The QAnon Conspiracy Theory’s Impact on American Democracy

By Heidi Beirich



By Heidi Beirich

*This chapter first appeared in German in the book Fehlender Mindestabstand: Die Coronakrise und die Netzwerke der Demokratiefeinde, editors Heidi Kleffner and Matthias Meisner (April 2021).

It was impossible to miss the many, many signs of QAnon conspiracy adherents during the storming on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Many in the surging mob held “Q” signs, wore Q jackets, and waved flags with QAnon slogans. Most notably, Jake Angeli, who calls himself the “QAnon Shaman,” stormed the floor of the Senate dressed in horns and pelts. He and other members of the conspiracy cult have been arrested in the days since the insurgency. Hundreds of Qanoners are estimated to have been involved in the riots.

None of this should be surprising. QAnon adherents were a predominant faction of those who believed the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and they had been showing up in droves at post-election “Stop the Steal” events that alleged the election was manipulated. Just a year ago, the FBI issued a warning that QAnon adherents were intimately linked to violence. On Jan. 6, that was proven definitively.

QAnon is a baseless, bizarre conspiracy theory that grew out of another tall tale, Pizzagate, that began circulating in October 2016. That it is an American creation is not surprising, as the U.S. has long had a thriving conspiracy culture, what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” of American politics.[1] For decades, conspiracies have circulated about the moon landing, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, UFO sightings, and government plans to round up gun-owning Americans and put them in concentration camps. Most often, conspiracy theories have originated on the right, as QAnon has, but not always. A whole set of conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, called the 9/11 Truther movement, come primarily from the left.[2]

QAnon differs from those earlier conspiracies because it venerates an elected official, President Donald Trump, who is cast as a savior of American society from nefarious pedophiliac and satanic liberal forces, and is specifically against the Democratic Party, many of whose principals it accuses of considerable wrongdoing.[3] The movement is inherently partisan, interwoven into conservative politics. With Trump’s loss, QAnon supporters, who are now rampant in the Republican Party, are becoming alienated from American democracy, following Trump’s lead in distrusting and undermining the electoral system. This means that QAnon is having a detrimental effect on conservative support for American democracy.

What makes QAnon interesting, relevant and dangerous, rather than just some wacky nonsense, relates to three factors. First, QAnon is a product of the social media age, having evolved out of fringe message boards before making the leap to mainstream platforms. This online ecosystem has allowed millions of people to be exposed to QAnon’s ideas, indoctrinated into them and spread them, leading to a mass infiltration of the online space, as well as the offline world. The second issue with QAnon is that it is spread intentionally by conservative actors and prominent figures, including Trump, ultimately gaining widespread legitimacy because of these endorsements. QAnon beliefs are now embedded in the party’s supporters and held by some of its elected officials. Third and finally, QAnon is a source of domestic terrorism according to the FBI and its adherents are responsible for a notable amount of violence.

The QAnon Conspiracy
QAnon was spawned by another conspiracy theory, Pizzagate. In October 2016, a white supremacist Twitter account, allegedly run by a New York lawyer, falsely claimed that the New York City Police Department had discovered a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party.[4] This information was supposedly found on a computer owned by former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), which had been seized by the police. Additionally, WikiLeaks published emails from Democratic operative John Podesta, and proponents of what would come to be called Pizzagate claimed Podesta’s emails had code words in them for pedophilia and human trafficking. They also claimed that a family pizzeria in Washington, D.C., Comet Ping Pong, was where Democrats met to engage in satanic ritual child abuse.[5]

This outlandish story then made its way to fake news sites such as Your News Wire, which cited a post from the fringe 4chan message board to back it up. All of this was then spread by pro-Trump websites like, and The Conservative Daily Post ran a headline falsely claiming the FBI had confirmed the conspiracy and raided Hillary Clinton’s home as a result.[6] White supremacists, conservative journalists and others opposed to Clinton pushed this pedophile conspiracy on social media, on fringe sites like 4chan and 8chan (now 8kun), but also on Twitter. The theory spawned violence when a man with a rifle fired a round in Comet Ping Pong and its staff received death threats from believers.[7] The shooter thought that Democrats were engaging in sex-trafficking of children in the pizzeria’s basement.

