Mike Rothschild is the author of The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.
The history of prophecy is a history of unacknowledged failure.
Using calculations based on the Book of Daniel, Baptist preacher William Miller declared to his growing flock in upstate New York that the Last Day on Earth would arrive sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, with Christ returning to “cleanse the sanctuary of sin.” Only those with the secret knowledge of what was to come – based on Miller’s interpretations – could prepare accordingly.
Christ, of course, did not return to cleanse the sanctuary. But this initial failure didn’t dissuade the Millerite movement, with their leader subsequently “finding” another date for the Second Coming. First it was another day in March, 1844. Then it was April. Then October. Over and over, the Second Coming didn’t come, and many of Miller’s followers eventually abandoned the prophecy. But a small group of acolytes shook off what became known as their “Great Disappointment” and soldiered on – forming the Seventh-day Adventist church two decades later. That church eventually became the spiritual home of 20 million people who still incorporate aspects of Miller’s prophetic teaching into a new canon.
Could a similar trajectory, from failure to widely-held legitimate belief, be the future of QAnon? What do the days and years ahead hold for the people who truly thought that Donald Trump would sweep away his enemies and usher in a new utopia, now that he’s lost the power to actually do any of it? With Mr. Trump no longer in office, “the storm” would seem to have been permanently delayed. But Q believers aren’t walking away, shaking their heads at their own foolishness.
Far from it, in fact. Q has actually proven itself to be remarkably adaptable to failure. And its believers are equally willing to accept disconfirmation and loss. After all, as Q wrote many times, “disinformation is necessary.” In fact, there’s no reason to think Q will end at any time in the near future. Nothing has killed it, from electoral disasters to social-media bans to Joe Biden taking office. Rather than sputtering out with a Trump loss, Q’s mythology drew even in more people after Nov. 3 – through the myriad “stolen election” conspiracy theories that sprouted up between the election in November and Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Ultimately, those theories played a major role in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, with countless Q believers storming the building, and several dying in the process.
The cult-like conspiracy movement that emerged from the troll swamps of 4chan in late 2017 was built around cryptically dispensing secret knowledge of earth-shattering events to come – the product of a “military intelligence team” that seemed to know and understand things that others didn’t. In this case, it was the prophecy of “the storm” – the great unsealing of indictments by Mr. Trump that would lead to the mass arrest and execution of the pedophile cabal believers thought at the heart of the Democratic Party, Hollywood, big business and popular culture. For years, that “storm” was the core of Q’s prophecy, an alluring fantasy that saw the biggest targets of right-wing outrage over the past decades brought to justice for their “crimes.”
But over 2020, Q edged toward creating an alternate universe based on the coming election. In the world Q conjured, a world that Mr. Trump himself embraced, a second term was in the bag. Mr. Trump could only lose the election if Mr. Biden and his deep state handlers cheated – through a menagerie of rigged machines, cloned ballots, hiding the candidate and a massive collusion campaign with the liberal media. If Mr. Biden won, as the new prophecy went, the election would be proven a fraud.
Sure enough, Mr. Biden won. And sure enough, the election fraud prophecy came true for the people most inclined to believe it. Of course, one could just as easily look at the consistent polling pointing toward a Biden win, or Mr. Trump’s historically low approval rating, and say that Q made an educated guess that Mr. Biden would win, and posted accordingly. But that’s not the world Q’s believers lived in. Nor did they have any interest in leaving that world, as the “stolen election” narrative easily supplanted the “mass arrests” narrative.
Like the Millerites hoping that, no really, this time is the real time, the answer is to continue to believe – changing only the thing they believe. What once was a storm that would drown Mr. Trump’s enemies is now a storm that will restore him to power. Q gurus and Trump legal eagles like Lin Wood and Sidney Powell relentlessly claimed the Supreme Court would invalidate the loss, or that Mike Pence would throw out the electoral votes of the “fraudulent” states, or that some other magical thing would happen, and everything would be fine.
Whatever future Q has, and to be clear, it is far too popular and durable to fade away for good, depends on the false hope that Mr. Trump will come back to the Oval Office before 2024. It doesn’t actually have to happen, of course. But Q believers have to continue to think that it’s just about to happen. And they have, seeing Mr. Trump’s loss of power as temporary, and a necessary irritation that would set the stage for the corruption to be exposed. “It had to be this way,” went a popular refrain on Q social media after Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
That notion, completely unsupported by American law, has helped Q’s tenets become enmeshed in the Trump-era Republican Party. Recent polling holds that 53 per cent of Republicans believe that Mr. Trump is the “true president.” In the face of such willful delusion and “hopium,” reason and basic civics are rendered useless. Even as all of the mythical magic that could “reinstate” Mr. Trump to office fades into nothingness, these people are not going to suddenly change their minds, they’re going to believe harder. First, they hung on through the “real inauguration” they believed would take place on March 4, with many brushing off the rumours as a deep state plant designed to make them look crazy or violent.
When that fizzled, they set their sites on a new great event: massive fraud found through audits of key counties that Mr. Biden “won” in swing states – starting with Maricopa County in Arizona. They obsessed over the layout of the room where ballots were being looked at, or “bamboo fibres” being found in the pallets of ballots (because of Chinese “cloning” of ballots), and they relentlessly harassed companies and officials who they felt were perpetuating the fraud.
Although the details vary (and don’t matter, because they aren’t real), they believe that Maricopa County will be so full of fraud that there would be no choice but to throw out Arizona’s entire Electoral College slate. That would be the “first domino.” Q believers began to tout possible audits in Georgia, Pennsylvania and other purple states, with each hint bringing the hope of more states having their results thrown out, a toppling of dominos where one major state will “fall” after another, ending with Mr. Trump back in office.
At this moment, that’s where the QAnon movement is focusing its considerable energy. It doesn’t matter that there is no such thing as “reinstatement” as president, and that every single authority of consequence validated and affirmed the results of the 2020 election. This is the prophecy, and they’ll wait until either it comes true, or until there’s a new one to believe in.
It might seem beyond illogical to cling to the hope of a long-promised event that never arrives and has no basis in fact. But people don’t fall into prophetic movements because they stand up to reason and logic. These movements bring certainty to chaos and answer unanswerable questions. This is what drew people to Q from the very start – it explained why bad people attained power, and gave believers a way to help take it back. The question that brought people to Q hasn’t been answered, it’s just a different question.
And there is always another question. At some point, the can will be kicked down the road again. By then, it’s entirely possible that the Q mythology will become just one part of an even more outlandish and violent movement mixing prophecy and politics. Or maybe the “stolen election” will simply be the new QAnon, fuelling conspiracy ideation and sedition, with the original “QAnon” branding discarded as having outlived its useful life.
The future of QAnon is exactly the same as the past of QAnon: a prophecy that’s always near and never here. In the space between hope and reality stand millions of people, waiting for deliverance from the evil they alone think they can see. And they won’t give up.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.