As Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States at noon on Wednesday, holdouts of the ever-evolving QAnon conspiracy theory were forced to reckon with the reality that Donald Trump was not going to pull this one out. Followers of QAnon hold that satanic pedophiles control the world’s major institutions, which is why many thought that Trump would finally reveal a plan on Inauguration Day to arrest Joe Biden and other top Democrats, who they believe have been engaging in child sex trafficking. When martial law predictably did not happen, dread consumed the online forums where QAnon believers congregate.
In the days and hours leading up to the inauguration, adherents were clinging on to supposed hints that Trump was still on track to execute “the Storm.” CNN reports that an account on Telegram—an encrypted messaging service where pro-Trump extremists have gathered after major platforms drove them away—surfaced on Monday that falsely purported to be controlled by Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The account racked up almost 220,000 followers overnight after it sent out posts claiming that Trump was dispatching the military to take out his enemies and warning supporters to stay at home. (A spokesperson for Hyten eventually had to denounce the account as “an absolute fake.”) Facebook and Twitter both took action to stop the link to the account from being shared on their platforms. NBC News reports that other conspiracy theorists on YouTube and Facebook had been predicting that there would be a nationwide blackout before Trump alerted citizens on their cellphones that the arrests were happening. QAnon supporters encouraged one another to stock up on food and water. Even on Wednesday morning, the presence of 17 flags onstage during Trump’s farewell address at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland caught the attention of supporters who noted that Q is the 17th letter in the alphabet.
As Biden was sworn in, though, QAnon followers were split among those expressing disillusionment and others trying to come up with new theories to explain what had just happened. On the Great Awakening forum, named after the day when the mass arrests were supposed to happen, some of the top posts had titles like “Anyone else feeling beyond let down right now?” and “If Q Was a Fake, Why Didn’t Trump Denounce It?” One poster compared Q, the supposed “deep state” mole who began sending cryptic messages in 2017, to a LARPer—that is, someone who plays live-action role-playing games. Another commenter wrote, “Good luck patriot, I am done with this rollercoaster, I hope something still happens, but can’t continue to follow it.” The more optimistic users pressed people to keep faith. One of the forum’s moderators said that negative posts would be banned and wrote, “this IS NOT over HAVE patience.” Some users pointed to documents that Trump had declassified on Tuesday, conjecturing that they would reveal plans to steal the election. (They actually have to do with the Russia probe, though it’s unclear when they’ll be released.) Others hoped that famous QAnon proponents like pro-Trump lawyer L. Lin Wood Jr. and former national security adviser Michael Flynn would sweep in to save the day, or that Trump himself had made arrangements to secretly stay in power. Still others offered vague assurances that Trump is bound to return and God will prevail in the end over the satanists. Similar themes emerged in QAnon discussions on Telegram and other social media sites.
QAnon, once an obscure hobbyhorse among the most extreme fringes of Trump’s base, eventually grew to play a prominent role in his presidency. The theory first emerged on the imageboard 4chan in 2017 when a user claiming to be a high-up government official started posting messages about Trump’s secret war against the pedophiles. The fantastical narrative grew from there, with various offshoot theories that incorporated UFOs, cannibalism, and a still-alive John F. Kennedy Jr. People sporting QAnon signs and clothing became a conspicuous presence at Trump rallies, and a cottage industry for QAnon merchandise and influencers soon blossomed. Trump, who has always been hesitant to turn away supporters but never hesitant to indulge lies, repeatedly refused to denounce QAnon, which gave more steam to the movement. He would even go on to help spread outlandish claims about election fraud that had originated with QAnon believers. Far from being harmless, the conspiracy theory inspired acts of violence, first with a few cases of murder and kidnappings and then with the Capitol riot, which involved some insurrectionists wearing QAnon clothing and spouting Q-related slogans.
Which brings us to Inauguration Day, when the whole theory would seem to have finally amounted to nothing. In yet another hit to believers, Ron Watkins, another celebrity in the QAnon scene, posted a message urging his followers to move on. Watkins is the former administrator of 8kun, the imageboard where Q posts messages to his followers. Watkins has been instrumental in Q’s rise and, as the board’s chief moderator, could control the Q account anytime he wanted to. In the aftermath of the election, he helped disseminate conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines, some of which Trump promoted on Twitter. “We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution regardless of whether or not we agree with the specifics or details regarding officials who are sworn in,” Watkins wrote in his Telegram message. “As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.” He also teased a “new project” that he would be announcing in the coming days. Oh boy.