a squirrel peeks out from behind a tree
Reading Time: 10 minutes (Justin DoCanto.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Happy New Four Years, friends! We’re here at last! And with Joe Biden’s successful transition to power, QAnon conspiracy wingnuts are now out of work, so to speak. They’re handling the stunning refutation of their sincerely held beliefs in ways reminiscent of similar groups from years past. Namely, they’re completely freaking out. Today, let’s see how apocalyptic cultists react when reality refuses to play along with their predictions. 

a squirrel peeks out from behind a tree
(Justin DoCanto.) This squirrel sees the new threat!

(Show notes: A ‘wingnut‘ is someone whose beliefs and worldview are completely divorced from reality. Conspiracy theorists definitely qualify, as do most people insisting that any gods anywhere have asked them to judge and rule over others. Also, spoiler alert: don’t expect this current crop of wingnuts ever to rejoin reality en masse.)

Everyone, Meet the Cabal of Satanic Democrats (Or Democratic Satanists, Whatevs) (CSDDSW).

For years now, QAnon has functioned as the central idea of the Grand Unification Conspiracy Theory for right-wing Americans. And its own central premise involves their patriotic, TRUE CHRISTIAN™ crusade against a dark, Satanic cabal of Democratic lawmakers and leaders who literally get together regularly to eat babies and sexually abuse children. Let’s call them, I don’t know, something like this:

The Cabal of Satanic Democrats (or Democratic Satanists, Whatevs) (CSDDSW)

It has a ring to it!

That’s actually the belief, by the way. We might joke about Christian culture warriors who act like their enemies eat babies. But QAnon went there. Their dark Satanic cabal really supposedly DID eat babies.

It’s all so eerily reminiscent of the Satanic Panicfor a reason. Christians’ faux-concern for children masks some very nefarious stuff.

Every wingnut crusade needs one-sided, utterly evil villains. It also needs heroes who can and totally will defeat those villains. Accordingly, QAnon ideology focused on Donald Trump as its central hero. Yes, that disgusting pervert would act the role of the brave Christian warrior whose overriding goal was to bring down the baby-eating cabal of evildoers. He infiltrated politics only to save children! He was gathering information needed to make the arrests, with the help of secret operatives like himself!

What’s more, Donald Trump himself seemed not only to agree with this conspiracy theory but to encourage its adherents to position him as the hero of its story.

Donald Trump was fighting the evil Satanic baby-eating Democrats to save TRUE CHRISTIAN™ children from Satan! With Donald Trump on their side, who could stand against them?

Hooray Team Jesus!

‘The Storm.’

At some point, went the conspiracy theory peddled by QAnon’s creators, Donald Trump would bring the hammer down on this dark Satanic cabal.

QAnon wingnuts called this hammer The Storm. When The Storm finally broke, the entire world would be astonished by both the number of arrests and the high levels of those arrested in this unthinkably-criminal gang. In 2019, reports a site called You Are Here, Paula White — yes, that weirdo pseudo-advisor to Trump who screeched repeatedly for African angels to come stomp on her enemies — led Trump worshipers in prayer at a political rally. Here’s what went down:

Midprayer, White pivoted to the anti-Trump them. “Right now,” she declared, “let every demonic network who has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus!” [Source listed for this quote]

And Then, After The Storm, Everything Would Totally Be Wonderful Again Forever.

What’s really wacky here is that the date of The Storm had to be re-set at least a couple of times. See, QAnon’s prophets kept making apocalyptic predictions that didn’t come true! That’s exactly what happened in 2017. Very shortly after QAnon came to wingnuts’ awareness, its prophet predicted that in November that year there’d be a big huge showdown between Good (led by Donald Trump) and Evil (led by Democrats and liberals).

Anybody who’s ever tangled with Christian wingnuts may expect forgiveness for feeling some
déjà vu right around now.

Cultists and Conspiracy Theories.

Apocalyptic cults share a number of traits:

  • Creating invisible, super-powerful, and impossibly-evil enemies to fear
  • Insisting those enemies pose a very real threat to the innocent
  • Positioning themselves as the saviors and heroes of their countries and world
  • Insisting that they know some horrific event is coming soon that nobody else is taking seriously for Reasons

All of this stuff sounds very familiar indeed to right-wing Christians. Indeed, QAnon very specifically targeted exactly these Christians right out of the gate. This is one of the first messages from QAnon:

first qanon message predicting something for october 30 2017
One of the first QAnon messages.

Note the end: “God bless fellow Patriots.”

No way that wasn’t meant to be catnip for fundagelical conspiracy nutters.

Donald Trump’s Storm.

