Even federal judges are referencing far-right conspiracy theories to overturn our laws

It should be noted, yet again, that being an actual, bonafide judge in the United States of America requires no qualifications whatsoever. You either are appointed as a judge or win an election to become one, and the rest is filler to be worked out by whoever's been tasked with updating the webpages. They say anybody in America can grow up to be president, but that is obviously a lie. But anyone can grow up to be a judge in America. Louie Gohmert was a judge.

Being a judge is in fact one of the few occupations in America that does not require you to even have a head. Unfortunate roller coaster accident? Got too close to Dick Cheney during a hunting trip? No problem. You can still write opinions. Years before his untimely death, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia outsourced all his important opinions to a family of grumpy squirrels that had taken up residence in his attic and nobody noticed or said a damn thing about it.

In a Friday night news dump, a California judge issued a ruling announcing that the state's assault weapon ban, in place since 1989, was unconstitutional because reasons. It caused a stir primarily for using language that sounded conspicuously like what the National Rifle Association and American militia groups have long been spouting in their newsletters and pamphlets, and mostly for Judge Roger Benitez's comparison of weapons designed explicitly for mass murder to a "Swiss Army Knife." An AR-15 rifle "is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment," Benitez said in his ruling. Whether he had his pants on while writing that sentence is unknown; whether he cribbed it exactly from a gun manufacturer's ad is ... probably worth exploring.

That is not, however, the only bit of bizarre editorializing in the ruling. Judge HasAHead also took it upon himself to opine that assault weapons actually are far less dangerous than ... the COVID-19 vaccine. "The evidence described so far proves that the 'harm' of an assault rifle being used in a mass shooting is an infinitesimally rare event. More people have died from the Covid-19 vaccine than mass shootings in California."

If I were head dictator of judgeships this one would be off the bench in five seconds flat for putting the "harm" of assault-rifle-assisted mass shootings in scare quotes, but I ain't and he's not. The part that's getting more heat is that U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez appears to be flat-out lying in that second sentence, and that’s us saying it nicely.

The Washington Post fact-checks Benitez on this one, but to anyone who does not live entirely inside Tucker Carlson's inflamed colon the problem here should be obvious. The number of people who are believed to have died from the COVID-19 vaccine is, at this time, approximately zero. There has been some very public speculation as to whether some of the vaccines might cause an extremely rare form of blood clot, one that may have killed three people in this country after millions and millions of doses, but the data is not conclusive and the clots seem to appear in the unvaccinated general population at roughly similar rates.

Meanwhile, mass shootings continue to be a regular occurrence in California, just as they are elsewhere. Even if you presume all three deaths suspected of being vaccine linked were indeed caused by a vaccine, it's not even close.

All we can assume here is that this particular judge is referring to far-right conspiracy theories about the vaccine from the dark nether regions of the American political psyche. It's possible we can attribute the blatant factual error to Fox News and to Tucker Carlson's white nationalist conspiracy show, but the suggestion that lifesaving, normality-saving vaccines are killing people in greater numbers than AR-15s does feels more like something plucked more directly from the Q crowd, from frothing far-right militias, or both.

Unfortunately, there's no particular recourse for this sort of judicial conspiracy peddling. For particularly grotesque behavior on the bench, the House and Senate can remove a federal judge via impeachment, but that is reserved for only the most egregious of cases and "is factually wrong when issuing weirdly premised opinions" isn't it. This is why, in fact, the Republican-held Senate was so obsessive in filling as many judicial vacancies as possible with hard-right ideologues while blocking nominees from a Democratic administration: stuff the benches with hard-right conspiracy theorists, hard-right conspiracy theories become the stuff that governs us. The judge's ruling is absolutely certain to be appealed, but the Supreme Court is itching to undo a century of laws itself and will probably not let the unending goofiness of this written opinion stop it from writing a more dignified goofy version that scrubs out the most embarrassing parts.

