Trump’s New Recruits

He’s embracing the QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Ohio on September 17.
Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Ohio on September 17. (Jeff Swensen / Getty)

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Speaking in Ohio on Saturday, Trump tried to energize QAnon on his behalf—a new phase in his campaign of threats against the government and the people of the United States.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Reckless Escalation

Trump rallies can often seem ridiculous, not least because Trump himself is inherently a ridiculous person. He grips the podium and shouts, his sweaty angst giving rise to a reddish tinge apparent even under the thick layer of orange-hued chemicals he slathers on his face. In these moments, stock phrases and gimmicky asides pop out of his mouth like lottery numbers churning to the top of a Powerball machine.

But Saturday night’s Ohio rally was not a typical Trump carnival, and it was not just ridiculous—it was dangerous. His embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theorists represents a new expansion not only of Trump’s cult of personality, but of his threats to sow violence.

Despite his seeming inability to remember anything from one thought to the next, Trump has a kind of lizard-brain awareness of danger—only to himself, of course—that guides him when he’s faced with threats. His reflex in such situations is to do whatever it takes to survive, including bullying, lying, threatening, and allegedly breaking the law. He is in political and legal jeopardy now, and he has decided to escalate his war against the rule of law, the American system of government, and the American people by embracing and potentially weaponizing QAnon.

The QAnon movement might seem as ridiculous as Trump, but it is tragic and hazardous. As my friend Rob Tracinski wrote recently, it is “an online grift that got out of hand and became a worldview,” and millions of people now believe that there “is a global network of pedophiles who secretly run the world and control our politics so that they can abuse children.” This is no ordinary conspiracy theory about commies fluoridating the water; the emotional punch of threats to children has already led to near tragedies and, in some cases, disastrous outcomes involving unstable and violent people.

Initially, of course, Trump only winked at the QAnon movement, accepting its support in the same way that he accepted, without acknowledging it, the support of groups such as the Proud Boys. That last microgram of hesitancy is now gone. Trump recently shared images of himself wearing a Q pin, and the Ohio rally seemed to meld a QAnon event with an evangelical meeting. As Trump closed out his remarks, orchestral music began to play—using a song apparently very similar to the favored theme of QAnon—and the rally-goers reacted by lifting their index fingers in the air. One theory (and I am not a Q expert) is that the finger is a somatic expression of the QAnon motto “Where we go one, we go all,” but you have to see it to really appreciate the weirdly cultish vibe of that moment.

Why is Trump doing this? It would be easy (and reassuring) to assume that he has exhausted all his other reservoirs of narcissistic support, and now all that’s left is to pull in the most conned marks in modern American political history and bask in their adulation while emptying their pockets. I think we have to prepare, however, for a worse possibility: With many of his previous supporters in groups such as the Oath Keepers lying low after January 6, Trump is making a show of recruiting from a movement whose members might include people willing to do violence on his behalf.

Unless Trump has become a QAnon true believer—and that is unlikely, as he believes in nothing but himself—it is difficult to imagine any other motive here but increasing apprehension both in Washington and among the public about indicting him or holding him accountable for his behavior in any way. If you want political support and are trying to help J. D. Vance (who so far hasn’t said a word about any of this) in his Ohio Senate run, you hold a rally and lambaste your opponents and plump for your guy—Trump’s done this before and knows the drill. You do not, however, play creepy music and present yourself as the leader of one of the most unhinged crusades of modern times. That kind of rally is not meant to gather voters. Instead, it’s meant to recruit a mob and let the rest of the country see who’s on your side if you are threatened in any way.

Don’t think for one moment that there are “good” Republicans who are going to put their foot down about any of this. The Republicans, with exceptions you could count on one hand, are—yet again—too cowardly and too opportunistic to stop Trump. Supposed Good Republican Glenn Youngkin is going on the road for the extremist election denier Kari Lake. Longtime Good Republican Rob Portman is endorsing Vance, who is so thirsty for Trump’s approval that even Trump crowed on Saturday night, “J. D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support so bad.” Meanwhile, Elise Stefanik, whose Good Republican card expired years ago, chitchatted with Steve Bannon on his podcast.

The people who fought for Trump on January 6 were not enough to save him. He is now searching for a new pool of recruits. I didn’t think American politics could get much darker, but here we are.


Today’s News
  1. Hurricane Fiona knocked out power in Puerto Rico, and more than 1,000 stranded residents have been rescued across the island.
  2. Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin was lowered into the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel.
  3. Mark Frerichs, an American abducted in Kabul more than two years ago, was freed in an exchange for an Afghan detainee in U.S. federal prison.


Evening Read
A digital chess board
(Erik Carter / The Atlantic)

Chess Is Just Poker Now

By Matteo Wong

It was as if a bottom seed had knocked out the top team in March Madness: At the Sinquefield Cup chess tournament in St. Louis earlier this month, an upstart American teenager named Hans Niemann snapped the 53-game unbeaten streak of world champion Magnus Carlsen, perhaps the game’s best player of all time. But the real uproar came the following day, when Carlsen posted a cryptic tweet announcing his withdrawal that included a meme video stating, “If I speak I am in big trouble.” The king appeared to have leveled an unspoken accusation of cheating—and the chess world, in turn, exploded.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
black-and-white close up of two faces next to each other
(Alex Majoli / Magnum)

Read. Gwendoline Riley’s two most recent novels, My Phantoms and First Love, argue that understanding your past won’t liberate you.

Watch. The best shows of 2022—including The Patient, The Bear, and Severance—have one thing in common.

Play our daily crossword.


My Atlantic colleagues will be filling in for me the rest of this week on The Daily because I am heading down to the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C. You can register to attend in person or virtually, or learn more about the events at our flagship annual event, here. (If you’d like to attend in person, we even have a discount for you: Use the code TAFFRIEND for 50 percent off.) Speakers will include Janet Yellen, Constance Wu, Arthur C. Brooks, Ibram X. Kendi, Senator Chris Murphy, Neal Katyal, Barton Gellman, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Ed Yong, and TikTok icon Elyse Myers, among many others. You can also catch an update on Ukraine from Anne Applebaum, Franklin Foer, and George Packer; see a debate between Thomas Chatterton-Williams and Joy Connelly about the culture wars; and watch the world premiere of the first television docuseries based on The Atlantic’s reporting, Shadowland, directed by Joe Berlinger. (Watch the chilling trailer here.)

I’ll be there as well, on our Ideas Stage. Hope you can join us!


Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.