In his classic 1954 study of the adaptability of belief, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger infiltrated a suburban UFO cult led by a housewife, Dorothy Martin, who’d been receiving messages from the ether via automatic writing.
On December 17, Martin apparently had a phone call from one ‘Captain Video’, from outer space, telling her that a saucer was to land in her backyard to pick her up, at four that afternoon, just before the end of the world. When the ship didn’t come, Martin and her rapidly-assembled coterie fell into despair. But then they discussed the matter further, and realised that the true meaning of the message had been that salvation would come later that day.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
So it went on. On December 21, while yet again waiting for the spaceship that would save them when the earth was destroyed at precisely 12pm, it was suggested that perhaps the lounge clock they were timing the planet’s destruction by was wrong. Thus, the room of true believers waited for a second, slower clock to chime midnight, fingers presumably in ears. When, still, nothing happened, it was agreed amongst them that God in his infinite mercy had decided to save everyone. This time.
In terms of their own timeline QAnon is now perhaps at its first midnight clock. That makes this week both a fecund and an unnerving time for believers. Unnerving, because there is as yet no word from the high priest. “Q”, the anonymous figure who speaks the revelations that hold QAnon together — supposedly someone inside the Trump White House with high, ‘Q-level’ security clearance — has remained silent since polling day. His movement is a lifeboat drifting.
The last post in Q’s preferred receptacle — a messageboard on extreme speech site 8kun — was on November 3. It was a photo of a swimming pool-sized US flag on a hill, entitled “largest_flying_flag_in_america.jpg”; a quote from the Gettysburg Address: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”; and the words: “Together we win”.
But the prophecy failed. Winning was not what happened. Ostensibly, Trump has now lost. So, what hope is there for those who believe he is the last line of defence against a Deep State paedophile conspiracy? Will he still be held up as the Lion of Judah when he’s reduced to hosting chat and light entertainment on Trump TV in 2021?
For now at least, like Trump himself, most believers remain in the denial phase. It’s easily done, at a time when the line between QAnon and not, between Republican and kook, is more blurred than it has ever been. The President continues to regularly erupt on Twitter over illegal voting. His son Eric posts discredited images of someone ‘burning 80 Trump ballots’. Even Republican moderates are perturbed by the vertical Philadelphia vote spike and the Sharpies in Arizona. Trumpist clickbait blog The Gateway Pundit has been making hay while the conspiracies shine with stories like “System ‘Glitch’ Also Uncovered In Wisconsin: Reversal Of Swapped Votes Removes Lead From Joe Biden”, making reference to an original ‘glitch’ in Michigan’s Antrim County that mistakenly awarded 6000 votes for Trump to Biden.
If Trump has his way, somewhere within that cacophony of allegation, the courts will now magnify a few grains of truth.
This would be easier to disentangle if there weren’t also a vague sense that the media are playing their own kind of fast and loose to hasten Trump’s departure. “It is totally impossible!” said Trump’s attorney Rudi Giuliani, discussing the six contested states that all seem to have edged for Biden in his video stream, Rudi Giuliani’s Common Sense. “Illogical. Irrational. That the same thing would happen in all five or six places where there were close votes.” USA Today reported that Giuliani was “ranting” in “a bizarre internet video” with “ink-stained hands”, but a quick inspection will show a fairly solemn version of the ex-mayor, with fairly clean hands, poring over tables of Arizona voters rolls.
And so, the mainstream media muddies the water, creating a perfect cover for QAnon theories to mingle unmolested. On InfoWars, Steve Pieczenik, a former state department assistant secretary, and Tom Clancy co-writer turned QAnon truther, explained how the ‘voter fraud’ had been permitted by an all-seeing Trump because it was in fact an elaborate sting operation against his enemies: “We watermarked every ballot paper with blockchain technology…. We know very well where every one went. All of this was expected.” Or, to quote Q’s unofficial slogan: Trust The Plan.
But the open-ended nature of Q allows for many different plans. In Philadelphia, two men were arrested on gun law violations after turning up at a polling station apparently hoping to ‘straighten things out’. The back window of their Hummer was plastered with QAnon decals.
Trump seems comfortable playing all angles. Before the election, at the town hall interview that replaced the second debate, he was asked about QAnon, and openly winked at them: “I don’t know anything about QAnon… I know they’re very concerned with paedophilla”. A vote’s a vote, after all. Indeed, there was some heated talk before polling day of a ‘Quacus’: with an estimated 5% of Republican candidates in some way connected to QAnon, would the movement now have to be treated as simply another voting bloc — slapping on some pork barrel come budget-time for the anti-Satanism lobby?
In fact, most of those connections were tangential, and the vast majority of Q-endorsing candidates were no-hopers, who lost on election day. A few did slip through the net: Marjorie Taylor Greene won her Georgia Congressional race by default after her opponent withdrew, and Lauren Boebert is now a Congresswoman-elect in Colorado’s third district. Both have rowed back somewhat: while Greene once said she considered QAnon “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out”, ever since her campaign took off, she has been careful to avoid the subject.
National-level politics tends to homogenise. The liveliest supporters are usually found lower down the ballot paper. In the unlikely neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Mark Szuszkiewicz stands on the brink of election to the State Assembly. In one Instagram post, replete with #QAnon and #Q hashtags, Szuszkiewicz suggested that Tom Hanks became a Greek citizen after Greece declared paedophilia a disability. Hanks denies the allegation.
As with any falsifiable event in the life of a cult, from Heaven’s Gate down, there’s great danger for those who find they can’t deal with the cold slap of reality brought by new evidence. On the QAnonCasualties forum, the news this week was often grim: “I hoped I’d never have to write this… My aunt who was ultra QAnon shot herself earlier today, she left a note saying she was terrified the cabal was coming for her and her kids because of Trump’s loss.”
Yet for most, as sub-plots like the watermarked ballots show, this is a moment for reinvention, not dissolution. In October 2017, the prophecy went out that Hillary Clinton would be arrested by the end of the month and shipped to Guantanamo Bay. When that failed to happen, some suggested that Clinton had been arrested, but was wearing an ankle bracelet, others that the Hillary Clinton appearing at book signings and TV interviews was simply a clone. So QAnon’s disappointments are full of rich creative potential. Perhaps we are about to see a new dawn, not a sunset.
One of Festinger’s key criteria in his study was that, if the believer’s views are to adapt, they “must have social support”. The individual on their own, Festinger theorised, would be too weak to push back against irrefutable evidence. But if multiple people could talk their way round to a new consensual reality, reinforce it to each other, then all would be good again.
In that sense, at least, Q is like blockchain. Where blockchain is a distributed ledger of banking, with each transaction housed on a multiplicity of individual computers which all check each other’s homework — Q is the distributed ledger of conspiracy. With tens of thousands of eyes group-sourcing the meaning of any given clue — and a natural internal market signal-boosting the most optimal — the Q hive mind may prove just as indestructible.