The merchandise website of Eugene Ho, a Myrtle Beach mayoral candidate, includes a wholesome tagline: “Our mission at Patriot Forty-Five began simply enough: To provide patriotic & Jesus-lovin’ goods that are Made in the USA.”
That’s not quite where it began, however. Back in 2020, when Ho was building a following among the MAGA faithful, Patriot Forty-Five, had a slightly darker inclusion in its tagline: “to provide patriotic, Q & Jesus-lovin’ gear that is Made in the USA,” according to the internet’s wayback machine. That “Q” lovin’ is a reference to QAnon, which posits that a global cabal of prominent “elites” — including top figures in the Democratic party — run an elaborate child-trafficking ring with Satanic undertones that former President Donald Trump is fighting to expose.
And Q-lovin’ it was. There were mugs bearing the slogan “WWG1WGA” (Where We Go 1, We Go All), the official mantra of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. Patriot Forty-Five tank tops emblazoned “Get WQke,” a T-shirt that said “Enjoy the Show” with a Q and a popcorn logo; and “Trump/Kennedy 2020,” a reference to a belief considered fringe even within the QAnon movement that JFK Jr. is alive and lying in wait to be Trump’s running mate.
All of that is gone now. The site — which lists Ho’s wife Nadean’s email address in its contact section, and is still prominent on his Linktree — now features a fairly straightforward amalgam of MAGA-related detritus. There’s a copy of Ho’s book, Trumpography: How Biblical Principles Paved the Way to the American Presidency, in which Ho, who touts himself on his Facebook page as a personal campaign photographer for Trump, shares his insights into the president from his time on the trail. There’s an oil painting of Trump pumping his fist authoritatively. Perhaps most telling of all the merchandise, however, are the T-shirts labeled “Gene Ho for Mayor.”
Ho’s run for mayor of the South Carolina city is a prime example of how far-right conspiracy theorists have pivoted from largely promoting misinformation online to focusing on efforts to affect change in the real-world political sphere, all while toeing the ever-winnowing line between mainstream respectability and going full-throttle Q. It’s a strategy that’s yielding dividends, as the ranks of elected officials with ties to the movement grows — particularly in South Carolina.
Ho’s run “is definitely a sign of Q’s infiltration into local office, which are usually low-turnout elections that don’t take a ton of effort to win, just name recognition,” says Mike Rothschild, author of the QAnon history The Storm Is Upon Us.
Ho declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to a list of questions sent by Rolling Stone regarding his website, his views on QAnon and vaccines, his work for Trump, and his campaign.
Ho’s political journey began when he was taking photos of the first Trump campaign after reportedly meeting Trump at a South Carolina Tea Party convention. On the website for Trumpography, he describes himself as “the personal campaign photographer to Donald J. Trump for all two years of his historic 2016 presidential campaign.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a question about Ho’s work. But the claim has provided him with the “imprimatur of an official campaign affiliation,” which combined with his endorsement of conspiracy theories has added “real credibility for the QAnon movement,” says Angelo Carusone, CEO of Media Matters for America.
That’s been helpful for Ho as, for the past few years, he has been something of a permanent fixture on the right-wing media circuit, regularly attending far-right rallies and charming crowds with his straight-shooter demeanor and Brooklyn accent; with his long raven hair and his omnipresent black button-downs, he somewhat resembles the actor and director Tommy Wiseau. He is something of a minor social media star in the MAGA-verse, with more than 144,000 followers on TikTok.
For years, Ho and his wife have repeatedly endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory. He has appeared on the podcast of QAnon celebrities like Dustin Nemos, and in 2019 he was a featured speaker at a 2019 QAnon rally in Washington, D.C. “Q is about all of us together and all of us not being scared,” he said to a chorus of cheers while flanked with a WWG1WGA banner, according to footage on the alternative video-sharing platform Odyssee. At the January 2020 QAnon “Red Pill Roadshow” event, Ho emceed. And in May 2021, he appeared in Dallas to discuss his mayoral run at a pro-Trump event reportedly organized by two QAnon promoters.
Ho also has posted numerous QAnon conspiracy theories on social media, including retweeting a Q “drop” (a post from the anonymous 8chan author) with the hashtag #WWG1WGA in June 2020 and a photo of the American flag against the backdrop of clouds with the caption “The storm is upon us” next to Psalm 18, also with the hashtag #WWG1WGA. In an August 22nd TikTok, he also posted a video montage of Trump with the phrases “the calm before the storm” and “light in the darkness,” both common slogans within the community. His wife, Nadean, also regularly promotes 9/11-related and Satanic conspiracy theories about celebrities like Tom Brady and the Weeknd on her Facebook page. She has also promoted the Satanic pedophile conspiracy-theory documentary Out of the Shadows. In one video, in which she compares the Covid-19 vaccine to thalidomide, she says, “This is the great awakening. I say ‘we’ because I’m not alone. There are quite a few of us. I’m in very good company.”
“On the spectrum of QAnon believers and adherents, you have the people on the outer edges of the movement or whatever who don’t know what Q is and don’t care,” says Carusone. “They’re just there because it attacks Democrats and puts the media in the worst possible light. Gene is not on that end. Gene is closer to the center of Q in that he cares about Q, or at least did.” Carusone classifies Ho as a “true believer.”
Following Trump’s loss to President Biden, Ho was also active in organizing “Stop the Steal” rallies that sought to overturn the results of the election. He was present at the January 6th rally the morning of the insurrection, though there is no evidence he was involved with the breach of the Capitol.
Since announcing his candidacy for mayor of Myrtle Beach last year, he has tried to distance himself from his former affiliations with the QAnon movement to some degree, revising his merchandise website to remove all references to the conspiracy theory. He is now campaigning as a relatively milquetoast MAGA candidate, avoiding most overt references to Q, hashtagging his posts #takebackthebeach and posing congenially at local chili cook-offs and bike rallies.
