According to the folklore behind QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory postulating that left-wing political figures are members of a secret pedophile ring, Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day was thought to be “the storm,” or the moment when President Donald Trump would emerge to arrest his evil enemies. Inauguration Day was supposed to be a day of the “Great Awakening,” marked by 10 days of darkness where the media and internet are shut down, Trump’s enemies’ crimes are disclosed over an emergency broadcast system, and all of them — including Joe Biden, who adherents believe to be a pedophile — are rounded up and sent to Guantanamo Bay for trial and eventual execution.
In reality, however, Inauguration Day was not marked by violence, nor vengeance, nor chaos (unless you count J.Lo’s insertion of “Let’s Get Loud” into her performance of “America the Beautiful”). With Washington, D.C. under lockdown following the storming of the capitol on January 6th, the inauguration of President Joe Biden was a relatively low-key affair, despite early reports from the FBI that believers were planning on disguising themselves as National Guard members to infiltrate the ceremony. Many major QAnon influencers on the encrypted messaging app Telegram were not bellicose or angry that “the storm” had not arrived, but were trying to process their loss.
Some were sanguine and committed to encouraging believers to, as the oft-repeated slogan goes, “trust the plan.” “This is an exciting day!,” said one post on a prominent QAnon channel on Telegram. “Let God and the Patriots do their thing. Don’t worry about what happens at 12 pm. Watch what happens after that.” “We’re open. Deep breaths. We’ll get through anything together,” said another. Some diehard respondents were placated by such messages of encouragement; others, however, were furious and wildly disillusioned with the fact that their fantasy of blood-soaked vengeance against pedophile leftists had not come to fruition. “That’s it. It’s done. I feel like a fool, 6 months over obsessing over Q,” said one followed by a string of teary emojis. Another was more to the point: “this was all fuckin stupid. But I’m even more stupid for believing it.”
Among some surprising influencers within the community, the mood was marked by quiet resignation. Ron Watkins, the former administrator of the message board 8kun where the anonymous user “Q” regularly posted, who is believed by many to be Q, wrote on Telegram, “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best as we are able.”
The reaction to Biden’s inauguration among stalwart QAnon supporters has been “pretty varied, honestly,” says Aric Toler, an extremism researcher at the investigative platform Bellingcat. “I expected a huge rush of denial, ‘You guys don’t understand, what really is going to happen is… ‘ But it was a lot more resignation and confusion. Obviously Q will live on for years but there are a lot of people who are just really confused why none of the [mass arrests, executions, or revelations] they have dreamed about for literally years aren’t taking place.” Such a wide range of reactions is typical of the QAnon community, says Kevin Grisham, associate director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “It can’t be seen as one monolithic group. It’s really made up of many subgroups of people who have differing interpretations of those core beliefs,” he says.
Such disillusionment has been brewing within the community since Election Day, as Rolling Stone previously reported. Since Biden was declared the victor, longtime supporters have been struggling to square the events of reality with the promises of Q. “I trust the plan, but we all need assurance,” one adrift follower posted on Telegram last November. The past few months have been a “really significant inflection point for QAnon,” Travis View, the cohost of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, previously told Rolling Stone. “The combination of the social media bans and the defeat of Donald Trump is going to cause them to evolve in really significant ways.”
Deplatforming has played a major role in this evolution. As those on the far-right have been pushed off mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter for violating community guidelines — and apps like Parler, which was taken down last week following outcry over its perceived role in organizing the capitol riots — QAnon believers have also been flocking to threads frequented by other types of extremists on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. There is a distinct risk that those disillusioned with the failed promises of QAnon may gravitate to more overtly violent groups, says Grisham. Increased exposure to extremist rhetoric, combined with the bitterness and disillusionment of QAnon’s most hardcore followers, may “lead to some really threatening situations,” he says.
Toler doesn’t see the cross-pollination of disillusioned QAnon believers with other fringe groups as a significant risk, viewing the former as a distinct group with a distinct ideology in itself. “I think a lot of the Telegram people are just there for QAnon. For example, I don’t think the boomers and middle-aged moms who were on 4chan/8kun” — the message boards where Q posted — “just for Q really ventured into a lot of the other boards,” he says. But with its lax content moderation guidelines and the facility of joining individuals threads, “Telegram is a lot more accessible, to put it mildly.” He predicts that even though there may be a fracture within the community or an exodus of disillusioned hardcore believers from the movement, with confirmed QAnon believers elected to Congress and the anti-trafficking #SaveTheChildren movement gaining ground on social media earlier this year, the community could become a lot more mainstream.
“The general Q stuff — not the hardcore parts, but the ‘soft’ elements — will be integrated into the GOP for next cycle, similar to how they absorbed the Tea Party in 2010 after they were seen as outside firebrands,” he predicts. “[Three] years ago, it was unimaginable that a legit Q believer could be elected, and now we have them elected all over, including to Congress. No signs of this slowing as a political force in some morphed fashion, even with missed prophecies/deadlines.” Grisham similarly forecasts that brewing anger within the community will lead to an increase in protests, possibly on the local level or at state capitols. “I’m seeing a lot of ‘we lost the battle, but we’ll continue to fight the war’-type sentiment,” he says.
One post on a prominent Telegram channel with more than 142,000 subscribers appeared to echo that. “2021 will be GLORIOUS,” the post read. “This is SILENT WAR.”