Capitol attack
Credit: Tyler Merbler/Flickr

On January 20th, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States. At that very moment, millions of Americans devoted to the QAnon cult will face a moment that tests their faith and shakes their world to its core. The cognitive dissonance that arises from it will be unparalleled in American history, and the fallout unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The QAnon conspiracy theory contains many elements that have long pervaded far-right belief systems: Satanic panic, anti-Semitic blood-libel, Illuminati control, a new Great Awakening, and similar notions. But what makes QAnon unique–beyond its distribution via modernsocial media technologies–is its focus on a single man: President Donald Trump. In Q world, Trump is the Messiah, the God-Emperor, the infallible 5-D chessmaster who knows all and can do no wrong. For them, he is the only thing standing in the way of a fallen world dominated by child-sacrificing Satanist communist cannibals addicted to adrenochrome, the one person who will bring about a new world order in which all debts are wiped clean, free energy is released, and ancient evils destroyed. He is the savior who will see the Cabal that has been holding humanity back exposed and executed in secret military tribunals.

But all of this depends on Trump remaining president. In some sects of QAnon, it is believed that enough Americans must be “red-pilled” to create society anew once the shock of “the Storm”–in which their enemies are destroyed–has arrived, fulfilling the function of Q. In others, Trump is so totally in control that they are all simply “watching a movie” depicting a historic transition unseen (in their worldview) since the time of Jesus.

QAnon is thus not just a conspiracy-theory cult like many in the history of the American right, but a cult of personality and a cult of power. Cults of power are closely associated with the worst authoritarian regimes and require significant cognitive gymnastics. The Great Leader is indomitable and infallible but also beset by insidious enemies both within and without. As Umberto Eco famously wrote of fascist ideologies, “The enemy is both strong and weak. By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” So it is with Trump: simultaneously, the smartest and strongest saint ever to give up his billionaire lifestyle to save the world but also opposed by the greatest forces in evil in human history.

Traditionally, prophetic cults tend to survive even when the underlying prophecies are proved wrong. “Q” has been wrong countless times, but it doesn’t seem to faze them because the date of “the Storm” can be pushed back. The classic text “When Prophecy Fails” shows that believers often double down on their beliefs after predictions do not come to pass. They do so for the same reason that gamblers find it hard to walk away from a loss. Sunk cost fallacies can be powerfully destructive, and prophecy can be endlessly reinterpreted.

But it’s somewhat harder to do with cults of power. When Hitler and the Third Reich fell, it was much harder to maintain Nazi ideologies of inherent superiority. Cults rarely survive the leader’s fall without a literal apotheosis of the founder, and those centered around a politician rarely successfully cross the secular-religious threshold.

Because QAnon is driven ultimately by the desire to see white conservative Christians in dictatorial control and their enemies dropped from the gallows at Guantanamo Bay, and depends on the supreme infallibility of their Chosen One, it becomes much harder to maintain the belief system if the Leader no longer controls the armed forces and an enemy sits in the Oval Office as Commander-in-Chief. This is why most adherents continue to believe that a miracle will prevent Biden’s inauguration.

But the dam is starting to break. Some are begging for a sign as “Q” has gone dark. Others are questioning if they have been conned. Far-right leaders are turning on one another and major Q-aligned figures. After continually being baited by the likes of Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, devotees are getting restless.

Yes, some will concoct elaborate theories to continue. There is already speculation that Trump will only truly be able to arrest Biden once he takes a presidential paycheck. There will be two simultaneous inaugurations–one fake and one real—or other even more fanciful notions. Most likely, there will be those who believe (as some are already suggesting) that Trump was right all along but lacked the strength to “cross the Rubicon” and seize dictatorial power, or even that he was himself all part of the system of control.

But for most of the millions of “Q” disciples, it will be a gruesome time. Even if their faith in “Q” and Trump is shaken, their underlying belief in a world of darkness and demons remains. As QAnon expert @PokerPolitics notes:

I’ve seen so many QAnon promoters say “If we’re wrong about Trump then we’re screwed.” because they view the “Trump saves the world” layer of the story as only the top layer, and if it has to be removed, so be it.

The layer under that. The layer about the Global Satanic Pedovore ring. That will always be true to these people. That’s true even if the Trump stuff isn’t. To know the truth about the world is to know Satan’s forces have been winning for centuries or even longer.

Combined with generalized conservative dominionist white supremacist upset over America becoming less Christian, less white, and less patriarchal over time, angry desperation will likely increase. Trump empowered them psychologically to feel powerful, but he also provided many reasons to believe their desires would be fulfilled. The cognitive dissonance of QAnon created a conundrum for them, one that presented itself even at the insurrection at the Capitol. If Trump was in control, why the need for the private insurrectionist army? If Trump wanted the insurrectionist army there, why didn’t he help them? Why did he abandon them? Was Trump grifting on them all along?

With Trump gone, the mania of empowerment will flip to the rage of disempowerment and the sense of a fleeting dominance nearly undone. Prophecies of the destruction of their enemies will slip away. The question that hovers over America is whether the cult will accept that they were conned, or whether there will be even more upheaval ahead.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.