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QAnon goes local, bringing Dominion conspiracy to California

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors has “upended the county’s election process,” the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “canceling its contract with Dominion Voting Systems.” The county could opt to hand-count ballots instead, which would likely delay results and promote more suspicion of elections. One supervisor said he had explored seeking the services of Mike Lindell, the pillow purveyor and prominent conspiracy theorist.

Shasta, a deep-red county in California’s far north, has proven vulnerable to causes that are on the national fringe but being pushed by the forces that supported Donald Trump’s false election fraud allegations. Militia members and other hard-right activists led a recall of a member of the all-Republican county board last year and have since attained a majority, leading to last week’s official endorsement of baseless suspicions about Dominion.

The current state of QAnon and related conspiracy theories is no exception to the old axiom that all politics is local. Since President Biden’s inauguration put an end to efforts to keep Trump in office, these theories have trickled down from national to local politics, influencing local officials responsible for crucial policymaking on voting, education and more.

The wide-ranging, baseless set of beliefs known as QAnon portrays Trump as a messianic figure fighting an evil cabal of Democratic elites and Hollywood celebrities who rule the world and molest and murder children. In 2020, adherents coalesced around “stop the steal” allegations that machines manufactured by Dominion had somehow changed the results in key states. The allegations surfaced in a few states in which Dominion machines were never even used.

A focus on Dominion’s nefarious ballot alterations and the company’s supposed origins in Venezuela — it’s actually Canadian — became a mainstay of Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. More than two years later, such conspiracies continue to pervade right-wing politics below the national level. At last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), for example, featured speaker and Arizona gubernatorial race loser Kari Lake continued to argue that the 2022 election was stolen from her.

Such conspiracy beliefs have been promoted by far-right figures such as Lindell and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and amplified by right-wing media. Research I conducted found 97 QAnon-supporting candidates in the 2020 primaries, with California, Florida, Texas and Arizona leading the country.

The campaigns and their supporters have been shockingly successful at promoting the belief at the grassroots level. Polls by the Public Religion Research Institute and NPR/Ipsos have found that as many as one in three Americans believes key tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Far-right media echo chambers played a crucial role in achieving this level of acceptance of fringe beliefs. We know more about that thanks to Dominion’s $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News.

After Jan. 6, 2021, QAnon influencers pivoted to propaganda on local wedge issues such as the content of K-12 education (especially “critical race theory”) and trans rights, implying that studying race caused homosexuality and sexual dysmorphia, as I and Sophia Moskalenko describe in our recent book on QAnon. Much of this propaganda appeals to a Republican base comprising groups in which QAnon theories have been enthusiastically embraced, including evangelicals.

Devotees were encouraged to act locally for greatest impact. In particular, they were encouraged to run for local offices, including city and county positions and especially school boards, which entice conspiracy theorists with the promise of extending their influence to future generations. From Michigan to California, dozens of elected local officials have promoted QAnon conspiracy theories like the one surrounding Dominion. Another California county, Kern, kept its Dominion machines last week only after much deliberation.

School boards all over the country are now occupied by people whose social media feeds are packed with calls to “patriots” and “digital soldiers” to join the movement and prophecies that nothing can “stop what is coming.” Time magazine investigated school boards in Michigan and Nevada and found, as one student put it, “far-right conspiracists or radicals to be infiltrating the most basic unit of American government.” Beyond their impact at the local level, these offices often serve as springboards for state and national candidacies.

And beyond hurting children’s education and the rights of trans people and other minorities, these theories undermine our democratic institutions. It should come as no surprise that since its beginnings in 2017, QAnon was amplified by U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China. Conspiracy theories about Dominion, stolen elections and an evil cabal spread at the local level are mirrored by Russian disinformation campaigns at home and abroad. The theories have much the same effect as some of Russia’s tactics during the 2016 presidential campaign, when its agents created fake Facebook accounts to pit neighbor against neighbor, encourage protests and violence on both sides of controversies, and weaken public trust.

QAnon’s infiltration of local politics furthers the global goals of malign foreign actors over the long term. It’s only by recognizing the hidden motivations and roots of these conspiracy theories that we may begin to inoculate ourselves against them.

Mia Bloom is a professor of communication and Middle East studies at Georgia State University, a fellow with New America’s International Security Program and a coauthor of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon.”