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Trump's Capitol rioters are back online - and they are shaping the future of American politics

Laurence Dodds
·7-min read
Capitol riot
Capitol riot

When prophecy fails, the prophets get creative. That was the lesson of Leon Festinger and his colleagues' 1956 study of an American UFO cult, who coined the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe how the cultists frantically rewrote their own beliefs after their predicted apocalypse failed to appear.

The inauguration of President Joe Biden has set off a similar scramble for meaning. The "Stop the Steal" protesters behind this month's violence at the Capitol were certain that they would expose a massive election fraud and keep Mr Trump in power. Many were adherents of the cult-like QAnon movement, which mixes evangelical Christianity with baroque conspiracy theories, who believed right up until last Wednesday that the "Satanist" Democrats were about to be liquidated in a military coup.

Instead, like the actual Lucifer and his angels in Paradise Lost, these extremist groups now find themselves cast out into a political netherworld: condemned by legislators, harried by law enforcement and exiled from mainstream social media. Mr Biden on Friday ordered a probe into domestic terrorism, while the FBI has arrested more than 100 people and may charge some with sedition.

Yet as movement leaders scramble to explain their prophecy's failure, the future of American politics – and particularly the Republican Party, which has often embraced their ideas – may be shaped by what their followers do next.

"I think QAnon as a vessel will be significantly damaged by the anticlimax," says Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former Senate fundraiser. But the isolation, frustration, and desperation it tapped into will find somewhere else to go."

Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman, in the US Capitol on Jan 6 - SAUL LOEB /AFP
Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman, in the US Capitol on Jan 6 - SAUL LOEB /AFP

The pro-Trump netherworld splinters

On fringe social networks such as Telegram and Gab, pro-Trump extremists are sharply divided. A flurry of new theories are competing to show how this month's events are all part of the plan, while some people struggle with doubts. "I want to believe you, but what we are seeing can't be fake," said one message seen by the Telegraph.

Mike Rains, who helps run a support group for people whose loved ones have been sucked into QAnon, says many of its "rank and file" are furious at its "promoters". "It will be harder to recruit, but the people in the movement now will be more extreme," Mr Rains says.

The chaos is already being exploited by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, among whom Gab and Telegram are widely used. The Telegraph saw many apparent attempts at channelling despair into recruitment, with certain users pointedly blaming Israel or Jews and posting links to archives of racist texts. Not everyone is receptive: one Telegram group leader complained of newcomers spreading vicious antisemitism. Some were kicked out, with the leader saying "this is not the Nazi group".

Conspiracy theories haunt the Republican Party

The bigger issue is what will happen to Mr Trump's base, and to the Republicans. Those groups are hard to entangle from QAnon and Stop the Steal because of how thoroughly Mr Trump and leading members of the party have adopted their platforms.

"A Venn diagram of those three circles shows that the overlap is growing," says Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and longtime party operative. He recalls how conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth certificate began to spread through the party's voters in 2009 and 2010, and later served as a springboard for Mr Trump's political career.

Liam Donovan describes the President as a man who "marinated in, ingratiated himself with" the Republican "fever swamp" – an "authentically conspiracy-minded" president who stoked these latent currents until they became inescapable. His prize was a fervent, energised and volatile support base, including first time voters and former Democrats, which many Republicans still fear to cross.

Even after the Capitol, 140 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted not to certify Mr Biden's victory, while 197 opposed Mr Trump's impeachment. The House Republican leader reversed his claim that Mr Trump was responsible for the violence after pressure from colleagues. Loyalist RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was re-elected without opposition. Two newly-elected House members have declared support for QAnon.

"Elected officials will move along with their constituents," says Mr Donovan. "[The House votes] serve as your best barometer of the political market for Trumpism among Republican Party voters. That may change... but for now these are rational actors following the prevailing incentives." Mr Heye says many legislators "want to be seen as fighters" even as they privately admit that there is no evidence of significant election fraud.

'Fight or flight' for Republicans

There are signs that another path is possible. Polling by the Pew Research Center found that Mr Trump's approval has dropped sharply among Republicans who backed him in August. Of all Republicans, 52 per cent say he had some responsibility for the Capitol riot, and 40 per cent want him to drop out of politics.

However, the same poll found that 75 per cent of Trump voters believe he "definitely" or "probably" won the 2020 election, and 70 per cent credit Mr Biden's victory to "widespread illegal voting and fraud". To Mr Heye, this wider sense of fraud and illegitimacy might be more of a problem in the long run, given how thoroughly it has suffused the party.

Mr Donovan similarly argues that while QAnon and Stop the Steal's specific ideas may not last, they have revealed a deeper feeling that future politicians will seek to harness. "The energy within the party in recent years, and the impulse that propelled Trump himself, is anti-elite, anti-establishment, populist and grievance-minded. I don't expect that to change, and if anything it will become more powerful."

Much depends on Mr Trump himself, whose social media posts delivered regular shots of adrenaline to extremists. Without that, insiders say the temperature in the party has already gone down, lifting a tension that has weighed on them since 2015. Yet the President still commands enormous influence, and if he can find a new megaphone – or launch a party of his own – Republicans may be forced to dance to his tune again.

For now, Mr Heye says that Mr Trump's enforced quiet has already caused the temperature in the party to go down, lifting a tension that has weighed on politicos since 2015. "You don't have to check your phone every minutes, you know? Boris Johnson now knows that whatever happens, he's not going to wake up to be told that the President of the United States tweeted that he's a loser.

"Which isn't to say that we're out of the woods, by any stretch... but we've gone basically three days without talking about him. That has not happened since the middle of 2015."

Similarly, Mr Goldstein feels that Mr Trump catalysed an all-or-nothing partisan atmosphere in which every area of life was aggressively politicised from both sides. "It was just too much; there was no oxygen, there was no air to breathe," he says. "I was talking to my father, he's 92, and he said 'son, you just can't get away from it."

With Mr Biden in power, Mr Goldstein hopes that some sense of common ground can return, providing a route back to the centre for his party.

One less obvious bellwether for the far Right after the Capitol might be Alex Jones, the radical conspiracist shock jock whose news site, Infowars, has often boosted QAnon theories. Just after November's election, he whipped up Stop the Steal rally in Arizona by telling them to prepare for "war".

Now he has told his viewers to avoid violence, shun inauguration protests. As for QAnon, he denounced it as "an AI globalist Chinese Communist Big Tech system to manipulate you".