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QAnon is hardly the first conspiracy theory to sweep the nation.
Where QAnon says that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death, past fantasists of yore believed that John Belushi’s death by overdose was a government hit.
And when QAnon followers spin yarns about a phantom cabal of satanic cannibals and sex traffickers, twisted liars of the 1850s and 1860s warned of satanic bankers and Catholics who also drank blood and abused children.
That’s why QAnon, who made a messiah out of former President Trump, was always bound to lose steam. It will follow the arc of furious, loopy-loo American conspiracy theories that have existed since before the Civil War. Cults like QAnon burn bright, and they fade fast.
QAnon’s demise, in fact, is well underway. Its leader, Q, a figure from the internet’s dark side, is now widely suspected to be the creation of Jim and Ron Watkins. The Watkins men are a seedy father-son duo in Asia who serve up pornography and hate speech online.
If the Watkins hypothesis is true, it means that Q is not exactly the patriotic, principled avenger crusading against sex trafficking that his followers have put their faith in.
Q has also been silent for seven months. The cryptic things Q used to post, tone poems that served as Rorschach tests for his followers’ projections, have stopped appearing. They no longer headline the rave at 8kun, the horrifying online image board, administered by Ron Watkins, where they first appeared.
QAnon’s prophecies have been abysmal failures. Early on, Q claimed “the storm” would take place on Nov. 3, 2017. Nothing extraordinary happened. He also repeatedly prophesied that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would quit the U.S. Senate. McCain served until he died in 2018.
Q insisted that President Trump’s enemies would commit mass suicide on Feb. 10, 2018. Nope. Finally “the storm” was again prophesied, this time for President Biden’s inauguration day, on Jan. 20. Zip.
That’s when Ron Watkins, who denies playing a part in the Q phenomenon, posted this to Telegram: "We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able."
Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, an organization that tracks extremist groups online, summed up the late January situation this way: "After years of waiting for the 'Great Awakening,' QAnon adherents seemed genuinely shocked to see President Biden successfully inaugurated. A significant percentage online are writing that they are now done with the QAnon."
Of course, the one historic event that QAnon did help catalyze didn’t end well for the participants. On Jan. 6, Trump zealots, some in Q shirts or waving Q flags, stormed the U.S. Capitol.
As of last Friday, according to the Justice Department, some 465 people have been arrested for that attack. A court filing indicated that the government expects to charge nearly 100 more.
Many defendants intend to claim they were brainwashed. Albert Watkins (no relation to Ron and Jim), the lawyer for the pelt-wearing insurrectionist Jacob Chansley, aka the QAnon Shaman, says his client fell into the clutches of a cult.
“He is not crazy,” Watkins told the Associated Press last month. “The people who fell in love with [cult leader] Jim Jones and went down to Guyana, they had husbands and wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.”
QAnoners who are still on board aren’t sure what any of it means anymore. Some have stopped talking about Trump and now just preach antisemitism. Others urge supporters to take on debt because somehow the future belongs to cryptocurrency and the Iraqi dinar. Orthodox Q types, whose numbers are diminishing, are presumably still waiting for tribunals for Trump’s enemies and, of course, the storm.
But then late last month, pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, one possible heir apparent to the Q empire, dismissed some of the most popular Q memes at a Dallas Q convention. “There are no military tribunals that’s magically going to solve this problem for us,” she said.
And though Q used to urge followers to “trust the plan,” Powell announced, "I don't have any evidence that there's some grand underlying plan.”
With Jan. 6 still fresh in our minds, and with the cultural ascendancy of next-gen conspiracists such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), it’s easy to miss evidence that QAnon’s power is waning.
It’s a blindness akin to believing in Trump’s inescapable indomitability, even though he lost the White House and has been de-platformed.
After a grueling period of pandemic and political violence, citizens experience societal trauma. We become hypervigilant. And we’re liable to panic about the wrong things.
Believe it: QAnon’s coherence, allure and leadership are over. Trump has retired. Many QAnoners are now behind bars.
Of course, that's not the end of dangers posed by fanatical groups. It might not be QAnon next time, but extremist ideologies and paranoid fantasies will always captivate the dispossessed.
And if we're still battling a cult that's defeated, we're in strategic trouble. Not only will we have failed to learn from Q's unraveling, but we also won't be able to recognize the next catastrophe, let alone prevent it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.