In Beirich’s eyes, Trump made the decision to get close to the QAnon movement simply to boost his political fortunes — and perhaps partly out of desperation. “There’s hardly anything weirder than QAnon in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satan-worshipping pedophiles?” But, she adds, Trump knows these people are part of his base, so he’s more than willing to piss them off.
Contrary to what many might have expected, or at least hoped for, QAnon never faded, even after Trump’s 2020 election defeat and his prophecies did not come true. But conspiracy theories never really die, they just change.
“It’s already a conspiracy. It is already built on lies. So you keep telling the story in a different way,” says Beirich. “Trump is already QAnon’s key figure, and I think he’s now openly taking on that role.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Gideon: At a campaign rally recently, after it emerged that Trump had played a QAnon song, many in the crowd held up a “1” to summon a QAnon rally sign. What did you take away from that?
Heidi Berich: Well, what I found disheartening, but also unbelievable, is that Trump seems, in recent weeks, to be intentionally trying to abuse the QAnon movement and bring it as close to him as possible. So he didn’t just play the song. as you pointed out, but the other day he was wearing a Q pin with one of their phrases on it [in a Truth Social post]. He did a lot of the equivalent of tweeting directly at Truth Social to attract QAnon followers. I must say that this is not totally new for Trump, but it is more direct than in the past. So he’s played this game before, but now he’s really appealing directly and in person to QAnon adherents.
Gideon: It looks like Trump is leaning more into crowd support for QAnon. Why is this happening now?
Beirich: I think it definitely leans in hard. There is also evidence, not collected by me but by others, that Truth Social has quite a few Q accounts on it as well. The whole company plays with these people.
I think there might be a measure of desperation in this decision, that Trump has to go along with people who literally believe in crazy ideas. There’s hardly anything weirder than QAnon in the world, that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are satanic worshiping pedophiles? Either way, this movement is now found in about 70 different countries, including as far away as places like Japan. It seems to me that he tries as much as he can to seduce them. I wonder if it’s related to, you know, the pretty bad approval ratings he’s got right now, and he thinks it’s going to move up his ranks. He can’t not know there were a ton of QAnon people when the Capitol was stormed on January 6th, and he knows they’re part of his base, so I think he’s trying something thing to elevate through these very direct appeals to the QAnon universe.
I’ll just add that there are a lot of people who believe in QAnon – more than we realize. From a poll taken earlier this year, I think in February, 1 in 5 Americans are QAnon supporters and 1 in 4 are Republicans. So those are big, big numbers.
Just for context, the University of Chicago Insurgent Movement Research looked at people who were on Capitol Hill on January 6, and they pointed out two things that these people tend to believe. One is the “great replacement” conspiracy theory – that white supremacist idea that is often anti-Semitic, that Jews replace white people in their home countries with people of color, immigrants, refugees – but the Another thing they tend to believe is QAnon. Trump knows this is part of his base. He knows, or at least the people around him know, that this is a strength of the Republican Party. I think those things also motivate this activity.
Gideon: What is the state of the QAnon movement right now? I guess people think QAnon kind of died out.
Beirich: This is not the case. You’d think that would be the case, since Q hasn’t posted in ages. You would think it would have gone away, but it didn’t. And that’s partly because there are politicians like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene pushing QAnon messaging. There are outfits of election deniers who appeal to QAnon. And you would think that this idea, first of all, would never have taken off. Then, second, you would have thought that when Q kind of disappeared, it would die out. You would have thought that when the FBI pointed out the potential violence that could come from the QAnon movement in 2021 it would go away, but it’s not.
Gideon: We never found out for sure who Q was, so what role does Trump play in promoting QAnon?
