If you’re a hardcore QAnon believer, you had high hopes for January.
Among other things, you expected Donald Trump to remain president. You expected mass arrests and public executions. You expected an underground cabal of child-trafficking Democrats to finally be captured.
None of those things happened.
Instead, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. So if you’re one of those people — perhaps millions — who were deeply invested in the various QAnon conspiracy theories, the past few weeks likely produced an immense amount of dissonance.
But for the most die-hard QAnon followers, hope springs eternal! The next big prophecy is supposed to unfold on March 4, which had been Inauguration Day before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933 — and the day Trump will gloriously return to power and retake the White House, according to the febrile imaginings of the QAnon movement.
All of which is to say, QAnon is still with us, and may be with us for a while. Conspiracy theories are powerful precisely because they’re so flexible. They never have to cohere; they just have to explain what seems otherwise inexplicable and, above all, offer the believer a sense of direction in a complicated world.
With that in mind, it’s worth asking what might become of the QAnon movement. Assuming March 4 doesn’t go as expected, where do the followers of Q turn next? And what does it mean for US politics moving forward if QAnon shape-shifts into an even more nebulous cult?
To get some answers, I reached out to eight journalists and researchers who’ve covered the conspiracy beat over the past four years or so. Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are below.
There wasn’t a perfect consensus, but a couple of themes emerged. One, the way to think about QAnon is that it’s less a political movement than a religion. Two, that is precisely why QAnon will keep going even as its prophecies fail to materialize. Everyone agreed that QAnon will likely persist as a major factor in American politics.
If these experts are right, and I suspect they are, the problems driving the QAnon movement will probably get worse before they get better, if they get better at all.
It’s a religion — and religions have staying power
Andrew Marantz, staff writer, the New Yorker
In late April 2011, while walking through Times Square, I stumbled on a group of Christians who were holding a rally to warn about the coming apocalypse. They were followers of the radio evangelist Harold Camping, and they believed not that the end was nigh in some general sense but that it was extremely, specifically nigh: that Jesus would return on May 11, which was then about two weeks away.
I asked one of the rallygoers, a firefighter named Jeff who lived on Long Island, how he planned to spend that day. He had no specific plans. Somehow, he agreed to let me spend the afternoon and evening at his house, observing up close what it looks like when prophecy fails. By the time I left Long Island on the uneventful night of the 11th, Jeff had convinced himself that the world-ending earthquakes were late, but that they would arrive by morning. His wife, who took me aside for a desperate whispered chat, was less convinced.
I haven’t spoken to Jeff since the non-rapture. Maybe he woke up chastened on the morning of May 12 — even while I was with him, friends were already sending him mocking texts — and stayed away from DIY prophecy. Or maybe he kept exploring, swinging from apocalyptic theory to apocalyptic theory like vines leading farther into a forest, until he found his way to Pizzagate and Frazzledrip.
Research suggests that some people are unusually predisposed to accept implausible conspiratorial beliefs, and that those people may accept multiple such beliefs at once, even when the beliefs are brazenly contradictory. In any case, the glaring failure of a prophecy is almost never enough to make the prophecy go away. In late May 2011, Harold Camping made a new announcement: He had miscalculated. The rapture would actually arrive in October.
Jane Coaston, host of The Argument, New York Times
Many observers of the movement have compared QAnon’s failings — the myriad predictions that did not come to pass, including the very predictions of ultimate Trumpian victory that served as the foundation of the conspiracy theory — to the 1844 “Great Disappointment.”
During a time of significant religious upheaval in the United States, Baptist minister William Miller predicted that the world would come to an end on March 21, 1844. When Jesus Christ did not return to earth on that date, Miller revised his prediction, saying that the Second Coming would instead take place on April 18, 1844.
When Christ did not make his return on that date, Miller apologized for the error, but another Millerite preacher, Samuel Snow, declared that Christ would return on the “tenth day of the seventh month of the present year,” and, using the calendar of a Jewish sect he believed to be more accurate than our own, said that that date would be October 22, 1844.
Clearly, the world did not end on October 22, 1844. But neither, surprisingly, did the Millerites. Instead, they broke into factions — the most famous of which, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, came to believe that October 22 did not mark the second coming but rather an event that took place in heaven.
