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The GOP's QAnon caucus

(CNN)You reap what you sow. And President Donald Trump's embrace of conspiracy theories is creating a new headache that many Republicans would like to ignore: a growing number of QAnon conspiracy theorists who will be running on their ballot line this November.

On Tuesday night in Colorado, conservative newcomer Lauren Boebert bested five-term GOP congressman Scott Tipton in Colorado's 3rd district. Boebert is a gun rights activist and local bar owner who has expressed interest in the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory. In a statement to CNN, Boebert's campaign manager denied that Boebert was a follower of QAnon.
But earlier this year, Boebert told the host of an online talk show that she was "very familiar with" QAnon and that she "hope(s) that this is real."
She joins the GOP's Oregon Senate nominee Jo Rae Perkins and Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a 20-point victory in a June primary and faces an August run-off in a safe Republican district. Perkins, after winning the nomination, said in a video "Where we go one, we go all. I stand with President Trump. I stand with Q and the team. Thank you Anons and thank you patriots -- and together we can save our republic." Greene said in a 2017 video that "Q is a patriot," and that "He is someone that very much loves his country, and he's on the same page as us, and he is very pro-Trump."
It's often said that three makes a trend, but these women are just the most successful of the 59 candidates who have recently run for congress and have backed QAnon or have expressed support for its conspiracies, according to a list compiled by the liberal research outfit Media Matters.

What exactly is QAnon, you might reasonably ask? Whoo-boy -- get ready for some deep strangeness that defies anything resembling logic.

One of the best long-form articles about the subject, by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic captures the broad contours of QAnon's belief system: "Q is an intelligence or military insider with proof that corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state; Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them."
If you're tempted to dismiss that as some kind of unintelligible hyper-partisan Mad-Libs, here's another description by two of the best reporters who've chronicled the movement from its murky origins, Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny wrote in 2018: "QAnon is a convoluted conspiracy theory with no apparent foundation in reality. The heart of it asserts that for the last year the anonymous 'Q' has taken to the fringe internet message boards of 4chan and 8chan to leak intelligence about Trump's top-secret war with a cabal of criminals run by politicians like Hillary Clinton and the Hollywood elite. There is no evidence for these claims."

Sounds weird, right? That's because it is.

But it has seeped into the groundwater of the Trump era hyper-partisanship, with Q paraphernalia sold outside of Trump rallies and appearing with disturbing regularity on his supporters. Although he hasn't spoken directly about QAnon, the President has fanned the flames, by repeatedly retweeting QAnon-supporting accounts, memes and hashtags. The Trump campaign has even included QAnon signs in an ad, which followers may see as an endorsement. The ad has been taken down.
This is much more than an illogically extreme extension of play to the base politics. The FBI classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat in a 2019 internal memo first unearthed by Yahoo News. This is not without reason. As Collins and Zadrozny chronicled, "QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in a foiled presidential assassination plot, a devastating California wildfire, and an armed standoff with local law enforcement officers in Arizona."
Perhaps the first incident of attempted violence associated with the conspiracy theory that would morph into QAnon occurred when a North Carolina man wielded an AR-15 to storm a non-existent basement in Washington DC's Comet Ping Pong Pizza in December 2016, where he apparently expected to find a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton as part of a Satanist cult. The gunman subsequently explained to the New York Times, "the intel on this wasn't 100%."
Indeed. But then conspiracy theories offer their followers "special knowledge" and confirmation bias -- intelligence has nothing to do with it. When I wrote my book Wingnuts, extremist groups and conspiracy theories were already defining the conservative "resistance" to the Obama administration, building on decades-old foundations laid by the John Birch Society and Patriot Militia movements. Donald Trump's embrace of the racist "Birther" conspiracy theory fit this pattern perfectly.
What's different in the case of QAnon is that they have a president willing to offer encouragement in a social media ecosystem that proliferates disinformation. The greater danger is that this particular conspiracy theory seems designed to exacerbate the decline in trust in the civic institutions that democracy depends upon.

Like Trump, QAnon followers rail against the so-called "deep state" (also known as "the government"), the American-created international organizations that have helped keep the peace since World War II and, of course, journalism. They cloak fact-free claims in feel-good talking points about independent thinking -- when that is, of course, the opposite of what any cult or conspiracy theory ultimately demands of its adherents.

Republicans may look at these three likely nominees, who have expressed support for QAnon, and try to convince themselves these are outliers and hope they don't attract too much attention. After all, in 2018, the GOP found itself with uncomfortable political bedfellows on their ballot, provoking this understated comment on Fox News, describing Illinois GOP congressional nominee Arthur Jones, an avowed Nazi and Holocaust denier as "one of several Nazis, Holocaust deniers or white supremacists who have elbowed their way onto the GOP ballot for November's midterm elections."

But Republicans need to ask themselves just why these types of unhinged extremist candidates feel comfortable clustering under the GOP banner. In the case of QAnon -- and the three current congressional candidates embracing its conspiracy theories -- the uncomfortable answer lies at the top of the ticket: President Donald J. Trump.

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