Ho has been endorsed by Trump associates and conspiracy theorists Michael Flynn and Juanita Broaddrick, as well as far-right media figures Diamond and Silk. On social media, he has pivoted from promoting conspiracy theories and Trump cheerleading content to campaigning on a Rudy Giuliani-esque, tough-on-crime platform. “People will say ‘But, Gene, you can’t stop crime.’ Oh, yeah, well, no shit,” he says in one typical TikTok video. “That’s why I’m not stopping crime, I’m flushing it away. You can still do your drug dealings, your shooting, just not in my city.”
He still, however, traffics extensively in conspiracy theories and fringe views. Two months ago, he and his wife’s video podcast episode was titled was “Are Vaccines the Mark of the Beast?” a reference to Book of Revelations verses suggesting evil forces will require people to be branded in the run-up to end times.
Ho is a long-shot to win his Myrtle Beach race, as the favorite is incumbent Mayor Brenda Bethune, the CEO of a family-owned Anheuser-Busch distributor and mayor of Myrtle Beach since 2017. Bethune, who is a Republican, says she is in agreement with Ho on some issues, such as that the government should not mandate vaccines. But in a phone interview with Rolling Stone, she says she is concerned by his view that the vaccine is ineffective, as well as his “Mark of the Beast” conspiracy theorizing. “That is a very alarming position for him to take, but especially for anyone in public service to take, and one that could be very dangerous to the lives of our residents and the safety of our community,” she says.
Bethune also says she believes Ho is too self-aggrandizing to serve the role of elected public official. “When I look at someone’s social media page and I see selfie after selfie, that’s very focused on them,” she says. “My social media page is focused on the community — what does the community need, what are we doing?”
Ho has been doing little on-the-ground local campaigning, investing in few radio, print, or TV campaigns, insiders say. He appears to prefer to hobnob with national figures like Flynn at rallies in Colorado Springs, and is set to appear at a forthcoming October 29th rally called the I Pledge Allegiance tour headlined by Diamond and Silk (whom Ho has also photographed), Silas “Uncle Si” Roberson from Duck Dynasty, and former Hercules star Kevin Sorbo.
And as a member of the extended MAGA-verse who have built careers as minor far-right celebrities around their relative proximity to Trump, Ho certainly stands to benefit from the publicity generated by a mayoral run. “He thinks his strategy is to nationalize this thing,” says one local political insider. “He’s wrapping himself around Trump. He’s ‘Gene Ho, Trumps’ photographer,’ not ‘Gene Ho, the guy who plans to solve the crime problem in Myrtle Beach.’”
According to local South Carolina GOP insiders like Wiles, Ho was initially considered something of a dark-horse contender in the race. Though he matched fundraising with the incumbent Bethune in the spring 2021 quarter, Bethune has five times the funds of Ho’s campaign, according to records filed with the South Carolina Ethics Commission; yet Ho has attracted more donations, most of which are from out of state. “I think that shows he has built some relationships on his travels with Trump and others,” says Bethune. “Why those people want to get involved in a local-level election is beyond me.”
If Ho wins an upset over Bethune, he’ll join a growing coalition of Q-affiliated Republican officials in South Carolina. Early QAnon proponent and podcaster Tracy Diaz, a.k.a. Tracy Beanz, is the state executive committee person for the GOP in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located (Beanz also appeared at a Ho campaign event in Myrtle Beach in January). Trump’s former lawyer L. Lin Wood, who has boosted QAnon and QAnon-adjacent beliefs, also unsuccessfully ran for chair of the South Carolina Republican party, losing earlier this year.
Over the past two years, South Carolina has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists, and the state is well-primed for a QAnon takeover: It’s deeply conservative, predominantly white, and evangelical, a community that has been particularly vulnerable to far-right conspiracy theories. Horry County in particular leans heavily red, with 66 percent of residents voting Republican in the last presidential election; though mayoral elections are typically nonpartisan, GOP insiders in the state are highly concerned about the infiltration of conspiracy theorists into the party.
“The QAnon movement has told people to go run and win elected office, and that is basically what has happened here,” says Jim Wiles, a Republican campaign consultant and fundraiser in South Carolina. When reached for comment about the infiltration of QAnon in the state GOP and Ho’s campaign, a spokesperson for the South Carolina GOP says, “The SCGOP does not endorse or support QAnon. We don’t get involved in nonpartisan races.”
As one of the most well-known tourist destinations in the South, if not the entire country, Myrtle Beach attracts approximately 20 million visitors per year, though it only has about 30,000 full-time residents, many of whom are retirees. It is the hub of the Grand Strand, a 60-mile string of beaches up and down the coast, studded with golf courses, water parks, and seafood shacks. It has a relatively high crime rate, with the FBI recently ranking it the third most dangerous city in the country; it also has an exceptionally high poverty rate, with an estimated one out of four residents living below the poverty line.
Wiles says the city is unlikely to pick Ho in the mayoral election, which typically has low turnout and tends to favor the incumbent, says Wiles: “I’ll be surprised if he gets 20 percent.” But with six weeks remaining until the election, high-profile endorsements potentially coming down the pipeline, and a live mayoral debate scheduled for October 6th, “all bets are off,” says Wiles.
For his part, Carusone is less concerned about Ho’s individual campaign or chances at winning as he is about the aftermath of his campaign, or what implications it may have. “The reality is they’re gonna break through. They’re gonna get into parts of the Republican party at the county levels, and they will be an increasing political force,” he says of QAnon candidates. “And it will continue to happen, and it will almost become another part of our politics. That’s, to me, the part that is unsettling.” QAnon, he says, “was never going to just go away because Trump lost the election.”