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    Republican Voters Take a Radical Conspiracy Theory Mainstream

    DALTON, Ga. — Sitting in the local Republican office most days is a lifelong conservative named Diane Putnam, who got her first taste of politics when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and she was a little girl telling people that she liked Ike.

    She still does. But these days, what really grabs Ms. Putnam’s attention is talk of a satanic criminal conspiracy hatched by a cabal of “deep state” child molesters who are seeking to take down President Trump. In other words, she believes in QAnon. She insists she is just one of many.

    “The large majority of people, they understand about QAnon,” Ms. Putnam, the Republican chairwoman of this small Georgia city, said in a recent interview.

    “Those that don’t know,” she added, “they have not looked into really what it’s about.”

    Across the country, Republicans like Ms. Putnam — longstanding party members who could hardly be described as fringe radicals — are embracing QAnon. The followers of this online phenomenon believe that the Democratic establishment and much of the Republican elite are deeply corrupt, and that Mr. Trump was delivered to save America from both. Urged on by the president, whose espousal of conspiracy theories has only intensified in the waning weeks of his campaign, QAnon adherents are pushing such ideas into the conservative mainstream alongside more traditional issues like low taxes and limited government.

    QAnon’s growing influence inside the Trump campaign was underscored when the president again refused to condemn the movement after he was asked about it at his town hall in Miami on Thursday night. Mr. Trump, who over the summer praised QAnon adherents for their love of America, first claimed to know nothing of the movement and then, when pressed, said: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”

    There was no acknowledgment of the real-world violence inspired by QAnon, which has prompted a pre-election crackdown by social media networks, with YouTube last week becoming the latest platform to attempt to stop its spread. But dozens of recent interviews in Georgia and other parts of the country offered insights into the pull of a movement that has migrated far beyond the confines of the internet and, much like the Tea Party before it, plays to the sense of grievance on which Mr. Trump’s political career was built.

    People “feel left out,” said McKray Kyer, 24, the local Republicans’ vice chairman. QAnon, with its focus on criminal “elites,” helped them understand why. “It’s not about what we’re doing wrong — it’s the swamp.”

    Mr. Kyer said he had looked into QAnon and was not sure what he believed. But many others interviewed said they believed in some or most of QAnon, and a significant portion of those who did not know the movement’s name were familiar with its themes, especially its talk of rampant child trafficking and devil worship among powerful elites.

    Yet the movement is elastic, drawing on any number of well-worn tropes. Even people who explicitly dismissed QAnon as lunacy often volunteered similar conspiracy theories. There was talk of how the pandemic was an outright hoax or, at the very least, being wildly overblown. Many people repeated racist theories about former President Barack Obama or the anti-Semitic notion that the financier George Soros controls the political system.

    “It’s a real undercurrent in the party,” said Jason Anavitarte, 42, a Republican running for the Georgia State Senate. “It’s QAnon; it’s other conspiracy theories. We hear them every day.”

    Or as Michael Conley, 42, a Trump supporter and QAnon adherent from Hagerstown, Md., put it: “Everybody’s talking about it.”

    Though there has been little public polling, there is growing anecdotal evidence that QAnon followers now make up a small but significant minority of Republicans. Adherents are running for Congress and flexing their political muscles at the state and local levels. The movement’s growth has picked up pace since the onset of the pandemic in March, and its potency is clear on social media — before Facebook banned QAnon content earlier this month, there were thousands of dedicated Facebook groups with millions of members.

    The phenomenon can be seen at Trump rallies, where people wearing QAnon shirts and hats are commonplace; at one recent rally in Las Vegas, the parents of a toddler in a QAnon shirt gamely posed for pictures with stranger after stranger. It was on display outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where QAnon adherents gathered to support Mr. Trump after he was hospitalized with the coronavirus. (Other QAnon adherents questioned whether the president had been hospitalized at all.)

    Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

    Susan Cooper, 59, an insurance agent in nearby Calhoun estimated that between 20 percent and 25 percent of her friends had bought into QAnon, though she had not. Others interviewed offered a similar assessment, and said it was a varied group — young and old, male and female, poor and prosperous, urban and rural.

    “It’s women that I talk to,” Ms. Cooper said. “These women are sharp ladies — these women are women out of Atlanta, out of California, and friends of mine that are literally all over the country because of the company that I work with — and they firmly believe this.”

