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How a Bargain-Basement Internet Conspiracy Theorist Rode the QAnon Wave to the Edge of Congress

How a Bargain-Basement Internet Conspiracy Theorist Rode the QAnon Wave to the Edge of Congress
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: John Bailey/The Rome News-Tribune via AP, Facebook via AP, Shutterstock)
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At an indoor, largely maskless victory party in August, Marjorie Taylor Greene had a message for her detractors. Greene, a bargain-basement conspiracy theorist, had handily won her primary runoff, despite warnings from a handful of spooked Republican activists. In her heavily red corner of Georgia, the nomination almost ensured she’d be the eventual victor. That night, Greene stood before a podium draped with her signature slogan—“Save America, Stop Socialism.” Smiling smugly at times, with the self-satisfaction of a catty sorority girl, she exulted over the enemies she had defeated: not just her political opponent, but a slew of the right’s favorite bogeymen.

“So I wanna tell you guys: the fake news media, the D.C. swamp, the political establishment, tried to take me out,” she said, a hard edge to her voice. “But there is definitely more of us than there is of them.” She added, “You don’t speak for us.”

Greene tends to describe herself as ordinary, simply a concerned citizen who used profits from the construction company her father founded, and she and her husband now run, to largely self-fund her campaign. She’s a businesswoman, a mother of three, a wife, a lover of CrossFit (Greene regularly tweets videos of herself deadlifting and once owned a CrossFit gym), and a Christian—just your everyday Trump-loving patriot who became so incensed at Republicans’ inability to build the wall and the “deep state” plot to “get rid of Donald Trump,” as she’s put it in interviews, that she decided to run for Congress. With her blonde lob and mid-market wardrobe, Greene has the look of a generic PTA mom, albeit one who adores assault rifles and conspiracy theories.

But she’s far from a kooky outlier—Greene, just like many of her suburban compatriots, has been radicalized.

And to the conspiracy-prone Greene, any media reporting on her actual commentary—she had spoken glowingly of Q and QAnon; questioned whether a plane had hit the Pentagon on 9/11; and denied the existence of racism because “slavery is over,” among other incredibly alarming and bigoted statements—was proof of a nefarious plot against her. It was all part of the story she’d woven about the myriad forces ruining the country.

That night, surrounded by her family and revved up by the crowd, she gave her supporters a preview of the disturbing bombast she will bring to D.C, an outcome that is all but assured now that her Democratic opponent recently dropped out of the race. Nancy Pelosi? “We’re gonna kick that bitch out of Congress!” she said, a gleeful statement that drew bloodthirsty whoops and cheers from her supporters. George Soros, whom she’s called a Nazi in the past? He’s one of those “radical, hate-America people.” So are Antifa and Black Lives Matter (or “Black Lives Matters” as she incorrectly called the movement repeatedly in one interview this summer), who are in her mind “domestic terrorist groups” and “cultural Marxists who want to destroy our history and tear down our monuments.”

“If we do not fight back now, and I mean now,” she said, drawing a grim note in her voice after painting her doomsday picture of an America under attack, “the America that you and I love, every single one of us, is going to change. It’s not going to be the same America anymore. It’s just not. Republicans need to come to terms with that fact. It’s not about looking good on TV and getting a whole bunch of followers on social media.”

But what Greene didn’t mention was a truth that would be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to her rise: Greene’s success has been largely due, in fact, to “getting a whole bunch of followers” on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Over the past few years, Greene has shifted from an unknown to a woman that Trump himself has described as a “future Republican Star” through her canny embrace of social media, manufactured controversy and what seems like every conspiracy theory embraced by the right during the past decade. Call it Trump-lite; Trump’s political trajectory, after all, began with the Tea Party and birtherism, fueled in no small part by social media platforms that have just belatedly begun to rein in the beast from which they eagerly profited for years.

Greene is, similarly, a terrifying product of the algorithm, one that doles out outsized rewards for the exact kind of trolling and racist demagoguery that she traffics in. If Greene isn’t exactly the future of the Republican Party—I would argue that toothy kids like Madison Cawthorn represent the not-too-distant, future of its leadership—she’s an accurate reflection of a large chunk of its base, not just a bottle-blonde update to Steve King, but an illustrative representative of its present.

