Trump's QAnon dog whistles have gotten louder
Nods to the conspiracy theory movement have become a regular part of his campaign messaging
President Trump has "prioritized fighting for the voiceless and ending the scourge of human trafficking across the nation," a White House press release declared Tuesday, exactly two weeks before Election Day. In fact, it continued, his administration is implementing a "whole-of-government approach" to this issue, connecting offices like the Department of Homeland Security's new Center for Countering Human Trafficking with other federal agencies to finally "eradicate[e] human trafficking."
On its surface, this is perhaps the least controversial thing the Trump administration has done. Who could balk at fighting human trafficking? I mean, are you for child abuse? Do you like modern slavery?
But the surface isn't the only layer here. The announcement's timing and coincidence with the president's persistent refusal to reject the sprawling conspiracy theory movement known as QAnon suggest another motive, too. QAnon's founding myth holds that our society has long been in thrall of a "deep state" cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic, Democratic pedophiles with whom Trump is locked in secret battle — and Trump is closing out his re-election campaign with near-confirmation of exactly that. He's treating QAnon as a significant part of his base and sending a hearty dog whistle in their direction.
QAnon began with a false prediction of Hillary Clinton's arrest in the fall of 2017. After that inauspicious start, it stayed outside the average American's sight line for several years. As recently as this past March, 76 percent of Americans had never heard of QAnon, and only 3 percent reported they knew "a lot" about it. But by September, nearly half the country knew about the movement, and the high-knowledge group had tripled in size.
Polling about QAnon adherence is often of questionable accuracy, because pollsters don't always define the term for those who say they know it. The most useful recent data I've seen comes from a Yahoo News/YouGov survey released Tuesday which asked respondents if they believe "top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings" which Trump is working to dismantle — describing major tenets of QAnon without labeling them thus. Half (!) of registered voters who are Trump supporters said yes.
Some substantial portion of that increased awareness and adherence can be credited to Trump and his team, which has made friendliness toward QAnon a consistent feature of this campaign season. The president has repeatedly interacted with Q-connected posts and accounts on Twitter, and he praised the primary victory of a Q-affiliated House candidate in Georgia. In August, Trump told a reporter he doesn't "know much about the movement" but appreciates that QAnon adherents "like me very much."
"We're seeing the Trump campaign tack closely to an almost explicitly QAnon narrative," Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, told The Washington Post in an August report. "I don't expect to hear the president talking about pedophilia or satanism, but I expect to hear almost everything else."
Zuckerman was too optimistic. Though Trump is still skirting the satanism, he talked about pedophilia at last week's town hall event, where host Savannah Guthrie asked him to "once and for all, state that [the QAnon story] is completely not true and disavow QAnon."
"I know nothing about QAnon," Trump replied. "What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. ... I do agree with that, and I agree with it very strongly."
As a matter of campaign strategy, Trump's anti-trafficking announcement and frequent winks at QAnon are a curious thing in that they're not necessary to retain the Q vote. QAnon support for Trump doesn't depend on any public endorsement or real-life anti-trafficking program (he's supposed to be fighting the cabal in secret, after all). Q's true believers are remarkably impervious to assaults on what has become for them "not a theory or a set of beliefs but an entire social ontology," as my colleague Matthew Walther put it. Remember, the very first Q prediction failed — and that mattered not at all. There's always an explanation, always a way to fit any and every event into the Q framework. Trump could denounce QAnon on Twitter every morning, and the QAnon crowd would likely take to parsing his denouncements for coded messages of support.
Nevertheless, there are a handful of plausible benefits for Trump here. One is that his criticism of child abuse and trafficking could calm some voters' qualms about his administration's own practice of child abuse in the form of family separations at the border. (The separations are very unpopular, even among Trump's most loyal demographics.) Another is that riling up the QAnon crowd can make them dogged Trump advocates among their friends right before Election Day. Research shows knowing if and how our friends vote can significantly influence our voting choices. A third possible benefit is neutralization of reputational damage done by reports of Trump's long friendship with alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Finally, Trump might be taking a page from the QAnon playbook. The movement's big growth tactic of late is infiltrating anti-child trafficking activism on social media and taking advantage of sincere attempts to help vulnerable children. Well-intended people who aren't familiar with QAnon hashtags and phrases unwittingly spread and endorse its admixtures of truth and lies. Likewise, Trump's talk of opposition to trafficking and pedophilia may appeal to independent and swing voters who don't know enough about QAnon to hear the dog whistle. All they hear is a stand for basic human rights, and who could object to that?