So far, though, there's been no ruling from hard-right judges declaring that making fun of bad judicial opinions kills more people each year than AR-15 "freedom bringers" do, so we can at least point and shake our heads here. Maybe it's cathartic. Maybe it's whistling past the graveyard.

Republicans who keep a finger on reality are finding out their voters have gone off the deep end

It’s becoming much clearer why Republicans in Congress are so reluctant to acknowledge factual reality—such as the reality that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election fairly, or that Donald Trump incited a mob that attacked Congress and ransacked the U.S. Capitol—and have doubled down on their embrace of anti-democratic disinformation that fueled the insurrection. If the Republicans dare admit any of it is real, they risk the insane wrath of the millions of GOP voters out there who have wholly swallowed all that false Trumpian propaganda.

That’s become especially self-evident among Republicans at the state and local levels throughout the country in the weeks since the Jan. 6 riot. As Hunter recently explained, the GOP at the ground level not only has fully embraced the conspiracist rot that Trump promoted after he lost, but it also has become even more openly extreme than it was before the election. Liz Cheney is now finding that out.

Whenever Republicans have made any gestures toward acknowledging either Biden’s win or Trump’s seditionist behavior, as The Guardian recently reported, voters at the state and local level have responded with outrage and threats.

“The evidence is overwhelming that local parties across the country, in blue states and red states, are radicalized and support extremely far outside the mainstream positions like, for example, ending our democratic experiment to install Donald Trump as president over the will of the people,” Tim Miller, former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, told The Guardian.

“They believe in insane COVID denialism and QAnon and all these other conspiracies. It’s endemic, not just a couple of state parties. It’s the vast majority of state parties throughout the country.”

The list is long and worrisome:

  • Arizona: The state Republican Party reelected Kelli Ward last weekend. She’s a conspiracy-theory-promoting “Trump Republican” who unabashedly promoted the “election fraud” disinformation. Party officials also voted to censure Gov. Doug Ducey for certifying Trump’s loss in Arizona, along with Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, and former Sen. Jeff Flake, both for having supported Biden in the election.
  • Texas: The state Republican Party encouraged its members to follow them on Gab, the favorite social media platform of white nationalists, with a pro-QAnon conspiracy trope: “We Are the Storm.” Even after Biden’s inauguration, the party insisted that he had won fraudulently: “It took a global pandemic, a thoroughly corrupt media, and massive election irregularities for President Trump to be removed from office," the GOP said in a statement on its website.
  • Hawaii: The Hawaii Republican Party’s official account published a thread of tweets sympathizing with supporters of QAnon—dismissing the cult’s conspiracy theories that Democrats and media figures are secretly operating as global pedophilia ring, but arguing that adherents nonetheless were engaged in a form of patriotism. The same account also praised the “generally high quality” work of a Holocaust-denying YouTuber named Tarl Warwick, saying: “It is good to periodically step outside the ‘bubble’ of corporate commentators for additional perspective.” The party deleted and condemned the tweets; the communications official who posted them has resigned.
  • Oregon: The state’s Republican Party issued a lengthy statement stuffed full of conspiracy theories and disinformation condemning the 10 Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection. It claimed “there is growing evidence that the violence at the Capitol was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit President Trump and his supporters.” Some 23 Republican members of the state House repudiated the statement, noting that “there is no credible evidence to support false flag claims,” adding that such rumormongering had become a distraction.
  • Wyoming: State activists opened a campaign to “recall” Congressman Liz Cheney after she joined the Republicans voting to impeach Trump, and they have collected over 55,000 signatures. Ten county-level parties in the state voted to censure Cheney. A state senator named Anthony Bouchard announced a 2022 campaign against the congresswoman. The Wyoming Republican state party said "there has not been a time during our tenure when we have seen this type of an outcry from our fellow Republicans, with the anger and frustration being palpable in the comments we have received."
Matt Gaetz of Florida campaigns against his fellow Republican Congressman Liz Cheney in Wyoming.

