For the second time in less than three weeks, President Donald Trump refused to condemn right-wing extremism when asked and instead legitimized its dangerous vitriol and hate.
This time, when asked at NBC News’ presidential townhall on Thursday if he would disavow the QAnon group and its false conspiracy theory that “Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that [he is] a savior of that,” Trump responded with the implausible assertion that he knew nothing about the movement and then immediately undercut his own claim by vacuously stating QAnon’s followers are “very much against pedophilia.” This is as ignorant and dangerous as saying white supremacists are “very much against people with bad genes.”
By normalizing, accepting and repeating a conspiracy theory’s core, false tenet as a fact and reason to sympathize with them, the president of the United States legitimized domestic terrorism and hatred — and it’s not the first time. This QAnon exchange came shortly after Trump refused to denounce white supremacy when asked at the first presidential debate. And then, when pointedly asked to disavow the Proud Boys — another right-wing extremist group aligned with white supremacists that promotes “Western chauvinism” — Trump instead issued a call to arms by encouraging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Under immense public pressure after the debate, including from Fox News, he walked back his remarks two days later but the damage was done. Both of Trump’s statements had been immediately embraced by extremist groups as signs of solidarity and alignment. After the first debate, the Proud Boys changed their logo and began selling merchandise echoing the president; QAnon followers celebrated the what Trump offered as “the biggest pitch for QAnon ever seen.”
The growing danger of groups like these has been felt throughout the United States — including in my own backyard. Nearly four years ago, a 28-year old from North Carolina, inspired by QAnon’s precursor conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, fired a rifle in my local pizza parlor; he claimed to be investigating an underground child-sex trafficking ring run by Democrats that didn’t exist.
The QAnon movement began in October 2017 when an anonymous persona calling him or herself “Q” started leaving messages on a then-popular message board often used by hate groups, 4chan, alleging that Donald Trump was going to end a deep state child sex trafficking ring run by “liberal elites.” It grew when three conspiracy theorists because posting more about it the following month on other message boards, bringing Q’s deranged allegations about a supposed cabal of Satan-worshiping Democrats to much wider audience. The QAnon conspiracy has since gone broad, fueled by YouTube and Facebook groups, and provides a dangerous counternarrative for Trump supporters to rail against the media and so-called “deep state.”
Today, QAnon has infiltrated the Republican Party, where it’s been largely embraced. There are at least 24 QAnon candidates running for Congress, 22 of them as Republicans and two as independents. There’s a reason none of them are running as Democrats; in addition to the core tenet of the organization being that powerful liberals are preying on children, right-wing extremists who would have previously shunned from mainstream politics in general now have a home in a Republican Party led by Trump.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush questioned Trump’s embrace of QAnon, wishfully asserting that “nut jobs, racists, haters have no place in either party” — but that’s simply not true with Trump. As the president acknowledged in August, QAnon followers like him “very much.” Their admiration clearly shaped his view of the group he said on Thursday he doesn’t know much about, despite the fact that QAnon is recognized as a security threat by his own administration.
In May 2019, the FBI warned in an intelligence bulletin about the threat of “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” understood to be a reference to QAnon (among others). Yet Trump has consistently refused to disavow, and has repeatedly praised, followers of QAnon, which is similar to his treatment of Russia (despite its ongoing electoral interference) and white nationalists (despite their threat to homeland security).
With Trump, politics is purely transactional: any support for his re-election or of him personally supersedes all other considerations, including national security, electoral security, and homeland security. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s willing to use many forms of hatred — including racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism — for political purposes, including to get elected and re-elected.
American Jews are particularly concerned about the rise and mainstreaming of QAnon, given its frequent use of anti-Semitic tropes and age-old conspiracy theories. Its adherents claim that Jews control the world with money and repeatedly reference blood libel, a centuries-old anti-Semitic canard that falsely claims Jews kill Christians to use blood for ritual purposes. Genocide prevention experts have labeled QAnon a “21st century version of a Nazi cult.” According to renowned Holocaust historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt, “at the heart of conspiracy theories like that, almost without exception, you find anti-Semitism. When they talk about rich Democrats controlling it, you should know that is a code word, to most of their followers, [for] Jews.”
All of that is why Trump’s embrace of the group could hurt him in the election in key states like Florida, where he’ll need support among Jewish voters in order to win.
But if his latest town hall performance is any indication, he won’t have the support of many Jewish voters because he continues to align with, embolden and play politics with bigotry and hate. More than half of Jewish American voters feel less secure today than they did four years ago, and 56 percent believe that Jews will be less safe if Trump is re-elected.
Jewish voters and many other Americans understand that we cannot afford four more years of Trump allowing, defending and even encouraging hate. Our collective safety and security is at risk, and the strength of our democracy lies in the balance. This election isn’t just about who will serve as a president — it’s about whether dangerous hate groups will be accepted and embraced by the president of the United States. With Trump, as we’ve seen from Charlottesville through today, we know the answer is clearly yes.