QAnon is facing a turning point in the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The inauguration contradicted the movement’s baseless conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump would return for a second term in order to confront a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles running the Democratic Party.
With Trump no longer in office, some followers have abandoned their beliefs, attempting to make amends with family and friends they had alienated along their twisting path to an alternate reality originally concocted on 4Chan message boards.
But others have renewed their pledge of allegiance to “Q,” the anonymous poster who purports to be a Trump adviser and their leader. They have tried to rationalize Biden becoming president in increasingly outrageous ways, claiming that Biden and Trump are working together and even that Trump and Biden somehow switched bodies. And some are now looking to March 4 as the next big watershed moment for their movement — the date that they believe Trump will once again be inaugurated.
Domestic violent extremist groups have also latched on to the date as a potential opportunity to strike the US Capitol yet again. US Capitol Police said Wednesday that they had received an intelligence report about an unidentified militia group’s possible plot to break into the Capitol on March 4.
The department said in a statement that while it could not provide more details about the nature of the plot, it is “taking the intelligence seriously” and has “already made significant security upgrades” at the Capitol, including establishing a fenced perimeter and increasing manpower.
A Department of Homeland Security and FBI intelligence bulletin sent to local law enforcement agencies on Tuesday also described extremists’ plan to seize the Capitol and remove Democratic lawmakers on or around March 4, NBC News reported.
It’s unclear what will happen to QAnon once March 4 passes without the coup they have predicted coming to fruition. The movement could find itself increasingly shedding followers, who might be amenable to recruitment by white supremacist and far-right militia groups that share a common enemy in Democrats and political elites broadly. But it’s likely that the movement will not crumble entirely, given that following it in the first place has required adherents to push aside any cognitive dissonance.
“Conspiracies always have a way to explain out of what’s happening, because the whole point is different versions of reality,” Amy Iandiorio, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said.
QAnon disciples believe March 4 is the day Trump will return for a second term
QAnon followers started talking about March 4 beginning in early- to mid-January, after some were disappointed that the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol failed to bring about a series of predicted military tribunals and executions that they refer to as “the Storm.” But the latest conspiracy theory really began picking up steam in February, following Biden’s inauguration, and as QAnon followers sought “different ways to explain their way out of the current reality now that there’s a new administration,” Iandiorio said.
Their rationale for this evidence-free belief — and the meaning behind the March 4 date — is, perhaps unsurprisingly, convoluted and based on a series of misinterpretations, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. But here’s how the theory goes:
QAnon believers claim that the US federal government secretly became a corporation under a law they believe passed in 1871 but does not actually exist, rendering every president inaugurated and every constitutional amendment passed in the years since illegitimate.
But on March 4, the narrative goes, Trump will return as the 19th president, the first legitimate president since Ulysses S. Grant, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as his vice president. Why March 4? It’s the original date that presidents were inaugurated. Inauguration Day changed to January 20 with the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933 — the same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the gold standard.
This is actually relevant to the conspiracy theory: QAnon believers argue that in ending the gold standard, Roosevelt transferred power to a group of shadowy foreign investors who have since been controlling the US government. (Trump sought to bring back the gold standard while in office.)
“Trump will be back on March 4. By Constitution. Read it. Read a book and educate yourself,” wrote user Wesley McBride on a Telegram channel for people who migrated from Parler after Amazon Web Services booted the right-wing social media site from its servers.
Of course, no part of their theory is true or even reasonable. It’s all disinformation, designed to explain why Biden is currently president — a reality that conflicts with their fantasy that Trump is some kind of messianic figure destined to bring about a new republic when, really, he’s a twice-impeached ex-president who lost reelection and would rather incite a mob than admit defeat.
Part of the conspiracy theory echoes one from the “sovereign citizen” extremist movement, which is anti-government and anti-taxation, and has a history of racism and anti-Semitism. The FBI has identified the movement, which has been behind violence against police officers, as a domestic terrorism threat. It similarly believes in a conspiracy theory that shadowy government figures seized control of the system set up by the country’s founders in 1933 with the end of the gold standard — one in a long line of conspiracy theories designed to “cast aspersions on Jews in general,” as my colleague Zack Beauchamp writes.
But it doesn’t seem as though, at this point, there is significant overlap between adherence to the sovereign citizen movement and QAnon.
“This seems to be a case of QAnon adherents mirroring the tenets of some sovereign citizen beliefs without necessarily sharing the same space,” Iandiorio said.
The March 4 conspiracy theory has been spreading on both mainstream and alternative right-wing social media platforms alike. In the wake of the Capitol attack, mainstream sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have pushed to deplatform users who post conspiracy theories and violent hate speech, though on TikTok, a platform that skews toward a younger audience, posts about Trump returning for a second term on March 4 have still proliferated.
Many QAnon followers have also migrated to largely unmoderated social media platforms like Gab, MeWe, Telegram, CloutHub, Rumble, and Parler, which recently came back online. Some users, though, have been skeptical of efforts to rationalize how Biden is now the president.
“[Y]ou have to stop believing in that stuff ... The military isn’t arresting anyone. No one is being sent to Guantanamo Bay. No tribunals or hangings. Just move on,” said Telegram channel user Kevin.
There isn’t currently evidence of mass mobilization on March 4, but that could change
At this point, it seems unlikely that the QAnon community will be able to mass mobilize on March 4.
Rates at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, have spiked to more than $1,300 on March 4 (they start at $476 just a week later). But people aren’t organizing to come to DC in the kind of numbers that were expected for the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, for which Trump himself extended an invitation to his followers.
What’s more likely is that militia groups could use potential QAnon protests on March 4 as a “cover for something nasty,” JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said on Twitter.
But individual QAnon followers have resorted to violence in the past, including Matthew Wright, who is serving an eight-year sentence for engaging in an armed standoff with police at the Hoover Dam. Other followers have, since 2018, been behind two kidnappings, a kidnapping plot, a break-in at the residence of the Canadian prime minister, and at least one murder.
“We do know that people can be animated and motivated by this sense of loss or the sense of community that they see QAnon giving them in their alternate versions of reality,” Iandiorio said. “Being aware that this is a population of people who are very deeply ingrained in a conspiracy, you can’t discount that there could be potential for violence.”
The Metropolitan Police Department told Newsweek that it had not issued any permits for planned events on March 4, but law enforcement and defense officials appear to be preparing for possible QAnon-related activity that day.
Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said during a recent hearing that the Capitol Police had requested that 4,900 National Guard troops stay in DC through March 12 on account of such concerns.
A spokesperson for the Capitol Police said in a statement that their department is “constantly analyzing intelligence and working with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to prepare for any threats that come our way, to include March 4.”
While defense officials haven’t at this point identified a specific threat posed by QAnon followers, Smith told Republicans during last week’s committee hearing that they need to do more to combat disinformation around the results of the 2020 election in order to prevent future threats.
“I agree that the threat environment is less, but if you want to know what’s driving the threat environment, it would be helpful if every single elected official and person in a position of power in this country publicly acknowledged that Joe Biden was the duly elected president in a free and fair election,” he said. “The degree to which people are still driving that narrative, that narrative then gets taken and put into really wacky sets of arguments.”
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