Alek Skarlatos was famous before he announced his run for Congress in Oregon’s 4th Congressional district last August, presenting himself as an outsider and someone with “Oregon values.” The 28-year-old was best known as the Army National Guardsman who helped stop a gunman on a train to Paris in 2015. He then parlayed his notoriety that year into a stint on Dancing With the Stars, where he and partner Lindsay Arnold shimmied their way to third place. By 2018, he would star as himself in The 15:17 to Paris, a $30 million movie about the foiled attack, directed by Clint Eastwood. But in his campaign launch ad, Skarlatos portrayed himself as a man of the people disgusted by the “extremes in Washington.”
“I will stand with southern Oregon, the loggers, the veterans, moms, dads, and families trying to make end meet,” Skarlatos promised, painting his opponent, the Democratic incumbent Pete DeFazio, as an extremist aligned with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But Skarlatos’s video ad snuck in other, notable identifiers, which would be meaningless to all but a close observer—such as a photo of Skarlatos from a rally organized by Timber Unity, a group with documented ties to the far-right, and whose rallies have featured QAnon supporters and Three Percenters. As Mother Jones reported earlier this year, the leaders of the group, which was formed in 2019 and has since gone on to play a prominent and disruptive role in the state’s politics, have close relationships with members of the Proud Boys and militia groups, as well as members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer.
Skarlatos has been extremely vocal in his support of Timber Unity, making the group’s goals a central part of his campaign. He has spoken at one of the rallies the group organized at the state capitol and once posted a photo to his Facebook page of him smiling for photos alongside QAnon-supporting Timber Unity members that were holding a banner with the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.” (Jezebel has reviewed that photo, which Skarlatos has since deleted from his page.) In another photo, which was documented by Spencer Sunshine, a researcher who focuses on far-right movements in Oregon, and continues to be displayed on the website of the Washington County Republican Party, Skarlatos can be seen posing happily with one of Timber Unity’s leaders Mike Pihl and the far-right provocateur Andy Ngo.
Skarlatos’s comfort with QAnon and members of the far-right is not just unsurprising—it’s now becoming the norm. A new generation of candidates running to be the future of the Republican Party has formed as a sort of far-right answer—and reaction—to the Squad, with many showing no qualms about associating with far-right movements or explicit followers of QAnon. It’s easy to see these Republican upstarts as a twisted mirror image of the Squad, whose unabashedly leftist politics and outspoken personas have made them the most exciting new voices in the Democratic Party—this group is trying to do the same, but with the far-right, and with some success. After all, the far-right is no longer fringe in today’s Republican Party. The blame can be pinned squarely on Donald Trump, who has turned the party into a cult of personality, along the way mainstreaming ideas that once were considered out of bounds but are now eagerly accepted by the Republican base and by extension, the party’s fresh new faces.
Dubbed the QAnon candidates, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that support or friendliness with QAnon is merely a signifier of this new generation’s broader far-right beliefs. In Oregon, Skarlatos is joined by Republican Senate candidate Jo Rae Perkins, who posted a video pledging her support for QAnon the night she won her primary and has held campaign events with QAnon believers. In Colorado, there’s first-time Congressional candidate Lauren Boebert, the 33-year-old owner of a restaurant that famously has its staff openly carry guns. Boebert has, in an interview with the rightwing conspiracy theorist Ann Vandersteel, expressed her hope that Q is real and has spoken at rallies alongside members of militia groups and the Proud Boys; her former top aide once interviewed a member of the latter and declared, “Thank god for you guys and the Proud Boys.”
Delaware’s Republican nominee for Senate, the 32-year-old vocal Proud Boys fan Lauren Witzke, has in the past been photographed wearing a QAnon t-shirt and regularly appended the QAnon hashtag #wwg1wga to her tweets; Witzke, a proponent of “America First” who wants to ban all immigration to the U.S. for ten years, also recently was interviewed by VDARE, a site that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-immigration white nationalist hate website.
Over in North Carolina, 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, on top of everything else that has come to light about the Congressional candidate, has, as AVLWatchdog wrote, “mingled and exchanged social media posts with people who embrace debunked conspiracy theories”–including Brian Kolfage, the discredited founder of We Build the Wall. And while Cawthorn hasn’t explicitly ever mentioned QAnon, he has shared videos in which he speaks its language, referencing cartels “kidnapping our American children and then taking them to sell them on a slave market, on the sex slave market.” And then, of course, there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, the candidate for Congress in Georgia who has championed QAnon in the past, along with a raft of other conspiracy theories and anti-Black, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic beliefs. According to Media Matters, there are more than two dozen QAnon-friendly candidates running for Congress this year, all but two of whom are Republicans (the rest are independents).
To Lawrence Rosenthal, the head of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies and the author of Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism, Trump’s time in office has been defined by an ideological migration among the Republican base to “Trump’s anti-immigrant, America-First nationalism,” fueled in large part by a resurgent long-standing cultural resentment against so-called liberal elites. As Rosenthal told Jezebel, in embracing these ideas and then running for higher office, this new crop of Republican far-right candidates is merely “following the example and the model of the current head of the Republican Party.”
“That a new generation in the Republican Party almost takes it for granted that they’re inside the tent,” said Rosenthal, “is a development that is not surprising given what Trumpism has done to the Republican Party.” Much as he fueled the rise of birtherism during the Tea Party movement, Trump has notably refused not only to disavow QAnon as well as far-right groups, but has thrown them bone after bone, retweeting accounts promoting QAnon content hundreds of times and praising QAnon supporters as “people that love America.” QAnon “wouldn’t exist without Donald Trump,” Rosenthal told Jezebel. One of the central fantasies of QAnon, after all, is that Trump is a divine savior working to root out a Democratic cabal of pedophiles and sex traffickers.
In a sign of how widely the ideas animating QAnon have spread, that fantasy has been embraced by the Republican base— according to a recent YouGov poll, fully half of Trump supporters who were polled believe that central idea to be true, even if they had never heard of QAnon before. This share of voters has become so large that, as Republican strategists told Business Insider, the party’s elected officials “view QAnon believers and the movement not as a liability or as a scourge to be extinguished, but as a useful band of fired-up supporters.” There is increasingly no distinction between a QAnon supporter and a Trump supporter, a sign of how much Trump has overtaken the Republican party. The fact that candidates who would in the past be considered too out there are now winning primaries on the strength of this support and, in the case of a few, will likely enter Congress is a sign that even if Trump loses, Trumpism among the party’s voters will remain.
And much like Trump himself, this group of rising Republican stars has defined themselves by their supposed enemies—antifa, socialism, George Soros, Black Lives Matter activists, and coastal Democratic elites, embodied in their minds by the four women who make up the Squad. As I’ve followed their campaigns, it has often felt that their sole reason for running is to have a platform to attack the favored bogeymen of the right, and in particular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad, who represent in their minds everything that they fear. Greene, in a post that was taken down by Facebook for being a “violent provocation,” gloated that she would be the “Squad’s worst nightmare” in Congress; Boebert essentially built her campaign on a promise to take on AOC. Echoing Greene and Boebert, Cawthorn declared in August in a tweet that he loves America “too much to let the squad destroy it.” It’s fitting that when faced with a group of extremely smart, leftist women of color who have been buoyed by progressive movements, all that the Republicans can muster in response is a cohort of paranoid mini-Trumps. That this group of QAnon candidates is the Republican’s best answer to the Squad is both laughable and troubling. But welcome to the present and future of the Republican Party.