Many anti-lockdown and pro-Trump rallies featured QAnon signs and slogans like this popular one about accused child trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, pictured next to gallows, at a conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols
QAnon has found a home in Michigan.
The right-wing conspiracy theory — which is rooted in anti-Semitic tropes and revolves around former President Donald Trump hunting down and eventually killing Democratic politicians and wealthy liberals who lead double lives as Satan-worshipping cannibals running a child sex trafficking ring — is increasingly spreading from the fringes of the internet to conservative spaces across the state, political leaders and academics say.
And it’s not going away.
Several years after it was born, QAnon has become as popular as some major religions in the United States and is now pushing the Michigan Republican Party to the right, spreading disinformation that’s damaging democratic institutions, fueling conspiratorial thinking at the highest echelons of Republican government, and creating a political landscape in which Republicans face backlash for not supporting conspiracy theories, according to those interviewed by Michigan Advance.
“Are there QAnon kooks in the [state] Legislature and adjacent to the Legislature and in the party?” said Jeff Timmer, who was executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005 to 2009, but left the GOP during the Trump era and is a senior adviser with the Lincoln Project. “Definitely.”
It’s certainly not, Timmer said, that every single Republican legislator or voter believes in QAnon. But, he said, the fact that QAnon, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labeled a domestic terrorist operation, has taken root in both the state and national Republican Party is emblematic of a GOP that, in Michigan and across the country, is increasingly radicalized and willing to either embrace or turn a blind eye to QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
“There have always been kooks and crazies and cults, but I’ve never seen a 74 million-member cult before,” Timmer said, referring to the number of people who voted for Trump in the 2020 election. “They’re all members of the cult, but there are some truer believers than others. Seventy-four million people are not QAnon, but they’re tolerant of QAnon and it’s not a deal breaker for them. They’re all under the same umbrella.”
The radicalization of the Michigan GOP
Since its emergence on the national stage in late 2017, QAnon has become far more mainstream than past conspiracy theories.
Academics interviewed by Michigan Advance estimate somewhere between 15% and 30% of Republicans nationally believe in some element of QAnon, potentially translating to hundreds of thousands of people in Michigan.
A February survey from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that 29% of Republicans nationwide agreed Trump had been secretly fighting of a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites. If applied to the 2,649,852 Michiganders who voted for Trump in the 2020 election, that could mean close to 800,000 people in the state believe in one of QAnon’s basic tenets.
The conspiracy theory’s supporters have reached the top ranks of American government: while in office, Trump praised QAnon, calling its believers “people that love our country.” Before his account was deleted, he also retweeted QAnon-associated accounts at least 315 times during his presidency, including at least 219 times during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C.
And while there is no longer a QAnon-supporting president in the White House, the November 2020 election ushered in two vocal proponents of the conspiracy theory to Congress: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
As is happening across the country, QAnon believers and sympathizers in Michigan are no longer relegated to fringe internet message boards, where the conspiracy theory was born. Instead, they are running for office, getting elected and being embraced by the state GOP. Amy Facchinello, for example, repeatedly retweeted QAnon memes while making a successful bid for the school board in Grand Blanc, a suburb of Flint, and was nominated by the Michigan GOP to be a presidential elector for the 2020 election.
A spokesman for the Michigan GOP repeatedly said in calls and emails that he would provide comment for this story, but never did.
Top Republican Party officials have also waded into the world of QAnon.
Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock and her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), for example, have not explicitly endorsed QAnon, but they founded the Michigan Conservative Coalition — which has repeatedly lauded and defended Greene. Greene has not only backed QAnon but has also promoted the conspiracy theory that the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Las Vegas were staged by supporters of gun control and that a Jewish cabal ignited the deadly wildfire in California with a space laser. The Georgia congresswoman also has voiced support for executing prominent Democrats, including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“Celebrate leaders like Marjorie Taylor Greene who are the real ‘women who will break the glass ceiling’ and be president of this country one day soon,’” the Michigan Conservative Coalition wrote in an April 22 Facebook post.
The Maddocks also were in Washington to protest Trump’s loss in January. Meshawn Maddock organized busloads of Michigan Republicans to travel to D.C. and the Maddocks gave a speech encouraging Trump supporters to fight back against Congress certifying the election on Jan. 6.
The most incredible crowd and sea of people I’ve ever walked with ♥️ https://t.co/y2ylv9VctG
— meshawn maddock (@CoChairMeshawn) January 6, 2021
Neither of the Maddocks responded to requests for comment for this story.
