The GOP’s ‘Secret Handshake’ to the QAnon Crowd at KBJ Hearings

Don't let anyone tell you that QAnon’s panting-mad conspiracies are only at the fringes of the Republican Party.

Mar 25 2022, 2:47pm

This content comes from the latest installment of our weekly Breaking the Vote newsletter out of VICE News’ D.C. bureau, tracking the ongoing efforts to undermine the democratic process in America. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.


The next time someone tries to tell you QAnon’s panting-mad conspiracies are only at the fringes of the Republican Party, and not teeming at its center, you’ll have your own eyes to believe, and plenty of YouTube links of this week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for backup.

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Using a SCOTUS spectacle to inflame cultural issues is nothing new. The reason “God, Gays and Guns” is on bumper stickers across America and on the one-sheets of GOP political consultants is almost entirely thanks to decades of conservative interest groups and lawmakers weaponizing the Supreme Court, and the culture war issues it adjudicates.

But this week, GOP senators with a yen to be seen, to preen, and above all, to get retweeted, tried something new. They barraged Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson with incredulous-sounding tirades about child-abuse imagery and “child pornographers,” and over two days, left the uninitiated with the yucky feeling that Jackson is not only empathetic toward those criminals but also might have some affinity for  them.

For less acquainted viewers, the sop to the sordid conspiracy of rampant child sex trafficking was just chronic exposure to QAnon. “You wouldn’t talk about the extreme stuff, but you would talk about how people in elite power are enabling traffickers,” Bond Benton, an associate professor at Montclair State University who has studied QAnon, told the New York Times. “That is a secret handshake to the Q crowd.”

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For the die-hards, it was a hit. They lit up their social media channels with recognition. Q personalities like Ron Watkins instantly knew to get on board (more on him below). 

That GOP Sen. Josh Hawley was a main conveyor of QAnon messaging in a Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court justice makes perfect sense. You know Hawley from his infamous fist-pump to Capitol Hill protesters who’d come to overturn an election on Jan. 6, moments before they became a rioting mob. (Hawley’s so ashamed of that impulse moment that he sells it on merch, and won’t stop even though he doesn’t own the copyright to the image.)


The Jackson-coddles-child-molesters charge is a Republican ruse. Judge Jackson’s sentencing was well within the practice of her peers. And her sentencing record in this arena was never an issue in the other three other times she faced Senate confirmation. The difference here was that people were watching (and the midterms are coming). 

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A smart and cynical operator like Hawley knows that QAnon’s bizarre, conspiratorial worldview is selectively obsessed with sexual abuse, but always anti-democratic. QAnon has morphed from an online club waiting for JFK and seeing sex traffickers in every shadow to a diffuse, stolen-election cult indistinguishable from the Trumpist base of the GOP. 

Several of Trump's hand-picked candidates to take over secretary of state offices in 2022 announced their coalition at a QAnon conference last summer. QAnon-inspired messaging about election security, COVID conspiracies, and returning Trump to power before 2024 are all over the GOP. 

And where were the committee’s Democrats while Hawley, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and a few others smuggled America’s most effective anti-democracy movement into their hearing? 

They did object to the attempt to smear Judge Jackson with QAnon sex-crimes slop. But there was no strong, sustained case for why such attacks are so damaging to democracy, and what’s at stake in the Supreme Court. 

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Yes, there were a few questions about the importance of voting rights. But no sustained alarms about the crisis of election subversion and the court’s role in preventing it; or the threat of glorifying lawlessness against fair voting; or attempts to abuse executive privilege and cover up an American coup attempt; or, maybe critically, the role the court could play in determining whether the next attempt to overturn or steal an election–this time with a 2020 practice run under the belt–will succeed or fail. 

Each of those crises could confront a Supreme Court that’s being increasingly scrutinized for conservative political activism. And each of them is, sadly, directly connected to the spread of QAnon and QAnon-adjacent conspiracies intertwined with Trumpism. 

Republicans like Hawley, who are happy to let authoritarianism swamp democracy if it serves their ambition, know how to use a Supreme Court spectacle to advance QAnon. It would be better if Democrats and Republicans of good faith who think that’s a bad thing would figure it out, too. 

T.W.I.S.™ Notes

This Week in Subpoenas is all about the guys who are ignoring their subpoenas. The January 6 committee is going to move Monday to hold Trump White House aides Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino in criminal contempt. Both men have refused to appear, saying Trump has executive privilege, which the actual Biden White House has not waived. 