Beirich: First, we have to acknowledge that Trump is a messianic figure in QAnon calls. He is the one who will save everyone. A lot of people thought QAnon would collapse because Trump lost the election, and in their world he wasn’t supposed to lose. He was the savior, and he was going to set the world right, get rid of the pedophiles and the globalists and all that. This does not happen. But there remains this messianic figure
The thing about conspiracy theories is that even if you’re promoting a particular idea – think about people saying the end of the world is going to happen on a particular date, and then it doesn’t happen, kind of like QAnon from a way with Trump and the election – they can always reinvent themselves. It’s already a conspiracy. It is already built on lies. So you keep telling the story in a different way. Trump is already the key figure in QAnon and I think he is now openly taking on that role.
Gideon: When we talk about people who believe in QAnon, we have to remember that these are people who really believe what they believe. What fuels QAnon and other forms of extremism? What polarizes people?
Beirich: I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say why people go down conspiracy holes, but they do. And there have been people who have come out of the QAnon movement who have said they’re completely engrossed in this thing.
One of the things that QAnon has done in the past, they’ve done these things called “Q drops”, where it would be like hints of what’s going to happen in the future. It almost felt like a scavenger hunt aspect – try interpreting those ‘Q drops’ as a game. I think a lot of people found it compelling and appealing and it got more people into the movement than maybe other types of conspiracies.
QAnon is perhaps the biggest conspiratorial movement in the United States. I don’t know if it’s the greatest conspiracy movement of all time. I don’t know how many people believe that JFK wasn’t killed the way he was, or that we never went to the moon, but it’s been millions and millions of people who have fallen into this . So he has a mysterious attraction for him.
Gideon: I know that you are also looking at far-right movements in Europe and in the transatlantic space. Are there any similarities with extremist movements here and abroad? Are there moments in history that can help us understand what we are going through now?
Beirich: People often say that the 1930s and the rise of the Nazis should not be viewed as similar to what the United States is facing. But there are actually similarities with this period. You have the rise of a leader who is openly authoritarian, who challenges a democratic system, saying that our whole electoral system is bogus and corrupt. There are also things happening on the streets like Proud Boy rallies that are sort of reminiscent of brown shirts.
You have the rise of the extreme right in several countries. It’s not just here in the United States. You would have seen that in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats are going to form the government there after the elections about a week ago, and this is a party that is literally rooted in neo-Nazism. There will likely be another far-right winner in Italy, who has ties to many extremist groups and idolizes Mussolini. It’s hard not to think of the 1930s as somewhat reminiscent of what we’re going through right now. To me, that’s pretty scary because we all know where that led, and it was awful.
Gideon: You don’t think we would go there in the United States, do you?
Beirich: I don’t want to draw the parallel too much, but I think we are facing the greatest threats to democracy in the United States that we have ever faced. I can’t think of a time in my life when there were so many people who didn’t believe the election results were what they claimed to be.
There are people running for office right now, some of them are actually QAnon adherents. They are denying the election and some of them are running for positions like secretary of state and if they win their plans are to make the election partisan, to manipulate the vote for the outcome they want, not the result that comes from the election. This stuff is really scary.
There are other things to remember, such as the fact that a large percentage of Americans believe that violence may be necessary for politics. I mentioned earlier that this white supremacist, “great replacement” idea is propagated by candidates and influencers like Tucker Carlson. These are frightening and disturbing omens happening right now.
Gideon: Is there anything we can do about radical conspiracy theories, or is it just a fact of life at this point?
Beirich: I think one thing that’s really important is for social media companies to be vigilant and keep the stuff out there. You can’t do anything about Truth Social and other places that don’t prohibit such things as part of their terms of service.
There is also a question of leadership here and I would so much like, in vain, for important figures in the Republican Party to say, “This is unacceptable. These are lies. This led to violence – everyone remembers the filming of Comet Ping Pong where [conspiracy theorists] thought Democrats were holding kids in the basement of this pizza place in Washington, DC, and a guy walked in with a gun and fired into the restaurant while people were there.
As a general rule, if you don’t want these things in your public life, don’t vote for the candidates who push for them.