Some of those interviewed by the Advance said they believe QAnon’s power is fading now that Trump — who plays a crucial starring role in the conspiracy theory — is gone from office. But others said the theory is evolving and pushing the state and national GOP to a darker place: One in which Michigan and national Republicans are increasingly dominated by conspiratorial thinking that is affecting policy, election outcomes and an ever-growing hostility towards information and institutions that do not fully back them.
Many of those who participated in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, for example, were QAnon believers, and conspiracy theorists have packed Trump rallies and anti-lockdown protests in Michigan. In late January, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security terrorism bulletin warned of increasing violence from domestic extremists, including conspiracy theory communities like QAnon.
“A core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy is Democratic politicians are enabling and fostering child trafficking — that means you’ll want your politicians to take a stronger tone,” said Cliff Lampe, a professor of information at the University of Michigan. “If you look at the Michigan GOP’s Facebook or Twitter feed, there’s a small but vocal part of their community spurring them on to more radical action. Michigan used to famously be a very purple state and moderate in its beliefs. Over the last five to 10 years, that’s diminished.”
“When you see [Michigan Republican Party Chair] Ron Weiser talk about Pete Meijer and Fred Upton, that’s the end result of people pushing for more radical action,” Lampe continued, referring to the state GOP leader making a casual reference to assassinating Meijer and Upton at a March meeting.
Weiser’s assassination statement followed attendees of the North Oakland Republican Club meeting discussing Meijer and Upton breaking with their party and voting for Trump’s second impeachment for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. Both Meijer and Upton have faced intense backlash from Republican voters and officials following their impeachment vote. At that same meeting, Weiser called the state’s top three Democratic leaders — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — “witches” that Republicans need to defeat in 2022 by “burning at the stake.”
‘The ones who aren’t insane are afraid to show they’re not’
QAnon was born in 2017 when an anonymous account claiming to be a high-ranking U.S. government official with access to classified information posted on 4chan, one of the internet’s oldest and most infamous message boards, and began writing about Trump’s secret war against a deep state cabal of pedophiles and sex traffickers.
The account, named “Q Clearance Patriot,” went on to become known simply as “Q.” The account has since made thousands of posts, known as “drops” in the QAnon world, first on 4chan, then on 8chan, another message board, and now at 8kun, a website run by the former owner of 8chan. Each “drop” is cryptic, leading to followers attempting to decode the dizzying array of false information, from top-level Democrats being involved in child trafficking to the coming “great awakening,” which Q followers have said essentially amounts to Trump leading the United States to greatness by unveiling the members and actions of the “deep state,” or the group of dangerous top-tier government officials and other elite figures who are secretly running the world.
The first Q post, for example, predicted the arrest of Hillary Clinton and an ensuing violent uprising across the country. In the copy below, HRC stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton and NG is short for National Guard. The post on Oct. 28, 2017 read:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:0am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.
The QAnon world has since gone on to transform into a vast and complex landscape, with supporters often embracing a wide variety of conspiracy theories that academics explain tend to prey on and amplify people’s fears that have emerged over the past year, from concerns over the COVID-19 vaccines (QAnon groups on social media often seethe with COVID denialism and disinformation about the vaccines) to the false theory that a cabal of leftist global elites engineered the pandemic in order to create a totalitarian dystopia from which they can rule.
Repeatedly, QAnon supporters backed the false idea that Trump won the November election, arguing that he would emerge as the victor and wouldn’t leave the White House in January. When that never happened, the supporters moved on to the idea that Trump would return as president on March 4. That, of course, also did not occur.
But QAnon and Trump supporters continue to cling to the idea that the former president will retake his former position. For example, Sidney Powell, a former attorney for Trump’s campaign, said at a QAnon conference in Dallas last weekend that President Joe Biden should be removed from office and Trump should be reinstated. And Trump himself has reportedly begun airing the false idea that he’ll be reinstated by August, according to a Tuesday tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
QAnon, as well as the other conspiracy theories — like “Stop the Steal” or COVID-19 denialism, were able to take flight quickly because of the “informational environment we have today,” said Dustin Carnahan, an assistant professor of communications at Michigan State University who studies misinformation.
“Pre-social media, conspiracy theories would circulate via word of mouth or perhaps from somebody with a platform on talk radio,” Carnahan said.
Now, Carnahan explained, we have social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, and these platforms allowed QAnon groups to attract millions of followers before attempting to ban conspiracy theorists from the sites. With about one in five Americans accessing the news through social media, according to the Pew Research Center, QAnon and its conspiratorial counterparts were able to spread like a wildfire across Michigan, the country and even the world, academics explain.