Pro-Trump Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida even traveled to Wyoming to lead a rally attacking Cheney. "We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican party, and I intend to win it,” Gaetz told the rally.

The sentiments in Wyoming were deep and widespread. A Gillette woman named Shelley Horn started the Cheney recall petition, and told CNN: “You just can't go, 'Oh well, I need to vote with my conscience.' No! Vote for what your people put you in there to do. You're a Republican, you're supposed to back your party regardless.”

Trump supporter Taylor Haynes told CNN, "In my view, she's done in Wyoming." A poll commissioned by the Trump political operation purportedly showed the impeachment vote had hurt her popularity. “Liz Cheney's favorables there are only slightly worse than her father's shooting skills,” quipped Donald Trump Jr.

Other polls, however, supported the claim. A Jan. 27 McLaughlin poll that showed 70% of Wyoming voters believe the impeachment trial was unconstitutional; more than two-thirds disapprove of Cheney’s vote, and 63% say they are unlikely to vote for Cheney again.

Some longtime GOP figures defended her. Gale Geringer, a veteran Republican strategist, told CNN that Cheney showed "courage" in casting the Trump impeachment vote: "I don't underestimate the anger people are feeling right now. It's huge. And Liz Cheney has become the target of that anger, but I don't think she's really the cause of it. I think it's fear of what the Biden administration is going to do to Wyoming. We're petrified. Our entire economy, all of our jobs, our tax base has been threatened. And there's nothing we can do about Joe Biden for four years. But we can take that fear and anger out on Liz Cheney."

But Politico reporter Tara Palmieri tagged along with the CNN crew, and found it nearly impossible to find anyone in the state who wasn’t angry with their congresswoman. Her impression was that Cheney is in serious political trouble.

Honestly, it was hard to find anyone who would defend Cheney — and I really tried to talk to as many people as I could not at the rally. I stopped at a biker bar, a gun shop, a vape shop, a hardware store, a steakhouse, a diner, a dentist’s office and a pawn shop …

— At Harbor Freight Tools, when I uttered the name “Liz Cheney,” an employee behind the cash register hurled a threatening epithet. Then a beefy and tattooed supervisor, Torrey Price, 48, came over mad as hell. His mask hung below his nose when he told me, “I don’t think she spoke for Wyoming.”

Price never votes in primaries but said he will in August 2022 — to oust Cheney. He shared more of his thoughts: the election was stolen, the U.S. Capitol raid was staged, and the number of Covid deaths were grossly inflated. He and his colleague Joe agreed on all of these points, adding that they would not be getting the vaccine.

— At the Outlaw Saloon, I envied the way a recently vaccinated NYT reporter sauntered into the biker bar maskless, when earlier, a middle-aged DJ in a cowboy hat asked me for my credentials. Likely because there were only two masks in the bar — the one on my face and another on a table, with the words “political prisoner” printed in red. The guy who threw down that mask predicted the size of the rally against Cheney, telling me the night before, “I guarantee you there will be 600 people there.” I didn’t believe him.

— At the steakhouse, our comely waitress said “a lot of people are fired up” about Cheney. As a lifelong native of Wyoming, she said Cheney made a grave mistake by not representing the people of her state.

Palmieri concluded: “If there was any doubt this is still Trump’s Republican Party, my time in Cheyenne dispelled it.”

The push to embrace Trumpism is roiling other state Republican parties as well. In Wisconsin, where 15 Republican lawmakers signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence the day before the Washington, D.C. riot urging him to postpone the certification, and two Republican congressmen from the state, Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany, objected to the electoral votes, the party is divided into two camps.

“The Republican Party right now is relatively divided, but it's not the traditional ideological divisions that used to be in place, as much as it’s between the sane and insane wings of the party,” RightWisconsin Editor James Wigderson told the Madison Capital Times. “I think that there’s a chance of a real fracture coming.”

