Disinformation

Conspiracists like what they hear at the RNC

Melania Trump as QAnon Queen, shadowy elites and American values under attack

The Republican National Convention began on the bleakest of notes. Monday’s opening broadcast comprised two-and-a-half hours of dystopian rhetoric, from broken inner cities and failing schools to the broader risks posed by the possibility of a Democrat victory in November’s presidential election. The overall message was loud and clear. America and its way of life face an existential threat and fundamental freedoms of speech, faith and thought hang in the balance.

The language was almost universally apocalyptic and, while not explicitly endorsing them, spoke to a wide range of conspiracist groups. These include a variety of far-right movements and the bizarre online cult of QAnon, which has created a narrative that President Donald Trump is locked in battle with the “deep state” and secret networks of rich and powerful Satan-worshipping pedophiles. 

The first nod to these communities came six minutes into a speech by Charlie Kirk, founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point USA. Kirk described Trump as the “bodyguard of western civilization,” then made an apparent reference to anti-science conspiracy movements. “We are kicking doctors off social media,” he said, in what many interpreted as a nod to two Californian doctors whose YouTube video criticizing the Covid-19 lockdown and stoking dangerous anti-science narratives was taken down in April. 

Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz made a speech filled with language that could easily be seized upon by conspiracists as speaking to them. He spoke rousingly about building “an army of patriots,” of Americans being “replaced” and said that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s story was written by unnamed “other hands.” 

Although organizers have clearly taken great pains to present a pluralistic vision of the Republican party, including people of color and women, this kind of language has its origins in far less inclusive schools of thought. And, while most of the speeches concentrated on the United States, many of these narratives have global connections. 

For instance, the European identitarian movement pushes a theory, originally formulated in France but recently adopted by sections of the American far-right, known as the “great replacement.” This is a plan allegedly concocted by a shadowy internationalist elite to outnumber white populations through programs of mass migration. Meanwhile, despite beginning in 2017 as a U.S.-centric phenomenon on the online message board 4Chan, QAnon has now spread around the world, from Brazil to Germany and the U.K.

QAnon comprises a crucial slice of Trump’s voter base. Inevitably, the Republican convention has been full of nudges and winks to it. “They need QAnon at this point,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consultancy that researches disinformation. “QAnon is so dominating right-wing conversations, they need QAnon to get pro-Trump messaging out.”

Trump is one of a growing number of world leaders to have pushed unproven theories and pseudoscientific remedies during the coronavirus pandemic. During footage of him meeting frontline workers, the president plugged three pseudo-treatments for the coronavirus. First up, hydroxychloroquine. “It’s a shame what they’ve done to that one,” he told the assembled group — not elaborating on who “they” were. He then added that he has been taking “Z-pack and zinc,” an antibiotic and a dietary supplement, both unproven in their effects against Covid-19. QAnon Facebook groups surged with renewed enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine, hailing it as an alternative to a Covid-19 vaccine.

On Facebook, Twitter and new social media groups built by QAnon followers, such as WeWake, Trump’s senior adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle was the star of the show. Her proclamation that “human sex and drug traffickers should not be allowed to cross our border” were greeted warmly. As was her assertion that the Democratic elite “want to take your liberty, your freedom, control everything you do, and destroy the USA.” 

In recent weeks, QAnon rallies have masqueraded as anti-child trafficking protests. Many of the movement’s adherents also employ a twisted logic to suggest that anyone who rejects their doctrine is an apologist for child abuse.

QAnon social media seized upon a speech by Andrew Pollack, the father of a victim of the 2018 Parkland school shooting. “I truly believe the safety of our kids depends on whether Trump is re-elected,” he said. This line was tweeted and retweeted by prominent accounts, bending Pollack’s words to fit their own narrative of ritual child abuse and sex trafficking. 

On Tuesday night, thunder and lightning raged over Washington DC, adding to the end-of-days atmosphere. “Timing is everything,” wrote one QAnon Twitter user called Stormy Patriot Joe. “I call them Q Bolts.”

When Eric Trump stepped out on stage, a number of people squinted at the badge on his lapel. “What’s on Eric Trump’s pin? Is that… a Q?” wrote one Twitter user named Storm Crow. It was actually a United States flag, with a round emblem on it, but it caused much excitement nonetheless. Taking to the microphone, the president’s second son hit on a recurring theme of this convention: free speech, thought and — following coronavirus restrictions that have prevented worshippers attending church services — freedom of religion are all under attack. 

Tiffany Trump did much the same, throwing rhetorical dynamite to conspiracy theorists. First, she referred to the media and big tech keeping people “mentally enslaved.” Then she posed a question: “Ask yourselves, why are we prevented from seeing certain information?”

Despite being one of the most subdued on the roster, Melania Trump’s address proved extremely popular on QAnon Facebook — and so did her military green dress. “She was incredible, humble and calming. Maybe her outfit was a signal???? The war is ON!” wrote Sandy Bonfield to a closed group. “Green could equal the signal to go,” said Angelica Bodi. 

The first lady stood before a White House illuminated in gold. This choice of lighting apparently had hidden meaning too. “I think it signifies transition to the gold standard currency. The ‘green light’ if you will,” said one user. But one statement proved particularly resonant: “Helping children is our moral imperative.” 

It’s worth noting that Melania Trump is something of a QAnon heroine and that videos featuring her are extremely popular within the movement. But even she was not the most-anticipated speaker at the convention. Rather, it was the dead man who some conspiracy theorists believe will take office after Trump. “Will JFK Jr make an appearance at the RNC?” one QAnon follower wrote to a 4,600-strong Facebook group. The question was greeted with hundreds of likes.

Achi Tsitsishvili and Caitlin Thompson contributed research.

Photo credit Drew Angerer via Getty Images

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

Support Coda

Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell