The Extreme Goes Mainstream in Oregon

QAnon supporters at 2018 Trump rally (photo: CNN)

There was a time when we might have been shocked to read that Oregon Republicans have nominated an extremist who believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory to be their candidate for U.S. senator this fall against incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley.

“Where we go one, we go all. I stand with President Trump, I stand with Q and the team,” Jo Rae Perkins triumphantly tweeted, quoting the QAnon rallying cry in a video that garnered more than 141,000 views before it was taken down. “Thank you Anons, and thank you patriots. Together, we can save our republic.”

As her qualifications for public office, Perkins described herself in a League of Women Voters candidate interview as a semi-retired insurance agent, married to a carpet installation contractor. She said that she ran for the Senate because she believes we need “an everyday person” in the job, somebody like her “who hasn’t spent my whole life in politics,” someone who “has been out there in mainstream America.”

It’s axiomatic that extremism’s adherents want to present themselves as conventional and reasonable — “as American as apple pie,” the cliché always had it — but the QAnon movement is anything but a conventional, reasonable and mainstream ideology. The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked and analyzed extremist movements for many decades, describes the QAnon conspiracy theory as the belief “that almost every president in recent American history up until Donald Trump has been a puppet put in place by a global elite of power brokers hell bent on enriching themselves and maintaining their Satanic child-murdering sex cult.”

In this there are echoes of earlier radical-Right ideologies: Robert Welch, the candy magnate and founder of the John Birch Society, infamously claimed in a 1958 screed, titled “The Politician,” that President Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in WWII and president of Columbia University, was “entirely without principles and hungry for glory,” a “tool of the Communists,” and suggested that he was guilty of “deliberate treason.”

As for today’s version, anti-Semitism and xenophobia unsurprisingly feature big in QAnon lore, ADL notes, with believers convinced that, “the Cabal,” or “Deep State,” has infiltrated and taken over the Catholic Church, the banking system, the media, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Students of history will recognize the QAnon conspiracy as a kind of greatest-hits anthology of every major conspiracy theory reaching back to the purported Illuminati plots of the late 18th century, and that notorious Czarist concoction, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. International financiers, Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, foreigners, the FBI, the CIA, the media, the medical profession, the scientific community — the plot is as elastic and all-encompassing as the fevered imagination of its paranoid promoters can conjure it.

Moreover, students of modern American politics will recall that this is not even the first time that a candidate of extreme views has captured a major party nomination. The best-known example is the former neo-Nazi and white supremacist David Duke, who ran for state and national office several times and was even elected in 1989 for a single term in the Louisiana House of Representatives. In 1980, Tom Metzger, a San Diego-area white supremacist and one-time KKK protégé of Duke’s, won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat. And in 1986, two members of the Lyndon LaRouche political cult won the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state in Illinois.

In those instances, the parties renounced extremism and repudiated their candidates. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush denounced Duke, and his former campaign manager Lee Atwater, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, declared in a statement that, “David Duke is not a Republican,’’ adding that, “We repudiate him in his views and we are taking immediate steps to see that he is disenfranchised from our party.” After Metzger won his Democratic primary, the Democratic National Committee chair condemned Metzger as “a stain on our political system” and vowed that, “he will receive not one penny of party assistance nor one iota of support.” Instead, national, state and local Democratic Party officials formally endorsed the Republican incumbent, Rep. Clair Burgener. And in 1986, the week after the Illinois Democratic primary, the entire mainstream Democratic state ticket declared in a statement,“We are announcing emphatically and unequivocally that we cannot and will not run with these bizarre extremists.” Despite the risk of splitting the ballot and losing to Republicans in the fall, the Democrats vowed, “that is a small price for a message that our Democratic Party is united . . . against the madness of Lyndon LaRouche and his small band of neo-Nazis.”

But that was then, and this is now: Jo Rae Perkins is an enthusiastic supporter of President Trump, who repeatedly retweets from accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy. When asked by the Washington Post about party support for Perkins in the general election, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, could only equivocate: “I’ll have to learn more about it, but the NRSC tends to support Republican candidates, as you know.”

This November, we will soon see in Oregon and elsewhere whether the Republican Party will walk away from the abyss of conspiratorial extremism, or whether the president and his followers like Jo Rae Perkins will hurl us straight into it.

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Radio and print editorialist, documentarian, columnist, political press aide, journalism instructor, digital essayist

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