Elected officials love to say they aren’t typical politicians. In the case of Denver Riggleman, a Republican congressman from Virginia, it’s true. A businessman, former Air Force intelligence officer, and expert on Bigfoot believers, Riggleman has repeatedly refused to bow to party orthodoxy since being elected in 2018, most notably when he officiated a same-sex marriage ceremony last year.
More recently, Riggleman has become one of the most outspoken Republican critics of QAnon, the online community organized loosely around the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against deep-state pedophiles and satanists. He cosponsored bipartisan legislation to condemn the movement and was the only Republican to speak in favor of the bill on the House floor in October.
Entering office, Riggleman was curious to see how far he could make it in politics while sticking stubbornly to his conscience. The answer: not far. In June, local GOP officials, who had already censured him for “abandoning party principles,” replaced the traditional public primary with an unusual drive-through convention, in which Riggleman lost the nomination to a more conservative candidate.
Riggleman recently spoke to WIRED about QAnon and the future of the Republican Party, and he didn’t sound optimistic. Two weeks after the election, members of his own party, including the president, continued to stoke ludicrous claims of fraud to undermine the results. “There are elected officials who believe this,” he said, discussing conspiracy theories that spread on social media. “And that should just blow people’s minds.”
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
WIRED: When did QAnon come on your radar, and how did you react when you first learned about it?
Denver Riggleman: In the beginning of 2019, I started getting some messages about certain things that were a bit nonsensical, and I don't even remember exactly what they were. I remember writing back to these individuals that were Facebook friends, or text messages from people I've known for decades, sometimes, that would be fundamentally ridiculous.
Q: When did you first realize that other Republican elected officials were afraid to criticize this thing that struck you as so ridiculous?
Right after I came out against QAnon, I thought this was sort of a no-brainer, but boy did I underestimate the violent pushback that I would get, not only on social media but also vitriol even from people that were close to me. As soon as I identified QAnon as a threat, those who had completely subsumed themselves in this belief system looked at me as a threat. Because QAnon has evolved well beyond a simple conspiracy theory. It's almost religious; it's cultlike. And so, when you poke a cult, it's going to poke back pretty hard.
Q: Most Republicans in the House voted for the bill that you cosponsored condemning QAnon. But you're the only Republican who gave a floor speech about it and, perhaps not coincidentally, the only cosponsor who was not running for reelection. Do you think you would have been as outspoken on the subject if you had been running for reelection?
Absolutely. The reason I'm here and not running for reelection is because I was so outspoken. If you do research on me, the issue for me is that I refused to play the game when I knew I had to. And something like QAnon, if I automatically identify this as insane, I'm going against what the party objective is, which is to get people reelected. And that's why I believe the duopoly with the two-party system is so fundamentally broken.
Right now, we truly have a problem with not only QAnon but a lot of the far-right groups that are starting to mobilize, to get angry, because of these types of theories—and because public officials refuse to disavow them, and even perpetuate them through social media.
Q: What do you think the core attraction is for QAnon believers?
I think, first of all, if you have a feeling of powerlessness, it gives you a feeling of power, that you have access to knowledge other people don't. You're special. I think the second thing is, a lot of it has to do with people thinking that “everything happens for a reason.” Well, that is unqualified bullshit. Trust me, I was raised Mormon and Southern Baptist. People who think there's something greater out there than themselves—and I think that's great, I think people do great things because of that—sometimes get caught up in the idea that bad things don't just happen, it has to be for a reason. There has to be something bigger behind it. And I try to tell people that you can use Occam’s Razor, you can use any type of theory you want to use, but what it comes down to is the simplest explanation is usually the one that's correct.
Q: What about the substance of it—what aspect of QAnon seems to be most popular among your constituents and people you know?
I know that the biggest belief system out there is that the Democrats are pedophiles. That is really the basis of QAnon in a lot of ways. What a lot of people told me is, That's the part that's true. There might be crazy stuff, but the part that’s true is that there's a lot of Democrats running pedophile rings. That was the number one thing, as far as feedback from people who believe in this stuff, anecdotally.
Q: Why does that belief have so much appeal?
I don't know. But with the “Save Our Children” thing, if you look at a lot of cults, the entry point is usually something innocuous or something everybody can agree on. And I can give you an example: Wouldn't you want this beautiful world or this multicultural community where everybody helps each other, and you can build your community with every race and ethnicity, and there's never any suffering? It's always fantastic. And we could do this in our own area away from the prying eyes of government, where we live in harmony. That sounds beautiful. And that was also the message of Jim Jones. And that's the issue with cultlike behavior or belief systems. There's usually an entryway that seems innocuous or harmless or seems like a consensus that everybody can agree on.
Q: Conspiracy theories and false beliefs exist all across the spectrum, but at the moment there's clearly an asymmetry where the Republican Party is uniquely in the grip of conspiratorial thinking. I can't think of an example of a prominent elected Democrat who sort of wink-wink, nod-nods at something as out there as QAnon.
I can’t either.
Q: Do you see any way out of this for the Republican Party?
If they think they're going to win elections [this way], no. I would honestly say the Republican Party, on the fringes, has become stronger. I think, with the advent of Parler, you're going to see more and more social network engines created to monetize the grift and the fantasy of many of these conspiracy theories.
Q: How sure can we be that it’s all a grift? Some elected Republicans seem to believe, on some level, that Democrats really did steal the election. Is it possible that it's not just voters who believe the crazy stuff they read online, but it's also elected officials?
Yes, absolutely. There are elected officials who believe this. And that should just blow people’s minds.
I'm not going to say names, but I’ll tell you there's a lot larger percentage in the Republican Party who believe there's a deep state coup or cabal than people might think. And that's why it's very hard for me to be a member of that at this point, because as somebody who self-identifies, if I had to, based on our two-party system and where we're stuck, as a constitutional Republican, live-and-let-live kind of guy—I don’t fit anywhere in the party system.
Q: I assume you're talking about members of Congress. How could someone in the federal government believe that there's this deep state conspiracy against the president that's doing everything from pedophile rings to rigging the election results? What does that belief look like?
If you look at people that are being elected right now, if they've already appealed to this segment of the population to get elected, they’re probably likely to believe crazy things. It's not like we're electing people that have some special dispensation, that they're smarter than the public. A lot of times you're just electing people who are willing to do things that people like me aren't, just go along to get along, or say the craziest things to get elected, because we have a two-party system. These people don't have any higher IQ, they're not on a special plane from God. They haven't been called to do this. People sometimes don't have any other talents, but they can run for office and will do anything to get elected. So I don't think it's a big surprise that some of these individuals might believe in incredible conspiracy theories, or not even realize the conspiracy theories they believe in are rooted in anti-Semitism. They don’t know what blood libel is; they've never read a book about it.
That’s why I’ve been trying to educate people, like: Listen, I'm obviously just a flawed guy trying to do the best I can in a world that slings crap at you every day, right? But I do try to get the facts.