm is coming.” A video taken at a September 18 fundraising event in California shows Flynn and others being entertained by a woman singing the words “where we go one we go all.”

Trump goes full-Q 

It’s not exactly clear why Trump abandoned his arm’s-length treatment of QAnon, but the timeline matches the rise in legal threats against him, which he ascribes to a political campaign by the Biden administration, and his effort to get allies elected to state and national office in November.

He and his broader circle are threatened by a criminal probe into the attack on the Capitol.

And the recent surge of Q-references follows August’s FBI raid on his Mar-a-Lago estate in a national security investigation.

While pointing fingers skyward was not a gesture until now associated with QAnon, the sight at Trump’s rally in Ohio startled many observers.

“When you combine the characteristics of a cult with all the trappings of a religion, you get a very volatile, dangerous scenario on your hands,” Frank Figliuzzi,  a former FBI counterintelligence official, told MSNBC.

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