For a man who believes in nothing, has no coherent ideology or value system except his own continuing relevance, obsesses over conspiracies, and subsists on grievance and anger, Donald Trump took a long time to fully embrace QAnon. For some time, the former president has been flirting with the cult—which believes, among other preposterous things, that Democrats are part of a global child-sex-trafficking ring that Trump will ultimately defeat. But lately, that courtship has turned into a consummated marriage, as Trump incorporated QAnon tropes into an Ohio rally and started spreading them on his social-media service.
This has understandably provoked a lot of hand-wringing from Democrats and disillusioned former Republicans, who rightly fear that Trump will incite QAnon supporters to violence. But the outrage from respectable quarters matters far less to the former president than his own political plight. Trump, who had previously maintained at least a little distance from QAnon, is only signing on now because he’s flailing.
Trump and many of his aides face major legal problems. The January 6 hearings and revelations that he was holding classified documents at his residence in Mar-a-Lago have helped drive his favorability rating to its lowest point in a year and a half. Even if he manages to fire up some supporters by explicitly endorsing QAnon, he is likely to alienate many more Americans for whom the cult’s ideas seem creepy and off-putting.
Nevertheless, early last week, on his social-media platform, Truth Social, Trump posted a picture of himself with a QAnon lapel pin and the slogan “The Storm is Coming”—words that describe the destruction of his enemies and perhaps even the live televising of their execution. This past weekend, at a rally in Ohio, Trump played music that mirrored a QAnon anthem, apparently prompting the crowd to respond with a Nazi-like salute.
The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols argues that Trump is finding a “new pool of recruits” and adds, “I didn’t think American politics could get much darker, but here we are.” I am more optimistic. Trump is at or near rock bottom. His overt adoption of QAnon shows that he has few alternative political strategies left to play. He is grasping at straws, not solidifying his political base.
The challenge Trump will have with QAnon is that it is a rabbit hole of weirdness whose weirdness cannot easily be masked. Trump doesn’t believe in QAnon any more than he believes in much of anything. If he did, he would surely know that the amorphous cult is an unreliable partner; indeed, some participants turned on Trump before when they thought he gave up the White House too easily. “Trump didn’t invent Q and he doesn’t control it,” the digital-misinformation researcher Joan Donovan, a co-author of the book Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, told me via direct message. “These digital soldiers are not of his command.”
Violent movements either grow or fall apart. They stop growing when their members are arrested or run for the exits; they dissipate when their leader can no longer stay on message and repels more people than he attracts. Without Q, what is Trump’s next move to fill stadiums? The world has moved on since November 2020, but Trump has not. He offers the same vituperation of immigrants—at the same Ohio rally, he claimed to have invented the term caravans—but he has no idea what to do about the backlash his Supreme Court appointees created by overturning Roe v. Wade. All he has left is violence, or the threat of it. He needs QAnon, even if it is not a thriving or reliable army.
I don’t know how the decay of our democracy ends. And I do not want to minimize the danger inherent in Trump’s adoption of QAnon. Yet his decision is encouraging in at least one way: By throwing in his lot with a bizarre cult, he is also inadvertently showing the limits of his appeal.