As Trump departs office, reality sets in for QAnon cult

Caitlin Dickson and Jerry Adler
·5 min read

It began with a cryptic remark by President Trump at a photo op with senior military leaders in October 2017. “You guys know what this represents?” Trump asked the reporters he had summoned to the State Dining Room, gesturing to the officers arrayed beside him. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

No one, evidently including the generals in attendance, seemed to know what he meant. Was it a threat to North Korea? A warning to Iran or ISIS? Trump, and later his then press secretary Sarah Sanders, refused to elaborate. “He certainly doesn’t want to lay out his game plan for our enemies,” Sanders declared.

But within a few weeks an explanation for the remark began to take shape in the shadows of the internet, on a right-wing message board where someone who called himself Q — the designation for top-secret clearance from the Department of Energy, which supervises America’s nuclear arsenal — began spinning out a baroque paranoid fantasy in elliptical, coded hints known as “crumbs.” The core myth, elaborated over the next three years with contributions from a burgeoning cadre of followers, was that Trump was planning the destruction of a worldwide ring of Satanist pedophiles that included, in various versions, “deep state” bureaucrats, global financial elites, prominent Democrats and, inevitably, Jews.

Although there are theories about the identity of Q — none of which involve a top national security official — he or she remains anonymous, and so do most of Q’s followers. Hence the name: QAnon.

The fantasy ended at noon on Jan. 20, when Joe Biden took the oath of office, while the erstwhile QAnon hero, now just Donald Trump, ex-president, skulked off to his estate in Florida without even a Twitter account to his name.

Donald Trump
Outgoing President Donald Trump speaking at Joint Base Andrews, Md., on Wednesday. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

For some the charade had ended two weeks earlier, with the chaotic riot at the Capitol, at which Q followers were well represented, that failed to stop the counting of electoral votes certifying Biden’s victory. Or at various other milestones along the tortuous road that led from the Nov. 3 election. Q had gone mostly silent since then, and followers had to fall back on reassuring each other that Trump was just biding his time before unleashing the “Storm” on an ever-growing list of enemies, eventually including members of his own administration.

“Trust the Plan” was the mantra of true believers. “Just think,” one posted hopefully on Jan. 19, “today and tomorrow will be holidays for your children.”

But as the clock ticked down to noon on Wednesday, Q message boards began filling with increasingly desperate posts from followers who claimed to have gone without sleep for as long as six days, not wanting to miss the moment they had been waiting and hoping for for years. “Please God, I’m watching, it’s making me sick to my stomach, but I want to see arrests,” one wrote. “Either arrests happen or we are now China’s property,” wrote another. And as Biden prepared to take the oath, a few minutes before 12 p.m. ET, despair turned to anger, even at Trump himself. “Thanks Trump!” read one post. “You sold out our country!”

In what will probably be the closest thing to an official conclusion to the Q saga, Ron Watkins, the former administrator of the 8kun board, which hosted Q, posted a conciliatory message to Telegram shortly after Biden’s inauguration ceremony, telling followers, “we keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”

“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,” the message continued. “As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik, pool via AP)

In an effort to perhaps reassure followers that all is not completely lost, Watkins added, “I’ll have more to say in a few days regarding a new project I’m currently fleshing out,” before concluding the message with “God bless.”

Watkins and his father, Jim, who owns 8kun, the anonymous message board that has hosted Q’s posts for years, played an integral role in facilitating the QAnon phenomenon, leading some to suspect that the two were actually behind the Q persona — a theory both have previously denied.

On Election Day 2020, hours after Q posted what would end up being one of their last “drops,” Ron Watkins announced he was stepping down as the administrator of 8kun. In the weeks that followed, he emerged as a prominent source of a wide range of baseless election-fraud conspiracy theories. His particularly aggressive promotion of false claims relating to Dominion Voting Systems earned him several appearances on the far-right-wing One America News Network, an “expert witness” citation in one of Sidney Powell’s unsuccessful “Kraken” lawsuits and a retweet from Trump.

It’s too early to say where QAnon will rank in the long history of human delusion. Its reach was wide but comparatively shallow — compared, say, with the Heaven’s Gate cult, whose three dozen or so members committed mass suicide in 1997, believing they would be transported to an alien spaceship tracking Comet Hale-Bopp as it approached Earth. Strong beliefs aren’t necessarily shaken by failed prophecies. Armageddon has been confidently predicted innumerable times since the Book of Revelation was accepted into the biblical canon; in fact, in 1971, the psychic Jeane Dixon pegged it for 2020, which must have seemed safe enough at the time. Now evidently leaderless, and with its raison d’être gone, QAnon may have nowhere to go. But its legacy will endure, a testament to human gullibility and the powerful urge to channel outrage against an enemy, even an imaginary one.

Trump supporters
Trump supporters with a QAnon flag at an Oregon rally in September. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

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