As Trump campaigns, he's spreading QAnon posts anew. Some call that 'playing with fire'

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As Donald Trump heads toward a November rematch election against President Joe Biden, his online posts are reinvigorating a key element of his support from years past: the conspiracy theory known as QAnon.

While QAnon largely faded from the spotlight after Trump left office, he has newly amplified the ideas on his social media platform, Truth Social.

Since the site launched two years ago, Trump has reposted or promoted QAnon-affiliated accounts more than 800 times, ensuring their messages will be widely seen, according to a new study from liberal watchdog group Media Matters shared exclusively with USA TODAY.

Experts say the support amounts to a tacit endorsement of a dangerous movement that has been linked to criminal acts ranging from the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot to isolated cases of violence and even murder.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment about QAnon. While he was president, Trump spoke favorably of the movement and today he encourages QAnon chants and plays a song associated with QAnon at rallies.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump celebrate as his airplane flies over his campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump celebrate as his airplane flies over his campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey.

“I think it’s almost to be expected that – especially with the polling being close – that the Trump campaign is going to be back to its old tricks of trying to … cater to some of the conservative movement’s fringes,” said Jared Holt, senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

But amplifying QAnon is dangerous, Holt said, especially at a moment when the nation is already so polarized. “It’s playing with fire,” he said.

QAnon began as a set of anonymous posts on fringe online message boards. A user or users, identifying themselves as a mysterious whistleblower called Q, claimed to work inside the Trump administration.

The posts alleged world affairs were controlled by a vast conspiracy of Democrats – who also worshiped Satan and abused children – and that Trump was part of a secret plan to vanquish them. Mass arrests, known by followers as “The Storm,” were coming at any moment.

No evidence ever emerged to support any of these beliefs. But the idea of Q, and key catchphrases from Q’s posts, became elements of popular culture in a world captivated by the daily dramas of the Trump campaign and administration.

QAnon banners and T-shirts made frequent appearances at Trump’s rallies. And after the country voted Trump out of office, rioters carried QAnon banners into the Capitol as they tried to prevent the certification of the election.

Mainstream audiences heard less about Q after Trump left the White House and was banned from the platform then known as Twitter. QAnon-affiliated accounts were also banned wholesale from several major social media platforms. But the beliefs, which had always been so sprawling they could fold in nearly any conspiracy theory, never went away.

Now Trump's string of reposts may be driving renewed interest as an election that could put him back into the White House moves closer, experts told USA TODAY.

One key QAnon slogan has been “Where we go one, we go all” (or “WWG1WGA” for short). Another is “Nothing can stop what is coming” (or “NCSWIC” for short), referring to the idea that Trump will eventually expose the conspirators. Media Matters found Trump’s more recent posts shared these phrases with his 7 million followers on Truth.

QAnon demonstrators protest in Los Angeles in 2020.
QAnon demonstrators protest in Los Angeles in 2020.

The recent barrage of posts should be alarming to everyone, said Logan Strain, who started tracking QAnon as an amateur online researcher in 2018, and has become a widely quoted writer and expert on the subject. Under the pseudonym Travis View, he co-hosts the podcast “QAnon Anonymous,”  which has spent years examining the long-term effects of the conspiracy theory and interviewing people who study it.

“We should find it outrageous that there is a presidential candidate, who is leading the polls, who is actively, consciously encouraging an extremist movement that is responsible for real-world violence and the destruction of the personal lives of the people who believe in it,” Strain said.

QAnon beliefs have torn families apart

AJ Rose, 44, knows firsthand just how powerful and pervasive the QAnon conspiracy theory still is in communities across the country.

In East Tennessee, she says she’s surrounded by QAnon followers who are deeply distrustful of the government and blindly put their faith in the former president. QAnon duped two of her family members.

“A lot of people trust Trump based on the fact that he was the president at one time, so his words carry a lot of weight and, unfortunately, those are some pretty dangerous words,” Rose said. “The government has turned its back on people who are impoverished, people who have health problems, people who have mental health problems, physical problems. So if you hear somebody say, ‘I hate the government, too. Look at what it’s doing to me. It’s coming after me. But I’m going to fix it.’ That QAnon magnet is very strong.”

How QAnon radicalized Americans Dark forces raged during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election

So strong, in fact, that it ensnared her 67-year-old mother, Anita Rose, a widow, Republican and retired journalist. After a sudden death in the family made her emotionally vulnerable, Rose became a follower of Trump, then QAnon.

Anita Rose was grieving and looking for answers, her daughter says. She thought Trump was the nation’s salvation. It didn’t help that Trump and QAnon had already gained a forceful grip over Anita Rose’s elderly father, a military veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Anita Rose says she became convinced that Trump was defending the country against a ring of pedophiles. Her daughter helped her see the truth. “I don’t believe he is doing that anymore,” she said.

AJ Rose knew she got through to her mom when the picture of Trump praying in front of the American flag disappeared from the refrigerator.

