While campaigning in Ohio over the weekend, former President Donald Trump energized his supporters by playing a song eerily similar to conspiracy theory group QAnon’s anthem, prompting thousands to raise their hands and point their index finger skyward in a salute that has become one of the biggest public displays of support for the far-right extremist group to date.
A few days earlier, Trump had shared on his conservative social media site, Truth Social, a photo of himself wearing a ‘Q’ pin on the lapel of his suit jacket with the words ‘The Storm Is Coming’ written at the bottom. of the photo — a phrase that QAnon followers use to reference when they believe Trump will return to power and hang his political enemies in public after a military tribunal.
The examples reflect a noticeable shift in his willingness to openly embrace a group the FBI has labeled a domestic terrorist threat and help them root themselves deeper in the Republican Party. Believers embrace a complicated and fantastical series of convoluted conspiracies, relayed by an alleged anonymous government insider called “Q”, that Trump is fighting to regain power from a satanic “deep state” involving top Democrats involved in sex trafficking, pedophilia and cannibalism.
Since leaving the White House and being kicked out on mainstream social media, Trump has found ways to continue to leave a breadcrumb trail for extremist groups skeptical of the government, including claiming that the 2020 election was stolen and framing active investigations into his involvement in the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot and his mishandling of confidential government records as a witch hunt.
But his actions over the past few weeks appear to have taken an abrupt turn, going from a wink across the school cafeteria to a big, wet, open-mouthed kiss.
The reasons for the embrace at present are unclear, but Trump’s increasingly overt openness to the far right comes as his poll hits new lows: the latest NBC News Poll shows that 34% of registered voters said they had a positive opinion of Trump, while 54% said they had a negative opinion, including 46% who said they felt “very negative”.
“He’s a former president who could run again and who now recognizes that my support is eroding beyond the point where I can regain it,” former GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida said earlier this week on MSNBC. “So where is he going? It goes where the customers are, i.e. the QAnon crowd.
It also comes as Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis positions himself as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate who embraces much of the far-right political agenda without any of the legal baggage that is beginning to weigh on the former president, who remains involved in the state. and federal investigations.
In a hypothetical game for the 2024 presidential primaries, a new poll of likely midterm voters in Florida by Suffolk University/USA Today shows DeSantis now leading Trump by 8 points, 48% to 40% – a significant increase in popularity for DeSantis, who trailed Trump 47% to 40% in a Suffolk poll conducted in January.
“Donald Trump trailing in a contest with another Republican is a sea change,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “In the 2016 Florida GOP primary, Trump easily beat hometown favorite Sen. Marco Rubio 46% to 27%. For now, however, Florida Republicans would choose DeSantis, despite Trump being a resident of Sunshine State.
Another factor may be that the midterm elections are fast approaching and President Joe Biden has started warning Americans that democracy is under attack from Trump and his “MAGA Republican” supporters who he says are doing pose unprecedented threats to the ability of the United States to remain a Democrat. Republic.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” Biden said in a rare primetime speech from Philadelphia that was unusually personal for Biden, who rarely refers to Trump. by name.
As the 2022 midterm elections approach, Biden has doubled down on that statement, marking a newly aggressive style that understands Trump’s appeal in clear, combative terms — even employing the term “semi-fascist” to characterize his supporters. far right.
Editorial cartoons about Donald Trump
But this is not the first time that Trump has been associated with extremism. For years he has flirted – albeit in a much more opaque way – with far-right groups.
Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Trump refused to disavow endorsements from David Duke, a prominent white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and said he retweeted a quote from Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini during World War II because “it’s a very good quote.”
The following year, Trump was widely criticized for waiting 48 hours to release a statement on a protest at the University of Virginia over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that was subsumed by neo -Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists who marched on the University of Virginia campus the night before with torches, chanting ‘blood and dirt’ and ‘Jews won’t replace us’ .
Asked at a press conference if he condemned the behavior, the former president pointed to left-wing counter-protesters who joined the protest and said ‘both sides’ were to blame for the violence that led to the death of a young woman at the hands of a white man. supremacist. Trump, saying many people were simply there to protest the removal of the statue, added that there were “very good people, on both sides” – a comment later also interpreted as praise for extremists in ‘far right.
Before being banned by Twitter, Trump elevated all sorts of politically extreme content, including ahead of the 2020 presidential election when he shared a video of a man in a golf cart adorned with campaign gear. Trump shouting “white power”. A White House spokesman would later say Trump didn’t hear the comment but was responding to the enthusiasm of his supporters.
In one of the most notable moments of the campaign season, Trump appeared reluctant to condemn the role played by white supremacist groups in the violence of the Black Lives Matter protests. Pressed by a debate moderator to tell white supremacists to “stand down and not add to the violence,” Trump asked who he should speak to. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has volunteered for the Proud Boys, a far-right violent extremist group. Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” — a subtle but significant modification of “stand down” that many, including the extremist group itself, interpreted as a directive to await instructions from the president.
The watershed moment of his lackluster response came during the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, where a crowd of his most ardent supporters — including many white nationalists carrying Confederate flags, anti-Semites wearing clothes suggesting he not enough Jews were killed in the Holocaust, QAnon conspiracy theorists and members of the Proud Boys – beaten, pepper sprayed and looted in the rotunda in a bid to prevent the certification of the presidential election of 2020 leading a crowd.
But none of those associations were as obvious or as intentional as what Trump released last week.
“It highlights how particularly dangerous Donald Trump is as a Republican leader,” Jolly said. “Donald Trump is a particularly dangerous party leader for his willingness to tap into the conspiracy and ultimately violent demographics that have emerged right now.”
This demographic has also allowed him to amass a huge war chest since leaving the White House. Trump raised nearly $115 million through various PACs, but the vast majority came from Save America’s executive PAC, which in late July declared $99 million in cash. Despite multiple ongoing investigations — or perhaps because of them — he was able to garner support from small donors and currently has more funds in his coffers than the Republican and Democratic national campaign committees combined.
But his acknowledgment of — and public alliance with — the conspiracy theory also suggests that Trump understands his orbit is shrinking.
“The danger here is this: Does Donald Trump really believe he needs to become a more prominent leader of the Q movement to embark on what could be a political contest for the Republican nomination in 2024?” Joly asked. “At this point you would have to say sure, probably yes.”
– Susan Milligan contributed to this report