Trump’s ‘stop the steal’ message finds an international audience among conspiracy theorists and suspected cults

People in Tokyo show support for President Trump on Wednesday, hours before a mob engulfed the U.S. Capitol. (Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Jan. 7, 2021 at 10:11 p.m. GMT+2

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters has made President Trump a pariah on the world diplomatic stage, with foreign leaders openly criticizing him for pushing unfounded allegations that the election was stolen and for not stepping in to condemn the violence after it had began.

But the American leader’s conspiratorial “stop the steal” campaign appears to be retaining the support of his most fervent international backers: Obscure foreign political groups and supporters of the increasingly global QAnon conspiracy theory.

Hours before Wednesday’s pro-Trump march in Washington was to begin, a crowd of a few hundred people in Tokyo gathered under American and Japanese “Rising Sun” flags — a symbol controversial in Asia because of its links to the Imperial era — to hold a march in support of the embattled U.S. president.

“Fight for Trump!” the crowd chanted in English. One sign accused President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party of committing the “Crime of Treason.”

There were also small protests Wednesday in the Canadian cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. At the protest in Vancouver, a photojournalist was punched by a Trump supporter in what was described as an unprovoked attack.

Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe at NewsGuard, a firm that tracks misinformation online, said her organization has also tracked support for the “stop the steal” movement in Australia, Britain, France and Germany with the message spreading via social media.

Jacob Davey of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said pro-Trump messaging was being spread to Britain via niche social networks like Parler or Telegram. “This speaks to the increasingly transnational nature of the far-right, and in particular the influence American politics has on far-right extremism globally,” Davey said.

Both Davey and Harling said some of the lingering support for Trump beyond U.S. borders, though small in scale, appeared to be linked to worrying conspiracy theories like QAnon, an American-born baseless theory that claims Trump is fighting an elite cabal of satanic pedophiles.

“If ever there was a sign that American tech platforms were having an impact on international discourse in a way that has no borders, this is it,” Harling said.

The support reflected controversial local movements, too. In Tokyo, Wednesday’s protest was backed by the Happy Science religion, which has been described in foreign media as a cult. The group gained infamy last year for selling a “Spiritual Vaccine” that it claimed could cure covid-19 at a price of hundreds of dollars.

In Taiwan, a “stop the steal” protest in late December that drew a reported 8,000 people was organized by a group linked to Falun Gong that has been criticized by former practitioners for its alleged rejection of modern medicine.

This fringe but fervent support for Trump among these groups is a contrast to the widespread international condemnation of Wednesday’s events in Washington, where the storming of Capitol led to four deaths and widespread chaos in the halls of America’s highest legislature.

video source:
Leaders around the world condemned the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and reaffirmed their faith in American democracy. (The Washington Post)

Trump’s unfounded claims that he was robbed of reelection in November have found few public supporters among world leaders, who have congratulated Biden on winning the presidency. On Thursday, even members of Europe’s far-right had distanced themselves from the violent scenes in Washington.

Still, the rallying cry of “stop the steal” has found support among some public figures who viewed Trump’s situation with sympathy.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been one of the few world leaders to voice support for Trump’s electoral cause, telling reporters Wednesday that his own situation was like Trump’s. “I have indications there was fraud in my election,” he said of the 2018 election, which he won.

In Britain, Maajid Nawaz, a radio presenter at LBC Radio, has repeatedly spoken in defense of the Trump campaign’s legal cases after the election. Nawaz, a former Islamist who was jailed in Egypt before becoming a well- known anti-extremism campaigner, has written on Twitter that his concerns were “civilizational not local.”

Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, said it was striking to him that such ideas were not widespread in the British mainstream. Even vocal allies like Brexit activist Nigel Farage have kept quiet on Trump’s allegations, he said.

“The outlets and voices associated with Brexit, for example, have tended to see it as clear that Trump lost and to regard it as a circus,” Katwala said, adding that Trump’s unpopularity among the British public had likely made it easy for people to drop him.

Where Trump’s election claims theories have found receptive audience over recent weeks is among followers of the QAnon theory, which originated in the United States on the message board 4chan in 2017.

The movement gathered steam throughout the pandemic last year, with supporters of QAnon elected to political office in the United States and researchers tracking support in the group to more than 70 foreign countries.

The movement had gone through an identity crisis after Trump lost the November election. The mythical Q, supposedly a top-secret government operative, had suggested that Trump would defeat his child-abusing and Satan-worshipping enemies.

The international “stop the steal” movement is facing a similar crisis now, with some online supporters arguing that the attack on the Capitol was a “false flag” undertaken by undercover members of antifa and other left-wing groups, Harling said.

The attack on the Capitol was a reminder that fringe messages can pose a danger.

“This shows the power of a far-right discourse, that it should not be dismissed as just chatter, it has real-world implications,” Harling said.