QAnon won’t last forever. Sooner or later, even if the failure of their prophecies doesn’t necessarily do them in, conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.
The QAnon conspiracy and the extremist movements related to it are like summer storms. They boil up from the hot air with fierce intensity. Just as quickly, they can disappear, with only lingering gusts and gales to remind us of the turmoil they’ve left behind.
Summer storms, however, are based on real meteorological phenomena. Conspiracy theories and the movements that promote them are even more fragile constructs, since they’re based entirely on fiction. QAnon is an imagined reality that can deconstruct, though not necessarily easily.
By “being based on fiction” I mean not only the “big lie” that QAnon promotes, that the 2020 election was stolen and that Donald Trump is still the president. Associated with this big lie is a quite remarkable alternative reality that proposes that there’s a hidden cabal of manipulators in the government, the media, and in the motion picture industry. These Satan-worshippers are part of the “deep state” that runs the country for its own evil purposes. Among those evils are child trafficking and the molestation of innocent children. In this imaginary world Donald Trump is a secret savior figure who, during his second term of office, will ride through the cataclysmic events of what QAnon calls “the storm,” and bring the evil-doers to justice.
Though not all of the rioters in the January 6 capital insurrection subscribed to all of the details of the QAnon conspiracy, most agreed with the broad outline: that there’s an evil liberal plot to control the country and that Trump has been anointed to save the righteous from this liberal fate.
How such conspiracies emerge is an interesting subject of study and conjecture. In an online article, “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon,” Reed Berkowitz claims that the creation of the QAnon conspiracy is similar to the way computer games are designed. The process is something he calls “guided apophenia.” This refers to the ability of the human mind to take disconnected bits of information and attempt to put them into a related whole, even if the construct is illusory. This process can be “guided” by manipulators trying to create a computer game or a strident political ideology. Hence QAnon gives “drops” of information as clues to try to figure out, and those who do so feel that they’re making discoveries due to their own powerful rational abilities. It provides the cognitive satisfaction of a treasure hunt or working on a crossword puzzle.
The problem with this process is that it gives the followers the illusion that they’re figuring out these patterns by themselves. Hence they must be true. The fact that they are then shared by a wider community buttresses this gnostic sense of being privy to a secret source of knowledge.
It is, in a sense, like religion. In their authoritative book on QAnon, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko cite those who regard it as a kind of religion. This observation is affirmed by a Christian pastor, Mark Sayer, in an interview published in Christianity Today, “Why Someone You Love Might Join QAnon.”
The ideas of QAnon have also merged with other forms of religion, particularly premillennial evangelical Protestant Christianity. Anyone who believes that the Rapture will come and sweep righteous Christians into heaven before the cataclysmic events of the Book of Revelation and the coming of Christ will recognize a familiar theme in the QAnon prophecy of the “storm,” and the return of Donald Trump to save society.
What this means is that this is a deeply entrenched alternative reality and not just a casual conspiracy. So when I said that it can vanish as quickly as a summer storm, I don’t mean to predict that it will.
Nonetheless, from what I’ve learned from studying how other violent religious movements have ended, including those like ISIS that are as deeply entrenched in their followers’ minds, I suggest that there are several things that could hasten the unravelling of the theories and the collapse of the movements. If ISIS can dissipate, so can QAnon.
I talked with a militant fighter for the Islamic State, whom I will call Muhammad, in a prison in Northern Iraq who told me that the defeat of Mosul was not the deciding moment in the demise of ISIS.
“It was dead before it was destroyed,” Muhammad told me, saying that infighting and bad leadership had corrupted the movement. To illustrate the point, Muhammad pulled up his shirt to show me the scar from where he’d been stabbed in an encounter with a fellow ISIS militant. Increasingly, it’d seemed to him that they were fighting as much among themselves as they were against their perceived enemies.
He was also frustrated with the movement’s leadership. Though Muhammad clung to the idea of a Caliph as a righteous ruler worth fighting for, he seemed uncertain about whether al-Baghdadi was a sufficiently strong leader to deserve that title. Faith in a movement can erode when its leader is seen as less than legitimate.
A similar loss of faith may be occurring in the QAnon community. The bona fides of Donald Trump seem increasingly to be in question in right-wing extremist circles. His encouragement of followers to be vaccinated against Covid at a rally this summer was greeted with boos. Some have criticized his fund-raising and openly suspect that it’s not really for legal defense purposes as described.