Failed predictions will not doom QAnon, as it did not doom the Millerites, because QAnon could perhaps be best understood as a religious movement of sorts that places faith above accuracy, and believes in, above everything else, a final judgment for sinners where, to loosely quote Philippians 2:10-11, every knee shall bend and every tongue shall confess. It’s just that to QAnon, “sinners” are “all Democrats, and most celebrities” and the tongues of all would be confessing that Donald Trump has defeated ultimate evil.
Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor, the Atlantic
One of the weirder things I discovered when I began reporting about QAnon is that the true believers don’t care who Q is. Naturally, I wanted to know who was behind the hoax. But to the QAnon devout, Q’s identity simply did not matter. This observation was key to my realization that the QAnon movement doesn’t behave merely like a pro-Trump conspiracy theory but instead like a baby religion, born on the social web and spread by Q’s acolytes to extremists who feel the movement’s anti-establishment message in their bones.
Jared Holt, Visiting Research Fellow at DFRLab
The QAnon movement is no stranger to failed prophecy. It is not a logical or rational movement, and it can’t be simply debunked or cast aside. There are some QAnon believers who are likely to maintain their faith in the distorted reality for the rest of their lives.
When forecasts that Trump would somehow retake office before or during inauguration failed to materialize, though it shook the faith of a significant portion of believers, it did not end the broader movement. Within the QAnon movement exists a well-practiced ecosystem that reflexively shifted the goalposts to keep followers engaged. Some claimed that their predictions had come true despite appearing not to, and others pushed the deadline for their prediction back a handful of weeks.
Travis View, co-host, QAnon Anonymous podcast
QAnon followers have been mostly purged from mainstream social media platforms following the January 6 insurrection. While this has hurt their proselytization and propaganda efforts, it has also enhanced their self-image as persecuted renegades.
A minority of less tech-savvy or less committed QAnon followers have given up on the movement, but the true believers are doubling down on alternate platforms such as Gab or Telegram. They continue to “trust the plan” and will likely do so for the rest of their lives. They’re now committed to the cause because of the community, the sense of mission, and the time and sacrifice they have already invested.
Where QAnon goes from here
Charlie Warzel, opinion writer at large, New York Times
The short answer is that I don’t know where QAnon goes from here, but I do not see it going away. My big fear, though, is that it becomes a political abstraction as it veers out of the fever swamps and is a subject of more mainstream reporting, fascination, and punditry.
That’s a real concern because I think if QAnon becomes some kind of vague shorthand for “right-wing loons,” it has two pretty negative effects.
First, it flattens and obscures what QAnon really is and that is, as Ben Collins [reporter for NBC News] has rather eloquently put it, “a political movement based on the imminent, public executions of political enemies.”
Second, it has the potential to mainstream the belief even more. It’s one reason why I think Democratic lawmakers need to be very careful about their framing of the GOP as the “QAnon party.” Because while I understand and even agree that the GOP has to be held to account on their embrace of this movement, I also think it could drive the party deeper into the arms of its furthest-right fringe.
Basically, our political leaders really underestimate just how much a huge portion of the country values the ability to piss off liberals. And how much those who love to see elites angry/uncomfortable/upset are willing to excuse the people who can deliver on “triggering the libs.” Marjorie Taylor Greene is a perfect example of this type of person. She is a particular brand of politician who feeds off outrage and uses it to acquire political power. For that reason, I think trying to make her the face of the GOP could absolutely backfire.
It’s important to note, though, that there is absolutely no good, satisfactory answer here. And that is because one of our two political parties has openly embraced and tolerated a movement whose hallmark is hostility toward democracy. Whatever happens in the short term, this is likely to be the longer-term legacy of QAnon: a process of radicalization against the democratic process, underwritten by increasingly dangerous and absurd conspiratorial fictions.
The point of QAnon is not just that Hillary Clinton is already in prison at Guantanamo Bay or that Nancy Pelosi eats children. The point of QAnon is that there will be a point of reckoning in which evil will be punished and good will be rewarded. QAnon offers purpose, direction, mooring in a world that seems threatening, and offers insider knowledge of a “Plan,” one that remains clear no matter what actually takes place in real life. Donald Trump will somehow be president again, or already is president, forever and always, amen.
