QAnon Will Survive Yet Another Apocalyptic Disappointment

The sprawling conspiracy theory’s visions of a hidden world have always been an excuse for failure.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A QAnon sticker is seen on the back of a car
A QAnon sticker is seen on the back of a car in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2020. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

As adherents of the conspiracy theory QAnon watched the U.S. presidential inauguration Wednesday, they were on the edge of their seats. For two weeks, the movement—now bereft of its anonymous leader and left to conjure up theories itself—had proposed that the inauguration would actually see the Space Force cut the satellite feed while secret military forces swept in to arrest Democrats and such Republicans as Mike Pence and Sen. Mitch McConnell who had supposedly betrayed Trump, leading to the announcement of President Donald Trump’s second term. Before that, QAnon supporters, like millions of other Republicans, had put their hopes on the election being overturned on Jan. 6. They had a prominent place among the mob that attacked the Capitol that day.

But after none of that happened, QAnon switched gears. Some adherents are suffering a crisis of faith— but others are renewing it. The most popular theory now circulating is that Wednesday’s inauguration was a sham or a pagan ritual, and that the true inauguration will occur on March 4—the original date in the Constitution, before it was changed to shorten the lame-duck period. The United States, this theory explains, was actually abolished in 1871, when the country was changed into a corporation controlled by the Bank of England. Trump will thus reappear and restore the true America that’s been concealed for over a century.

The conjuring of a hidden world is a longtime characteristic of prophetic movements seeking to explain their failures, such the Great Disappointment of 1844, when a preacher had proclaimed Jesus would return to Earth by that year. Christ, his followers said, had returned to the sanctuary—but in heaven, not on Earth, unknowable to ordinary believers save through faith. But it’s also not new to QAnon, a movement birthed from twin failures: that of Trump as president, and the repeated apocalyptic prophecies of American evangelicals since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Many millenarian movements begin among those locked out of power. But QAnon started in October 2017, almost a year after Trump supporters had seen their man sweep to an unprecedented and unexpected victory. The Republicans held every branch of government. And yet, compared to the grand promises, explicit and implicit, of the Trump campaign, nothing had happened. The wall on the southern U.S. border remained unbuilt. Obamacare remained in place. Abortion remained legal. Hillary Clinton and other objects of hate remained free. Their lives remained unfulfilled, and their social status, if anything, lowered.

The QAnon conspiracy theory explained why the grand leader had produced so little of what he promised. He was involved in a vast and secret war against the forces of ultimate evil, a world-spanning pedophile conspiracy that included every favorite target of the American conspiratorial imagination: the Clintons, Hollywood, and, of course, Jews, especially George Soros and the Rothschilds. Trump might seem to spend his time tweeting and playing golf, but he was actually ordering the military to rescue children from the mole people’s tunnels below New York City, that well-known den of iniquity. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might seem to be free and happy, but they were already in prison, only making public appearances under watch and with an ankle bracelet. (The details varied; QAnon was a broad church.)

That’s why the movement intensified after the 2018 elections, which saw Trumpism get a thumping at the polls. All that was only a facade, they believed. As one favorite line went, “This is a movie.” The real truth was occurring in the hidden world, one that Q followers could decipher for themselves. The movement developed an obsession with hidden symbols, with the placement of flags, and with the favorite obsession of apocalyptic forecasters for millennia, numerology.

It helped that so many QAnon followers came from an environment inured, almost blasé, to prophetic failure: white evangelical conservatism. From the 1970s onward, large swaths of evangelicals have believed, or at least consumed material about, the imminent end of the world. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth set the trend in 1970, becoming the best-selling American nonfiction book of the decade. It predicted Armageddon in the 1980s at the hands of the Soviet Union; by 1990 it had sold 28 million copies, but the world remained, even if the Soviet Union was on its last legs. Dozens of similar best-sellers followed, culminating in the Left Behind series of 1995-2007. Despite being abysmal books even by the standards of their kind, they sold over 80 million copies.

When prophecy failed, however, spiritual warfare—a mainstay of evangelical conservatism—stepped in. The belief in literal demonic possession, in metaphysical struggles behind the scenes determining the fate of nations, was easily borrowed by large swaths of QAnon, with its constant talk of demonically possessed Democrats and secret satanic rituals at pizza parlors. The likely creator of QAnon, Jim Watkins, deliberately borrowed evangelical language to add fuel to his theory.

One final strand of conspiratorial thought is highly visible in the latest Q iteration. Sovereign citizen theory is a clear influence on the March 4 argument. The U.S. government, sovereign citizen advocates believe, was secretly replaced with a new government based on commercial and maritime law at some point after its founding. Denying the power of that government by asserting—usually through a range of strange punctuation techniques and pseudo-legal statements—your own independence sets you free from such obligations as paying taxes or obeying the police.

All this suggests that QAnon is not likely to disappear but to mutate further. To be sure, many will find the psychic breach of the latest failure hard to shrug off, and there may be significant rifts in the movement. There are already unconfirmed but plentiful accounts on r/qanoncasualties, a forum for the family and friends of QAnon advocates, of breakdowns, hysteria, suicide threats, and physical attacks. Some people may be pulled out of the movement. But millions of Americans—including congressional representatives—will continue to assert their belief in a hidden world, regardless of how far it deviates from reality.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

Tag: Theory