Shortly before Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, Dave Hayes – a longtime QAnon influencer who goes by the name Praying Medic – posted a photo of dark storm clouds gathering over the US Capitol on the rightwing social media platform Gab. “What a beautiful black sky,” he wrote to his 92,000 followers, appending a thunderclap emoji.
The message was clear to those well-versed in QAnon lore: “the Storm” – the day of reckoning when Donald Trump and his faithful allies in the military would declare martial law, round up all their many political enemies, and send them to Guantánamo Bay for execution by hanging – was finally here. 20 January 2021 wouldn’t mark the end of Trump’s presidency, but the beginning of “the Great Awakening”.
Instead, Trump slunk off to Florida and Biden took the oath of office under a clear blue sky. Now QAnon adherents are left to figure out how to move forward in a world that, time and time again, has proven impervious to their fevered fantasies and fascistic predictions. And while some seem to be waking up to reality, others are doubling down, raising concerns among experts that the movement is ripe for even more extreme radicalization.
Extremists view this as a great opportunity to do a mass red-pilling
“My primary concern about this moment is the Q to JQ move,” said Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, referring to “the Jewish question”, a phrase that white nationalists and neo-Nazis use to discuss their antisemitic belief that Jews control the world. Friedberg said that he had seen clear signs that white nationalists and alt-right figures, who have long disliked QAnon because it focused the Maga movement’s energies away from the “white identity movement”, were preparing to take advantage.
“They view this as a great opportunity to do a mass red-pilling,” he said.
Travis View, a co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous who has studied the movement closely for years, concurred. “The greatest risk is that people who become disillusioned in QAnon are going to these channels where they might be recruited by white nationalists or other extremists,” he said. “In QAnon world, they already believed that George Soros and the Rothschilds controlled the world. It’s not that far to go from ‘there’s a globalist cabal’ to ‘there’s a Jewish conspiracy’.”
The storm that didn’t come
As Biden took the oath of office just before noon on Wednesday, a QAnon channel on Telegram lit up with laments.
“We’ve been lied to,” wrote one person.
“I think we have been fooled like no other,” another responded, adding: “Hate to say it. Held on to hope til this very moment.”
“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” said a third. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“Anyone else feeling beyond let down right now?” read a popular post on a QAnon message board. “It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal the whole time.”
QAnon adherents are used to dealing with predictions that have not come true. The conspiracy theory began in October 2017 when an anonymous internet user posing as a government insider posted on 4chan that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested, that her passport had been flagged, and that the government was preparing for “massive riots”. None of that happened, nor did any of the myriad other arrests, declassifications, executions, resignations or revelations that the anonymous poster, who came to be known as Q, has promised believers for the past three years. But the movement has nevertheless grown in size and influence, becoming a meaningful force in the Republican party and a motivating factor for many of the insurrectionists who attacked the US Capitol on 6 January.
“A lot of QAnon followers are expressing a lot of anger and disillusionment and feeling they are being misled,” said View, who expects the movement to “fracture” as followers grapple with the end of Trump’s presidency. “There may be people who fall off quietly because they were just along for the ride and it isn’t fun any more, but these kind of movements will always have true believers. Over and over again we’ve seen huge dis-confirming events that didn’t cause people to lose faith.”
That resilience in false belief was apparent among some QAnon followers on Wednesday. They took solace in the number of flags placed on the dais when Trump gave farewell remarks from a military base before departing on Air Force One: there were 17, which followers interpreted as a secret message to them, since “Q” is the 17th letter of the alphabet.
Others returned to the process of “baking” – or reinterpreting through their obscure and esoteric epistemology – the thousands of missives that Q has posted over the years, in order to find a new way to understand the unfolding events, and to tell themselves that Q was right all along. “Like many of you, I am in shock by today’s [events] and then I realized why it had to happen and that Q told us it would happen and, why this NEEDED to happen,” read one popular post on a QAnon forum, which went on to detail a new theory that explains why Q’s false predictions were in fact correct.
One of the most important figures in QAnon, Ron Watkins, appeared ready to call it quits, writing to his more than 100,000 followers on Telegram: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
Watkins is the son of Jim Watkins, the owner of the message boards that Q relied on to make anonymous posts, 8chan and 8kun. When Q stopped posting new material on 8kun following the November election, Watkins began promoting a steady stream of baseless allegations of election fraud to a large Twitter audience.
View warned that Watkins’s statements should not be taken at face value, noting that after the election he claimed that he would stop running 8kun in order to focus on his woodworking. “Instead, he filled the vacuum of Q by spreading conspiracy theories,” View said. “I would be wary of anything Ron Watkins says.”
No reason to stop
Watkins made his pronouncement on Telegram, a messaging app that has seen its QAnon community explode in the wake of recent crackdowns by Facebook and Twitter. Sweeping bans on QAnon influencers and communities since 6 January and the deplatforming of Parler have forced QAnon communities to attempt to reconstitute on alternative social media platforms, including Telegram and Gab, sites that have long been the haven of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the dregs of the alt-right.
The QAnon narrative has always been fundamentally antisemitic (the “globalist cabal” is a remix of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while another major QAnon belief is a modern remaking of the blood libel), but many of the top QAnon influencers shied away from overt antisemitism, leaving it to posters on 8kun while promoting a slightly more sanitized version of QAnon on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Now that QAnon has coalesced on alt-tech, where Nazis have had a few years of head start, organized antisemitism is even fewer clicks away,” warned Friedberg.
Friedberg also anticipates that some QAnon followers will choose to follow a path “from the esoteric to the neoconservative” rather than adopting white nationalism. This countercurrent of the movement is focused on exalting American militarism and patriotism, and opposing communism, especially the Chinese Communist party.
Ultimately, Friedberg said, Trump’s departure will only help reinforce the “underdog mentality” and sense of grievance that has defined QAnon since the beginning, ensuring that the movement won’t just disappear.
“The things that they hate are still there,” Friedberg said. “The fetishization of Trump is certainly real, but the hatred of the ‘deep state’, of communists, of liberals, antifa – all these institutions are still there, and they won.”
“That underdog mentality, which was illogical when Trump was president, is now justified,” he added. “There’s no reason to stop hating.”