Very quickly, those nutters began to pounce on the nonsensical, nearly-incoherent and bafflingly-inconsistent mutterings of Donald Trump. They took his blathering words as vague, thinly-veiled hints of some big plan going on behind the scenes that would soon blow everyone’s minds.

Indeed, when Trump farted out a breezy comment early in October 2017 about a military dinner he was attending later “maybe” being “the calm before the storm,” I thought that this incompetent grifter simply had no idea why he was actually attending it in the first place and wanted to make the event sound way more important than it really was — and thus himself seem way more important than he really was.

But to QAnon believers, weird, off-the-cuff pronouncements like that, issued as they were from evangelicals’ Great Orange Calf Idol, morphed from the sad rambling of a con artist to prophetic breadcrumbs to those capable of understanding them.

That is how Trump’s “storm” imagery became one of the new cult’s central ideas.

A “storm” was coming soon for evangelicals’ greatest enemies. And evangelicals needed to be ready for it!

The Foolishness of Precision.

Usually, wingnut groups’ self-appointed, self-styled prophets try hard not to be exact in their predictions. They know they must hedge their bets against reality.

Of course, a really wingnut prophet for a really wingnut group rarely thinks that far ahead. They just want power. And date-setting a big apocalypse gives them a great deal of attention — which often translates into power.

So these prophets might not think hard about what will happen when reality just refuses entirely to play along. Or they might think they themselves can influences things enough to make their prophecy sorta-kinda seem like it came true.

However, we know now that when these wingnut groups’ prophecies don’t work out, things go seriously pear-shaped. Intuitively, one would think the wingnuts would regroup, realize they were wrong, and go forth committing not to be so vastly gullible in the future. But that’s not what happens for many of them.

When Prophecy Fails.

In 1956, three psychologists published a book: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. It’s now a classic in its field.

Their book describes a prophetic cult centered around a leader who claimed “superior beings” from another planet had initially told her that the cult’s hometown would be destroyed by flooding on December 21 that year.

Eventually, that prediction morphed into another Great Flood destroying the whole planet on December 21, 1954. When they heard about this cult from the news, these three psychologists infiltrated it. They wanted to see what would happen when the prophecy didn’t come true. (Because obviously, it would not.)

What they discovered shocked a lot of people.

So What Does Happen When Prophecy Fails?

When the UFO cult’s doom prophecy failed, a lot of the cultists drilled down harder on the correctness of the prophecy.

The prophet herself, the leader of the cult, miraculously got another message a few hours later from her space aliens! They informed her of a change of plans. Yes, the space aliens had decided not to destroy Earth because the cultists themselves had proven that Earth deserved a second chance.

Hooray Team Space Jesus!

In fact, the group renewed its recruitment efforts the next day. Some people did leave the group in disgust, sure. But many others became even more fervent after their disappointment.

Sound familiar? It should. The “Great Disappointment” of 1844 ran along similar lines. Most of these apocalyptic prophecies do as well, including the “88 Reasons” Rapture prediction that sucked me into Pentecostalism and Harold Camping’s various similarly-failed predictions.

Most believers find reasons to maintain belief.

The Five Conditions.

In the book When Prophecy Fails, the authors set forth five conditions that predispose an apocalypse-cult believer to stay and maintain belief:

  1. The belief must be very intense and translate into everyday behavior.
  2. The believer must commit completely through important actions that are hard to walk back or undo. (Suffering for the belief: cutting off relationships, selling all one’s property, etc.)
  3. It must be specific enough that reality can completely refute it– like a specific date for a big event.
  4. When that specific thing fails to happen, the believer must recognize that reality has in fact refuted this very intense belief of theirs.
  5. Lastly, the believer must have social support within the cult. Fellow believers can bolster each other’s continued faith and participation in the group’s activities.

The above list doesn’t give me a lot of hope that QAnon will just dissolve.

That said, it does seem like the cult began splitting apart recently — and it looks to me like #4 in the list is the key to whether or not a believer will drill down or drift away.

When QAnon Believers Began Freaking Out.

As the hours counted down to Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day ceremony, the minutes simultaneously closed in on Donald Trump’s ability to bust open the totes-for-realsies pedophile baby-eating ring of Democratic demon-worshipers.

For his own part, the crusading TRUE CHRISTIAN™ hero of QAnon seemed entirely distracted by blustering and blathering and avoiding blame for the attack on the Capitol that he deliberately sparked — and signing oodles of pardons for his Rogues’ Gallery of seditious and/or criminal lackeys and sycophants. It was probably the hardest he’s worked for his entire term. (I hope someone was bringing the ex-Speed-Freak-in-Chief enough, um, medication to get it all done!)

The prophet of QAnon — whoever it might be — disappeared a while ago. From what I’ve heard, it’s been weeks since anyone got one of his “drops.”

