On the morning of Oct. 22, 1844, some many thousands of devout individuals throughout the U.S. and beyond waited with collective, bated breath for the second coming of Jesus Christ. They believed with all their hearts that the day had come when Christ would return to usher in the end of the world, smiting the wicked while shuffling them off to heaven to live in eternal bliss. It was, after all, what they’d been promised by their spiritual leaders as part of the surging Millerism movement, spearheaded by Baptist preacher-turned-prophet William Miller, who did nothing to stand in the way of those members who gave away all their worldly possessions in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return. Suffice to say, Oct. 23, 1844 was a significantly less cheerful day for the Millerites.
The resulting letdown of Millerite members and churches throughout the country is known as the Great Disappointment, one of the watershed psycho-spiritual events of the 19th century. It was the grand bursting of a massive bubble of belief that involved both misinformation and runaway blind faith, confronted with that most devastating of opponents—a concrete date for when a prediction is meant to come true. But the Great Disappointment wasn’t the end of the Millerites—in fact, their fractured faith has soldiered on for almost 180 years, and the modern adventist denominations of Protestant Christianity (such as the Seventh-day Adventists) are direct descendents of the exact same group that waited for Christ’s return in 1844. Today, they’re still waiting, and still believing, though the exact tenants of that belief have obviously changed and adapted over the many decades.
And that, in a nutshell, is also what’s going on in the land of QAnon in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election. The already infamous conspiracy group/cult appears to be experiencing the equivalent of a devastating power outage; a blackout of clear instruction (and no word from anonymous figurehead “Q”) that has left members furious, leaderless and questioning what went wrong on Nov. 3. Election Day was supposed to be a glorious crowning achievement, in which “Deep State” vanquisher Donald Trump would trample his foes, before unleashing the apocalyptic “Storm” that Q has promised was coming since the beginning, when Trump and co. would imprison members of “The Cabal,” an international organization of Satanic, pedophilic liberals who eat children to extend their lifespans. Yes, if you’re wondering: This is indeed what QAnon proponents legitimately believe.
“Q” has gone silent, leaving supporters desperate to rationalize his absence.
Obviously, this is not what came to pass in the days following the Nov. 3 election. On the back of historic voter turnout, Joe Biden won a convincing victory in both the (hopelessly broken) electoral college and popular vote, and will likely go on to hold the second largest winning percentage in terms of popular vote in the last few decades, behind only the Obama/Biden ticket of 2008. On Jan. 20, 2021, he’ll be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America, and Trump will slouch off to some lesser station of self promotion. But don’t expect this news to somehow shatter the reality and the beliefs espoused by QAnon practitioners overnight, as if those beliefs could simply evaporate like a morning fog in the sun. The election of Biden (or more accurately, the loss of Trump) will surely be a net positive in terms of combating the rampant misinformation and life-destroying paranoia of Q-land, and some QAnon practitioners will almost certainly find themselves waking from the ideological equivalent of a strange fever dream, leaving behind the conspiracy theories in the process. Many others, however, are only going to dig in more deeply, because they possess a pathological need to defend their irrational beliefs rather than face reality—what self-admitted psychic medium conman Morris Lamar Keene referred to as “true believer syndrome.” Or in other words, there’s a lot of Q believers out there (some call them “Qultists”) who are simply in too deep, and even the Great Disappointment of Trump’s loss is never going to dislodge them. That’s the reality we need to acknowledge.
The historical record really does make this clear, because the result of something like The Great Disappointment is rarely just a mass revoking of previously held beliefs. Rather, the beliefs morph and change to justify the disappointing event, which is exactly what happened for the Millerites in 1844. Following the Great Disappointment, new predictions were made and disseminated to believers as the REAL date for Christ’s return, leading to a series of smaller “disappointments” as those dates passed in 1844 and 1845. Infighting among the group increased as various leaders interpreted the disappointments differently, leading to the Millerites fracturing into three major groups, with many more subgroups. Many of these groups still exist today, 176 years later, having drifted far enough from one another to become numerous, distinct sects.