The satanism and pedophilia allegations against Democrats would be picked up and become part and parcel of QAnon. In a nutshell, the conspiracy alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Trump, who its believers think is fighting against this horrific cabal.[8] The cabal is inhabited by liberal Hollywood actors, liberal donors such as George Soros, high-ranking government officials of the so-called “deep state,” and many others seen as against Trump and his supporters. Some versions of the theory are overtly antisemitic, pinning blame on figures such as the Rothschilds and other Jews, including Soros.[9] Other versions push the idea that Trump faked working with the Russians as a ploy to enlist former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who in the real world investigated Trump’s troubling relationship with Russia, into joining him and exposing the sex-trafficking ring and to stop a coup by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros[10] (interestingly, Russian entities including the Internet Research Agency played a prominent role in amplifying QAnon material[11]).

Behind all this is supposedly a mysterious character, “Q,” who claimed to be a high-level government official with a special Q security clearance giving him access to classified information on Trump opponents. He first showed up as “Q Clearance Patriot” on the /pol/ board of 4chan on Oct. 28, 2017, posting in a thread “Calm Before the Storm,” which referred to a Trump description of a gathering he attended with military leaders.[12] After the initial Q post, it was reported that three individuals took it and spread it across multiple platforms.[13] QAnon believers started tagging their social media posts with the hashtag #WWG1WGA, or “Where We Go One, We Go all.” Sites dedicated to aggregating Q posts, called Qdrops, then disseminated the posts. QMap was the most popular aggregator, with 10 million visitors per month by the summer of 2020,[14] run by a pseudonymous developer known as “QAPPANON” (QMap shut down after a September 2020 report was published by Logically, which outed QAPPANON as a New Jersey-based security analyst named Jason Gelinas[15]). From there it made its way into the real world.

Though no one knows for sure, there is considerable evidence that James “Jim” Watkins, the owner of 8kun (formerly 8chan) and his son Ron are either “Q” or, due to their ownership of the site and role in publishing Q’s posts, have direct access to Q, though both have denied it. When asked by ABC News in September 2020 if he was Q, the elder Watkins refused to reply. ABC sent a list of questions about QAnon to Watkins’ U.S. attorney and delivered letters to his home and businesses in Manila.[16] There were no replies. Regardless, last Fall, the elder Watkins arrived to testify before a closed-door session of the House Homeland Security Committee wearing a “Q” pin on his lapel (the hearing related to the fact that 8chan hosted the manifesto of the El Paso Walmart mass shooter). Watkins sells Q merchandise and promotes prominent QAnon figures who sell books, videos and other materials, and he pushes Q material by “deciphering” the posts. In March, Watkins registered a super PAC in Mississippi called “Disarm the Deep State,” a favorite QAnon topic. The younger Watkins popped up in November 2020 supporting efforts to discredit the election and both men appear to now be in the U.S, the elder Watkins having recently sold his pig farm in Manila.[17]

Far Right Intentionally Spread QAnon
QAnon was pushed by figures on the right starting in early 2018, when Fox TV host Sean Hannity, actor James Woods and comic Roseanne Bar pushed Q material to their social media followers.[18] On the far right, America’s biggest conspiracy-monger, Alex Jones of InfoWars, began pushing the material.[19] By mid-2018, adherents started appearing at Trump rallies and the Trump administration began its embrace of the movement. A Q supporter, Bill Mitchell, attended the White House’s social media summit in July 2019,[20] and at an August 2019 Trump rally, a man warming up the crowd used a QAnon motto.[21] In August 2019, a video posted online by Women for Trump included “Q” on two campaign signs. The images were clearly taken at a Trump campaign rally, and it is unknown if the signs were deliberately selected for inclusion or not.[22] The video has since been taken down.

