As Trump meets with QAnon influencers, the conspiracy's adherents beg for dictatorship

With Trump's days in office dwindling, QAnon influencers have become increasingly restless and militant, urging the president to "#crosstherubicon.”

NBC News/December 22, 2020

By Ben Collins

On Friday, President Donald Trump met with current and former advisers in the Oval Office, including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and a person familiar with the meeting said Flynn advocated an extreme way to overturn the November election: declare martial law.

The idea is hardly limited to Flynn, Trump's disgraced former national security adviser. It has also been embraced by the QAnon movement and some members of the Republican Party.

With Trump's days in office dwindling, QAnon influencers have become increasingly restless and militant, urging him to #crosstherubicon, a reference to Julius Caesar's crossing the Rubicon river after the Roman Senate explicitly told him not to, effectively kick-starting the Roman civil war and Caesar's dictatorship.

Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward tweeted the hashtag Sunday.

"Mr. President @realDonaldTrump - we are with you in #Arizona. We are working every avenue to stop this coup & to stop our Republic from crumbing," she tweeted. "Patriots are united. Those who are against us are exposing themselves. #Liberty & #freedom are on the line. #CrossTheRubicon @GenFlynn."

Trump tweeted Sunday that reports of a discussion about martial law were "knowingly bad reporting."

"Martial law = Fake news," he wrote.

But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for military rule from the QAnon community, which sees hope in the fact that some of their central influencers are close to Trump.

Sidney Powell, a lawyer who has filed a series of suits she dubbed "the Kraken," which have failed to overturn the results of the election in several states, was part of the meeting. She has repeatedly pushed QAnon theories, and she has used the hashtag #TheStormIsComing, a QAnon phrase that refers to the extrajudicial roundup of Democrats at the heart of the theory.

Flynn, a hero in the mythology of the QAnon conspiracy theory who once took a QAnon "oath" on video, has said in appearances on the conservative media channel Newsmax that Trump should use the military to "rerun" the election.

The "Rubicon" hashtag wasn't new to QAnon followers, who have repeatedly tweeted the phrase in the last week. But the hashtag had minimal success last week until Ron Watkins, who previously ran the message board and QAnon hub 8kun, posted a series of viral tweets Thursday and Friday about Caesar and crossing the Rubicon.

"Will@realDonaldTrump #CrossTheRubicon? Spread the hashtag and show POTUS how you feel about it," Watkins wrote. The tweet got more than 27,000 retweets.

QAnon followers believe the Democratic Party is run by satanic, child-eating cannibals and that Trump is secretly waging a war against them. Adherents follow "Q," an anonymous poster to the extremist site 8kun, who has posted prophecies since 2017 that have repeatedly failed to materialize. The Q account, which usually posts several times a week, has largely been dormant since Election Day.

Watkins claimed to have quit 8kun on Election Day, and he has since appeared several times as an expert on the right-wing cable channel OAN to push false conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems machines, even though he has no experience with voting machines.

Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., who co-sponsored legislation to condemn QAnon that passed in the House in October, said he is worried that QAnon's biggest influencers, such as Watkins and Flynn, "are creating an alternate power structure that will force people into the left-right boundaries of dangerous and fantastical belief systems."

"This has metastasized into a cult based on some arcane type of religious fervor," he added.

Mike Rothschild, the author of a coming book about QAnon's origins and real-world harms, said the "Rubicon" phrase and sentiment "really took off" after Watkins' tweet, helping the hashtag reach a QAnon ecosystem that includes people close to Trump.

Watkins, who can control who posts as Q, has become the primary source of information for QAnon followers since the Q account has faded away. He said he hasn't posted as Q and doesn't know who runs the account.

Some QAnon followers believe Trump is left with no choice but to declare martial law, a belief based in part on a series of wildly false news articles that have claimed that Trump is in a secret, ongoing land war with China in parts of the U.S.

A series of fake news articles, YouTube videos and tweets that went viral among QAnon acolytes last week led followers to believe Trump was conducting clandestine military operations on U.S. soil.

The rumors, which started on the website of the conspiracy theorist radio host Hal Turner, claimed that China was quietly sending tanks into Maine through Canada. After a small earthquake shook Maine in early December, the rumor evolved to say the earthquakes were the result of an aerial assault by the Trump administration.

Maine's National Guard said no such battle had taken place.

"The Maine National Guard has no knowledge of any such troop movement or military action, and would undoubtedly have been made aware through military or emergency management channels if such a significant event were to occur in the state of Maine," said Maj. Carl J. Lamb, the public affairs officer for the Maine National Guard. "In addition to constantly maintaining a ready force, our focus right now is assisting our fellow citizens by responding to requests from Maine Emergency Management Agency and Maine CDC in response to COVID-19."

Another rumor that originated on Turner's site last week went viral among QAnon followers, trended on Twitter and wound up being repeated at the meeting of Texas electors before they cast their votes for president. The conspiracy theory claimed that Chief Justice John Roberts held a secret, closed-door meeting to scream at fellow justices to intimidate them into refusing to take cases of election fraud at the Supreme Court.

In reality, the Supreme Court hasn't met in person since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Turner didn't respond to a request for comment about his website's false stories.

Rothschild said he is worried about the mix of constant disappointment, perceived injustice and increasingly violent rhetoric in the QAnon community in the last week.

"These people have worked themselves into such a frenzied state thinking Trump won in a landslide and that the truth will be revealed any moment," he said, predicting that when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in and "none of the miracles they've been told are about to happen actually take place, it will be a life-shattering event."

Riggleman, who lost his GOP primary in June and will be replaced in Congress by Republican Bob Good in January, has turned into a fierce critic of QAnon and its hold on his party.

"I'm losing friends and family over a straight-up cult based on anti-Semitism, fantasy and just bizarre made-up tripe," he said. "It's an idiocracy based on a digital prophet."

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