The same is already playing out among prominent QAnon personalities, all of whom have been frantically searching for justification or rationalization of last week’s election results. The chaos is made that much worse by the fact that “Q” himself seems to have gone completely radio silent since before the election—possibly further indication that we’ve known the identity of “Q” all along, in the form of 8Chan/8Kun owner Jim Watkins, who has recently been under fresh media scrutiny. This chaos has resulted in the expected wave of massive cognitive dissonance—you’ve got some enraged Qanon supporters who believe that the election has been “stolen,” following Trump’s own baseless rhetoric, while others simultaneously are claiming that Trump always intended to lose (of course) or appear to lose, in order to enact the next phase of the grand plan whose conclusion is always just over the horizon. To select just a single figure, the deranged Q interpreter known as “Joe M” on Parler, the right wing extremist answer to Twitter, he continues to insist that all is going according to plan, and that some great event will prevent Biden from taking office in January while Trump reemerges in victory. The following snippet of his exact words captures the tone of performative machismo and delusions of grandeur that are par for the course among QAnon’s high prophets:
Biden and the Deep State machine behind him are going to be brought down before Jan 20, Trump will show he won almost every state if not all, and patriots are going to keep on WINNING WINNING WINNG. That is a mathematical certainty.
And here’s another:
A Q believer promises “broken minds and broken glass” in the near future, which doesn’t sound like a call for violence at all.
Trump’s own refusal to concede the election, at least so far, obviously plays into the desire of QAnon supporters to keep the faith alive, so it’s not been that hard for many of them to cling the rationalization that the President is still playing a masterful game of five-dimensional chess and will never be replaced by Biden. Trump’s actual concession, once it finally comes along, will presumably be one of several aftershocks (the other major one being Inauguration Day itself) following the earthquake of the election that will further shake the faith of the QAnon rank and file, forcing them to either consider the possibility that they were wrong, or move the goalposts once again. As is so often the case, Trump’s recent behavior both bolsters the group and challenges its own members’ beliefs—such as the praise he lauded on Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, confusing to many QAnon members given that they widely believe the entire viral pandemic to be a hoax in the first place. There’s a sense that any cohesion holding the group together has suddenly become much more tenuous.
Two Q believers on Parler, casually saying they’re fine with marines shooting American citizens on the street.
Sadly, though, the damage has already been done to the mental state of millions of impressionable denizens of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where QAnon accounts were first allowed to proliferate and disseminate their web of ever-zanier conspiracy theories. How this has affected average people is something you can glean in particularly devastating terms from subreddits such as r/QAnonCasualties, whose members provide emotional support and advice for those whose parents, family or friends have become hopelessly lost in conspiracy obsession. The last few days’ worth of posts contain some grim tales—sons and daughters hoping their parents would suddenly return to “normal” following the election, crushed to find that they’re still finding new ways to rationalize Trump’s defeat, or stories about friends who simply drifted away into QAnon communities to become further radicalized, ceasing all contact with the outside world. Just browsing such a subreddit makes it abundantly clear that the roots of QAnon’s misinformation run deep, and they’re too hardy to be killed by a single shock event. But the likes of r/QAnonCasualties also make it clear that redemption is possible, and that we need to have our hands extended to those who may be doubting the bullshit they’ve been fed for the last several years.
One post in particular, written early Monday morning, presumably encapsulates the entire reason such a subreddit would exist in the first place. In the long, intimate post, a man identifying himself as a former QAnon believer emotionally bares his soul to the members of the group, describing the feeling of a lightbulb going off in his head when he finally realized he could no longer keep up the delusion. It reads like a cult survivor’s memoir, and the writer goes on to describe his decision to seek therapy and a life outside the endless well of YouTube videos and cryptic Twitter missives, and is subsequently congratulated by the crowd. The post is titled the following: “I feel like this subreddit just saved my life.”
Hyperbolic? Perhaps not. Numerous other posts in the group describe either suicidal ideation among QAnon believers, or fear from their friends and loved ones that they’ll turn to violence against themselves or others in the face of unbearable cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the writer above really has avoided such a fate. Perhaps his story, or ones like it, will help others to make the same transition away from QAnon at a time when the group’s ethos is at its weakest, following the defeat of Trump. Perhaps this person sharing their story will help those who read it remember that empathy is just about all we have to offer to someone who is snared in QAnon’s clutches.
I hope all these things are ultimately the case, but what I more cynically expect is that QAnon will endure, shaping its paranoiac worldview to tackle whatever bogeyman is the current flavor of the week. Just because this hydra has lost a head, don’t assume it’s dead.