In the days leading up to the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, followers of the QAnon movement were jubilant — not because they were looking forward to the incoming administration; rather, they believed the military was moments away from intervening, arresting Biden and the rest of the deep state cabal on so-called charges of treason, pedophilia and various other offenses.
The thousands of National Guard members securing the Capitol and the barricades surrounding Washington verified their belief in swift military-led retribution. The fact that these elements were in place to secure the incoming administration — as opposed to dismantling it — was viewed derisively as the mainstream media’s narrative.
From “prison buses” invading the US capital to transport scores of deep state officials for trial, to Vice President Kamala Harris’ formal resignation from the Senate that opened her up for arrest, QAnon adherents discussed the “signs” foretelling success of “the plan” on an online forum.
Inauguration Day and Its Aftermath
The day of inauguration was prophesized as a moment of reckoning when Q adherents would finally be vindicated or, as some members acknowledged, when Q would be proven as a “LARP” (live action role play), a “psyop” or a troll. Adherents spoke out in the early hours of January 20 against “moving the goalposts” — that is, changing the terms under which Q would be proven correct. Stating that whether or not Biden was inaugurated, they must accept that as proof — or lack thereof — of Q’s legitimacy.
While most QAnons imbued the 20th with this importance, others speculated that no one really knew what the plan required. This ambiguity left adherents open to continuing to follow Q even if Biden was sworn in. Donald Trump’s silence — enforced through social media blackouts — also increased uncertainty for these individuals as the hour quickly approached inauguration. Regardless of the outlook, QAnon followers across the globe waited with bated breath for noon on that Wednesday morning.
On January 20, 2021, at 12:00 pm on the National Mall, Biden took his oath of office. Immediately after on the QAnon forum, feelings of disappointment, shame and grief took center stage. Although a few QAnons had hedged their bets prior to the inauguration, stating that no one really knew what the plan was or that maybe Biden being sworn in was necessary to “complete the crime,” most saw that moment as the answer to whether or not Q was legitimate.
Tension arose on the forum between those who felt betrayed, let down and convinced of Q’s falsehood against those who declared that they must “hold the line” and “trust the plan.” “Nothing can stop what is coming” (NCSWIC) was a frequent refrain, with many forum users turning toward religious allegories and symbolism for comfort.
Some posters commented that Biden’s inauguration would mean them leaving the movement — calling the turn of events a “con.” Others echoed Trump’s language and referred to Q as a “bigly” troll after the lack of military intervention. Overall, users argued with one another and despaired when the promise of mass arrests did not materialize. A few hours later, and with the help of moderators and long-time Q supporters “deporting” “shills” (i.e., blocking accounts that spoke negatively about Trump and/or Q), the mood of the forum took a decidedly more optimistic turn.
Far from being over, discourse on the QAnon forum evolved in ways that incorporated the events of the 20th while continuing to push conspiracies involving the deep state. Three major narratives erupted as QAnons struggled to reconcile the events of the day with their belief system.
The first narrative held that regardless of Biden’s inauguration, the plan itself was still going strong. This position acknowledged people’s frustration but implored them to have faith and was often couched in religious terms. Posters stated that QAnon followers needed to keep looking for clues and trust the military was truly in control. Over and over, adherents turned toward religious allegories in order to comfort their distressed fellows.
The second major conspiratorial narrative was that Biden was not actually president. Some supported this belief through the supposed dismantling of the “USA Inc.” Biden was “president” over the “fake” United States, while Trump continued to lead the “real” American Republic. Others found “evidence” of the military rejecting Biden, which proved that they did not see him as the president and suggested that either the military or Trump were truly in charge. In addition, posters posited that the inauguration was pre-recorded (or a “deepfake”) and did not actually occur live on January 20. Some took this to mean that mass arrests had already taken place in Washington and the country was under military control.
The third narrative held that regardless of anything else — Q’s existence or the truth of a master plan — the conspiracies were true. The election was stolen, the democrats were part of a pedophilic, satanic cabal, and China was controlling Biden’s actions. Articles from popular conservative publications were shared on the forums, which continued to push the election fraud conspiracy.
This narrative — the splitting of Q belief from support for conspiracies — is essential to keep in mind. Through Trump and the Republican Party, these conspiracies have become so mainstream that they are now fully operational outside of a conspiratorial fringe. Thus, the “fringe” can be marginalized, i.e., those who still believe in the Q figure, while those who believe in conspiracies are incorporated into the mainstream of Trump supporters — growing the movement. One user puts this cleavage succinctly, deriding both the “deep state” for stealing the election and the false nature of “Q”: “Fuck the Deep state for stealing the election and Fuck Q for brainwashing gullible fools.”
Where We Go From Here
As the days wore on, posters continued to dissect clues in order to determine which of the above narratives made the most sense. In particular, the military’s behavior was scrutinized as this was seen to lend credence to the idea that they did not support Biden as the legitimate president. In addition, the media’s increased attention on Q and QAnon followers fueled the notion that Q was legitimate. If it was a “LARP,” why would mainstream media be trying so hard to discredit them?
Finally, members sought out official statements from trusted figures like Trump, General Michael Flynn, Lin Wood, Mike Pompeo and others, asking what their official statements (or silence) told followers, with the aim of finding guidance as to what would happen next.
As the first month of 2021 drew to a close, QAnon adherents who initially spurned the movement after Biden’s inauguration shifted back toward the group, seeking narratives that would allow them to continue believing. Perhaps the future of QAnon is best summed up in the following quote: “I said if Biden was inaugurated I would give up hope — Sorry I lied.”
Jaclyn Fox is a CARR Doctoral Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in School of International Service at the American University, Washington D.C. Full profile can be found here.
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