    QAnon is spreading among evangelical Christians, too. The Biblical Recorder, a Southern Baptist newspaper in Cary, N.C., recently warned of its dangers. “Christians should reject the movement’s fanatical and dangerous messages,” wrote Seth Brown, the paper’s executive editor.

    Many of the Republican Party’s leaders and powerful donors are similarly concerned, as are a great many voters. Yet few high-profile Republicans have spoken out, demonstrating the thin line they are trying to walk between the moderate voters they need to win over and the members of their base who adore Mr. Trump.

    “It’s a pro-Trump movement; QAnon is not of the Republican Party,” said Dr. John Cowan, 45, a supporter of the president who ran in this year’s primary for a House seat representing northwest Georgia. “It leaves no room between the president and Republican ideals and philosophy.”

    Dr. Cowan, a neurosurgeon, has seen up close the political impact of QAnon. He was trounced in the runoff by Marjorie Taylor Greene, 46, perhaps the most unabashed QAnon supporter running for Congress. She was caught on Facebook videos that surfaced earlier this year making offensive remarks about Black people, Jews and Muslims and openly courted the most extreme elements of the party’s base during her primary campaign, presenting herself as the most loyal Trump supporter in the race.

    “It’s corrupting the debate in the Republican Party,” Dr. Cowan said of QAnon, “because you can’t separate yourself from the president in any way if you want to win.

    “It really is the religion of Trump devotees.”

    The prophet of QAnon is “Q,” a purported government insider with a high-level security clearance who began posting cryptic messages in 2017 about the deep state trying to destroy the president. Followers pore over and interpret the postings — known as “Q drops” — and a core belief is that an apocalyptic showdown will smash the child-trafficking cabal and transform America. They call the transformation the “Great Awakening.”

    At the center of the myth is Mr. Trump, often depicted as uniquely gifted with the abilities and fortitude needed to save America. The portrayal is taken straight out of his own playbook. From the moment he accepted the Republican nomination in 2016 and declared, “I alone can fix it,” to his claim earlier this month that catching the coronavirus was a “blessing from God” allowing him to stumble upon a miracle cure, the president has sought to present himself as a singular figure in history.

    Credit…Allison Farrand for The New York Times

    His most ardent supporters, especially QAnon believers, have amplified and further exaggerated his imagined powers. An entire cottage industry of online memes is devoted to photoshopping the president into famous great-man images, like the iconic painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. It can now be found online with a grinning Mr. Trump pasted over the face of America’s first president.

    At other times, Mr. Trump is treated as something close to divine. After the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, a prominent QAnon promoter, Brenden Dilley, told listeners of his radio show that Mr. Trump was blessed with “god-tier genetics.”

    That same reverence was on display at Q Con Live!, a QAnon convention held in late August in Jacksonville, Fla. Much of the program was given over to extolling the accomplishments of Mr. Trump. The words “glory” and “glorious” came up often.

    “He has been gifted with abilities to do things that nobody else would even attempt or could actually accomplish,” said David Martin, 58, a Navy veteran.

    Mr. Martin, like most QAnon supporters, was certain the movement had the president’s support, a belief Mr. Trump and some of those around him appear to have encouraged well before his comments on Thursday night.

    In August, the president described followers of QAnon — several of whom have been charged with murder, domestic terrorism and planned kidnapping — as “people that love our country.” His children and aides have shared social media posts related to the movement, their messaging becoming more explicit as Mr. Trump’s poll numbers have dropped. His former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — a man seen in pro-Trump circles as a martyr unfairly persecuted in the Russia investigation — posted a video this summer of himself taking what is known as the QAnon digital soldier oath.

    The messages have been taken up by people like Bob Cox, 62, a retired construction worker who lives in Aragon, a small town about an hour outside Atlanta. He had little doubt that the political elite was rife with pedophiles, and he knew how he would handle them.

    “If people like that come in my neighborhood, I will shoot them,” he said. “I will absolutely do it.”

    But he was banking on Mr. Trump to take care of the problem first.

    “All this stuff is getting started through Soros,” Mr. Cox added. “He needs to be considered an enemy of the state, and Trump is on top of that. He knows.”

    They began streaming into the Republican Party office in Dalton — the self-described “Carpet Capital of the World,” a city of nearly 34,000 about 1.5 hours from Atlanta — around dusk on a warm September day, husbands and wives, small groups of friends, young Republicans aspiring to careers in politics. They had come to see Marjorie Taylor Greene.