The spouse that roared

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas appeared a couple weeks ago to assure everyone that her attendance at the Jan. 6 rally was brief and non-riotous, and that she never discusses her right-wing advocacy work with her husband, Justice Clarence Thomas. Was she aware then that the January 6 committee had 29 of her text messages with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows? 

The messages show Thomas frantically urging Meadows to fight to overturn the election and Meadows confirming that he’s working to do exactly that. They also show Thomas trafficking in all kinds of QAnon bullshit like watermarked ballots, claiming the Bidens were about to be sent to Guantanamo and tried in front of military tribunals, as well as sharing with Meadows a video from a conspiracist who claims the Sandy Hook school massacre was a false flag operation.  

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife and conservative activist Virginia Thomas while he waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

All this while her husband was ruling on lawsuits related to the election, including, potentially her own text messages to a senior White House official. By the way, who is Ginni Thomas’s “best friend”? If it’s her husband, it sure sounds like he knew she was intimately involved with advising, planning, and encouraging an attempt to overthrow the government, all while ruling on it.

Mo, Meadows… mo’ problems

Mark Meadows is facing possible criminal contempt charges for blowing off a subpoena from the January 6 committee. In some ways, that makes him just another Trump crony sneering at accountability as he (allegedly) flouts the law. And maybe you’ve already seen this movie. But have you seen the trailer? 

I’m talking the 14-foot-wide, 62-foot-long beauty at 495 McConnell Rd. in Scaly Mountain, North Carolina. That’s where Mark Meadows, patriotic warrior against voter fraud on behalf of a patriotic ex-president, registered to vote in 2020, and also never lived.

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Meadows voted absentee from the McConnell Rd. trailer in 2020. It seems that his wife, Debra, may have filed up to three false documents naming the trailer, where she also never lived, as their legal North Carolina residence. And now, Mark Meadows, who appears to have sat at the very center of a multi-front plot to overthrow the 2020 election in the name of rampant voter fraud, is under state investigation for… voter fraud. It’s unclear if Debra is too.

Meanwhile, while Mark Meadows was propelling Donald Trump’s crusade against voter fraud by (maybe) committing voter fraud, GOP Rep. Mo Brooks couldn’t even manage to keep fist-pumping  for Stop the Steal. 

Brooks lost Trump’s endorsement in his Alabama GOP Senate primary this week for, according to Trump, refusing to push the stolen election story any further.

It’s not that Brooks wasn’t down for the coup: He gave an incendiary speech at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally where he urged “American patriots (to) start taking down names and kicking ass.” He angled for Trumpist cred, bragging that he “led the charge” on claims of a stolen election way before it was cool.

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But Brooks is also languishing deep in third place in Alabama. And if there’s anything Trump hates more than an acolyte who won’t wear his brand, it’s one who’s losing while wearing his brand. How did Brooks respond? The way many on-the-outs former loyalists do: He essentially accused Trump of committing a crime. 

“President Trump asked me to rescind the 2020 elections, immediately remove Joe Biden from the White House, immediately put President Trump back in the White House, and hold a new special election for the presidency,” Brooks said in a statement.

That last part sure seems like Brooks telling us he knows that we know that the Jan. 6 committee is going to notice. I emailed the Brooks campaign for more clarification on what Brooks says Trump asked him to do, but I didn’t hear back. Brooks later went on TV with an interviewer, who asked, “What did he ask you, and what did you tell him?”

Brooks: He always brings up, “We’ve got to rescind the election. We gotta take Joe Biden out and put me in, now.”

Interviewer: He still says that?

Brooks: Yes. And I’m going, “Mr. President”... I’m giving him advice… I’m an attorney, I’ve read the law, I’ve read the Constitution. I know it. And I say, “Mr. President, you can’t do that. It’s unconstitutional.” 

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And where was Mark Meadows while Trump (according to Brooks) was urging his minions to rescind elections and remove duly elected presidents? According to a witness, the chief of staff to the president, who previously claimed no connection to Jan. 6, was helping organize the march to the Capitol that would soon become the riot. 

So, Mo Brooks is on his own in Alabama. Now that Trump has branded him “woke” for wanting to leave all the 2020 stuff behind, Brooks has found his inner Constitution. If he could have learned anything from Meadows, it’s that in Trumpworld, if you have to choose between the bit and the Constitution, always commit to the bit. 

