Argument

Failed Prophecies Won’t Stop Trump’s True Believers

QAnon conspiracy theorists are bringing apocalyptic beliefs into the political mainstream.

A rally-goer displays a QAnon sign as he waits for President Donald Trump to speak at an event in Lewis Center, Ohio, on Aug. 4. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A rally-goer displays a QAnon sign as he waits for President Donald Trump to speak at an event in Lewis Center, Ohio, on Aug. 4. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The mysterious figure called “Q” or “QAnon” first appeared online on Oct. 28, 2017, with a post on the far-right /pol/ message board of 4chan that they had inside information about a secret plot being hatched by the Trump administration. According to Q, the forces of righteousness were about to pounce on the “deep state,” an entrenched conspiracy that supposedly also encompassed a vast array of well-known liberal names, including Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Podesta, and George Soros. They were said to be engaged not only in attempting to foil President Donald Trump’s policies but also in operating a global pedophilia ring that would dwarf Pizzagate. Q’s post might have disappeared among thousands of other obscure messages had it not been picked up and promoted by two of the website’s moderators and a YouTube video producer who together brought it to a larger audience of conspiracy buffs and wider web platforms.

As Q continued to post, they made a series of dramatic predictions: Trump would deliver a coup against the deep state during which no fewer than 25,000 sealed indictments would be opened. In a message on Nov. 1, 2017, Q alerted followers that the opening of these indictments would cause widespread civil disorder. Therefore, because of the riots caused by the imminent arrest of “senior public officials,” the president was about to declare “a state of temporary military control” within “the next several days.”

The problem with Q’s predictions was not only the specificity of the events themselves but that they were dated, suggesting a series of extraordinary developments within the first few days of November. Of course, nothing of the sort actually happened, although Q continued to post up until October 2018. That has left the QAnon movement with a classic dilemma of apocalyptic movements: What do you do when prophecy fails?

It might seem strange to call an online conspiracy theory an apocalyptic movement. But at the heart of such beliefs, from those who expected the Second Coming in 19th-century America to their counterparts in the Taiping Rebellion across the Pacific, is the idea of revelation. Believers are offered some special insight into the future and the knowledge that a great change is coming. That’s part of what made QAnon so appealing—and left them reaching for the same toolbox that millenarians do when the apocalypse is delayed.

That has left the Q believers with a dilemma. We don’t know just how many of them there are, although they’ve begun to turn out at Trump rallies wearing Q T-shirts. But this is a subculture, not a formal organization, so their numbers are unknown. However many there are, those attracted to Q’s pronouncements have found themselves facing the same problem that has confronted others dealing with failed prophecies and predictions: cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when individuals are pulled in opposite directions by their beliefs on the one hand and their real-world experience on the other. The conflict between them creates psychological pressure, which people seek to reduce. This situation has been faced many times before, by people who have made huge personal investments in belief systems that claimed some great change would take place at a given time but who were then left psychologically stranded when the change did not take place. This happened, for example, in religious movements that predicted the Second Coming, as the Millerites did in 1843-1844, or in the case of the widely publicized Mayan prophecy in December 2012.

The general pattern with cognitive dissonance situations is that the less heavily invested will eventually drop away. Some who are relatively heavily committed may find similar affiliations to which they can transfer their loyalties. But a core group will remain, even in the face of predictions or prophecies that simply didn’t happen. That includes at least some of the QAnon believers who have remained loyal. What keeps them there?

In the first place, no one who has made a heavy commitment to any belief likes to admit that they have made a mistake. In addition, the belief is likely to be one around which they have structured their view of the world. That certainly was the case with QAnon’s predictions. This was to be the final battle between the virtuous forces of Trump and his allies against the quintessential evil of the deep state, after whose defeat some final quasi-paradise would presumably emerge. When that kind of prediction goes wrong, it carries a lot of potential psychological damage with it.

Consequently, one way of dealing with the dissonance is to try to keep the belief even in the face of a world that denies that the belief had any validity. There are two ways of dealing with this: One is to tinker with the timing of the prediction; the other is to reinterpret the prediction itself. Believers in Q have done both.

QAnon’s ideas actually seem to have spread in December 2017 and January 2018, after the failed predictions had passed, perhaps partially due to that fact that by then Q’s ideas had been picked up and spread by the conspiracy-monger Alex Jones. The surge of interest in Q in the months following the nonfulfillment of the November 2017 prediction indicates that believers were willing to cut Q some slack, felt the November prediction might only have been approximate, or thought it might refer to an entire period rather than some specific day.

In any case, unlike some previous times of prophetic disappointment, there was no single, dramatic moment of despair. Nonetheless, as time passed, it became clear that the anti-deep state coup had not taken place. Consequently, believers had to keep pushing it further and further into the future if they were to continue crediting Q’s pronouncements. Q justified the delay by reminding adherents that years of corruption made law enforcement agencies inefficient and slow-moving, so the wave of promised arrests would come more slowly than many thought. That’s a recognizable strategy of failed millenarianism; the event has been delayed because the world was too corrupt for redemption yet.

The other strategy for coping with dissonance is to reinterpret the prediction so that it means something either less concrete or less imminent. Q made this easy because there are a great many Q postings, and many of them are cryptic. Q referred to them as “crumbs,” bits of intelligence dribbled out in small portions rather than presented in logical, systematic presentations. As a result, believers are left with a body of sometimes obscure texts that must be explicated in the light of events. What was once a subculture of eager expectation becomes one of continual reinterpretation.

The saga of Q and their faithful band of believers tells us something not only about the willingness of people to stay loyal to their beliefs even in the face of a world that contradicts them. It also suggests the strength of the appetite for inside information that will assure people that they alone know how the world really works, especially knowledge about ultimate events concerning the struggle between good and evil. In that sense, the ideas that attracted Q’s followers were merely the secular counterpart of the millenarian religions that have loomed so large up to our own day. And where history is seen as culminating in a final struggle between good and evil, conspiracy theories are often not far behind.

Q claimed not only to have knowledge of a deep state conspiracy but to know how its supposedly malevolent designs were going to be defeated. In a culture already saturated with beliefs about plots and cabals—as contemporary America is—these claims were enormously enticing, despite the total absence of external evidence to support them. As Trump’s own rhetoric has become increasingly inflammatory and apocalyptic, it converges with the ideas of Q and their followers so that what was once the world of the fringe now meets the mainstream. Indeed, some QAnon supporters believe that Q is Trump—the president and the prophet combined. If there is any lesson to be taken from this bizarre episode, it is that, in the age of Trump, no claim seems too preposterous to find an audience and that, in the age of the internet and social media, these beliefs and those willing to accept them are only too easy to bring together.

Michael Barkun is a professor emeritus of political science in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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