Joe Biden Inauguration is Reality Check That QAnon Zealots Will Refuse

QAnon followers face a reckoning with reality when Joe Biden is inaugurated and their hero Donald Trump's tenure in the White House comes to a comprehensive end.

Those who embrace the theory see Trump as a savior fighting an evil—and secret—global network of elitists running a so-called deep state government while participating in acts such as Satan-worshipping and child sex trafficking. And polling has shown these beliefs to have gained traction among many Republicans and Trump supporters.

For some believers, Trump's imminent defeat has been perceived as a make or break moment—with the prospect of admitting they were duped by a hoax unless he miraculously pulls out a last-ditch maneuver to stay in power.

But even after Biden becomes president, experts have told Newsweek those who ardently follow it are not likely to give up and will instead adapt their mindsets to the circumstances.

"I wish Biden's inauguration would make QAnon go away, but that's not how conspiracy theories work," Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told Newsweek.

Diehards vs The Fringes

While some of those on the fringes of the movement, those who are perhaps curious or have some crossover in beliefs and sympathies, may drop off—those more thoroughly attached could perform mental gymnastics to keep the theories going.

"There's always a way to perpetuate the narrative even if predictions don't come true, given that this is at root a militant spiritual/religious movement. That conspiracy 'logic' has been at the root of Q posts, which began with failed prophecies," Jack Z. Bratich, associate professor in the journalism and media studies department at Rutgers University and author of Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture, told Newsweek.

Annie Kelly, a U.K. correspondent for The QAnon Anonymous Podcast, told Newsweek that its likely those on the periphery will cling to some beliefs over the same points QAnon diehards cite as their concerns—but not the theory itself.

"Based on the networks I've observed I think I have a basic idea that QAnon belief will essentially fragment—and is indeed even in the process of fragmenting right now," Kelly said.

"I think the Capitol hill riots were largely a disaster for the people on the very fringes of this stuff who were curious but not fully committed, so mainly people who sort of wandered in from 'Stop the Steal' Facebook groups and such. I think they'll probably cling to a general sense that the election was stolen, but very few seem to be interested in the 'there's a secret plan going on behind the scenes' aspect of QAnon.

"I've even seen some getting very frustrated with that part of QAnon as they believe it keeps them passive and complacent."

For others, going further down the rabbit hole might be their reaction.

"For more embedded QAnon believers the landscape is quite different—many of them have, from their own point of view, sacrificed an awful lot for this conspiracy theory and the costs of admitting it was all for nothing will be psychologically incredibly painful. I've seen signs that those people are digging in and hardening," Kelly said.

This devotion to the theory could continue for years to come, Kelly added.

"I think they may well remain something of a constant for Biden's term(s) as president. What makes QAnon so attractive as a conspiracy theory is it always has an interpretation of whatever current event is happening, and there's very little that can be done to disprove it because everything it proposes is by nature, secret."

Failed Predictions

While Trump losing office could be seen as a major flaw in the QAnon prophecies, there have been failed predictions before—with the community having coped thus far.

"Failure of prophecy generally causes movements to fracture or split. The amount of the split depends on the scale of the let-down, and if it has occurred before," Mick West, of author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic and Respect, told Newsweek.

"QAnon is replete with failed prophecies, but they have mostly managed to somehow fold that into 'The Plan' which ultimately centered around Trump triumphing over the forces of evil—and as such it would have been impossible for Trump to lose to Biden. Since he did lose that—in the minds—means only one of three things: either the forces of evil won, or the Plan is longer-term than anyone thought, or it was all bulls***."

man wears qanon hoodie at trump rally
A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally on October 3, 2020 in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

While some will walk away, others will alter and evolve their thinking. Some might leave Q, but find another way to fill the void.

"There's no one answer to how they might react. Some will give up, either in defeat or in the realization of their mistaken belief. Some will evolve, roll with the punches, and carry on trying to figure out just what the plan is. Some will abandon Q, but feel the fight is still there, and will either look for a new leader or forge their own direction," West, who also runs debunking website Metabunk, said.

"If you look at any cult that has failed, and even many that have not, you'll find diehards, regardless of the nature of the failure."

'Enemies' Remain

Some may even see last-minute interventions as a possibility of keeping Trump in office, Brian Friedberg, senior researcher of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, told Newsweek—but either way, with him as president or not, they will continue to see their "enemies" as being the same as they ever were.

"There are certainly attempts by community members to move the goalposts for possibilities of last-minute interventions to keep Trump in office, but despite the upcoming loss of the messianic figure of Trump, their enemies remain: Democrats, The Media, Big Tech, Liberals, Communists, Child Traffickers, etc.," Friedberg said.

"Investigating and speculating on the nature these enemies has always been a significant part of QAnon community interaction and the folklore they adopted and coopted from other movements.

"Judging from the fallout of Jan 6, less committed community members may be disengaging and engaging in factional infighting, but the core community is still dedicated to this abstract research into the cabal and are likely to continue decoding Q's infrequent posts and public statements from Trump on any platform they are allowed."

What Next?

Zuckerman, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said he believes the followers could adapt—and perhaps become more extreme—under the Biden administration.

"We know from past presidencies that white nationalist conspiracies blossom under left-leaning administrations. The sense of grievance that animates this politics is more profound when a Dem is in the White House," he said.

"I see QAnon adapting into its natural form—a far-right movement based on grievance, a firm belief that only Trump can redeem America and a sense that the right might need to take and hold the streets."

Sarah Hightower, an independent researcher and anti-cult activist, also said this route could be a potential path for some followers to go down.

"Some Q followers who have been turned on to more hardcore white supremacist influences will go the way of those white supremacist narratives. Namely those that involve Trump being a puppet of the deep state," Hightower told Newsweek.

While Biden's inauguration will mark the official end to questioning over his presidential election victory, QAnon followers still are not likely to accept him as a legitimate president, Bratich, of Rutgers University, said. And therefore, the theory is not likely to fade into complete obscurity any time soon.

"I think there will be a schism in the broader QAnon network. Some are 'Q-curious' or 'QAnon-adjacent' folks who were mostly concerned about child trafficking generally. These people will likely fade away from Trump loyalism and reconnect with Republican Party politics," Bratich said.

"The hardcore QAnon Magaists will never accept Biden as a legitimate president—they have said as much. They will likely follow Trump into either a kind of movement-in-exile or a more militant insurrectionist force.

"The way they'll narrate it is that the battle must rage on, that justice comes slowly, that they need to continue to fight for their leader despite challenges."