    She is one of the more than dozen Republicans running for Congress who have signaled some degree of support for QAnon. Most are almost certain to be defeated in November, like Jo Rae Perkins, the long-shot Senate candidate in Oregon who posted a video in May declaring, “I stand with Q and the team,” and followed up in June with another video of herself taking the QAnon digital soldier oath. Others have a chance to win, including Lauren Boebert, who defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in a sprawling district in Colorado.

    But it is Ms. Greene, alone among QAnon candidates, who is considered a near lock to win a seat in Congress, and her campaign has turned Georgia’s 14th Congressional District into a ground zero of sorts for the transformation of QAnon into a political movement. She is, after all, the candidate who called QAnon “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out.”

    That might be a hindrance elsewhere, but not here. “In this district, it can have benefits,” said Mr. Kyer, the local party vice chairman.

    Ms. Greene’s district, which stretches from the northern exurbs of Atlanta all the way to the Tennessee border, is overwhelmingly white and Republican. Mr. Trump won upward of 70 percent of the vote in most parts of the district in 2016. Incomes in many areas are far below the national average, and railing against immigrants and foreign manufacturing plays well here. So does QAnon.

    Credit…C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press, via Associated Press

    “We’re all aware of that pedophilia stuff,” Mr. Kyer explained. “But it’s also about how they’ve” — the elites, that is — “been getting us into wars, just abusing power, taking advantage of the common middle-class people. It really hits home with a lot of people, whether they know all the details or not.”

    If Mr. Kyer was unsure about what he believed, others at the meeting were far more certain. Among those who subscribed to QAnon — the crowd appeared to be split evenly between believers and nonbelievers — many said they had learned about the movement from social media, and they ran the gamut from young digital natives to retirees who spent their days on Facebook, staying connected with old friends and being bombarded by disinformation.

    Greta Hollis, 63, was typical. Though she had always considered herself a Republican, she said, politics had never much interested her. She saw Washington as a place where everyone was hustling to make a buck, not trying to help ordinary people. Then Mr. Trump ran for president, and said he was doing it to help people like her. She believed him.

    She used to think greed was the driving force in politics. “But how much money can somebody need?” Ms. Hollis said. “The more that greed and the money didn’t make sense, I knew there had to be something else.”

    QAnon, she said, showed her what that was, and explained why Mr. Trump was facing so much resistance from Democrats and even some Republicans. “All the pedophilia, all that kind of thing, the politics are so deep into that, I believe that,” she said.

    Then there were people like Ms. Putnam, the party chairwoman, who is in her 70s. She has served the local Republican Party in some capacity for most of the past 30 years. Her views, Ms. Putnam said, have evolved with the party, but she added, “I’ve always been a true conservative.”

    She acknowledged that meant something different back when she was a girl. “There wouldn’t be that much difference between Dwight Eisenhower and any of the Democrats,” she said. “And even going back to John Kennedy, even though he was a Democrat and everyone knew that he was more liberal than the conservative Republican, still his political policies were not so drastically different.”

    In her estimation, what changed was the proliferation of news sources on the internet — “people’s eyes began to be open to what was really happening” — and, most recently, Mr. Trump’s decision to run for president.

    “Once he came down the escalator and announced his candidacy, people knew from the beginning he would be different,” Ms. Putnam said. “He couldn’t be bought; he doesn’t take his salary. So he can’t be manipulated or controlled by financial contributions. He’s his own man.”

    She, too, was drawn to QAnon after seeing the resistance to Mr. Trump in Washington.

    “People know there’s more going on than the public is aware of,” she said. “Donald Trump is trying to expose all of the corruption.”

    Ms. Greene, for her part, does her best to play it straight, now that she is in a general election, facing a somewhat broader ideological array of voters. Her stump speech makes no mention of QAnon or shadowy suspicions, and there is little hint of the unhinged conspiracy theorist that she was portrayed as by her opponents in the primary.

    A political novice who declined an interview request, Ms. Greene knows how to work a crowd like a veteran. She cracks jokes and dispenses with any trappings of formality. Most important, she leaves little doubt where she stands on Mr. Trump.

    After getting up to speak in Dalton, the first thing she did was push aside the lectern and replace it with a cardboard cutout of the president.

    “I just love this guy,” she said.

    Jennifer Medina contributed reporting from Las Vegas.

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