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Trump is betting on QAnon as the base for his anti-democracy mob

They’re primed to do whatever it takes to restore Trump to power.
Image:People at a rally holding their index fingers up. One of the hands is shown wearing a blue and red glove that reads,\"Trump 2020\".
Supporters of former President Donald Trump cheer during a Save America rally at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 17, 2022.David Maxwell / EPA via Shutterstock

Former President Donald Trump is pivoting from keeping a calculated distance from QAnon conspiracy theory adherents to openly embracing them — and encouraging them to see him as a messiah-like figure. There’s a clear political motive behind it. Trump is trying to mobilize supporters who are most likely to do illicit, violent things to help return him to office.

On his Truth Social platform last week, Trump reposted an image of himself wearing a “Q” lapel pin, overlaid with “The Storm is Coming” and the “WWG1WGA.” The acronym is a QAnon catchphrase that stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” and the storm is, as The Associated Press puts it, a reference to “Trump’s final victory, when supposedly he will regain power and his opponents will be tried, and potentially executed, on live television.” The QAnon conspiracy theory holds that Trump’s secret mission is to uncover a secret cabal of satan-worshipping Democratic pedophiles — a cause that requires him to return to the White House.

This isn’t about winning by democratic means.

That post was just the most explicit of dozens he’s shared recently. According to The Associated Press, Trump has also consistently boosted Truth Social users who promote QAnon imagery and slogans, pushing his followers in the direction of the conspiracy theory even when not explicitly embracing the messages on his own feed.

Trump’s pivot took a particularly creepy turn during a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sunday. During the rally, he played a song that was nearly identical to the QAnon song called “Wwg1wga,” prompting a huge section of the crowd to raise their hands in the air with just their index finger pointed upward, an apparent reference to the “1” in the song’s title, according to The New York Times.

The images of a huge crowd raising their hands in the air as Trump spoke about saving America and fighting like “no one has ever fought before” prompted comparisons on social media to a fascist rally.

The QAnon linked-hand signal was especially troubling because of its implied meaning. Combined with the QAnon slogan, it signals an emphasis on unity. Typically one major complication for anyone comparing Trumpism to fascism is that American conservatism tends to be irrepressibly individualistic and libertarian in outlook. But one can’t help but feel a bit nervous that the symbology of oneness could be a sign that that’s changing.

It might seem strange that Trump would pander to a crowd that has already formed an actual cult around him. Sure, psychologically speaking, Trump will never turn down an opportunity to bask in the warmth of people who love him. But why repeatedly hold them closer at a time when his main electoral obstacle is appealing to people beyond his diehards?

Image: Donald Trump on stage speaks to audience members who have their index fingers raised in unison.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a Save America rally at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 17, 2022.David Maxwell / EPA via Shutterstock

It's because this isn’t about winning by democratic means. It seems likely that Trump recognizes that QAnon followers represent his best bet at forming a militant vanguard for his ever-increasingly authoritarian political movement. Dozens of QAnon believers have already committed acts or attempted acts of vigilante (and domestic) violence. They were key players in the Jan. 6 insurrection. And they’re at the center of a new kind of politically infused spirituality that blends proto-fascist thinking, conspiracy theory and Evangelical Christianity. As University of Pennsylvania scholar and MSNBC columnist Anthea Butler describes it, these followers “imagine themselves part of the ‘end times’ and saving the nation.” They’re primed to do whatever it takes to restore Trump to power, out of a belief that it’s essential for civilization and humanity.

Rather than discourage this violence, Trump is encouraging it. On top of the social media posts and the choice of music, his claims of financially backing Jan. 6 defendants and promises that he’ll issue pardons and apologies to them if he makes it back into the White House are a siren call for the next possible insurrectionist mob.

Trump’s political playbook has never changed, and is unlikely to ever change: mobilize the base using fear and excitement. But as time goes on, he seems increasingly committed to the idea of mobilizing a base whose greatest value for him isn’t voting, but a fanatical loyalty that can't be held back by norms or laws.