They called it the “Great Awakening.”
Inauguration Day was supposed to be a climactic moment for believers of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that claims Donald Trump is leading a clandestine campaign against cannibalistic, deep state–dwelling pedophiles. The supposed offenders, including Joe Biden, would be arrested en masse, while Trump went on to a second presidential term.
Instead, Q believers watched Trump slink out of the White House and listened to the usual anodyne oratory on Capitol Hill as Mike Pence handed the reins to Biden and Kamala Harris. Some of the believers struggled to understand the rather banal split-screen they had just witnessed.
But some notable conspiracists claimed to experience a different sort of awakening. Ron Watkins—a former administrator of the 8kun message board, where QAnon originated, and himself suspected to be the author of the cryptic posts fueling the cult—announced that he was abandoning the conspiratorial group. “We gave it our all,” he wrote on Telegram. “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
If you believe that Watkins is done—and not just biding time before moving onto another conspiratorial grift—then perhaps today is a great day for the rational thinkers among us. The failures of Q led to much celebratory dunking on Twitter and other social platforms, where the promotion of the conspiracy is largely prohibited (Watkins is banned from Twitter). Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins basked in “schadenfreude” over the demolition of the cult’s expectations, while HotAir’s Allahpundit tweeted, “i don’t want to work, or even eat or sleep anymore. i just want to make qanon jokes from now on.”
The hope, perhaps, is that thousands or millions of Q believers will now accept the fraudulence of their bizarre fantasy. But such a widespread epiphany is unlikely. For every Q disavowal, there will be others who become attracted to a slippery prophecy that claims to explain the ills of liberal politics—especially under a Democratic administration. (Remember birtherism?) And the conditions that helped spread Q still exist: viral networks of disinformation, social isolation, political cynicism, and material deprivation that leaves people looking for explanatory narratives. Yes, QAnon is transparently ridiculous, but we underestimate its endurance, and its capacity to spur violence, at our peril.
We are already seeing signs of where QAnon goes from here, as adherents fold the latest disappointments into their wild-eyed narrative. On Telegram, one of the preferred networks for Q followers, explanations for the day’s events proliferated: Gen. Michael Flynn had promised something by the end of January, not on Inauguration Day; actually, the secret military operation to uproot traitors might last until April; don’t forget that Trump promised he’d be back, and he always fulfills his promises. Others simply said they were standing firm and called for prayer. “If you guys can’t handle it and think it’s over, just unfollow,” wrote one user. “I’ll gladly accept you back once you realize.”
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” said Biden in his inaugural address. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.” Q was, and continues to be, a lie told for power—power over a dysfunctional messianic cult of conspiracists, perhaps, but a confounding and dangerous lie all the same. It still maintains adherents among influential Trumpists and younger politicians like Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene, while more establishment Republicans court Q believers—with a nod and a wink—as they do other right-wing extremists.
The January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol is just a preview of the kind of violence that Trump can provoke in his postpresidential phase, when he’ll be free of whatever paper-thin shackles kept him from only praising QAnon in private. He can enter a new phase of demagoguery, free to stoke whatever conspiracies he chooses as he holds rallies around the country and phones in to sycophantic media outlets. He can act the role of the handmaiden of the bloody political cleansing that Q believers dream about.
No matter what he does, Trump is still here, and he’s still the great hero of the Q mythos. For as long as he remains a figure on the political scene—for as long as he’s alive—Q likely will have some purchase on certain Americans’ minds. A few years from now, we may call it something else, but its essential qualities—a bitter sense of grievance, an enthusiasm for fantastic lies, a lust for redemptive violence—are those that define most extremist groups. In the minds of many Q believers, their enemies aren’t backing down, so why would they do so? The final reckoning has just been pushed back—yet again—to another day.