QAnon is not going away. But it’s reeling in abject confusion and despair after Joe Biden took office on Wednesday without Donald Trump leading an army of federal agents and National Guardsmen to storm the inauguration and arrest the entire leadership of the Democratic Party.
QAnon managed to successfully unite large swathes of the conspiracy web—pro-Trump imperial cultists, Christian fundamentalists, amateur race theorists, fascists, hardcore anti-Semites, gullible suburbanites, moon landing truthers, coal rolling neo-Confederate dirtbags, anti-vax quacks, you name it—under one big tent: that Donald J. Trump is a brilliant strategist, possibly anointed by God, fighting an Underworld-style secret war against a child-raping cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities. The theory was based on an unknown individual or individuals using the moniker “Q”, supposedly a high-ranking national security or military official, who posted riddle-like missives to fringe internet boards that were just vague enough for adherents to cook up and debate their own interpretations. Thus essentially gamified in nature, it spread wildly on social networks including Facebook and Twitter, rewarded promoters with monetization opportunities, inspired numerous crimes and other acts of violence, and motivated many in the crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a failed insurrection.
If there was one thing that pretty much everyone in QAnon agreed on, it was Q’s directive to “trust the plan”: that Trump, in one way or the other, would put a dramatic end to the Satanic conspiracy in a massive military crackdown called The Storm. As this repeatedly failed to happen, some Q devotees grew nervous and others doubled down. But at noon on Inauguration Day—the exact time Joe Biden became president and Trump’s last opportunity to stage a coup—came and went with nothing weird happening. QAnon-affiliated message boards like Great Awakening and Telegram channels went into a full-on meltdown.
Early in the day, on Great Awakening, some Q aficionados said they were sleep-deprived over excitement for the big day. Others noticed with an increasing wariness that the ongoing inaugural festivities did not exactly bode well for Trump, though others mined the outbound president’s farewell speech for rhetorical clues or visual hints, having attributed random mundanities like gold-fringed flags or the movements of his hands as secret messages in the form of archetypal motifs. One asked about the hidden meaning of Trump repeatedly dating the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic to 1917, disregarding the obvious answer that he never has any idea what the fuck he’s talking about.
(Note that it’s difficult to impossible to tell which posters were genuine or poseurs lining up to troll them, as Q communications seemed increasingly flooded with mockery throughout the day.)
Things started getting a little more alarming for the Q crowd when they noticed Trump did not pretend to fly to Florida but was actually in Florida. Others started boosting theories that perhaps Trump’s presence was unnecessary, as Biden might take the stage to confess to his crimes and surrender himself.
As Biden took to the stage and took his oath of office, the posts took an increasingly panicked tone on both Great Awakening and Q-devoted Telegram channels:
QAnon has always been a crystal clear example of Poe’s Law, the adage that any sufficiently extreme position reaches a state where it is indistinguishable from parody without knowledge of the author’s intent. (By this point, some of the derision may have been coming from pro-Q posters who finally realized they’d been duped.) Examples after Biden was sworn in included messages informing federal agents that “EVERY POST I HAVE EVER MADE ON THIS WEBSITE IS SATIRE,” asking “Mods please explain why Biden isn’t arrested yet,” and screaming at each other about the logic of searching for hidden codes in video timestamps.
Ron Watkins, the (supposedly) former administrator of far-right message board 8kun and a relentless promoter of QAnon and election fraud hoaxes, appeared to completely capitulate to his hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram and white supremacist hub Gab. In a message, he asked them to “please remember all of the friends and happy memories we made together” as the Biden administration begins. Watkins, who is trying to rebrand himself as a cybersecurity expert, also teased some godawful future project.
This is a community of people who believe Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are the high priests of a global human trafficking operation devoted to child sacrifice to harvest hallucinogenic/age-reversing brain fluids, many of whom remained committed to the point of destroying their relationships with friends and loved ones. So don’t get your hopes up too much.
Incredibly funny as much of this is, sliding into a fantasy where Trump, QAnon, and the various other far-right extremists with slightly less baroque aesthetics are getting their comeuppance once and for all would amount to dangerous complacency.
Trump is still alive and quite capable of inspiring followers to new and dangerous heights. More important is the movement he rode to power on. QAnon’s brand of reactionary, apocalyptic fever has always been a permanent fixture in the U.S. political landscape, but this most recent wave of infection has proven virulent and treatment-resistant. Experts on the far right consulted by Gizmodo said that they expect QAnon to ultimately survive as adherents simply cook up new rationalizations for their defeat.
“Today QAnon supporters are experiencing the closest thing to their own ‘great disappointment,’” Julian Feeld, an anti-conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, told Gizmodo.
“As the Millerite Christians before them, their ‘great awakening’ has repeatedly failed to materialize,” Feeld said, referring to the millenarian Christian movement of the 1830s which, after a prophecy of the Second Coming came to nothing in 1844, morphed into the millions-strong Adventist/Seventh-day Adventist faith. “We expect this to weaken their numbers but strengthen their resolve—and extremism.”
“With the Biden presidency upon us, QAnon is entering a new period of deflation, heightening the risk that QAnon followers will harm themselves or others around them, as we’ve seen happen again and again,” Feeld added. “The broad Christian extremism and reactionary cultural tendencies won’t be going away, so I believe the macro environment will continue to sustain many of their delusions, whatever the label they use to describe them.”
“QAnon believers are now at a crossroad where they will choose whether they keep believing in lies or they leave the movement,” Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Gizmodo. “So many people who believe in the conspiracy theory have done so at the detriment of their personal lives and relationships. We can only hope they understand that they have been scammed and are able to start returning to normal life, but that remains to be seen. There will be some who never stop believing in Q.”
Update: 4/1/2021: This article has been updated to explicitly note that Julian Feeld is a pseudonym.