It was two years ago last week when Donald Trump first started saying positive things about QAnon and its adherents. “I’ve heard these are people who love our country,” the then-president said from behind a White House podium. The Republican added that he didn’t know much about the deranged theory or its followers, “other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
Even at the time, it was jarring. By that point, the FBI had already classified QAnon as a domestic-terror threat in an internal memo. A month before Trump made the comments, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center published a study characterizing QAnon as a burgeoning threat to public safety. The then-president didn’t seem to care.
Two years later, Trump isn’t just offering vague support to the mass delusion, he’s also promoting its adherents’ content by way of his Twitter-like platform. NBC News reported:
Former President Donald Trump spent Tuesday morning posting inflammatory messages on social media, including many explicitly promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. While Trump has in the past promoted QAnon-inspired accounts and theories, the posts on his Truth Social account were his most explicit, unobscured, QAnon-promoting and QAnon-baiting posts to date.
For those who may need a refresher, the basic idea behind QAnon is that Trump is secretly at war with nefarious forces of evil, including Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, the “deep state,” cannibals, and an underground ring of Satanic pedophiles that only adherents of the conspiracy theory are aware of.
Its followers routinely made bizarre predictions, which fail to come to fruition, though the failures are simply reincorporated into new and more outlandish conspiracy theories.
Common sense would suggest a former American president would want nothing to do with such madness. Trump, however, is embracing it without shame.
There was, however, a related aspect of the Republican’s online tantrum that stood out for me. NBC News’ report added:
In addition to the QAnon-adjacent posts, Trump shared several conspiracy theories Tuesday on his Truth Social site and he re-posted a picture of [President Joe] Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with the words “Your enemy is not in Russia” written in black bars over their eyes.
There were actually two such items along these lines. This morning, Trump also used his platform to promote a separate image — featuring Biden, Harris, Pelosi, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros — which also included the words “Your enemy is not in Russia” over the individual photographs.
It’s difficult to say why Trump is so eager to defend Russia during its brutal and unprovoked war with Ukraine, but even more alarming is the Republican’s support for the idea that Democratic leaders should be seen as Americans’ “enemy.”
In the spring, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida pushed a related message, telling a couple of audiences that he considers a variety of Americans — Democratic leaders, journalists, educators, tech executives, entertainers, corporate leaders, and “even some” in the U.S. military — to be “the enemy” within the United States.
As we discussed soon after when leading U.S. politicians start referring to Americans as "enemies," it’s cause for alarm. When a former president — and possible future presidential candidate — with authoritarian proclivities pushes the same line, the rhetoric is even more unsettling.
It’s one thing to think of political foes as rivals, opponents, or competitors. Each of these labels implicitly recognizes that the foes are your fellow citizens, worthy of legitimacy and some modicum of respect.
But to label political opponents as "enemies" is a qualitatively different kind of label.
As The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein recently put it, “If you keep telling your voters the other party is literally a mortal threat to the country, it should not be surprising that some will take that literally and plot to kidnap a governor, physically threaten public health and election officials, or storm the Capitol to hang the vice president.”