The Twitter account of Sam Williams, a Republican congressional candidate from El Paso, has the usual trappings of a conservative seeking office in Texas. Hashtags in his bio show support for the Second Amendment, President Trump, and “Keeping America Great.” He often tweets throughout the day, sometimes attacking Democratic incumbent Veronica Escobar or retweeting endorsements from likeminded #Patriots. But threaded among the more benign messages that he blasts to his nearly 45,000 followers are references to QAnon, a fringe conspiracy theory the FBI has warned is a potential domestic terrorism threat.
Supporters of QAnon often tag their social media posts with a slogan: Where We Go One We Go All. There are multiple examples of Williams using the #WWG1WGA hashtag in his own campaign tweets in 2018 and 2019, among other QAnon winks such as #PatriotsAwakened. These days, however, he retweets accounts that use Qanon hashtags or handles.
On June 10, for example, he retweeted a claim that Hillary Clinton lost a court appeal “over emails about child molestation, torture (and) trafficking” with a reference to Pizzagate, the baseless conspiracy theory that led a believer to fire an assault rifle in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in 2016. A couple of days later, Williams shared a tweet from an account with a Q avatar. The all-caps missive warned that “many, many” will be executed for their crimes against humanity, such as murdering children to obtain adrenochrome, a chemical compound that QAnon theorists believe is extracted from kids. Other QAnon tweets that he boosted cast doubt on the killing of George Floyd, including one that wondered why Floyd’s casket was closed during his memorial.
As demonstrators around the country protested police brutality, Williams retweeted a warning about a race war. In other tweets, he questioned whether, with the help of U.S. representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim from Minnesota, sharia law could replace American policing in Minneapolis. He insinuated that Escobar “was calling the shots” during a protest in El Paso. And after sharing two photos of backpacks that he described as “very concerning,” he retweeted an account that asked: “Is the left planting bombs around cities now?”
Irene Armendariz-Jackson, Williams’s opponent in the GOP runoff for the Sixteenth Congressional District, has also engaged with Q content online, which means that no matter how the vote goes, Republicans in El Paso appear poised to nominate someone who has at least entertained the movement’s ideas. But Williams told Texas Monthly that the QAnon conspiracy theory “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” He also doesn’t buy into Pizzagate, he said, and he doesn’t think Floyd is alive.
“A retweet doesn’t mean you agree with something,” he said. “Some of the stuff is just hilarious honestly.” Why, then, did he use the QAnon slogan in his tweets? “I did that to gain followers,” he said, “to be honest with you.”
It’s difficult to divine intent from the online language of likes, shares, and retweets. But there’s no doubt conspiracy theories like QAnon, which started in the shadows of anonymous message boards, have migrated to mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Republican elected officials and candidates are now publicly engaging with ideas rooted in an entirely unsubstantiated belief: that an anonymous government official known as “Q” posts classified information online about an elitist plot to undermine President Trump. In this narrative, Trump is leading a secret operation to thwart a “deep state” conspiracy involving a global cabal of satanic pedophiles including Clinton and actress Hilary Duff. Former special counsel Robert Mueller is working with Trump to arrest these criminals, and to prevent a coup.
Trump has promoted several conspiracy theories, so perhaps it’s not surprising that a growing number of his supporters seeking elected office do the same. If the president is willing to retweet QAnon accounts, why shouldn’t Bexar County GOP chair Cynthia Brehm like a tweet that says “the pedophile elite must be getting really nervous. #QAnon #GreatAwakening #MAGA”?
Sam Williams is unlikely to serve as El Paso’s next congressman. He led in the primary with about 31 percent of the vote, but even if he beats Armendariz-Jackson in the runoff on July 14, Escobar is almost certain to hold onto this deeply Democratic district.
Still, whichever Republican wins the runoff, the party will be represented by a Q-friendly candidate in November. Armendariz-Jackson has retweeted at least one account that supports Q. The message seemed fairly benign—a meme about how Generation X is “the last real great generation.” But she’s also liked tweets that explicitly support QAnon and use its hashtags. “NEED FOLLOWERS PLEASE JUMP ABOARD AND LET’S GET THIS Q TRAIN GOING NEXT STOP FREEDOM,” read one message she liked this month.
She sounded unfamiliar with the word “QAnon,” but pressed on certain details—a deep state plot against the president, a satanic global cabal, politicians and celebrities trafficking children—she was unequivocal.
“Conservatives know there is a conspiracy—a deep state conspiracy,” she said. The Democratic party is “very much intertwined with the satanic church,” and the bodies of aborted babies are used to promote satanic worship. She described once driving by a condemned building in Omaha, Nebraska, where politicians and celebrities had sex with children.