Greene is both a product of worrisome internet trends and a savvy grifter riding the wave. The way Greene ascended to this platform, just one small step away from Congress, is a bellwether for some of the most ominous forces in American politics today: the ease with which disinformation spreads and takes root online, the perverse rewards doled out by our attention economy, and the reemergence of conspiratorial thinking, interconnected tendencies that are increasingly driving rightwing movements. By embracing a host of conspiracy theories and, as the Southern Poverty Law Center put it last year, “deftly leverag[ing] social media and confrontations in public to increase her visibility,” she became a “MAGA star” even before her congressional run.

Image for article titled How a Bargain-Basement Internet Conspiracy Theorist Rode the QAnon Wave to the Edge of Congress
Image: Facebook via Associated Press (AP)

Effectively broadcasting her brand of rightwing grievance online is a skill that she’s honed over the years and deployed during her run for office. Her social feeds read like a fever dream of the rightwing Id, one where enemies of the state with dark motivations abound—Soros, the Squad, BLM activists, Chinese communists, looters, “Antifa,” pedophiles, and of course, the Democrats. And Greene, along with her guns, is the solution—she’s “the Squad’s Worst Nightmare,” as she put it in a meme she posted earlier this month, a depiction of herself posing with an assault rifle superimposed over photos of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was an obviously violent and threatening image that was subsequently removed by Facebook, and not the first time Facebook had taken down one of her posts—in June, an ad in which she brandished her assault rifle and declared she “had a message for antifa terrorists” was removed for “inciting violence.” It’s not a stretch to wonder if that was her goal all along—it got her more notoriety, after all, and the thirst for notoriety and attention has been a consistent through-line in her campaign, like a YouTuber desperate for clicks.

Before Trump took office, Greene “had little presence on social media,” according to the SPLC, not even a Twitter account to her name. She could have just remained your regular ole white suburban racist in a shift dress. But in 2017, Greene began regularly blogging and vlogging, as NBC News reported this summer, as a “correspondent” for a conspiracy theory-centered website called American Truth Seekers. That site is now offline but its dark spirit lives on through its still-active Facebook page. In one of her final posts, dated January 30, 2018, Greene wrote glowingly of QAnon, echoing remarks she had made in a now-deleted Facebook video for the site.

“Make no mistake, Q is a patriot. However, the things Q tells about is beyond what the average American wants to ever hear about. Time will only tell if these things are real,” she mused, later writing, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity take out this Global Cabal of Satan worshiping pedophiles [sic].” (In case you’re wondering, all of her blog posts are riddled with both grammatical and spelling errors as well as inventive capitalization.)

In 2018 alone, according to the SPLC, Greene attended a slew of MAGA events, including the pro-Trump “Mother of All Rallies”; a pro-border wall rally; an event protesting library events staffed by drag queens, that bugbear of the Christian right; and the pro-Trump American Priority conference, where she peddled the 9/11 conspiracy theory that “there’s never any evidence shown for a plane in the Pentagon.” She posed, smiling, next to her fellow Islamophobe and rightwing provocateur Laura Loomer, and hobnobbed with the likes of Trump goon Roger Stone and the alt-right troll Mike Cernovich. Perhaps taking a page from Loomer’s cynical but extremely effective playbook, Greene began crafting her own moments of online controversy, confronting a series of the right’s most hated figures and livestreaming her interactions for a growing audience. In one, she visited the Capitol in an effort to get Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to retake their oaths for office on the Bible, ranting that “they really should go back to the Middle East if they support Sharia.”In another, she heckled Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg after a day of meetings on Capitol Hill.

Video of Greene’s interaction with Hogg in March of last year still exists online. In the clip, she trails after Hogg, her baby pink Michael Kors purse tucked under her arm, and yells, “How did you get over 30 appointments with Senators? How did you do that?” Hogg, clad in a black puffy coat, ignores her, walking away without even looking at her.