If greater dissension emerges within the ranks over which elements of QAnon to believe, and if Trump himself is seen as fallible, the conspiracy might begin to unravel. The HBO documentary series, “Q: Into the Storm,” implied that the figure of QAnon wasn’t some deep-state official, but Ron Watkins, the long-time administrator of the 8kun message board on which QAnon’s sayings were posted. Whether this revelation will cause disillusionment in the ranks is yet to be seen.
Society strikes back
The final ending of the Khalistani uprising of militant Sikhs in India’s Punjab in the 1990s came from a barrage of military and police repression. Although many of the former militants in the movement told me that the movement had already self-destructed from within, they admitted that the presence of the police had a chilling effect on the movement’s control of the countryside. When the police or military respond too strongly they can send the signal that the image of warfare that many militants project is legitimate, and they respond in kind with more violence. But if there are no boundaries set on what is acceptable behavior, then unbridled bloodshed is possible.
In the case of the Khalistan movement, as with many others that I’ve studied, the activists have to be reminded of social reality: that there are limits on what they can do in a civil society without repercussions. You can’t kill with impunity. Nor can you be involved in an insurrection against the state without the state taking action against you.
This is what many of the QAnon participants in the January 6 uprising on the U.S. capital are now discovering. As of mid-November 2021 there were 650 cases being brought to the courts. Some have already resulted in sentences of multiple years in prison. Today, in fact, the “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who famously ranted from the podium in the US Capitol Senate chambers, was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
These court cases are chilling reminders that armed insurrection against the US government is not tolerated in proper society. The QAnon expectations about permissible public behavior have to be revised. For some in the movement these legal cases are the wakeup call that indicate that the movement has gone too far, and that their behavior—if not their beliefs—will not be tolerated.
When the Philippine authorities were negotiating in earnest with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, they determined that simply requiring the fighters to lay down their arms was not sufficient. Many of the militants had been guerilla soldiers since they were teenage boys, and now some ten or twenty years later, fighting was the only skill that they had. For that reason, re-training camps were set up to provide vocational skills such as carpentry, mechanics, and other marketable forms of labor. The authorities wanted to provide the militants not only with reasons to reject what they’d been doing but with a new future by finding alternative ways of rejoining society.
In the case of QAnon, most of those who subscribe to those beliefs don’t need new jobs; they already have them. But they do need a face-saving way of re-entering society after stridently identifying themselves with a conspiratorial ideology that many of their former friends and neighbors regard, at best, as bizarre—and at worst as demented and quite possibly dangerous. Studies of true believers of any form of militant religion or ideology show that once one has adopted that position it’s very difficult to leave it without losing face.
This is where the religious aspects of the QAnon movement might become useful. Since for many, as Bloom and Moskalenko have stated, QAnon is a religion, and for many more it’s closely intertwined with their religious affiliation to evangelical Protestantism, the two could be combined. It could be fairly easy to maintain at least some elements of the QAnon worldview and merge them with religious apocalypticism, thereby de-politicizing the ideology. It might not be difficult to persuade former QAnon advocates that the alternative world of evil that they imagine is a spiritual rather than a political one. They might return to the notion that the savior who will rescue them is the Christ that they’ve proclaimed for years, rather than Donald Trump.
Another option would be the one chosen by many former followers of ISIS. They’re no longer warriors and they grudgingly accept the legitimacy of the secular state in Iraq and Syria, but they secretly long for the Caliphate that they once tried to create through militancy. They repress their desires for a religious state, and usually refrain from talking about it in public. But among their old comrades they can still discuss the glory days and share their longing for the Caliphate to rise again.
This may be the fate of the QAnon of the future. Old militants may convene at each other’s homes and share stories of the great insurrection on January 6, 2021. They may share visions of the future “storm” and the cleansing of pedophiles and satanic powers from government, and the eventual return of Donald Trump. And then they’ll go back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. And no one will be the wiser. But wherever its current adherents do end up, QAnon as a movement will not last.
The essay was based on Mark Juergensmeyer’s forthcoming book When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends published by the University of California Press. His most recent book is the related God at War: A Mediation on Religion and Warfare published by Oxford University Press.