That left QAnon cultists by themselves. As the hours passed, they struggled to maintain faith — and fretted among themselves. NPR reports on the waiting game they played, illustrating it with posts of screengrabs:

qanon believers are disintegrating

It’s a fascinating little slice of QAnon’s cult environment. Some believers in the screenshot speak of being scared and “sick,” while others valiantly exhort them, “Have faith! Trust the plan!!!” That’s about how it broke down in other groups, as well.

The Moment the Prophecies Failed.

Rolling Stone brings us this part. It’s mind-blowing.

As the peaceful Inauguration Day rolled past, QAnon believers fell into utter despair and chaos.

On their new social-media home, Telegram, one of their favorite channel creators advised fellow cultists, “Trust the plan.” (That’s one of their slogans, the story says. I believe it.) Along similar authoritarian lines to SHUT UP AND OBEY, others insisted stuff like “We’re open” and “Let God and the Patriots do their thing. Don’t worry about what happens at 12 pm. Watch what happens after that.”

But then, Rolling Stone tells us:

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.”

The New York Times adds a few more statements along those lines:

“It’s over,” one QAnon chat room participant wrote, just after Mr. Biden’s swearing-in.

“Wake up,” another wrote. “We’ve been had.”

Interesting. The more QAnon cultists who realize that they were completely taken in by people who are almost certainly laughing at their gullibility, the better. As you read other reactions, look for those five criteria set by When Prophecy Fails.

And Then, This Happened.

Amid the growing chaos and sense of defeat and chest-beating bravado, Ron Watkins, one of the major players in QAnon, spoke up.

He’s not just one of the QAnon leaders, though. A lot of folks think Watkins either is Q or is one of several people acting together as Q. In addition, he’s the administrator of 8kun, the imageboard forum where Q dropped prophetic turds — and also where a lot of violent alt-right extremists congregated.

And as QAnon’s failure became more and more apparent, Ron Watkins himself began to counsel his followers to admit defeat — before hinting about some “new venture” in the works for the future:

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. A we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.

Of course, a bunch of QAnon cultists immediately attacked him for his treachery to the group. They seem more than ready and willing to drill down harder on these whackadoodle ideas.

But again, that’s all to be expected. Similarly, I don’t expect them to notice that Watkins is already planning his next trolling campaign.

The Real Cabal Really Was the Friends They Made Along the Way.

In organizing like they did, in the violence they constantly created, the hatred they spewed, the cruelty they visited upon others, QAnon really became the actual cabal they hated so much, didn’t they?

In fighting child abuse, in particular, QAnon indoctrination introduced a lot of dangerously misguided ideas into adherents’ heads about actual child abuse. They painted child abuse as the province of some weird movie-esque cabal of demon-worshipers. In reality, child abuse involves a violation of trust that is often committed by victims’ own family members.

That link adds for good measure that this whole focus on child abuse serves to distract QAnon cultists from the reality of their allegiance with Donald Trump:

QAnon is an elaborate fiction dreamed up by Trump fans to meet the psychological needs of those who cannot allow themselves to admit what is plain as day to everyone else: that the man they voted for and support is mendacious, narcissistic, incompetent, corrupt and horrifically unfit, both morally and intellectually, for his office. He is so ostentatiously unfit to be president that the only way even his most ardent supporters can justify his position is to elevate their own denial into a baroque theology in which his opponents are Satanic pedophiles, and he is the defender of the children.

And as such, QAnon’s conspiracy theories did exactly what its creators — and Trump himself — needed them to do. They collectively functioned as the, well, trump card that overrode Trump’s actual unfitness for office and his galactic dishonesty and immorality.

Lookie There, More Friends Beckon Them!

Ron Watkins’ bizarre characterization of the QAnon cult — as just this bunch of “friends” making “happy memories” — goes so far past ghastly that it circles around to grotesque.

If someone wants friends to make happy memories with, they need to go volunteer with a no-kill pet shelter or something. If they need those happy memories to involve potential injuries, there’s always rugby. QAnon, though? It was always violent, nasty, cruel, abusive, willfully ignorant, anti-American, and downright evil.

Just as one glaring illustration of that truth, Reuters notes that some other “fringe groups” will be “stepping up recruitment” from these disillusioned QAnon cultists. Specifically, they say these groups include “neo-Nazis.”

Yes. Literal Nazis are eyeing QAnon refugees as potential recruits. Hey, they’ll fit right in!

I’m sure they’ll all make many friends and happy memories together. Just a bunch of smiling, cheerful pals going through life fighting the CSDDSW and singing songs!

NEXT UP: Logical Christians really aren’t very logical. But they can’t tell, any more than QAnon’s many Christians can’t tell they’re not in the least rational or loving. We’ll dive into that dissonance tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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