The countdown is set, the events line up, the end times are near—you are all prepared for the apocalypse. And then you wait. And wait. And time passes, events go by, and the apocalypse doesn’t come. The teachers disappear, the scriptures are pondered, and the surviving believers are forced to deal with the inevitable question: What now?
This scenario has play out countless times—so many apocalyptic movements have come and gone over the centuries, be it the White Lotus Rebellion or the First Crusade, the Millerites or the Branch Davidians, ISIS or Aum Shinrikyo, or, in the United States and particularly relevant to the upcoming election, QAnon.
As broad as QAnon is, the central conspiracy focuses on the idea that the United States is being run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who are simultaneously running a global child sex-trafficking operation. For the QAnon adherents, President Trump takes on the role of their messiah, and his prophet is a supposed high-ranking government official who posts pseudo-prophecy on 4chan and 8chan under the pen name “Q.”
If this strikes you as completely absurd, good: It is. But that nonsensical core is fleshed out by progressively more bizarre and dangerous theories on 4chan, 8chan, YouTube, Facebook, and other sites. The predictions and promises of Q are consistently wrong—don’t forget, this is all completely false—yet from its start in 2017 it has moved from fringe internet conspiracy to mainstream Trumpian belief, embraced by the president and supported by dozens of candidates for state and federal office. In a poll conducted in mid-October, more than 50 percent of the respondents who described themselves as supporters of Donald Trump said they believe in at least some aspect of QAnon.
This is bad enough. But QAnon is not a new phenomenon—it’s the recycling of a dozen old tropes, some of which go back to the Middle Ages or earlier, and the vast majority of them are rooted in anti-Semitism. QAnon is an evolution of or fellow traveler with “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory based on a combination of medieval blood libel ideas and the WikiLeaks spread of John Podesta’s emails, which contained, according to the conspiracy, codes for a Democratic pedophile ring run out of the basement of a pizza joint in Washington, D.C. These conspiracy theories, which were propagated by fringe media like InfoWars and online trolls like Jack Posobiec, are not harmless: Pizzagate led to multiple attacks on that pizza parlor. One shooter, who was surprised to learn that the pizza place doesn’t even have a basement, was sentenced to four years in prison.
The evolution from Pizzagate into child-trafficking conspiracies around Wayfair, a furniture company, have now become an obsession with the notion of “adrenochrome,” a fantasy drug that QAnoners believe Hollywood celebrities are harvesting from children. All of these trace back to medieval anti-Semitic conspiracies, with new buzzwords—“cosmopolitan elites,” “globalists,” or “George Soros”—in the place of the more immediately recognizable “Jews.”
The QAnoners’ apocalypse, unsurprisingly, is one of political partisan violence, culminating in “The Storm,” when all of the so-called “deep state leaders” will be arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay, including a variety of Democratic politicians, celebrities, and public servants numbering in the thousands, and then public executions and the works. This will lead to some sort of utopian aftermath when Trump will bring about the perfect society—though what form that would take is never described. This rhetoric is apocalyptic in nature and approaches the kind of ideological fervor associated with religious movements—but the kind of religious movements that spawn terrorist organizations. The QAnon “digital soldier” oath does nothing to detract from that comparison.
The Storm is, of course, nonsense like the rest of QAnon, and Donald Trump will eventually cease to be president. Which brings us back to the question: When the apocalypse fails, what will become of QAnon?
Historians are not prognosticators, and the past and present are not cyclical, but there are plenty of examples we can look at of apocalyptic movements that have failed. Let’s examine three: the First Crusade, the Millerites, and the Branch Davidians.
In terms of violent Christian movements, the crusades are one of the most misrepresented and contemporarily fascinating. Like any other mass movement, the crusaders had a range of motivations; one of those, however, was apocalypticism, and a very active approach to it: Groups that not only believed the End Times were near but wanted to work to push them into being. Within the First Crusade, a number of contingents believed they were enacting apocalyptic prophecies. At least one of the accounts of Pope Urban II’s sermon launching the crusade focuses on apocalypticism; a contingent launched pogroms across the Rhineland as part of the apocalyptic mission; one of the participants wrapped the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 in the language of Revelation; and in the aftermath, the most popular chronicle of the First Crusade posited that the prophecies of the End Times had been fulfilled.
The apocalypse, of course, did not arrive, but the link between crusading and apocalypticism grew throughout the twelfth century and carried on through the voyages of Christopher Columbus. The inability of the crusaders to enact the apocalypse through violence did not stop them from repeating the attempt until crusading ended with the dissolving of the Knights of Malta as a military order by Napoleon in 1798.