Establishment Republicans such as former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, however, defended the Trumpists for their paranoia and embrace of partisan disinformation: “That is the perspective they have, that is the view that they have and it’s valid; you can’t say someone’s opinion of a subjective matter is invalid,” she said. “I mean, what gives us the right to judge someone’s opinion like that?”

In Michigan, where Republicans also embraced the “Stop the Steal” campaign prior to the insurrection, the impulse to maintain their embrace of Trumpism remains largely undiminished. The Allegan County Republican Party censured Congressman Fred Upton because he voted to impeach Trump.

“Not a lot appears to be changing. We have former Ambassador Ron Weiser (expected to be the new Michigan GOP chair) and Meshawn Maddock (expected to be Weiser’s co-chair),” WKAR politics reporter Abigail Censky observed. “(Maddock) led ‘Stop the Steal’ efforts in the state and was a key part of the kind of infrastructure to overturn the state’s election results, which we know from bipartisan clerks and expert testimony was a fair and safe and secure election. It’s interesting to see that that’s kind of beyond reproach still, and that, that leadership is still going to go into place.”

And in Georgia, Republican Party officials are grimacing at the wounds being inflicted on their voter-appeal operations by the presence of QAnon-loving Congressman Majorie Taylor Greene in the state’s delegation, as well as in the media as her multiple conspiracist pronouncements—such as her approval of lynching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—have come increasingly to light.

“If you have any common sense, you know she's an anchor on the party. She is weighing us down,” said Gabriel Sterling, a Georgia Republican election administrator who criticized the baseless election conspiracy theories espoused by Trump and his supporters.

“Some people are saying maybe Nancy Pelosi will throw her out” of Congress, Sterling said. “The Democrats would never throw her out. They want her to be the definition of what a Republican is. They’re gonna give her every opportunity to speak and be heard and look crazy — like what came out Wednesday, the Jewish space laser to start fires. I mean, I don't know how far down the rabbit hole you go.”

The unhinged behavior and conspiracism is widespread. The Oregon GOP’s statement was rife with conspiracy theories, including a passage explaining why they viewed the Jan. 6 insurrection as a false flag operation:

Whereas this false flag will support Joe Biden plans to introducing new domestic terrorism legislation likely placing more emphasis on themes from post-9/11 Patriot Act such as allowing those charged with terrorism to be automatically detained before trial, outlawing donations to government-designated terrorist groups, allowing electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, letting the government use secret sources in those trials, and perhaps new provisions such as codifying putting conservatives on a secret no-fly list without recourse to due process and restricting free speech, similar to the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized making “false statements” critical of the Federal government.

The peculiar combination of self-righteousness, persecution complex, and projection endemic to extremist conspiracism was omnipresent. Shelley Horn, the Wyoming petitioner, blamed Cheney’s impeachment vote for dividing the nation: “It’s just sows more hate and division,” Horn told the Cowboy State Daily, “and people are tired of it. Our country can’t stand much more.”  

As Zack Beauchamp observed at Vox:

It’s obvious that some of the party’s national leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, don’t actually believe in these conspiracy theories. But for too long, the party has been comfortable letting their rank-and-file supporters believe them because it’s politically advantageous. Now, true believers are rising up and capturing the leadership of state parties and local activist groups — putting pressure on national politicians to conform to extreme ideas or risk a serious primary threat.

This makes the GOP’s post-Trump trajectory look even scarier. No one person or organization is in charge of the party, in a position to fix the root causes of its continuing turn toward extremism. Reforming the party requires a fight on multiple levels and in multiple arenas: reforms to the local and national party, transformations of both the party and adjacent institutions like Fox News.

This is what Barack Obama adroitly describes as America’s “epistemological crisis.” It will not stop happening as long as there are news organs that traffic in falsehoods as a profit model, and who devote 24 hours a day, seven days a week of broadcast time to using those lies to coach half of the nation on how and why to hate the other half—and politicians gleefully profiting from it as well.

