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Fears of political violence growing in U.S. as 2024 campaign heats up and conspiracy theories evolve

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The man who bludgeoned former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer last year consumed a steady diet of right-wing conspiracy theories before an attack that took place with the midterm elections less than two weeks away.

As the 2024 presidential campaign heats up, experts on extremism fear the threat of politically motivated violence will intensify. From “Pizzagate” to QAnon and to “Stop the Steal,” conspiracy theories that demonized Donald Trump’s enemies are morphing and spreading as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination aims for a return to the White House.

“No longer are these conspiracy theories and very divisive and vicious ideologies separated at the fringes,” said Jacob Ware, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on domestic terrorism. “They’re now infiltrating American society on a massive scale.”

A federal jury on Thursday convicted David DePape of attacking Paul Pelosi at his San Francisco home on Oct. 28, 2022. Before the verdict, DePape testified that he had intended to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage and “break her kneecaps” if the Democratic lawmaker lied to him while he questioned her about what he viewed as government corruption. She was in Washington at the time of the assault.

In online rants before the attack, DePape echoed tenets of QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that has been linked to killings and other crimes. A core belief for QAnon adherents is that Trump has tried to expose a Satan-worshipping, child sex trafficking cabal of prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.

Trump has amplified social media accounts that promote QAnon, which grew from the far-right fringes of the internet to become a fixture of mainstream Republican politics.

Many rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, espoused QAnon’s apocalyptic beliefs online before traveling to the nation’s capital for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that day. A message board formerly known as TheDonald.win was buzzing with plans for violence days before the siege.

Before QAnon, many Trump supporters embraced the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that prominent Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington pizzeria’s (nonexistent) basement. In 2017, a North Carolina man was sentenced to prison for firing a rifle inside the restaurant.

In his 2024 campaign, Trump has ramped up his combative rhetoric with talk of retribution against his enemies. He recently joked about the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi and suggested that retired Gen. Mark Milley, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, should be executed for treason.

Threats against lawmakers and election officials are rampant, with targets spanning the nation’s political divide: A California man awaits trial on charges that he plotted to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump nominee, at his Maryland home.

Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election did not end the spread of QAnon-influenced conspiracy theories or its unrealized prophecies. The leaderless movement’s ever-changing ideology often adopts beliefs from other conspiracy theories.

“It’s been really good at evolving with the times and current events,” said Sheehan Kane, data collection manager for the University of Maryland-based Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START.

In a 2021 article, Kane and START senior researcher Michael Jensen examined QAnon-inspired crimes committed by 125 adherents since the conspiracy theory originated on the 4chan imageboard in 2017. They found that more “extremist offenders” were connected to QAnon than any other extremist group or movement in the United States.



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Fears of political violence growing in U.S. as 2024 campaign heats up and conspiracy theories evolve

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