What Donald Trump's exit from the White House means for the QAnon conspiracy movement

While Donald Trump is leaving office, experts say his departure isn't the end for QAnon. Exactly where the movement goes from here, however, is harder to predict.

A Qanon supporter outside the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

A QAnon supporter outside the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Source: STRMX

For QAnon faithful, Donald Trump's presidency was hailed as part of a grand plan that would expose evil within the US government and 'restore' America. 

But on Thursday morning (AEDT), Mr Trump's single term as president will come to an end as Joe Biden is sworn in as his successor.

In some ways, that puts the central theory of this baseless and malleable web of conspiracies - that the outgoing president has spent years leading a mission to bring a 'deep state' group of paedophiles, including top Democrats and Hollywood elites, to justice - to bed. 

But experts say this doesn't necessarily mark the end of a movement that now has support within the Republican Party, leaving it, the incoming Biden administration, and even Australia, with much to consider.

Elliot Brennan, from the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, says the movement has reached a "testing moment". 

"For all the prophecy that Mr Trump was going to undo this 'deep state', that there was no way he could lose this election and that the election was stolen from him and he would win it back, it just hasn't eventuated," he told SBS News. 

"The thing to remember here is QAnon, broadly, has had dozens of prophecies which haven't yet eventuated, and the movement has continued to grow." 

What is QAnon? 

QAnon is not one conspiracy theory but an umbrella term for a set of theories that have developed across different online forums around the so-called central figure, 'Q'. 

"It's immensely broad and also incredibly malleable, which has enabled it to really accommodate the conspiracy theory at large," Mr Brennan said. 

QAnon's central theory posits the world is run by an alleged 'deep state' - a cabal of cannibal paedophiles run by America's elite - who are plotting against Mr Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. According to QAnon lore, Mr Trump was recruited to dismantle this cabal. 

That theory arose in October 2017 when a 'drop' appeared on online forum 4chan from an anonymous account that called itself 'Q Clearance Point'. The poster, who became known as 'Q', was a self-alleged American intelligence insider with knowledge of the workings of the US government and the so-called 'deep state'. 

'Q' predicted Mr Trump would unmask the cabal and 'restore' America. 

Qanon faithful believe Donald Trump is on a top-secret mission to expose evil within the US government.
Source: AP

Professor Axel Bruns, from Queensland University of Technology's Digital Media Research Centre, describes the evolution of QAnon as a "treasure hunt" that has played out through so-called 'Q Drops' of cryptic information. 

"The way it has been organised in some ways has really been to attract people by giving them riddles or incomplete information that can be interpreted in various ways," he said.

"That might be accidental or deliberate, but it has worked to draw people further into the conspiracy. It's gamified, so in a way, it makes those who are part of it to feel special or different from others." 

What emerged from the far-right fringes has somewhat reached the mainstream, with its community extending to wellness influencers, anti-lockdown libertarians and hardcore Trumpists. QAnon now also has people who have previously voiced support for the movement in positions of power within the Republican Party and in the US Congress

Donald Trump, the 'unconventional leader'

What began to emerge on message boards like 4chan and, later, other social media platforms, was the idea that  Mr Trump, being an "unconventional presidential candidate", must exist to dismantle the so-called 'deep state', Mr Brennan says. 

"People started to imbue him with this God-given role and increasingly the theory merged with Evangelism and religiosity, establishing this 'good versus evil' struggle, with President Trump representing the 'good', and Washington - the 'swamp' - along with Democrats and even Republicans, representing the 'evil'," he said. 

As digital media experts analysed online activity, 'Q' paraphernalia started to emerge at Mr Trump's rallies. And as time went on, Mr Brennan says, the bond between support for Mr Trump and support for QAnon started to strengthen.

QAnon supporters attend a Trump rally in Suffolk County, New York
Source: Corbis News/Getty

While there is no evidence that Mr Trump is behind the movement, Professor Bruns said it has certainly positioned the outgoing president as its leader. 

"Everything that he has done, and everything that has been done against him, has been interpreted in some way by QAnon followers as part of some grand plan," he said. 

"There has also been a lot of re-interpretation of what is going on to give these followers faith that everything is going to plan." 

Last August, Mr Trump said at a press conference he didn't "know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate". 

"We've seen time and time again, Mr Trump has been offered an off-ramp to condemn QAnon and conspiracy theories, along with right-wing extremism and white nationalism, but every turn he chooses to equivocate and do it in terms that can easily be manipulated into a message of support, Mr Brennan said. 

So, what now?

QAnon faithful were told that Mr Trump would be re-elected in a landslide. But he wasn't and is leaving office under the cloud of a second impeachment. 

Many prominent QAnon followers have also been arrested for their roles in the 6 January riot at the US Capitol. They're being barred by the thousands from major social networks for spreading misinformation about voter fraud, and US law enforcement is now treating the movement as a domestic extremist threat

So, where does this leave the movement?

Experts say Mr Trump's departure from office does not spell the end of QAnon, but how the movement evolves from here is harder to predict. 

Mr Brennan said it could be moving into a new and more concerning "phase of disenfranchisement" with Mr Biden as president. 

"From their [QAnon adherents'] perspective, President Trump - the person who was going to expose the rampant child sex slavery in elite circles in Washington and Hollywood - is being replaced by someone who they falsely think is a paedophile," he said. 

"That is a radicalising development for people who feel like their president is being taken away fraudulently and being replaced by someone who represents something they have railed against." 

He said this phase could potentially be more dangerous, as members - barred from mainstream social media platforms - move to underground and encrypted messaging apps. 

A person wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon, during events at the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021
Source: AP

But Professor Bruns says as some members detach themselves from the movement, its future will depend on how remaining QAnon followers spin Mr Biden's presidency. 

"It all depends on which sorts of attempts at explanation are going to become prominent within the remaining QAnon community," he said. 

"It could become more violent and more threatening if they continue to say Mr Biden is illegitimate, or if they believe he is there for a reason and Mr Trump is letting him be there. They might actually step back because they believe, at the end of it, there will be some kind of reckoning." 

But he said at some point, there will come an "end".

"I think generally and genuinely there is now a tendency for the really hardcore adherents to twist reality even further to keep the faith," he said. 

"I think for a lot of them, eventually that will come to a breaking point where it is no longer possible to believe in the grand plan."

Published 20 January 2021 at 8:25pm, updated 20 January 2021 at 8:36pm
By Emma Brancatisano