The creep of the QAnon cult threatens to consume what’s left of the Republican Party

The bizarre and otherworldly QAnon cult—the conspiracist Donald Trump fanatics who believe that liberal Democrats and their allies have been secretly operating a global pedophilia ring that is going to end in mass arrests called “The Storm”—has not only been spreading farther and deeper into mainstream conservative politics, but the entire Republican Party appears on the verge of being completely consumed by it.

Trump himself retweets QAnoners’ authoritarian paeans to his presidency and its attacks on his critics. His former national security adviser posted video of himself and a group of friends taking the “QAnon Oath.” Trump’s son Eric tweets out open support of the “Q” conspiracy theories. Trump’s favorite cable-news channel features reporters who openly embrace the theories. Dozens of Republican candidates openly spout QAnon claims and rhetoric, and GOP organizations have used their Facebook accounts to promote QAnon theories.  

The fantastic aspects of this conspiracism—particularly the obdurate insistence by the growing hordes of True Believers that “Q has always been right” in the face of the mounting reality that not one of the theories’ predictions or claims has yet proven accurate—make it difficult in many ways to take it seriously. In an ordinary world, it would be dismissed as a joke.

But the up-is-down belief system inherent in conspiracist worldviews like QAnon has spread so far that it not only has infected democratic discourse with garbage disinformation, but its underlying nature is profoundly violent—which presents the very real threat (one we’ve already seen playing out) of unhinged QAnon believers acting out and wreaking potentially significant levels of harm.

After all, there is a reason the FBI warned last year that QAnon was a likely vector for fueling domestic terrorism: “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

Yet it continues to seep into mainstream Republican politics with almost nary a raised eyebrow. Oregon’s QAnon-loving GOP Senate nominee, Jo Rae Perkins, can even call for the imposition of martial law in her home state (to battle “antifa”) without any notable pushback. The Republican Party has resolutely—and silently—refused to withdraw its support for a single one of the 64 GOP candidates with QAnon connections.

Media Matters’ Alex Kaplan compiled a complete list of QAnon candidates:

  • Thirteen candidates have secured a spot on the ballot in November by competing in primary elections.
  • Of those 13 candidates, five are from California, two are from Illinois, and there is one each from Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas.
  • One candidate in Florida is running as an independent, who is also on the ballot in November.
  • One candidate, in Georgia, is heading to an upcoming primary runoff.
  • One candidate in New York is running as a Republican write-in.
  • In total, 59 of the candidates are Republicans, two are Democrats, one is a Libertarian, and two are independents.

“They've done absolutely nothing to discourage QAnon followers from believing as they do,” QAnon researcher Travis View told Politico, adding that this only stokes the community’s fervor. “I mean, QAnon is premised on the idea that there is a secret plan to save the world, so they take the silence more as part of that secrecy.”

The White House and its allies have offered disingenuous retorts that verge on ballsy dishonesty when asked about the friendliness of Trump and his allies. When Flynn posted his 53-second clip to Twitter on the Fourth of July, he was participating in a ritual already being shared widely that week as video posts by the QAnon community (Perkins among them) under the hashtag #TakeTheOath (which in fact is the same loyalty oath taken by members of Congress). The trend was in fact inspired by a person using the Q identity on the message board 8kun to “symbolically take the oath on social media platforms.” At the video’s end, Flynn recited the QAnon slogan: “Where we go one, we go all!”

Flynn lawyer Sidney Powell told the Washington Examiner that there was no intent on Flynn’s part to embrace QAnon conspiracy theories—rather, he claimed, Flynn only “wanted to encourage people to think about being a citizen." He claimed the phrase "Where we go one, we go all" was first engraved on a bell on one of President John F. Kennedy's sailboats—which in fact is a falsehood first propagated by the Q persona in a message-board post. Powell also told CNN that “implying anything wrong with words long ago inscribed on a bell to encourage the unity of the human race is malevolent and just plain wrong. There is nothing more to the story."