Some Trump supporters have spread antisemitic versions of the theory. For example, the 1919 Russian antisemitic hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” has popped up within QAnon conspiracy theories. Republican QAnon fan Mary Ann Mendoza retweeted a Twitter thread about the Rothschild family, satanic high priestesses, and American presidents, saying that “The Protocols of The Elders of Zion Is Not A Fabrication. And, It Certainly Is Not Anti-Semitic To Point Out This Fact.”[23] Mendoza sits on the advisory board of Women for Trump and was scheduled to speak at the 2020 Republican convention until knowledge of her Twitter activity, which includes other extremist material, came out.[24] Mendoza later denied knowing the content of the thread.[25]

Trump, his children, his attorneys and several current and former White House staffers have repeatedly retweeted QAnon-linked content online.[26] According to Media Matters, as of October 2020, Trump had amplified QAnon messaging at least 258 times by retweeting or mentioning 150 Twitter accounts affiliated with QAnon, sometimes multiple times a day. His campaign also pushed the material, relying on a network of QAnon-related accounts to spread disinformation and propaganda on social media.[27] An analysis of 380,000 tweets sent between early April and the end of May 2020, and another of the most popular words used by one thousand accounts, showed that the QAnon network played a key role in Trump’s propaganda.[28] Additionally, The Washington Post reported in August 2020 that ads for Trump’s campaign had shown images of supporters with prominent QAnon merchandise.[29] Thousands of commenters on YouTube saw these images as pointing to an election victory.[30]

In August 2020, Trump praised QAnon supporters and suggested he appreciated their support of his candidacy. Speaking during a White House press conference Trump said, “I heard that these are people that love our country.”[31] At an NBC townhall in October 2020, Trump refused to denounce QAnon, saying, “I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard.” Trump later added, “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that. I mean I do agree with that, and I agree with it very strongly.”[32] In early December 2020, Trump reportedly praised QAnon to the dismay of his own staffers during a strategy meeting with Congressional leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.[33]

Reach of QAnon Online and Offline
These efforts by conservatives were successful in amplifying QAnon ideas, which spread mostly unchecked from 2017 until late 2020, ultimately ending up a widespread phenomenon across social media platforms. In July 2020, after Twitter decided to ban QAnon-linked accounts due to the movement’s connection to violence, the company said it had removed more than 7,000 accounts.[34] The following month, an internal investigation by Facebook found thousands of groups and pages with millions of members and followers supporting QAnon on the platform. Just the top ten groups contained more than one million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past three million.[35] Also in August 2020, The Guardian tracked more than four million aggregate QAnon followers worldwide on Facebook and Instagram, though there was likely overlap among accounts.[36] In addition, Facebook found 185 ads between June and August on its site “praising, supporting, or representing” QAnon that had four million impressions in one month.[37] YouTube was also a QAnon cesspool, hosting a documentary-style QAnon film with more than 15 million views as of October 2020, and entire channels dedicated to QAnon with millions of views and collective subscribers.[38] On YouTube, the QAnon material targeting celebrities, politicians and companies with allegations of pedophilia were so widely viewed that they took over the top search results on these topics, pushing official sources of information out of the rankings. Even movie trailers and TV show clips of celebrities pegged as part of the conspiracy by QAnon adherents were pushed out of search results.[39]

As the theory gained traction online, it had effects in the real world. A September 2020 Pew survey of the 47 percent of respondents who said they had heard of QAnon found that 41 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican believed QAnon to be good for the country (only seven percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic believed the same).[40] That same month, another poll by Daily Kos/Civiqs found 56 percent of Republicans believed QAnon to at least be partly true and a third believed it mostly true.[41] An October 2020 Yahoo-YouGov poll found that half of Trump’s supporters believe in QAnon. Even if they had not heard of QAnon, a majority of Republicans and more than 80 percent of Trump supporters believed top Democrats were engaged in sex-trafficking rings. and more than half of Trump supporters believed he was working to dismantle the rings.[42] Overall, the Pew survey found that 57 percent of Americans did not think QAnon good for the country, revealing that the theory really is a Republican problem.[43]