The longer Trump is in power, the more Armendariz-Jackson believes these secrets will be exposed. “I know a lot of Americans are waking up to understand the darkness behind everything going on right now,” she said.
According to a running list of what Media Matters describes as QAnon supporters running for Congress in 2020, sixty current or former candidates have amplified the conspiracy theory in some way. (Armendariz-Jackson didn’t make the list.) Among the six Texans on the list as of June 2, two have dropped out and another two lost their primary challenges. Republican Johnny Teague, who will face Democratic incumbent Al Green in the Ninth Congressional District in November, has retweeted QAnon content, Media Matters reported, including a video of supporters giving an oath promoting the conspiracy theory.
It’s not just congressional candidates who embrace Q. In April, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy wrote about several North Texas Republican politicians who have seemingly promoted Q, including Colleyville mayor pro tem Bobby Lindamood, who in April posted the Q symbol on his Facebook page. Lindamood told Texas Monthly he first saw it in a video that appealed to his patriotism, and liked the sound of “Where We Go One We Go All.” He shared the symbol not knowing about QAnon, he said, but he soon heard from followers of the conspiracy theory from all over the country who were eager to connect. Asked whether he would now describe himself as a QAnon supporter, he said, “I don’t know if I would or wouldn’t. I haven’t dove into it. I believe in being united, I believe in our president, but I don’t know about conspiracies.”
Skyler Blalock, chair of the Republican Party in Zavala County, ninety miles southwest of San Antonio, has liked tweets with the QAnon slogan and a screenshot of a message from an “Anon” that claims “Q is here, POTUS is most definitely either being briefed on what we say or is reading the board directly.” But he offered a novel explanation: His mom did it. Blalock hasn’t used Twitter in years, he said, yielding control of the account to his mother. “I’m not a supporter myself,” he added.
Cynthia Brehm of San Antonio, one of several Texas GOP county chairs who have posted racist messages online, has liked several QAnon tweets. She didn’t respond to Texas Monthly’s questions about them but some of her recent public comments have echoed posts from Q about the coronavirus pandemic. “All of this has been promulgated by the Democrats to undo all of the good that President Trump has done for our country,” Brehm said at a rally in May. Then she urged people to take off their face masks.
Recasting the pandemic as a Democrat-sponsored hoax is one way QAnon supporters are connecting with new audiences. Major news events can be recruiting opportunities. But the movement also leans on patriotic images like bald eagles to lure in those unaware of QAnon’s underpinnings. QAnon promoters have “kind of exploited and weaponized a lot of patriotic American symbols to create dog whistles for wild and rabid and horrible” conspiracy theories, said Benjamin Decker, the founder of Memetica, a digital investigations consulting company, who studies the spread of disinformation online.
That trend was apparent during the 2018 midterms, when QAnon became increasingly popular among certain baby boomers, he said. Social media posts “designed to exploit emotions” would combine traditional Republican messages with hashtags “that subliminally point folks to a long-running conspiracy theory,” Decker said.
One tweet, liked by Dallas County GOP chair Rodney Anderson, for example, features a video of Hillary Clinton interspersed with photos of American diplomats and special-forces operators killed in the 2012 guerrilla attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, for which some Republicans blame Clinton and former president Obama. For years, Benghazi has been a political football but here it was tweeted by a QAnon account. (Anderson didn’t respond to interview requests.)
Governor Greg Abbott and other top Republican officials have denounced racist messages from Brehm and several other GOP county chairs, and called for them to resign. But few Republican officials have taken the same attitude toward colleagues who boost QAnon messages. Adolpho Telles, the GOP chair in El Paso County, says he’s heard of QAnon but hasn’t investigated it further. “It’s hard for me to believe that something like that would become mainstream,” he said. Unlike some of his colleagues who have suggested George Floyd’s death was a false flag, Telles said he knows Floyd is dead, though he thinks some of the protests have been “staged intentionally.” He also believes there’s a “deep state,” citing Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company as evidence. “It just amazes me how many (conspiracy theories) are out there and that doesn’t mean some of them aren’t real, but my plate is so full, I’m not going to pursue that particular trail,” he said.
At one point, Williams said, he did some reading about QAnon. But he pretty quickly decided that it “was just a bunch of crap.” He said he thinks a lot of people have turned to the movement just to be a part of something. “People fall into that trap of believing everything so quickly, unfortunately,” he said. “I guess that’s the nature of our society. They’re all looking for a cause to rally behind, right, wrong or indifferent.”
As we spoke about his campaign and issues such as manufacturing jobs and voting by mail, Williams screened a call from someone he called a “big conspiracy theorist.” “Oh, god, you have no idea,” he chuckled. “I deal with so much of that every day.” Sometimes, he said, you just have to disavow them.