The presence of a local QAnon figure is a sign of just how far the far-right’s rising aggression and conspiratorial rhetoric fueled by Trump has come in both Arizona and the nation.
A familiar face was front and center as a swarm of right-wing extremists fueled by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric stormed the US Capitol Wednesday, interrupting the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
He was bare-chested, wearing a fur hat affixed with horns, and his face covered in paint as the man stormed his way into the US Capitol.
He’s Arizona’s own Jake Angeli — a QAnon supporter who has become a fixture at right-wing political events in recent months. The outfit is always the same and Angeli, who frequently spoke with Valley reporters, has always been eager to espouse conspiracy theories associated with QAnon — an online collective born on a 4chan message board that allege the world is run by pedophiles participating and child sex trafficking and consumption of infant blood, among other baseless theories.
Photos from Wednesday showed Angeli seated at the dais of the US Senate, eagerly posing for the camera.
Angeli’s presence there is a sign of just how far the far-right’s rising aggression and conspiratorial rhetoric fueled by Trump has come in both Arizona and the nation.
“The snowball has been rolling and it’s only getting bigger,” The Arizona Republic reported Angeli said at a February 2020 event. “We’re the mainstream now.”
Arizona Republicans Highlighted Rhetoric
One month ago, the Arizona Republican party asked supporters if they were willing to give their lives to fight the election’s results.
The tweet gained national attention, but it echoed comments voiced by Arizona Republican leaders in recent months — comments that repeatedly stoked the rhetoric and propelled it into the mainstream.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) and others repeatedly alleged there was voter fraud in the November election despite no proof of widespread voter fraud in Arizona or the rest of the US. Earlier this week, Gosar encouraged his supporters to “hold the line” and “fight for Trump.” It was during Arizona’s congestion of the state’s electoral college votes that the attempted coup began.
After the attempted siege, Gosar, Rep. Debbie Lesko, and Rep. Andy Biggs still opposed Arizona’s Electoral College votes.
The state party’s chair, Kelli Ward, has consistently been one of the loudest voices insistent that the election was rigged. She frequently espoused since-debunked theories blaming everything from the use of a specific pen on ballots to conspiring poll workers as the cause of Trump’s loss.
Many of these theories gained traction both in Arizona and nationally. The false claim that Maricopa County poll workers provided voters with Sharpie pens to mark their ballots knowing that the pen couldn’t be read by vote-counting machines became a flashpoint. The allegation started gaining traction on Election Day before quickly going viral, fueled by social media.
Arizona officials repeatedly confirmed that it wasn’t true and the machines could read Sharpie-marked ballots. But it was too late. Trump supporters latched onto the theory — dubbing it #SharpieGate — and it was all the fuel needed for many to question Arizona’s results.
Within hours, the simmering online accusations of election fraud spilled into the real world. Protesters soon became a fixture outside the Maricopa County elections center for days following the General Election. Many carried guns and demanded to watch as the votes were being counted, despite the fact that poll workers were doing exactly that inside the building.
On the night of the General Election, a number of protesters attempted to storm the building to apparently see the counting for themselves. Some vote center workers and media members were escorted out of the building for safety before law enforcement could diffuse the situation.
“You have people during an election that are walking into a county building armed and there’s no telling what their intentions were,” Kenneth Smith, one of the leaders of local activist group Unity Collective, told The Copper Courier at the time. “Frankly, they looked like thugs — like they were rioters ready for extreme violence.”
“If You’re Surprised, You Haven’t Been Paying Attention”
The Trump campaign coupled with the election provided an amplification to these voices, pushing them into the national focus with Arizona as a major battleground state.
But this kind of rhetoric was stewing long before November.
“If you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention,” said Integrity First for America executive director Amy Spitalnick. “We should all be horrified by this, but nobody should be surprised that this is happening.”
Over the summer, protesters — including Angeli and other known QAnon supporters — rallied outside the state Capitol to re-open Arizona businesses temporarily closed in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some were armed, most weren’t wearing masks, and many described the COVID-19 pandemic as a hoax.
The QAnon movement quickly spread in Arizona over the last few years. Hundreds of demonstrators turned out for a “Save the Children” event in June, which was connected to QAnon.
Many attendees carried signs bearing phrases associated with QAnon, including “#Pizzagate,” “Q Sent Me,” and “#WWG1WGA,” which stands for “Where We Go One We Go All.”
In June 2018, QAnon conspiracy theorist Matthew Wright engaged in an armed standoff with Arizona law enforcement after he parked his armored vehicle in the middle of a bridge near the Hoover Dam. Wright livestreamed the ordeal, and court documents later said his actions were an attempt to gain publicity for a number of the baseless beliefs frequently touted by QAnon. Law enforcement found multiple firearms and 900 rounds of ammunition, The Republic reported.
He was sentenced to eight years in prison late last year.
Far-right groups found footing in Arizona long before QAnon.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 21 hate groups in Arizona in 2019, including multiple known white supremacist groups and the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Arizona’s Patriot movement.
The groups, which splintered into two following internal drama, were seemingly emboldened by Trump’s presidency. They forced their way into the mainstream by repeatedly drawing attention for their hateful antics, including harassing volunteers and clergy at churches that the federal government asked to shelter immigrants seeking asylum and dumping trash at Democratic headquarters.
They’re still a fixture at local protests and demonstrations, with their unmistakable armed leaders always quick to engage with others. Members frequently document their actions to share online with their followers.
Two of the group’s followers were arrested in 2018 on multiple felony charges for damaging an Arizona mosque, which they live streamed.
Patriot-group cofounder Lesa Antone has described herself as “pretty hateful” and has engaged repeatedly in fearmongering and conspiracy theories about undocumented immigrants.
Many of the Q theories easily found a receptive audience amongst the group’s members, according to a 2020 investigation by The Republic.
Despite their antics, the once-fringe group has since assimilated into the mainstream Republican party, moving into positions in local party groups and state politics. Much of their rhetoric matches some of Trump’s major talking points and, as the Republican party starts to slip in Arizona, some candidates and lawmakers have attempted to appeal to these groups.
One such example was Daniel McCarthy, who ran against Republican Martha McSally in the 2020 primary. McSally, who was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey following the death of Sen. John McCain, aligned herself with Trump, but apparently that wasn’t enough and McCarthy challenged her, citing McSally’s support of “red flag” laws.
McCarthy ran on many of the talking points frequently espoused by the far-right, including that the pandemic was a hoax used to advance the libreral communist agenda. He was at the forefront of summer protests against pandemic restrictions alongside other right-wing activists associated with both QAnon and the Patriot Movement.
McCarthy lost to McSally, who ultimately lost her seat to Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly.
Reach the reporter Bree Burkitt at firstname.lastname@example.org.