In July 2020, Twitter stopped hosting QAnon material, deplatforming thousands of accounts and restricting others.[44] In early October 2020, Facebook said it would remove groups, pages and Instagram accounts identifying with QAnon.[45] YouTube tightened its policy related to QAnon in mid-October, though it only banned material that specifically targeted individuals or groups, leaving much of the material to fester.[46] By that time social media companies finally acted, QAnon’s spread had already indoctrinated millions of people. It got to the point where support groups developed for those whose loved ones were drawn into QAnon. On Reddit, the subreddit “qanoncasualties,” which aimed to help those who wanted to draw QAnon adherents out of that world, grew from 3,500 people in June 2020 to 28,000 by October.[47]

QAnon and Violence
While QAnon was radicalizing millions into its ideas, violence associated with the movement began to take off. From the original shooting in 2016 at a D.C. pizzeria, the list of violence associated with QAnon has grown quite long. In August 2019, the FBI designated QAnon as a “domestic terror threat” because of its potential to incite extremist violence.[48] In a 15-page memo, the FBI described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” specifically citing QAnon, as a growing threat, and noted that this memo was the first time the agency had pegged conspiracy theories as a source of domestic extremism.[49] The memo listed a number of arrests, including some that hadn’t then been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.
Among the more spectacular incidents involving QAnon was a June 2018 attempt by an adherent to block a bridge near the Hoover dam; the murder of a member of the Gambino crime family by a 24-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., believer; and an April 2020 arrest of a follower who was charged with intentionally derailing a freight train near the navy hospital ship, Mercy, in Los Angeles, Calif. Other violence involved kidnappings, bomb plots, threats against Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, and a reservist in the Canadian Rangers who rammed a truck through the gates of the prime minister’s residence in Ottawa.[50]

These incidents didn’t stop with the election. In early December 2020, two suspected QAnon supporters were arrested after the discovery of a vehicle full of rifles and pistols near a Philadelphia, Pa., ballot-counting center.In mid-December, a QAnon harassment campaign against employees of a company that manufactures and services voting machines led to death threats and a noose at the door of a 20-year-old contractor for Dominion Voting Systems.[51]

Impact on American Democracy
The spread of QAnon was harnessed by Republican politicians, some of whom became open adherents or promoters of the movement. Two QAnon-connected officials were elected to federal office: Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who won a House seat in North Georgia, and Lauren Boebert, a Republican who won a House seat in Colorado. “Q is a patriot, we know that for sure,” Greene said in a 2017 video where she recapped some of Q’s predictions and why she supports them.[52] Overall, 59 Republican congressional candidates and dozens of state level candidates expressed support for the movement in the 2020 election cycle.[53] Trump congratulated Greene after her primary win in August, calling her a “future Republican Star” who is “strong on everything.”[54] Asked in a May 2020 interview about the Q theory, Boebert, who says she is not a Q adherent but has supported the movement and appeared in programming by QAnon supporters, said, “I hope that this is real. It only means America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values, and that’s what I am for.”[55]

Some rank-and-file Republicans don’t want to associate with QAnon, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has welcomed Boebert to its “Young Guns” fundraising and training program and told reporters in November 2020 in defense of the newly elected members, “Give them an opportunity before you claim what you believe they have done, and what they will do.”[56] And while McCarthy remained neutral in Greene’s race after condemning in June 2020 racist, antisemitic and anti-Muslim comments she made,[57] he said later that he had a “good and productive” relationship with her. In November 2020, Trump also declined to disavow QAnon and its followers when asked about it by reporters.[58] After the Nov. 3 election, the pattern of pushing QAnon ideas continued by those connected to the Trump campaign, particularly those who have engaged in Trump’s quixotic battle to try to overturn the election results.