Experts laughed at Flynn’s denial. “This is absolutely pro-QAnon," researcher/author Mike Rothschild told CNN. Moreover, Flynn’s public embrace was a major validation for the cult’s True Believers, he explained.

"The Q community is really excited by all of this. Flynn is a hugely important figure to them, seen as a warrior who infiltrated the deep state by pretending to plead guilty," Rothschild said. "The video of Flynn actually taking the oath is, to them, total validation that they were right, that Flynn is a warrior who fights for them, and that they can be digital soldiers on his level."

This underlying vision—of being a heroic warrior for truth battling against the vilest of evils—is what attracts so many followers to QAnon, and simultaneously creates permission in their minds for committing the most atrocious acts of violence one can imagine. We’ve already seen this playing out in domestic-terrorism incidents that, fortunately, did not reach fruition:

  • A QAnon fanatic armed with an AR-15 and an armored truck blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam and demanded the inspector general’s report on the government investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices in June 2018.
  • A California man arrested in December 2018 with bomb-making materials in his car told investigators he intended to use them to "blow up a satanic temple monument" in the Springfield, Illinois Capitol rotunda. His larger intentions, he said, were "make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order, who were dismantling society."
  • An Illinois woman who became a fanatical QAnon devotee livestreamed herself on a cross-country trip, armed with a collection of illegal knives, to New York City, where she hoped to “take out” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. NYPD officers arrested her there.
  • The young man who murdered Gambino mob boss Frank Cali, who gorged himself on QAnon theories online, told investigators he committed the crime because he believed that Cali was part of the “Deep State” operation to sabotage Trump’s presidency.
  • The Los Angeles locomotive engineer, also a QAnon fan, who drove his engine at high speed off the tracks near the docks where the US Naval Ship Mercy was stationed as part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic—it halted about 800 yards away from the ship—told arresting officers he was hoping to ram the ship because he believed the claims (primarily from QAnon theorists) that the patients were going to be secretly carted off to Guantanamo: “You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. … I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”

The QAnon cult has always had this violent idea of heroism at its dark heart, even among the once-respectable Republicans who have been consumed by it. One of the most prominent of these is Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst, college lecturer, and onetime Fox News regular whose career as a pundit metastasized from virulent Islamophobia to unapologetic anti-Obama “Birtherism.”

Nowadays, Scheuer can be found penning lengthy defenses of QAnon and its nonsense, claiming that dire consequences lay just around the corner for the usual laundry list of Trump critics and journalists who dared question the regime: “Maybe all of the following, gallows-headed traitors will write a Q on their palm and claim innocence by insanity?” he mused last December after Trump’s impeachment.

The supposed “Storm” arrests are only the beginnings of Scheuer’s fantasies, however. Another essay, penned a year before the QAnon screed, laid out his vision of a citizens’ uprising—replete with lynchings and domestic terrorism—in response to the “treason” of attacking Donald Trump:

American patriots have so far, praise God, been remarkably disciplined in not responding to tyranny and violence with violence. For now they must remain so, armed but steady. But the time for such patience is fast slipping away; indeed, that patience is quickly becoming an obviously rank and self-destructive foolishness. If Trump does not act soon to erase the above noted tyranny and tyrants, the armed citizenry must step in and eliminate them.

It is, of course, far better if Trump does so, and I pray and believe he will. That said, the sheer, nay, utter joy and satisfaction to be derived from beholding great piles of dead U.S.-citizen tyrants is not one that will be missed if Trump does not soon do the necessary to save the republic.

The QAnoners’ fantasies, like everything dreamed up on the far right, are certain to remain unrealized. But the likelihood that many, many people are going to be hurt in their looming attempt to make them manifest is also just as certain.