QAnon will change, and likely decrease in popularity but remain critical to the lived experiences of those who remain steadfast. Like the Millerites, Qanon will not be defeated by being wrong. Faith doesn’t work that way.
Hilary Sargent, freelance journalist and researcher
Despite the fact that the so-called inside knowledge shared by Q has proven false, time and time and time again, the number of QAnon believers has grown exponentially since its inception. I don’t think there’s any reason to think that won’t continue. QAnon believers are a captive audience, and a vulnerable one.
I don’t think anyone can say with confidence what will happen in the next year — or the next week — but it’s safe to assume that bad actors (including those openly encouraging acts of violence) will continue to take advantage of the faith QAnon believers have and are clinging to.
I wish I could say that we will see the movement’s members begin to realize they are being toyed with, but I think that’s unlikely on a widespread scale anytime soon. As the major social media platforms crack down on QAnon content, violent extremists are actively working to radicalize QAnon believers for their own purposes. The extent to which this will be successful on a wide scale remains to be seen, but the risks posed by QAnon believers being radicalized and weaponized on even a tiny scale are significant.
Just as elements of ancient anti-Semitic doomsaying belief systems were recycled into Pizzagate and eventually into QAnon, the QAnon narrative is already evolving and adapting to the current moment.
The Q worldview isn’t just highly tolerant of contradictions; it’s reality-proof. Which is another way of saying QAnon is not going anywhere. It will morph, and may even eventually go by a different name, but for as long as the major political fault lines in this nation are drawn between elites and populists, QAnon — or whatever it warps into — will be with us.
Some QAnon followers may be recruited by or blend with more militant extremist movements. We can already see this in how they borrowed arguments from the sovereign citizen movement in order to absurdly claim that Trump’s true inauguration date will be March 4. Some extremism researchers have also observed neo-Nazis organizing social media “raids” that are part of an effort to recruit disaffected QAnon followers. If these efforts are successful, then the domestic extremism problem in the United States will only become more dangerous.
That, combined with the fact that QAnon followers have grabbed a foothold of real power in the form of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA), a handful of state legislators, and at least one mayor, make me convinced that QAnon, or some form of it, is now a permanent part of the American political landscape.
In its current form, QAnon exists as a decentralized catchall for conspiracy theories alleging nefarious actions are being conducted in the upper echelons of world power. Even if Q posts and Trump gradually take a backseat role in the movement, many of the tagalong theories — on topics including 5G, vaccines, and alternative medicine — will produce significant risks to the public.
Kevin Roose, tech reporter, New York Times
I may be tempting fate here, but I think that QAnon, as it was originally constituted, may be almost over. Without Trump in office or on Twitter, and with no new posts from Q in months, the community is basically running on fumes. It’s always conceivable that Q could come back, or that some new development could jolt believers back to their keyboards. But I don’t think random tweets from Lin Wood and the MyPillow guy are going to be enough to keep them hopeful and engaged. They’re pretty dispirited.
But even if QAnon dies, I fully expect that many of its core beliefs will get watered down a bit, stripped of the Q-related language, and dissolved into Republican Party orthodoxy. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some kind of a “Patriot Party” made up of ex-QAnon believers and MAGA dead-enders that forms ahead of the 2022 midterms, and I wouldn’t be shocked if that cohort pushed the entire Republican Party in a more conspiracy-minded, reality-denying direction. By 2024, Marjorie Taylor Greene may look like a moderate.
I also think the QAnon epistemology — the idea that every official narrative and mainstream institution is inherently suspect, and that real knowledge is produced by like-minded strangers working together on the internet to “do their own research” — is likely to become a more or less permanent feature of American life, regardless of what happens to QAnon itself. Once you’ve started seeing the world as a massive, interconnected conspiracy orchestrated by bloodthirsty elites, it’s very hard to stop.
From now on, every time there is a natural disaster or a political protest or a Hollywood awards show, there may be millions of people squinting at their screens, looking for clues about who’s pulling the strings.