The "storm" never came. The mass executions of prominent Democrats didn't happen. Former President Donald Trump didn't declare martial law and institute a "New American Republic" via military coup. QAnon was a lie.
Of course, it was always a lie. The QAnon conspiracy theory's basic claim — that our government is run by a secret cabal of Satanist, cannibalistic pedophiles who have been exposed by an unknown federal official dubbed "Q" and will be defeated by Trump — is false. It is a destructive fantasy, a world-scaled detective game that plays on adherents' fears and tells them they are heroes, part of an army of secret-agent patriots by whose hand America will be saved. From the outside, it's ridiculous. From the inside, all-engrossing.
Inauguration Day was supposed to be the climax of the QAnon story. Well, technically it was Election Day, but after that came and went without a Trump victory, and dozens of Trump campaign lawsuits failed, and the Supreme Court declined to hear Trump's cause, and the storming of the Capitol didn't "hang Mike Pence," as some rioters demanded — after all that, Inauguration Day became the certain apogee. At 12 p.m. sharp, the anons said, Trump would take over communications systems nationwide, expose the traitors, and begin his second term. "Trust the plan," Q believers told each other.
But noon passed without incident. President Biden was duly inaugurated. Trump retired to Florida. And the Q movement fractured.
Some still cling to hope, at least as of this writing. "Anons, hold the line for a few more hours and maybe even a few more days," one influencer's post encouraged. "Victory is at hand," and even if "you choose not to trust Q at this moment, trust [Trump]." Others urged prayer — Q theorizing often has religious themes — and reaffirmed their faith in God and/or his servant, Donald. Could the real date of the big reveal be March 4, the original Inauguration Day?
In some variants, Trump was allowing the traitors to further incriminate themselves; in others, Biden is secretly on Trump's side ("Sleepy Joe," the sleeper agent — get it?). The wildest version I've encountered says the man we saw inaugurated is not Biden but Trump after an "experimental surgery" to swap their faces.
A few anons doubled down, declaring Trump himself a traitor to their righteous cause, a "part of the communist plan all along," and other things not appropriate to repeat here. "He sold us out. Its [sic] revolution time," said one anon. "Trump lied and failed [us]. Simple as that," another answered. The problem was not the story but the savior, they concluded. They'd hoped in a false messiah.
Some theorized the entire QAnon project was a covert project by the very secret cabal the movement imagines itself to oppose, a way to flush out those who know the "truth" so their voices can be silenced. "We can't stop what's coming," one poster mourned. "All of us have been brought out into the open." This splinter — scared, shocked, convinced they need to prepare for a dystopian future of persecution — may be most at risk of recruitment by the extremist groups reportedly hunting among Q's abandoned flock. "TO ANY AND ALL FEDERAL AGENTS," wrote one anon apparently of this persuasion, "EVERY POST I HAVE EVER MADE ON THIS WEBSITE IS SATIRE."
But still other QAnon adherents have realized they were conned: "I feel stupid." "Been played like fools." "Seems like we were duped." "OMG none of this was real." "And just like that Q was wrong." "All bullshit." "There is no plan."
Among this faction, a telling theme emerged: Even if it wasn't true, at least we built a community of purpose. At least Q taught the anons to stand up for themselves and made people pay attention to politics. "Even if Q was fake it brought us all 2gether." Ron Watkins, a former administrator of the forum site where Q started (and a plausible candidate to be Q himself), hit on this theme in his farewell note: "[P]lease remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years."
It's easy to gloat over this disenchantment, to reserve no sympathy for people whose digital LARP had them looking forward to martial law, dictatorship, and public executions. But there is something deeply sad here, too. QAnon feeds and feeds on loneliness. It further isolates the isolated. It ends marriages and breaks up families. It has a long record of estranging adherents from their loved ones; online support groups have sprung up for people losing their moms and dads, husbands and wives to Q's rabbit holes.
The Q slogan, "Where we go one, we go all," is meant to be a joyous rallying cry. In reality, adherents are traveling together to a state of anxious alienation. Their hope of violence and chaos was inexcusable, but for many it was born of real despair. If this week's events have loosened that delusion's grip, kindness and real friendship could help cast it off for good.