Plenty of Americans were disappointed to see Joe Biden inaugurated as the 46th president, but perhaps none more so than the fervent adherents of QAnon, the deranged conspiracy theory that holds, among other things, that prominent Democrats are satanic cannibalistic pedophiles who run an international child sex-trafficking ring. Their disillusionment would be little more than an amusing side story were it not for the fact that QAnon plays a vital role in today’s Republican Party.

A key part of QAnon ideology is that President Donald Trump had heroically masterminded the resistance to that evil cabal, and his genius strategy to take its members down would soon come to fruition. Mass arrests of Democrats were always around the corner, and the idea that Trump would allow himself to lose the election was preposterous.

So you can imagine their dismay on Wednesday afternoon:

“It simply doesn’t make sense that we all got played,” one QAnon channel on Telegram said.
Some of the most notable figures in QAnon’s online universe said they were having a change of heart. After Biden’s inauguration, Ron Watkins — the longtime administrator of QAnon’s online home, 8kun, who critics have suspected may have helped write Q’s posts himself, a charge he denies — said on Telegram that it was time to move on.

After telling each other for months to “trust the plan” that they imagined Trump was pursuing to remain in power and vanquish his enemies, they’re now confronting the fact that there is no plan, and never was.

But the thing about committed conspiracy theorists is that they never have to admit they were wrong. There’s always another layer to be uncovered, another dimension to the conspiracy, another piece to fit in the puzzle. While a few may admit that they’ve been taken in by a ludicrous fiction, the bulk of them are likely to convince themselves that they were right all along.

Or, at the very least, they’ll find a way to decide they haven’t wasted all those months and years immersing themselves in this bizarre world. Just as “Pizzagate” morphed into QAnon, QAnon can evolve into something new, something that perhaps sets aside the idea of Trump as a savior while maintaining the feverish urgency resting in the idea of a sinister conspiracy of Democrats.

And while QAnon was dangerous enough in itself — many of those who stormed the Capitol were believers — Biden’s inauguration may create even greater danger as some of its adherents are set adrift. If Trump couldn’t deliver them to the glorious denouement of the story they had been writing, where will they go now? What tactics will they justify to themselves as they seek to take matters into their own hands? When violent white supremacists come to them and say, “Join us — we can offer you that same sense of belonging and purpose,” how many will say yes?

One thing we can say for sure is that conspiracy thinking will persist on the American right; it has a long history that predates QAnon. Republican politicians understand this well, which is why throughout this period they tiptoed around QAnon, not embracing it but not rejecting it too harshly, either. According to Media Matters, in 2020 there were 97 congressional candidates who were either outright QAnon supporters or dabbled in the conspiracy.

The more successful they were, the more they had to pull back, officially anyway, from endorsing QAnon. That’s what Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) did; after having promoted it online, they stepped back and claimed never to have really been too involved. Nonetheless, they’ve brought a brand of extremism to Congress that the party’s leaders know they have to accommodate.

Which is why, if QAnon really begins to fade — or at least change — in the wake of Trump’s defeat, it will be a great relief to Republican leaders. They won’t have to answer questions about it, they won’t be asked to distance themselves from those in their party who support it, and they’ll have more latitude to pander to the conspiracy theorists who are still there.

The best thing for those Republicans is if it doesn’t have a name. That way they can wink and nod to whatever insane lies start spreading in the right-wing fever swamps while retaining some plausible deniability. “Is the Biden administration implanting mind-control chips in the brain of every child who attends public school? I’m not saying they are, but I’m certainly not going to stand for it!”

Those crazy ideas are coming, have no doubt. They may not be contained within the same coherent narrative that QAnon offered, but they’ll spread throughout the right, convincing untold numbers of people that there are horrifying things going on, and you can learn the truth if only you have the open-mindedness, courage and free time it takes to uncover the conspiracy for yourself. And the next iteration could be even more ridiculous, and even more dangerous.

correction

An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the state Marjorie Taylor Greene represents in the U.S. House of Representatives. She represents Georgia. This version has been updated.

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