As the rest of the country waited for Joe Biden to be inaugurated, believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory thought they were about to see something else: the long-awaited mass arrests of Biden and a host of other “deep-state” Democrats, followed by the restoration of the Trump presidency.
“Trump will walk out during the arrest and thank America for reelection,” one QAnon supporter posted on a forum shortly before the inauguration. “This will be remembered as the greatest day since D-Day.”
As Biden was sworn in, though, the mass arrests that QAnon believers call “The Storm,” stubbornly refused to happen. Trump really did appear to have left office, rather than springing the sly trap as they had all hoped. The Democrats really did have control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers QAnon believers thought would help Trump retake Washington instead appeared to be there for a more obvious purpose: protecting the city from the same crazed QAnon believers who had violently attacked the Capitol two weeks earlier.
“I’m about to puke,” one QAnon fan watching Biden take the oath of office wrote.
For more than three years, tens of thousands of QAnon believers have pinned their hopes for the future on a second Trump term. They’ve become convinced that the government is run by a cabal of satanic pedophile-cannibals and that Trump is the only way to restore justice. Many of them, egged on by promises that Trump’s “plan” included the eradication of diseases and personal debt, pinned their dreams on QAnon as well, alienating friends and family with their ideas.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, the QAnon future vanished, presenting the ever-expanding conspiracy theory with its greatest challenge yet.
As Biden’s inauguration became ever more certain on Wednesday, QAnon believers rapidly cycled through rationalizations. They claimed that Trump was stepping down as the head of the United States “corporation”—an idea borrowed from fringe sovereign citizen legal theories—to become the head of a restored republic. Some QAnon leaders claimed that Biden himself was in on the scheme, and would soon help Trump carry out the arrests.
As Biden finally took office, however, the mood changed quickly on QAnon forums. QAnon channels on messaging app Telegram filled with gifs of far-right mascot Pepe the Frog crying, as believers claimed they had been duped. Believers said they felt sick, or wanted to throw up.
“Trump fooled us,” complained one Telegram commenter.
“All my family and co-workers think I’m crazy,” wrote another.
“I feel stupid,” wrote a third.
Even major QAnon boosters saw their faith in the bizarre conspiracy theory shaken on Monday. QAnon booster Roy Davis co-authored a bestselling book promoting QAnon under the alias “Captain Roy,” even getting his sports car painted with a giant, blazing “Q” on the hood.
As Biden was sworn in, Davis initially told The Daily Beast he didn’t want to comment until he was sure Biden was really president. But as Biden’s new title became official, Davis said he was ready to move on from Q—something his doctor has long urged him to do anyway.
“We misinterpreted it,” Davis said. “Maybe we should have done something different.”
Other top QAnon figures appeared to be backing away. As the former administrator of QAnon clues website 8kun, Ron Watkins had control over who posted as the mysterious “Q”—and has been accused of being Q himself. But on Wednesday, Watkins suggested that the QAnon fight was over.
“Please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years,” Watkins wrote in a Telegram post.
Still, there are many signs that QAnon and the kind of unreal world it promoted will persist.
As Trump’s defeat became more certain, QAnon followers changed their claims, beginning to insist that the president’s war against the “deep state” had only begun. As the shock of Biden’s inauguration wore off on Wednesday, QAnon forum posters encouraged one another to “hold the line,” claiming that they had merely misunderstood the QAnon clues.
QAnon believer Jenny Hatch has followed the conspiracy theory since 2018, when she thought Trump referenced QAnon in a speech he gave at a White House Easter Egg Roll. Hatch had felt sure that Biden would have already been arrested on Jan. 6, and was “quite demoralized” when Biden was instead sworn in two weeks later.
“I fully expected some sort of military arrest of Joe Biden and many of the people who were on the dais with him,” Hatch said.
Hatch, a Colorado resident, said her husband doesn’t believe in QAnon, and she suspects her adult children have read articles about how to handle a family member believing in QAnon. But while Hatch was saddened that the mass arrests failed to happen on Wednesday, QAnon’s utter failure to come true somehow hasn’t shaken her faith in the conspiracy theory.
“I’m still all in with Q,” Hatch said. “I have not distanced myself from what Q meant to me personally.”
The problem created by QAnon seems set to remain as well. QAnon has been tied to three murders and a terrorist incident near the Hoover Dam, along with a series of other crimes. Biden’s top intelligence chief has promised an analysis of the threat posed by the conspiracy theory.
Even as he distances himself from QAnon, for example, Davis still thinks “Q” really was a government whistleblower revealing the truth about the world.
“It wasn’t some kid in a basement,” Davis said.