Trump and Republicans are following the Goldwater model with QAnon. That didn’t end well.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Opinion contributor
Published 4:00 a.m. ET Aug. 21, 2020 | Updated 8:03 a.m. ET Aug. 21, 2020

QAnon may help brand Trump and Republicans as extremists, just like the John Birch Society did to Barry Goldwater. The result was a landslide 1964 loss.

In 1962, conservative journalist William F. Buckley flew to Florida to meet with Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Buckley’s main goal was to persuade Goldwater to run for president on the Republican ticket in 1964. But he also wanted the senator to distance himself from the John Birch Society, which had already indicated its support for Goldwater.

And that was bad news for the GOP, because the Birchers were — in Buckley’s term — nuts. Their leader, a candy manufacturer named Robert Welch, charged that over half of the American government was “communist-controlled.” Most notoriously, Welch insisted that former President Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

Like Goldwater, Buckley shared the strong anti-communism of the John Birch Society. But the Birchers’ claims were “so far removed from common sense” that they threatened to undermine the cause, Buckley wrote. “The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false.” 

QAnon is the new Birch Society

The same problem faces the Republican Party this fall, but in a different form. It’s called QAnon, and it’s every bit as removed from reality as the Birchers were. It, too, imagines that the government is in the grips of a conspiracy, this time hatched by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. The plot is supposedly led by prominent Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton, who eat little children (yes, you read that right) to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.

A recent investigation by the Guardian found more than 170 QAnon groups, pages and accounts on Facebook and Instagram, with over 4.5 million followers. That’s the kind of breadth the John Birch Society could only dream of, back in the predigital era. By most estimates, it enlisted fewer than 100,000 members.

And whereas the Birchers fantasized about putting Barry Goldwater in the White House, QAnon already has its man there: Donald Trump. Indeed, it claims, President Trump is the only man who can stop the conspiracy eating America (literally and figuratively) from the inside.

As best we can tell, Trump loves QAnon back. Although he has never addressed its conspiratorial theories directly, Trump has retweeted accounts promoting those theories over 200 times, according to an analysis by Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group. A QAnon television program recently hosted the director of press communications for Trump’s reelection campaign, which has also featured QAnon iconography in its advertisements, The Washington Post reported.  

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And at a White House briefing Wednesday, Trump said QAnon followers “like me very much” and “love our country.” When a reporter pointed out that QAnon imagines him saving the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals, the president replied, “Is that supposed to be a bad thing? If I can help save the world from problems I'm willing to do it, I'm willing to put myself out there.”

Meanwhile, QAnon-backed candidates for public office are making serious inroads in the GOP. The most prominent example is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a Republican primary runoff election last week for a congressional seat in Georgia. Greene has praised QAnon's “Q” figure — a mythical truth teller within the government — as a “patriot” who is “very pro-Trump.” And Trump hailed Greene after her victory, tweeting that she was “a real WINNER” and a “future Republican star.”

Is that the future Republicans want? To borrow from Buckley, is the GOP willing to acquiesce quietly in QAnon's falsehoods?

Fall in line or risk Trump rebuke

The answer, for the moment, would seem to be yes. One of the few Republican politicians to denounce QAnon  after Greene’s win was Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger. He tweeted that QAnon was a “fabrication” that should have “no place in Congress.” This earned him a quick rebuke from the Trump campaign’s deputy director of communications, Matt Wolking, who asked why Kinzinger wasn’t denouncing “conspiracy theories pushed by Democrats” like former British spy Christopher Steele's dossier on Trump.

Note the artful dodge here, whereby Wolking evades the question of QAnon’s veracity by changing the subject. Of course, most Republicans are fully aware that QAnon peddles absurdities and falsehoods. But they’re afraid to cross Donald Trump, and they think QAnon can help them win in November.

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The story of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society should make them think again. Pressed by Buckley, Goldwater issued a letter rejecting Robert Welch’s views. But he also insisted that Welch did not speak for “most members” of the society, who contributed heavily to his 1964 campaign.

That boomeranged on Goldwater, who lost in one of the biggest landslides in American history. He got tagged as an “extremist,” in part because he refused to dissociate from the Birchers. Appeasing nutty conspirators wasn't just cowardly and dishonest; it was bad politics, too. And a few Republicans were starting to get that by Thursday. If Democrats take over the Senate, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told NBC News, “garbage like this will be a big part of why they won.” He added: “Real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”

William F. Buckley got it right the first time. If the GOP throws in its lot with QAnon, it will lose credibility with decent-minded voters. They know that our grave national problems can’t be explained away by outlandish conspiracy theories. The only question is whether Republican leaders will have the courage to stand up and say so.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.


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