Q-ing Up

In 2018 Mark Leibovich wrote about the difficulty of covering a president whose motivations could rarely be distilled from cold logic. Understanding the average politician is easy—simply assume that their every action is devoted to winning their next election and you’ll predict their behavior 95 percent of the time. Understanding Donald Trump requires donning hip-waders and trudging through a bog of ego, grievance, rage, and insecurity with small mounds of rational strategic thinking scattered here and there.

Because of his, shall we say, mercurial nature, reporters had developed a habit of including reflections on Trump’s “mood” in their political analyses, Leibovich noted. We didn’t hear much about Barack Obama’s mood as president. We don’t hear much about Joe Biden’s, or Mitch McConnell’s or Kevin McCarthy’s for that matter. The Trump “mood beat” is a singular phenomenon driven by the uncomfortable fact that the 45th president is plainly, alarmingly unstable. Sorry: “mercurial.”

So when his behavior turns conspicuously more “mercurial,” it’s worth paying some attention.

Nine days ago America was treated to this spectacle at his rally in Ohio:

One can’t blame Trump for what the crowd did, you might say. Members of his team swore to CNN that they hadn’t anticipated it and didn’t know what it meant. (“Once we saw that, we realized we might have a problem.”) But the odd musical cue that played as he spoke and which appears to have triggered the gesturing turns out to bear a strong resemblance to a song called “Wwg1wga,” an abbreviation for “Where We Go One, We Go All.” That’s the QAnon slogan. It’s thought that those who raised their index fingers upon hearing the tune did so to symbolize their allegiance to the group’s concept of all as “one.”

Judge for yourself how likely it is in that context that Team Trump’s musical choice was coincidental. Or whether it says something good or bad about America that we now have fringe political subcultures so insular yet well-organized that salutes can be shared and understood by crowds while remaining completely inscrutable to outsiders.

One might give Trump the benefit of the doubt about the music, all the same. But what about this post at his social media platform, Truth Social, which preceded the Ohio rally by a few days?

In late August he made another allusion to Q via a “retruth” (Truth Social’s version of a retweet):

That was posted a day after he demanded to be reinstated as president, an idea so, ah, mercurial that even Fox News anchors were left cringing at it. 

Last Friday brought Trump’s deepest dive yet into Q lore when he “retruthed” a fan video brimming with cult iconography. A Daily Beast reporter screencapped the highlights:

The most one can say in defense of that is that it wasn’t the most “mercurial” content he amplified last week.

His long-running game of footsie with QAnon has clearly turned more intimate. But why? “F—  if I know,” said one ally to Rolling Stone, a reminder that making sense of Trump’s mind is challenging even for those who know him best. Put on your hip-waders and let’s slog through the possibilities, from least to most sinister.

He’s trolling.

We shouldn’t underestimate the willingness of the world’s biggest troll to do something that damages himself and his party purely for the lulz of seeing normies sputter over it. “He’s said that he thinks some of [QAnon’s] memes and images are ‘funny,’” one person close to Trump told Rolling Stone. “He also sometimes mentions that it’s hilarious to make people like you [in the media] so mad when you see him touch the Q sh-t.” But would a former president really do something so cruel and reckless as to promote an honest-to-goodness cult, one with a growing body count, for the simple spiteful pleasure of pwning CNN?

Well, yes, he would. Undoubtedly.

The flaw in the theory that Trump is trolling isn’t that he’s too responsible a citizen to egg on bloodthirsty conspiracy theorists, God knows. The flaw is the timing. Trolling doesn’t explain why he would lean harder into QAnon at this moment. The only logical possibility would be that he’s bored. I don’t think he’s bored.

He’s panicked.

Trump is facing six distinct legal investigations. The attorney general of New York is suing him and his children for alleged business fraud and has referred the matter to criminal prosecutors. The district attorney of Fulton County in Georgia is talking about prison sentences stemming from her election-tampering probe. The attorney general of the United States might charge him for trying to overturn the 2020 election or for absconding from the White House with classified documents or both. The special master in the documents case, who was handpicked by Trump’s team because they assumed he’d be sympathetic to their cause, is demanding that they put up or shut up on their claims about the FBI planting evidence and Trump having supposedly declassified some of the documents.

Oh, and he’s about to sued civilly for sexual assault.

He’s stressed out, and people under immense stress often turn to visceral pleasures for relief. Some drink. Some binge eat. Some, perhaps, revel in adulatory fantasies that they’re leading a crusade against a cabal of Satanic pedophiles. Would a toxic narcissist bury himself in happy lies to ease his pain from certain unhappy truths?

We answered that question after the 2020 election, no?

He’s starting to believe it.

Related to the last theory, one can never be sure how bright the line is in Trump’s mind between things he wants to believe but knows are false and things he’s brought himself to believe because he badly wants them to be true. I argued on Friday that he and Vladimir Putin may be similarly prone to getting high on their own supply of propaganda, indoctrinating their audiences with cynical nonsense about rigged elections and Ukraine’s Russian identity and then being indoctrinated themselves when yes-men relentlessly parrot back their own nonsense to them.