Not all apocalyptic movements are violent, of course. The Millerites, disciples of William Miller, believed that, via the study of the book of Daniel, they had discovered the key to when Jesus would return to Earth. Coming out the Second Great Awakening, the Millerite movement was one of a number of groups refocusing their attention on the impending apocalypse. In the 1830s Miller started preaching his belief that Jesus would soon return, not only holding camp meetings—which, by the early 1840s, had attracted approximately a million total attendees (though only a fraction believed Miller)—but also by harnessing the high-speed printing presses of the day to churn out pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers, and colored charts explaining Miller’s system. These, alongside charismatic aides, helped turn the movement into a mass phenomenon. The core believers may have numbered somewhere in the 50-100,000 range, primarily in New England and New York but with adherents across the United States and Canada.
Miller originally suggested that the Second Coming would arrive by March 1844. When that month passed, he pushed back to April before settling on a later, specific date: October 22, 1844. As the day approached, some Millerties sold their earthly possessions; others, clad in white robes, climbed high mountains near their homes to be closer to heaven. Of course, the day came and went, and became known as the Great Disappointment. When the hurriedly announced recalculation also failed, Miller’s followers departed, though a core of them would go on to join the Adventist Church, which believed that the date was right, but the event wrong—instead of an Earthly return, 1844 marked the beginning of the final phase of Jesus’ mission in heaven. The Seventh-day Adventists, though small in number, continue to exist and thrive, and are among the most racially and ethnically diverse American religious groups today.
An offshoot of the Adventists, called the Davidian Adventists, was formed in the 1930s; the Davidians were more apocalyptic, believing in a future, non-Jesus Messiah, and convinced that the Davidians would bring about via a new Davidic kingdom in the imminent apocalypse. An offshoot of that offshoot would become tragically infamous: The Branch Davidians formed when the Davidians’ founder, Victor Houteff, died in 1955 and one of his followers, Benjamin Roden, claimed to be hearing messages from God. The Branch Davidians believed not only in the imminent apocalypse and the ability to bring it about, but in the prophetic gifts of their leaders. A cult of personality formed around David Koresh—born Vernon Howell, who changed his name in 1990 to commemorate the biblical figures King David and Cyrus, emperor of Persia. The tragedy at the Mt. Carmel ranch near Waco, Texas—the firefight of February 28, 1993, the 55-day siege, and the fire ending in the death of 74 people in the compound—all become divorced from the genuine apocalyptic beliefs of the church. Not all members of the church were in the compound when it burned, and a congregation still lives east of Waco to this day, waiting for the end times.
The point of looking at these three examples it to ponder what QAnon will become, when even more cogs of its conspiracy machine break down. There are already new conspiracies being birthed, and some of the more bizarre prophecies keep missing their magical dates.
Conspiracy theories have been interwoven with American politics from the earliest days, and while QAnon fits in that long and strange tradition, it is different from what came before in at least three ways: It has a vast national reach and a much more rapidly churning, proliferating cloud of conspiracies, thanks to the internet; and for many of the followers there seems to be a kind of postmodern ironic enjoyment that lets them flexibly accept the latest ridiculous prediction—like the idea that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death and will return as Trump’s running mate—and then move on with a wink when it flops.
What will become of its adherents when QAnon burns out? History suggests that it will not simply disappear. As the late James Randi, magician and debunker of paranormal claims, put it, “the resilience of the duped” is incredibly strong. Successive crusades continued their violent attempts to bring about the apocalypse for centuries. Indeed, the crusades continue to inspire violence, from Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 to the Christchurch mosque shooter and his crusades-and-white-supremacist reference-laden rifle to Donald Trump Jr.’s Crusader rifle. The Great Disappointment gave birth to a successor church that reinterpreted it, that would later have splinter groups that tried to bring about the apocalypse. Even after the death of the core of the Branch Davidians and their leader, that small sect survives.
The most dire threat is that the death of the apocalyptic movement may become fodder for domestic terrorism—Timothy McVeigh, after all, went to Waco to observe the siege, and McVeigh and Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 on the second anniversary of the Waco fire.
QAnon may die, but its poisonous legacy is here to stay, and in a time of increased threat of right-wing militias, may be deadly. Its adherents cannot simply be brought back out of the cold until they reject the conspiracy, its beliefs, and its motives—history has shown us far too many examples of how apocalyptic movements refuse to die.