Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday marks not only the historic beginning of a new presidency, but also, for countless Americans, the devastating end of a yearslong grift.
For believers of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that holds Donald Trump as a deity-like figure secretly battling a “deep state” cabal of pedophiles who control the government, things weren’t supposed to go down this way. Month after month, year after year, they had been told by “Q,” the group’s shadowy online leader, and Q’s army of social media influencers, that a symbolic “storm” was coming. The mythology held that on Wednesday, at long last, the Bidens, Obamas and Clintons would be rounded up and executed for child sex trafficking, treason and other crimes. Trump, having finally conquered evil, would remain in power.
This was the moment they had desperately been waiting for.
Inside digital safe havens for far-right extremists, such as Gab and Telegram, massive QAnon groups turned into virtual watch parties reacting to Wednesday’s ceremony in real time. As the event began, members could hardly contain their joy — or their desire for bloodshed.
“WELCOME TO THE GRAND FINALE!!!” someone cheered in a 185,000-member Gab group. “Anyone else wanna puke with excitement?!?!?!” another person asked amid a rapid stream of messages coursing through a 34,000-member Telegram channel. Others salivated over the idea of decapitations and sexual violence against prominent Democrats. Several messages were too grotesque to publish.
By 11:45 a.m., though, as Kamala Harris took her vice presidential oath of office, the crowds grew anxious.
“Well this popcorn just got cold,” one QAnon supporter wrote. “When do the arrests start??” another questioned. Still, they continued clinging to hope while counting down the minutes until their long-awaited “great awakening.”
But as noon arrived, and a grinning Biden placed his hand on a Bible to be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, reality came crashing down.
“I can’t stop crying. Fuck. Why?” one person pleaded. “It’s over,” another conceded. Some wondered how they could possibly mend their broken relationships with the loved ones they’d pushed away over their obsessions with Q.
Like a flipped switch, the attitude inside online QAnon communities shifted from glee to shock and misery: “NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENED!!!”; “So now we have proof Q was total bullshit”; “I feel sick, disgusted and disappointed”; “Have we been duped???”; “You played us all”; “HOW COULD WE BELIEVE THIS FOR SO LONG? ARE WE ALL IDIOTS?”
Meanwhile, several QAnon loyalists performed medal-worthy mental gymnastics to keep their delusion alive. A few suggested that the video of Biden becoming president was a deepfake and that he was actually locked away behind bars as it played across the nation. Others posited that Biden himself had in fact been working with Trump to dismantle the deep state all along, and would be the one to sic the military on the supposed traitors. Many simply pleaded with each other to stay patient: “Q wouldn’t do this to us. He wouldn’t let us down. Don’t lose hope.”
But even some of QAnon’s most prominent influencers reluctantly acknowledged that it was time to move on. MelQ, a major QAnon leader, turned off commenting in her Telegram channel as Biden’s swearing-in drew nearer and members appeared to lose faith, in order to “have everyone take a breather.” But once the ceremony was complete, she changed her tune: “Ok let it all out,” she wrote, later adding, “We’ll get through anything together.”
Ron Watkins, the former administrator of 8kun — a platform that has long been vital to Q’s communication with believers — also pulled the plug: “We gave it our all,” he told his nearly 120,000 Telegram subscribers. “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
Even Joe M, one of the earliest and most widely known Q backers, had hinted days ago that QAnon could be a ruse: “Next week, either Q turns out to be an elaborate well-intentioned hoax … or we are all about to watch the Red Sea part and the unfolding of a new biblical-level chapter in human civilization,” he wrote on Jan. 16. But on Wednesday afternoon, he wasn’t ready to accept defeat: “My faith is not in Q, or ‘The Plan’. My faith is in red-blooded, proud and tenacious Americans and everything they have always stood for,” he assured the tens of thousands of users in his Telegram channel. “No matter how dark today may feel, that faith is unbreakable.”
To be sure, this isn’t the end of QAnon or the immense damage it has inflicted on this country. The movement, which the FBI considers to be a domestic terrorist threat, has already evolved and regrouped to string its members along time and time again, and it has planted deep roots in an array of other communities: yoga lovers, church groups, school classrooms, anti-vax networks — the list goes on.
QAnon’s mass radicalization of Americans is part of Trump’s legacy. Addressing it will likely be one of the Biden administration’s greatest challenges.
It’s unclear where the conspiracy theory goes from here; many ardent supporters are vowing to keep marching forward, undeterred. For today, though, the group is at a loss.
“WE’VE BEEN SCAMMED INTO BELIEVING Q!!!” a Telegram user declared.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.