You'd think adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory would feel vindicated by leaked allegations of sexual misconduct toward a minor by a sitting member of Congress.
After all, abuse of children by powerful people, especially federal officials, is one of the movement's biggest purported concerns. But Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is the subject of just such a leak, and the QAnon response is not crows of vindication.
Gaetz is under scrutiny in a Justice Department investigation — a months-long inquiry that began during the administration of former President Donald Trump, of whom Gaetz is a vocal supporter — in connection to allegations that he engaged in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. He has vehemently denied the accusation, initially telling The New York Times he didn't know much about it but suspected "someone is trying to recategorize [his] generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward." He also claimed the probe is part of a former federal official's extortion attempt which the Gaetz family has been working with the FBI to uncover. That rebuttal has raised eyebrows, including those of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who called his conversation with Gaetz about the investigation "one of the weirdest interviews [he's] ever conducted."
We don't know yet whether Gaetz is innocent or guilty. Few details of the allegations have been made public. His story about extortion and the FBI seems to have some basis in truth, but if reporting from The Washington Post is correct, the DOJ investigation preceded the extortion, not vice versa, as Gaetz suggested. Meanwhile, the DOJ probe is linked to a case against another Florida official who is going to trial for more than a dozen federal charges, including "sex trafficking charges related to a girl between the ages of 14 and 17."
Despite this uncertainty, QAnon followers have already reached a verdict: innocent. That's a curious and revealing thing. The Gaetz story, in broad strokes, seems like it would be huge news for the QAnon crowd, touted everywhere as "proof" that elite pedophiles have become so brazen even the deep state had to bestir itself to intervene. Its genesis under the Trump administration should make that explanation an easy fit. That's exactly how the Jeffrey Epstein story is used.
But Gaetz is a Trump ally, and QAnon is nothing if not tribal. The group's grand narrative — namely, that our government is run by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles being exposed by a pseudonymous intelligence official called "Q" — holds Trump as a messianic figure, and in-group loyalty is incredibly strong. Thus did QAnon community discussions in the Telegram app immediately jump to Gaetz's defense, dubbing the Times report yet another "SMEARING of MAGA Patriots."
"Typical Narcissitic [sic] Flying Monkey, projectionist, gas lighting, smear campaign playbook," wrote one user, employing a pop psychology term to describe The New York Times as an enabler of abuse. The journalists are "evil ... bastards [who] hate [Gaetz] because he fights back and calls them out!" said another. Some highlighted that the girl allegedly involved was 17 years old. (Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, so QAnon adherents sometimes think incidences of the number, like the 17 flags that stood behind Trump during his farewell address, are coded messages telling them to keep the faith.) Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.), who has promoted QAnon in the past, backed Gaetz promptly, warning the story would become a "witch hunt."
Maybe she's right — we truly don't know yet. If Gaetz is innocent, his name may forever be unfairly tarnished by the leaked story. And regardless, he deserves due process, not "trial" in the court of public opinion. But the QAnon defenses of Gaetz go well beyond legal presumption of innocence or a prudent withholding of judgment. My read is that, given the choice, they'd shutter the DOJ inquiry entirely. Nothing to see here! By the way, Hillary Clinton murders kids and drinks their blood. Whaddya mean, show you evidence?
I suppose I don't find the tribalism surprising — or I shouldn't, anyway. Still, I do find remarkable the complete disinterest in exploring the possibility that a Trump-friendly official could be implicated in the very sort of crime QAnon ostensibly exists to reveal, stop, and punish by death penalty.
Many people get involved with QAnon because of a real and admirable concern about sex trafficking. In a column last year, I explained how a friend of mine unwittingly shared QAnon-linked content on Instagram because she sincerely cares about this and wanted to raise awareness. She'd never heard of Q, so she didn't recognize the telltale phrases in the post and its author's bio. She just wanted to help children in danger, and the QAnon movement deliberately co-opts anti-trafficking hashtags to take advantage of that kind of good intention.
My friend wasn't lured further into QAnon, but others are. Some of the people now dismissing all possibility of wrongdoing by Gaetz probably entered the QAnon world because they too wanted to help children in danger. When that good instinct came in conflict with the movement's tribalism, however, tribalism won. QAnon is so intellectually corrupt it degrades its believers' best ethical impulses, just as it so often degrades their relationships with their own children, their love of God and country, their basic ability to parse true and lies.
The movement's outlandish ideas are sometimes funny, but QAnon is not comedy. It's tragedy, and tragedy that spreads.