“There’s an ecology of media that radicalize people,” Lampe said. “My fear is we’ll continue to see escalation around misinformation driven by online activity.”
Lampe also explained social media makes it easy for individuals to combine disinformation. For example, Lampe cited the fact that people routinely posted QAnon conspiracy theories in “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” a now defunct Facebook group founded by Garrett Soldano, one of the Republicans who’s looking to run against Whitmer in the 2022 election.
And Jayme McElvany, the organizer of Let Them Play Inc.,a group that led the charge to end COVID-19 restrictions halting high school sports, pushed QAnon rhetoric and COVID skepticism through social media, the Michigan Advance reported in January. GOP lawmakers invited her to testify at a January legislative hearing on the pandemic, where she received a warm reception from them.
McElvany ran a Facebook group called “Jayme’s Wake Up Call,” which was created not long after the November 2020 election. It was ultimately taken down, but, according to screenshots taken of the group, McElvany wrote that she will “give you the most up to date info I have about the election fraud, the virus, Biblical truths, the cabal, the political corruption, world corruption, end times, child sex trafficking, NWO [New World Order]…all the important stuff!”
In Michigan, as in other states, this rampant spread of QAnon and other conspiracy theories through social media was buoyed by the fact that Republican leadership often did not publicly condemn them, Carnahan said.
“When you have leadership unwilling to disavow some of these claims, that allows it to fester and grow and develop,” Carnahan said.
QAnon and other conspiracy theories also found a fertile political ground in Michigan in large part because of the rise of the Tea Party during the Obama era, and the “outsiderism” that boosted the power of “contrarians within the [Republican] party,” Timmer said.
“The Tea Party may have started as ideological, well-meaning people kind of acting organically, but it was co-opted by thugs in the party who just like to break things,” Timmer said.
By the time Trump was elected in 2016, “The crazies and freaks we used to drive back under the rocks when I ran the party not only felt comfortable coming out into the light, they were welcomed into the party and now they’re leadership,” Timmer said.
Following the emergence of the Tea Party, the state GOP further radicalized during the Trump administration, Timmer said. Now the party is helmed by Weiser and the Maddocks, the couple who formed the Michigan Conservative Coalition five years ago with the stated goal of training “an army of conservative activists” that would move the Republican Party further to the right.
The couple have become some of the state’s most vehement proponents of the conspiracy theory that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Trump; they were also the force behind the “Operation Gridlock” protest on April 15, 2020, when protesters turned an anti-lockdown event into a Trump rally complete with guns and Confederate flags. Later that month, angry and armed protesters would storm the Michigan State Capitol in an event seen as something of a blueprint for the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington.
Several statements from the Maddocks have been fact-checked as false by state and national media. Matt Maddock last month responded by introducing legislation that calls for fact-checkers to register with the state and be subjected to hefty fines, worrying First Amendment supporters.
“I don’t know if the Maddocks are QAnon kooks, or if they were bats–t crazy before QAnon; it’s more of a general insanity infesting the Republican Party,” Timmer said.
“It’s insane to believe what they have said and clearly believe about the last election,” Timmer continued. “It’s insane to believe the results of the last election were illegitimate, but that’s driving policy.”
Carnahan elaborated on the idea that conspiracy theories are driving policy in Lansing.
“These allegations are being used to motivate policy in the state of Michigan to be more restrictive in terms of time that ballot boxes will be available, when polling stations will be open, and requiring voter ID,” the Michigan State University professor said, referring to the sweeping package of 39 bills regulating voting rights introduced by the Michigan GOP at the end of March.
“Those claims can lead to policy changes that will make it harder to vote,” Carnahan said.
There has been some condemnation of QAnon from Michigan Republicans, including Meijer, a freshman Republican congressman from West Michigan who called the conspiracy theory an “existential threat” to the GOP. Upton also has denounced it and voted to remove Greene from her spot on the House Education Committee following her statements supporting QAnon and calling school shootings being false flag operations, after which he was censured by the Cass County GOP.
She taunted a Parkland school shooting survivor, argued that California wildfires were started by a Jewish space laser, accused Democratic politicians of running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor, and questioned whether 9/11 really happened…
— Fred Upton #GetVaccinated (@RepFredUpton) February 24, 2021
“Tonight, the Cass County GOP censured me for voting to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene from the education committee, and in their resolution they stated that ‘her comments have not been out of line with anyone else’s comment.’ Really?” Upton tweeted on Feb. 23.