Conceivably Trump has spent the last 18 months having Q-bots privately chirping at him about “the cabal” and his heroic efforts to save the world’s children from its clutches. If Sidney Powell could convince him of a massive vote-rigging conspiracy that somehow traces back to long-dead Hugo Chavez, convincing him that all of his political enemies are blood-drinking child molesters should be child’s play. He’s primed psychologically to believe anything about them, and QAnon certainly qualifies as “anything.”

The catch with this theory is that, unlike the “stolen election” narrative, Trump himself is at the heart of the QAnon narrative. Literally no one on Earth knows better than he does that he’s not steering some covert government operation to bust child traffickers. Then again, this is a man who thinks he can declassify documents through the power of his mind. Only the naive would underestimate the outlandishness of the ideas he’s capable of entertaining.

He’s being strategic.

Trump must have read with dismay the ecstatic response in conservative media to Ron DeSantis shipping migrants from Texas up to Martha’s Vineyard. That was an act of lib-owning audacity worthy of Trump himself, right down to the allegations of fraud and possibility of criminal charges. DeSantis has become Trump’s only plausible rival for the 2024 nomination because of his skill at practicing the politics of spite that populists relish. And if he cruises to victory in Florida this fall, as everyone expects, he’ll marry that populist credibility to a sense of electability that Trump can’t hope to match.

Trump must feel threatened by DeSantis, then, and understandably so given last week’s poll showing the younger man leading him in his home state of Florida. And if he does feel threatened, he might instinctively try to “out-populist” DeSantis to reassert himself as undisputed leader of the MAGA right. There aren’t many easy ways to do that since DeSantis has spent the last two years pandering to populists at every opportunity. But one way he can do it is by going whole hog on QAnon insanity, a bit of “one of us” authenticity that DeSantis can’t emulate lest he risk his electability credentials.

In a sane Republican Party, Trump kowtowing to a cult for electoral advantage would instantly disqualify him among voters. In the Republican Party we have, DeSantis wouldn’t dare so much as call Trump out on it during a primary for fear of alienating QAnoners. There are too many of them for him to summarily kiss off all of them by dismissing them as nuts. The moronic convergence between normies and kooks requires certain compromises.

Which is what makes the “strategic” theory of Trump’s Q-pandering sinister. He may have concluded that being overtly pro-QAnon isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a liability for Republican politicians at this point.

He’s practicing barely veiled stochastic terrorism.

The darkest theory of Trump’s motivations is that there’s more than psychological “stress-eating” behind his interest in Q amid his legal troubles. John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

A more likely theory, put forward by the Post’s Philip Bump, is that Trump is effectively asking QAnon to “stand back and stand by” for his 2024 election campaign, just as, during a September, 2020, Presidential debate, he asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” That sounds plausible. But it seems at least equally possible that Trump is motivated by a more immediate concern—the multiple state and federal investigations of his conduct—and that he’s signalling to prosecutors that he won’t go quietly, so they had better beware.

[I]n whipping up his supporters, moving closer to QAnon, and claiming that the American people wouldn’t stand for an indictment, Trump is reminding Attorney General Merrick Garland and his colleagues that the stakes are very high. And that, even if some of the candidates he has endorsed in the midterms are lagging in the polls, and even though there reportedly were many empty seats at his Youngstown rally, he still has a mass movement that is fanatically loyal to him, and which has already demonstrated, on January 6, 2021, that it contains elements willing to resort to violence on his behalf. He doesn’t have to say all this out loud. It is self-evident.

Trump is an old hand at issuing threats in the form of “predictions” or, surreally, as offers to help keep the peace. He did it in 2016 when he warned that his fans would riot if he were denied the nomination at the Republican convention. He’s done it again recently by repeatedly stressing his belief that domestic unrest will result if the DOJ indicts him. Whenever he’s called on these intimidation tactics he claims that he’s worried about violence and is broadcasting his fear in hopes of averting it. Then he goes right back to manically inciting his fans about the latest “witch hunt” at Truth Social.

He’s like a mobster shaking down a business owner by saying, “Nice shop you have. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.” Then, when the police confront him about it, he insists that he meant it sincerely. “I said it’d be a ‘shame,’ didn’t I?”

Flirting with QAnon might be Trump’s way of reminding Merrick Garland that he has a cult at his disposal, one whose members have killed before and will probably kill again. “What is extremely dangerous based on past histories of cults, is that as they come near the end, as the leader is threatened, they get more and more dangerous,” former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi recently told MSNBC. “And they do something cult experts call ‘forcing the end.’” A source told Rolling Stone that Trump has been known to comment privately that QAnoners have “the right idea” in loathing “the deep state,” an organism embodied by his antagonists in the DOJ and FBI.

It’s a nice country we have. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.

Only Trump knows which of the five theories best explains his Q-naissance, to the extent he’s capable of understanding his own patterns of thought. But if he continues playing up to QAnon and Republicans sweep the midterms anyway, a lesson will be learned: There’s no political cost to the party in its leader embracing a cult. To the contrary. What sort of incentives might result from that I leave to the reader to deduce.

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