“A lot of terrible things have come out of QAnon,” Rose said. She ticked off examples including the Capitol attack and Pizzagate – in which unfounded claims that Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor led to a man storming the restaurant with an assault rifle.

“I am racking my brain trying to think of something good that has come from QAnon but there really isn’t anything. It hasn’t brought our country together or helped families or spread good information people need to know about health. It has not done any of that. But it is hurting.”

Painful stories of QAnon tearing apart families abound.

Mike Rothschild, author of the 2021 book, “The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything,” says American families pay a high price when their loved ones are radicalized.

“There are people who have ruined their families, ruined their lives, lost their jobs, and wound up in prison because they're enmeshed in this ecosystem,” Rothschild said. “A lot of these people are really in pain and looking for some kind of explanation for why the world is the way it is – they just found it in the wrong place.”

Jake Angeli, informally known as the 'Q Anon shaman', was sentenced for role in Jan. 6th riot.
Jake Angeli, informally known as the 'Q Anon shaman', was sentenced for role in Jan. 6th riot.

QAnon fostered loyal Trump following

During Trump's presidency, QAnon supporters wore "Q" paraphernalia to his rallies and held large "Q" signs. Seizing on a loyal constituency, Trump and his campaign began courting QAnon followers even after the FBI identified QAnon as a fringe conspiracy theory very likely to motivate “some domestic extremists to commit criminal, sometimes violent activity.”

Several people have even cited QAnon as the rationale for seemingly inexplicable murder cases. A California QAnon believer and surf instructor shot and killed his two young children with a speargun in 2021, telling authorities he had been enlightened by QAnon and that he needed to kill his children to prevent them from growing into monsters. In 2022, a Michigan man – whose daughter said he had fallen down a “rabbit hole” of QAnon conspiracy theories – shot his family, killing his wife and gravely injuring his daughters.

More often, QAnon has led to politically motivated acts, especially crimes committed during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Some rioters carried QAnon banners during the Capitol attack, and dozens of people arrested for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection were obsessed with the conspiracy theory.

QAnon followers have lit wildfires, vandalized monuments and buildings and been arrested with bombs and weapons. Believers have launched cults and been charged with attempted coups. The conspiracy theory has inspired extremist movements as far away as Japan and Germany.

At the same time, QAnon researchers say, the conspiracy theory has always provided a perfect pool of supporters for the former president.

In earlier years, Trump amplified accounts that promoted QAnon hundreds of times on the social media site then known as Twitter, until he was banned from the service for two years.

Since his reinstatement on the site now called X, Trump has not posted about Q, instead using his own social media platform to amplify the conspiracy theory.

Trump has declined to disavow or condemn QAnon. When asked in public settings, he has said he isn’t really aware of the movement but praised QAnon followers for supporting him.

“I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” he said at a White House press briefing in August 2020. “I don’t really know anything about it, except that they do supposedly like me.”

Told that QAnon supporters believe Satan-worshiping, pedophile Democrats control the “Deep State,” and only Trump could vanquish them, he responded, “I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”

“Trump is the star player in the QAnon show,” said Megan Squire, deputy managing editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “He loves anybody that's a fan of him – that’s always been the case.”

QAnon finds new reach on Truth Social

On Truth Social, a heavily partisan platform owned by Trump Media & Technology Group, Trump’s namesake social media company in which he owns a majority stake, QAnon is only a click or a tap away.

Kash Patel, a Trump adviser and board director at Truth Social’s parent company, said in 2022 on a right-wing video webcast that the site was intentionally incorporating QAnon messages “to capture audiences.”

In this photo illustration, Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump's social media platform Truth Social is shown on a cell phone on March 25, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. The company is expected to go public tomorrow on the NASDAQ market, trading under the ticker symbol DJT. Trump reportedly owns about 58 percent of the company, a stake that could be valued at roughly $3 billion.

QAnon-affiliated accounts there brag about how many times Trump has “re-truthed” them, as shares are called. Hashtags herald “The Great Awakening,” when Democrats are arrested and Trump seizes a second term in office.

In September 2022, Trump shared an image of himself wearing a Q-shaped lapel pin along with the phrase: “The storm is coming,” a QAnon catchphrase for the period of unrest preceding the Great Awakening when Trump triumphs over the forces of evil in a final battle.

Over the last year, Trump has amplified QAnon-affiliated accounts on Truth Social nearly 350 times.

One post linked to a Rumble video that showed QAnon content. Trump commented: “Incredible video!” Another said, “Do it, Q!”

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking during a campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking during a campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey.

Media Matters identified Truth Social accounts as promoting QAnon if it found they shared slogans, posts described as being from “Q” or imagery related to QAnon.

Truth Social has welcomed QAnon influencers, said Alex Kaplan, a senior researcher at Media Matters who compiled the report.

“In the early months, Truth Social was really boosting these accounts, including one just called ‘Q,’” Kaplan said. “They were playing footsie with Q from the start.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump is spreading QAnon posts as he campaigns. Here's why