To any reasonable person, the failure of a long-foretold event to materialize should erode the belief that it will happen. A perfect example is the long-foretold and never arriving “storm” of mass arrests promised by the mysterious “military intelligence” team at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy. How could anyone think something promised for years, and put off countless times, is actually going to happen this time?
Belief doesn’t need to be reasonable—particularly when it revolves around the punishment of the people you’ve been told are responsible for all of the world’s ills. And this stubborn lack of logic isn’t limited to people who think the deep state is trafficking children or that Joe Biden is actually a fake president. We all have an innate need to believe in good things that are extremely unlikely to take place. It’s the essence of hope. And a life without hope is . . . hopeless.
Even when Q believers are presented with crushing proof that they’ve been fooled, they still believe—often taking the proof that they’re wrong as proof that they’re actually right. To do otherwise would be to give in to hopelessness.
By the time of the COVID-19 lockdown, Q had been exposed countless times as a fraud and a troll with no connection to military intelligence whose “predictions” were the same kind of rapid-fire guessing that a strip-mall psychic uses, while the movement’s members were running into the law for their increasingly violent and untethered behavior. But to the faithful, these were all temporary setbacks, perpetrated by a bought-and-paid-for media. Everyone just needed to “trust the plan” and believe.
To understand why QAnon followers believe and hang on to that belief requires understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories in the first place. To begin, Q is almost never anyone’s first conspiracy theory, but the next step on a ladder that includes any number of plots and schemes. So when people find Q, which already incorporates so many other conspiracy theories, it easily fits into their world view. And it doesn’t mean they’re crazy or stupid.
Human brains need to recognize dangerous situations, and we are hardwired to seek patterns, to find order in chaos, and to exert control where none can be found. Conspiracy theories, at their most basic level, assert that we are in danger from hidden forces. This helps give difficult questions and random events satisfying answers—and puts us at the center of those events. And we all do it.
If you’re hearing danger in a strange noise late at night, or looking at a world event and thinking that there must be more to it than what we’re being told, you’re just doing what your brain has evolved to do as a way to make sense of the senseless.
Our lives are often full of failure—personal, professional, and collective. We don’t want to believe these failures are due to honest mistakes by others or random chance. And most of all, we don’t want to believe that they’re our own fault. To believe otherwise is to believe that either we screwed up, or that we have no control over what happens to us. And that’s just too horrible to accept.
Such beliefs don’t begin with the Internet, nor are they more prevalent in the Internet age. Decades of polling consistently show that over half of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory, and that about as many people in 1963 believed that multiple assassins killed JFK as they did in 2013, according to Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Use Them.
Notions that someone is trying to get something over on us go viral for a good reason: many times, someone is trying to get something over on us. Conspiracy theories can be held by people who work normal jobs, have loving families, and don’t spend every hour of every day soaking in violent ideation. They can take the form merely of irritating our friends with yet another ramble about whatever hidden chicanery we’ve chosen to believe in—our phone breaking suspiciously just as the service contract expires so that we have to buy a new one, and so on. They can even be fun to speculate about—like the viral conspiracy theory about Chuck E. Cheese “recycling” unused pizza slices to make misshapen new pizzas.
Further complicating matters is that some conspiracies are real. Julius Caesar was murdered by Roman politicians conspiring together. A conspiracy of killers succeeded in assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, with plans to kill both the Vice President and Secretary of War. A conspiracy of German officers tried to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. And the U.S. Public Health Service engaged in a grossly unethical four-decade conspiracy to withhold syphilis treatment from Black sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, find believers because they fit in with our need to find hidden danger and revelations about how the world “really” works. As we’ve seen, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But for many Q believers, that nebulous feeling that they’re all out to get me becomes They’re all out to get me, and I’m gonna get them first. This is the danger of Q—not that people believe it, but that believing it means that those who don’t are the enemy.
For the QAnon adherent, Q is not a conspiracy theory—and many believers bristle at the term, calling themselves “conspiracy researchers” instead. It’s a way of clearly seeing the world and of organizing the players into columns of good guys and bad guys. And it provides its believers something nobody usually expects out of cultish conspiracy movements—hope. Q believers speak excitedly of the promise of a new future that Q would deliver—something ex-believer Jitarth Jadeja explained to me.
“I wanted to believe that the good guys were fighting the good fight, and in a better future,” he told me over Zoom. “Q makes you feel important and gives you meaning and self-esteem. You are saving the world when you’re in Q, [it’s] the highest way you can view yourself.”
Undoubtedly, at least some Q believers are in the grip of delusion, to the point of being unable to stand trial for crimes they’ve committed. Others vaguely believe some of its tenets without specifically calling themselves Q believers. And some are just in it for the trolling—or because they really hate Jews and Democrats, or worship Donald Trump. But those extremes are out of the ordinary. Many are just people who passionately believe in a thing that isn’t real because it tells them what they want to hear.
This is ultimately what brings people to Q, and what keeps them there. The promise of bad people being punished is one element of it, but the feeling of being part of something important and powerful is vastly underestimated. Q believers see themselves as soldiers fighting for the ultimate cause—and are surrounded by people who validate them, rather than insult or belittle them, or try to fact-check them out of what they think is real. Yes, Q will sometimes admit to making errors in drops. And Q posts their drops on 8chan, a place full of racists and anti-Semites saying racist and anti-Semitic things.
But that can be explained away, or written off as just another attack by the enemy.
What’s real, what’s tangible to Q believers is how it makes them feel. What questions it answers. What holes it fills that other aspects of their life don’t. For many believers, who truly see themselves as non-violent patriots, it’s that simple —good feelings shared with a community about something awesome that will happen to people who are keeping them down.
But for a few, it metastasizes. Sometimes it’s due to mental illness. Other times, it’s need and anger curdling into violent resentment. No matter the cause, the end is the same: from the Capitol attack to countless tiny familial tragedies, the results are violence, pain, and shattered lives. And onlookers struggling to understand what about this was so alluring in the first place.
Adapted from The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything. © Copyright 2021 Mike Rothschild. Reprinted with permission from Melville House.