The Republican Party is now to some extent captured by supporters of QAnon. In October 2020, 17 Republican members of the House of Representatives refused to sign a resolution against the movement that pointed to its track record of violence.[59] Prominent Trump allies, such as Ret. General Michael Flynn, whom Trump pardoned in November 2020 after he was found guilty of lying to the FBI, appeared in a video miming QAnon slogans,[60] and Trump’s one-time personal lawyer Sidney Powell, who represented Flynn and was litigating election cases for Trump until he fired her in late November, filed an affidavit alleging voter fraud in Georgia that cited Ron Watkins, an administrator of 8kun and a prominent QAnon figure.[61]

After the election, Q did not post for days, causing confusion among supporters who were sure Trump would win and were apoplectic about President-Elect Joe Biden’s win. When Q finally did post on Nov. 12, he put up an American flag with the slogan “Nothing can stop what is coming. Nothing!” A follow-up post referred to the question of “how do you ‘safeguard’ US elections post-POTUS” and read, “It had to be this way. Sometimes you must walk through the darkness before you can see the light.”[62] Hardcore believers took this to mean trust the plan and hang tight, while others expressed deep disappointment in the election outcome.

What Now for QAnon?
Though one might think the events at the Capitol and Trump’s loss would turn the tide against QAnon in the GOP, but that would be wrong. In the days after the election, more of Greene’s bizarre ideas came to light, including her belief that 9/11 was a hoax and that Jews used space lasers to start California wildfires. None of this stopped the Republicans from giving Greene committee assignments and refusing to censure her comments. And from his post-presidential perch in Florida, Trump has signalled strong support for Greene.

In the weeks after the Capitol assault, some in QAnon did begin to question their beliefs. On platforms such as Gab, Telegram and others, supporters suggested they had been played; others said President Joe Biden’s inauguration was the saddest day of their lives.[63] Another former adherent went on CNN to apologize to anchor Anderson Cooper for having believed that he ate babies.[64]

But there was considerable evidence that others would stick to the plan. The beauty of conspiracy theories is that additional false facts can simply be woven into the narrative to justify changed situations. Several QAnon believers told The Washington Post their faith remains unshaken and the Post found evidence that other extremist movements were trying to recruit Q believers into their ranks.[65] The prevalence of QAnon online weeks after the inauguration and months after the movement was expelled from mainstream platforms speaks to the resiliency of the conspiracy even in the face of deplatforming and Biden assuming the presidency.[66] And though most Americans rejected the views of those who stormed the Capitol, millions of Americans saw themselves in the rioters. Nearly 18 percent of all Republicans supported the riots.[67]

QAnon has a foothold not only in the national Republican Party ranks, but also at the state level. In Hawaii, the GOP’s local Twitter account supported QAnon followers, saying they may have been misguided patriots but they are “largely motivated by a sincere and deep love for America.” The Texas GOP actually posted a QAnon slogan, “We are the storm,” on the front of its website. In Arizona and Oregon, the state level parties gave strong support to those who stormed the Capitol.[68] Given its congressional and state level representation in the Republican Party and especially among Trump supporters, and it’s continued online presence, QAnon is likely to be around for some time.