“She taunted a Parkland school shooting survivor, argued that California wildfires were started by a Jewish space laser, accused Democratic politicians of running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor, and questioned whether 9/11 really happened,” Upton wrote on Twitter.
Other Michigan Republican leaders, however, have been silent about QAnon or have engaged in QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), for example, hasn’t professed support for QAnon, but he has not denounced it and has espoused a view common in QAnon circles — that the Jan. 6 insurrection was not carried out by Trump supporters, but by the former president’s enemies. The rioters themselves have refuted this claim.
Shirkey did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“I don’t think they’re all insane, but the ones who aren’t insane are afraid to show they’re not,” Timmer said of Republican legislators. “If they do, they get a primary challenge. They’ll pay a price and be sacrificed for being lucid; look at what they’re trying to do with Pete Meijer and Fred Upton.”
‘Eroding the very idea of truth’
As QAnon migrates from a fringe theory to making a home in policy and the offices of elected officials, the damage it and other conspiracy theories connected to it are doing are undermining democracy and leaving us with a public and politicians unable, or unwilling, to differentiate fact from fiction, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said.
“We’ve got these folks who have no problem whatsoever in dealing in lies and disinformation and spreading them throughout the state,” Barnes said. “What happens when elected officials ignore or mimic these words? It makes people not trust the institutions of our government, institutions that are here to protect and take care of them.”
Noting the rise of QAnon comes on the heels of a “decades-long campaign in the United States to erode expertise and make the idea of truth as subjective,” Lampe said QAnon and other conspiracy theories are “eroding the very idea of truth.”
Once the disinformation from conspiracy theories “is out there” and that erosion of truth has begun, “it’s very hard to reverse that damage,” Carnahan explained. On an individual level, Carnahan said people can try to address the disinformation believed by friends or family members by “attacking the falsehood without putting the person’s character on trial,” but it becomes far more difficult to do this en masse in order to reach the potentially millions of people who believe in some form of QAnon. Facebook has, for example, attempted to do this by flagging disinformation in posts — but, experts said, this doesn’t necessarily translate to a takedown of conspiracy theorists.
“That can result in backlash,” Carnahan said of social media outlets flagging misinformation on their platforms. “People get frustrated and feel their voices are being silenced.”
There are, Carnahan said, ongoing attempts to preemptively address future conspiracy theories, or mitigate the fallout from current ones, with media literacy training for people of all ages. And, he noted, academics are currently researching more effective ways of attacking conspiracy theories before they arise.
“There’s reason for optimism and there’s reason for concern,” Carnahan said. “The awareness of the problem is greater than it has been, so there are efforts underway to better prepare citizens. There are programs going into senior centers to equip them with skills to navigate the internet. There are attempts at intervening at earlier stages of life, in the classroom.”
Much of his concern, meanwhile, is rooted in the fact that “disinformation campaigns are evolving” and future conspiracy theorists, among others, will be able to easily manipulate video to show a politician saying something they never did or an event that never happened. Those videos — known as “deepfakes” — already exist, but Carnahan expects the technology to make them will become widely accessible within a matter of years.
“As those technologies develop there are real concerns about what happens when those become commercially available,” he said.
In addition to increased media literacy and the tech sector cracking down on disinformation, the growth of future, and current, conspiracy theories largely hinges on whether “we get leadership in positions of power who are more likely and willing to confront these types of claims rather than play to them for political advantage,” Carnahan said.
For example, Carnahan cited an instance in which John McCain, the former Republican senator from Arizona who ran for president in the 2008 campaign, defended his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, at a McCain rally.
During that event, an individual brought up the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States — a conspiracy theory that, like QAnon, was perpetuated by Trump — and McCain immediately corrected her disinformation.
“He stopped the conversation and said, “No, I will not accept that,’” Carnahan said. “He said, “Obama’s a good man; we just disagree.’ Now that’s so important, having someone willing to step up even if it’s politically advantageous to them to play to those kinds of claims.”
Lucas Hartwell, a recent Grand Blanc High School senior, has been a vocal critic of Amy Facchinello, the school board member who has posted QAnon rhetoric. He said the fact that some Republicans have embraced QAnon and it is affecting legislation means the public has “to really scrutinize everything we know about public officials.”
“It seems that now I have to do my research on anyone who runs for public office as a conservative,” said Hartwell, who split his ticket in November. “The Michigan Republican Party has not responded well to what’s going on. They’re not seeking to distance themselves from these people, and people like Mike Shirkey are not going to do anything — that’s for certain. At the end of the day, it’s a tremendous threat to Michigan and to the rest of America.”
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