She then turns to her cameraman. “He’s got nothing to say because there really isn’t anything to say, you guys. He has nothing to say because he’s paid to do this,” she says, and then begins speculating how Hogg, a survivor of a mass school shooting who then became a noted activist, was able to get a platform. “But this guy with this George Soros funding and his major liberal funding, has got everything. I want you to think about that. That’s where we are.”

But Greene didn’t need a meeting with a Senator or mainstream media attention to accomplish what she set out to do. She could draft an audience just by being angry at the right people.

In August, just a few days after she celebrated her primary win in a hotel ballroom and became a general election candidate—and possibly under some private pressure from her future colleagues, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who have since welcomed her with open arms—Greene publicly disavowed some of the wilder conspiracy theories she’s espoused in the past. During an interview with Fox News, Greene distanced herself from her previous support of Q and QAnon. “I was just one of those people, just like millions of other Americans, that just started looking at other information,” Greene said. “And so, yeah, there was a time there for a while that I had read about Q, posted about it, talked about it, which is some of these videos you’ve seen come out. But once I started finding misinformation, I decided that I would choose another path.”

(The “misinformation” she was referring to, apparently, was Q’s prediction that the 2018 midterms would be a “red wave”; the opposite occurred.)

Greene’s embrace of QAnon is not the only conspiracy theory she’s been forced to disavow, in public, at least. Shortly after her 2018 comments were shared by Media Matters, Greene backtracked on her 9/11 truther beliefs, though not before tossing in some commentary on the “Deep State.” “Some people claimed a missile hit the Pentagon. I now know that is not correct,” she wrote on Twitter this August. “The problem is our government lies to us so much to protect the Deep State, it’s hard sometimes to know what is real and what is not.”

But Greene, for all of her belated disavowals, has continued to give a wink and a nod to some of the core ideas that animate QAnon—in at least three recent tweets, she included the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, fairly innocuous words on their own that have been hijacked by QAnon supporters as part of what the New York Times described as the movement’s “most recent growth strategy,” which “involves piggybacking on the anti-human-trafficking movement.” The most receptive audience? Suburban white women—people just like Greene. And it’s been effective. As the researcher Annie Kelly noted in an op-ed for the New York Times, QAnon’s “ranks are populated by a noticeably high percentage of women,” due not only to supporters’ embrace of child sex trafficking as an animating feature but their incorporation of anti-vaccine sentiment that has, during the pandemic, morphed into including anti-mask rhetoric, content that can easily be shared in parenting groups and then spread far and wide. “Suburban white women have completely taken over this movement,” Ben Collins, a journalist who writes often about disinformation campaigns, marveled recently on Twitter.

Even if people don’t identify as supporters of QAnon, an alarmingly large number of voters, not limited to but largely Republican, are prone to conspiratorial thinking these days, clearly influenced by Q-related content they’ve seen, as the journalist Charlotte Alter found out recently in talking to a range of people in Wisconsin. In her interviews, Alter encountered people who believe that, as she put it, “an evil cabal operates tunnels under the U.S. in order to rape and torture children and drink their blood,” as well as people who think that “COVID-19 tents set up in New York and California were actually for children who had been rescued from underground sex-trafficking tunnels.”

However outlandish some of the foundational tenets of these ideas may seem, it would be dangerous to just laugh them off and to ignore this rise (or perhaps reanimation is the more accurate word) of the paranoid style in our politics—what Richard Hofstadter succinctly described as “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Beyond even the untethering of truth from reality and the further hollowing out of our barely functioning democracy—how do you counter these ideas when the very act of countering them serves only to confirm them?—the spread of conspiratorial ideas, including but not limited to QAnon, has already led to violence and real harm.

Against this backdrop, Greene is both a preview and a warning. In past decades, her most likely trajectory would have just been to become yet another rightwing nut, but one unable to turn her hyperbole into clicks and a following. Today, however, as part of a lineage that began with the Tea Party and now enabled by a president whose rise mimics her own, Mrs. Greene is going to Washington.