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[5] Lacapria, K. (Nov. 21, 2016). Is Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria Home to a Child Abuse Ring Led by Hillary Clinton? Snopes.
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[20] Durkee, A. (July 8, 2019). Trump’s “Social Media Summit” is a Far Right Troll Convention. Vanity Fair.
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[22] Sommer, W. (Aug. 7, 2019). Trump Campaign Ad Featured QAnon. The Daily Beast.
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[30] Stanley-Becker, I. (Aug. 2, 2020).
[31] Miller, Z., J. Colvin and A. Seitz. (Aug. 19, 2020). Trump Praised the Supporters of QAnon, a Conspiracy Theory the FBI Says is a Domestic Terrorism Threat. The Chicago Tribune.
[32] Kaplan, A. (Aug. 1, 2019).
[33] Riotta, C. (Dec. 3, 2020). Trump Privately Praised Far-Right QAnon Movement for Believing in “Good Government,” Report Says. The Independent.
[34] Allyn, B. (July 21, 2020). Twitter Removes Thousands of QAnon Accounts, Promises Sweeping Ban on the Conspiracy. NPR.
[35] Sen, A. and B. Zadrozny. (Aug. 10, 2020). QAnon Groups Have Millions of Members on Facebook, Documents Show. NBC News.
[36] Wong, J.C. (Aug. 11, 2020). Revealed: QAnon Facebook Groups are Growing at a Rapid Pace Around the World. The Guardian.
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[39] Zadrozny, B. and B. Collins. (Oct. 15, 2020).
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[41] Beer, T. (Sept. 2, 2020). Majority of Republicans Believe the QAnon Conspiracy Theory is Partly or Mostly True, Survey Finds. Forbes.
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[43] Pew Research Center. (Nov. 16, 2020). “5 Facts About the QAnon Conspiracy Theories.” Pew Research Center.
[44] Newton, C. (July 23, 2020). Getting Rid of QAnon Won’t Be as Easy as Twitter Might Think. The Verge.
[45] Collins, B. and B. Zardrozny. (Oct. 6, 2020). Facebook Bans QAnon Across its Platforms. NBC News.
[46] Zadrozny, B. and B. Collins. (Oct. 15, 2020).
[47] Andrews, T.M. (Oct. 12, 2020). QAnon is Tearing Families Apart. The Washingotn Post.
[48] Miller, Z., J. Colvin and A. Seitz. (Aug. 19, 2020.
[49] Winter, J. (Aug. 1, 2019). Exclusive: FBI Document Warns Conspiracy Theories are a New Domestic Terrorism Threat. Yahoo! News.
[50] Beckett, L. (Oct. 16, 2020). QAnon: A Timeline of Violence Linked to Conspiracy Theory. The Guardian.
[51] Greenspan, R.E. (Dec. 3, 2020). A QAnon Harassment Campaign Led to a Noose Being Left at the Home of a Young Dominion Contractor, According to a Georgia Official. Insider.
[52] Domonoske, C. (Aug. 12, 2020). QAnon Supporter who Made Bigoted Videos Wins Ga. Primary, Likely Heading to Congress. NPR.
[53] Kurtzleben, D. (July 1, 2020). GOP Candidates Open to QAnon Conspiracy Theory Advance in Congressional Races. NPR.
[54] Tully-McManus, K. (Nov. 5, 2020). QAnon Goes to Washington: Two Supporters Win Seats in Congress. Roll Call.
[55] Tully-McManus, K. (Nov. 5, 2020).
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[57] Perano, U. (Nov. 17, 2020).
[58] Tully-McManus, K. (Nov. 5, 2020).
[59] Breland, A. and M. Cohen. (Oct. 2, 2020). 17 Republicans Just Voted Against a Resolution to Condemn QAnon. We Asked Them All Why. Mother Jones.
[60] Choi, D. (Dec. 4, 2020). Here Are 4 Former Military Officers who Have Embraced Bizarre Trump Conspiracies. Business Insider.
[61] Zidan, K. (Dec. 3, 2020). The ‘Kraken’ Lawyer: How Veteran Litigator Sidney Powell Became a QAnon Heroine. Right Wing Watch.
[62] Dickson, E.J. (Nov. 13, 2020). Q is Back, But Does QAnon Have a Future? Rolling Stone.
[63] Sardarizadeh, S. and O. Robinson. (Jan. 21, 2021). Biden Innauguration Day Leaves QAnon Believers in Disarray. BBC News.
[64] Anderson Cooper 360. Former QAnon supporter to Cooper: I apologize for thinking you ate babies. CNN.
[65] Harwell, D. (Jan. 21, 2020). QAnon believers seek to adapt their extremist ideology for a new era: ‘Things have just started.’ The Washington Post.
[66] Bowman, E. (Feb. 4, 2021). Why QAnon Survives After Trump. NPR.
[67] Castronuovo, C. (Jan. 8, 2021). Poll: 18 percent of Republicans support Capitol riots. The Hill.
[68] Smith, D. (Jan. 31, 2021). ‘It’s Endemic:’ State-Level Republican Groups Lead Party’s Drift to Extremism. The Guardian.

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