Goodbye, Neumann

Who better to shield a most-wanted fugitive accused of rioting on Jan. 6 than a pro-Russian government helping Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine? Belarus is making an international show of granting asylum to Evan Neumann, a California man charged with several felonies, including assaulting police officers after he allegedly rammed them with a metal barricade. 

Naturally, the move has high propaganda value here in the U.S. Neumann popped up on Belarussian TV–not for the first time–to cast himself as a victim of political persecution, as the government granted him protection. “I feel safe in Belarus, especially compared to my compatriots in America,” he said. Meanwhile, Belarusian state-run media has suggested Jan. 6 was a “false flag” operation. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same line Trumpist elected officials deliver here. Convenient!

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Neumann fled to Belarus after Jan. 6, reportedly wading through swamps to enter the country illegally from Ukraine. He’s currently on the FBI’s most wanted list for his role in the Jan. 6 riot. 

Stop the Beals

A former aide to one of Virginia’s most prolific election conspiracists just got appointed the state’s new elections commissioner—only her boss says she’s not happy about it.  

Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase–a self-described “Trump in heels” who attended the Jan. 6. insurrection–helped GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin rally Trumpists to his cause in his successful bid for governor in 2021. In return, Chase made it clear she expected Youngkin to stack the state’s elections board with “Stop the Steal” activists. 

But apparently former Chase legislative aide Susan Beals doesn’t fit the bill. Chase complained that Beals refused to do “Stop the Steal” stuff like backing a statewide 2020 election audit, and called her former aide’s appointment a “travesty.” Beals still has to be approved by the state Senate.

Poor Mari-coping Skills — Why just live in 2020, when you can take it all the way back to 1958? Arizona Republicans just backed a new bill that would effectively eliminate mail-in voting and force the state’s 3.3 million-plus ballots to be counted by hand. The bill is called HB 2289, and in many ways it’s really an example of lawmakers in a full moral panic over voting. It also bans early voting, and requires results to be reported within 24 hours of polls closing, all without machines. 

The “back to 1958” thing isn’t a joke, either. Bill sponsor GOP Rep. John Fillmore said in January that Arizona “need(s) to get back to 1958-style voting,” a wistful reference to the pre-civil rights era when, by the way, Arizona had literacy tests for voting. As enthusiastic as the AZ GOP is about election subversion, even they might not be willing to require 2.5 million ballots in Maricopa County alone to be hand-counted in a single day. There’s talk of carving out some space for electronic machines. 

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Crazing Arizona — Arizona hand-counters could soon get a chance to enumerate one of QAnon’s most visible influencers. Ron Watkins is officially on the ballot. VICE News’ David Gilbert reported back in February on how it’s going with Watkins’ run for Congress (spoiler alert: not great).

They took oaths Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson got internet-famous for a minute after the Jan. 6 riot. That’s mostly because the pair, who posted to social media and gave press interviews, were both police officers from Rocky Mount, Virginia. This week Fracker pleaded guilty to conspiracy just days before his trial date and agreed to cooperate against Robertson. Both are now former officers, since they got fired. 

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Another rioter, who also happened to be an elected member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, also pleaded guilty this week. Derrick Evans was arrested two days after the insurrection and resigned from the House, before he even got to attend a session in Charleston.

Trump files lawsuit Donald Trump is suing Hillary Clinton and dozens of other people and entities, claiming they improperly impugned him by tying his 2016 campaign to Russia. Note to future jurors: Do NOT read the Mueller report or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on Russian Active Measures and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, vol. 5, pages 47-96; 137-169; 259-463.

“TRUMP STING w CIA Director Steve Pieczenik, The Biggest Election Story in History, QFS-BLOCKCHAIN.” — The title of a video Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sent to then-White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows. 

The real—and far scarier—reason Republicans think Biden is illegitimate THE GUARDIAN


A Republican fights voter fraud in his race (231 days before Election Day)
NEW YORK TIMES

How Putin badly misjudged the West, as explained by a Russia expert

THE WASHINGTON POST


Tagged:

russia, Trump, Putin, supreme court, conspiracy theories, voter fraud, Clarence Thomas, qanon, ketanji brown jackson, jan 6, Breaking the Vote

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