In a normal universe, the baseless and appalling QAnon conspiracy theory would be the plot to the worst action thriller you’ve ever seen.
If you don’t know by now, QAnon adherents subscribe to the utterly bonkers proposition that President Donald Trump is heroically fighting against a diffuse and secretive cabal of devil worshippers and child molesters scattered across the most elite levels of government, business, and the media.
To take it to its “Sharknado-iest” extremes, the theory also posits that a violent reckoning is coming, and that such high-profile pols as Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed for their nonexistent role in it.
QAnon adherents aren’t just harmless cranks. They’ve been legitimized by Trump and some are on the fast-track to Congress. Others have resorted to violence, with one notably sentenced to prison for opening fire in a Washington D.C. pizzeria because he wrongly believed the false argument that children were being held there against their will in a sex-trafficking ring.
Now it’s come home to roost in a closely watched congressional race in Pennsylvania, where the Republican incumbent is hanging onto his seat by his fingernails as Democrats mount an all-out assault to flip it.
The incumbent, Rep. Scott Perry, is a veteran and former state lawmaker who’s represented the 10th Congressional District since 2012. Earlier this month, he was one of 18 Republicans to cast a logic-defying vote against a non-binding resolution condemning QAnon.
The vote has been brought up in a pair of televised debates with Democratic challenger Eugene DePasquale, who’s Pennsylvania’s two-term state auditor general.
Each time, Perry has offered a carefully parsed answer that walks up to, but doesn’t quite reach, a disavowal, saying that while he may disagree with the QAnon faithful, they still have a constitutional right to believe it.
The Philadelphia branch of the Anti-Defamation League has called on Perry to denounce the conspiracy movement. They’re disappointed, but not surprised, by his refusal.
“For people like him and President Donald Trump, to not call it out is just irresponsible,” Shira Goodman, the director of the Philadelphia regional office of the ADL, said last week.
It’s worth noting that Perry had no problem condemning DePasquale’s participation in a Black Lives Matter protest in Harrisburg over the summer, where one protester held a sign that read “Blue Lives Murder.”
“A lot of people dislike a lot of things in this country, some people don’t like certain vegetables or what have you,” Perry said during an Oct. 2019 debate, where he offered a lame false equivalency. “But it’s very dangerous for the government ... to determine what is okay to like and what is not okay to like.”
That’s not true.
The resolution doesn’t order anyone not to like QAnon, no matter how corrosively destructive it is. It makes the rather sane argument that it doesn’t deserve legitimacy in a civil society - something that the vast majority of Perry’s fellow Republicans were able to understand and vote in favor of without issue.
Perry has the same problem that Republican lawmakers in vulnerable districts have all across the country. Even if they privately think QAnon is nuts, they can’t say it out loud, for fear of alienating a growing part of the GOP’s whackjob fringe.
But here’s what’s so dangerous about that kind of carefully calibrated dodge. Apart from being cynical in the extreme, it’s morally wrong.
All it takes is silence and acquiescence from those in power for the most hateful rhetoric to emerge from the shadows and walk in the light. And then before you know it, that light illuminates the path to boxcars.
“Hiding behind the First Amendment doesn’t get it,” Goodman said. “It doesn’t work with what we’re seeing on the ground. When you normalize this, speech can lead to action.”
Goodman pointed to what she called the “Pyramid of Hate,” a hierarchy that starts with people turning a blind eye or deaf ear to ethnic or racist jokes. From there, it escalates, moving to discrimination, gaining more legitimacy as it grows. At the highest level, there’s state-sanctioned violence against a persecuted minority.
That’s what Goodman sees happening with the Republicans and QAnon, as the movement gains more and more legitimacy, and as its members assume roles of power and influence within the government.
“We’re at a dangerous time,” Goodman said. “We have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold our candidates and leaders accountable. You have to be able to denounce this.”
You wouldn’t think it would be that much to ask.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.