There were no mass arrests, no declaration of martial law and no “Great Awakening” on Inauguration Day.
Instead, a new president pleaded for unity and an end to the assault on truth and democracy. The first woman -- more specifically, a Black, South Asian daughter of immigrants -- became vice president.
This was not what QAnon, the followers of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, had been promised. They’ve been devoted to the notion that Trump was secretly saving the world from a global sex-trafficking ring of child-eating Democrat Satanists, and that their god-king would remain in office.
The rise of this cultlike world is perplexing enough from the outside. But for those whose loved ones have fallen directly into it, it’s also painful and isolating.
Kayla Elliot of DeSoto, Missouri, said her mother-in-law was a hardcore liberal when she met her 18 years ago. Now, it’s as if a switch flipped.
“She has M.S. and doesn’t work. She sits and listens to Fox News and goes down rabbit-holes on the internet,” said Elliot, who is Black and is married to a white man. After her mother-in-law tried to convince her that Democrats were aborting full-term babies, Elliot completely disengaged with her. She said QAnon has given people’s “latent racism a place to bloom.”
Audrey Brown of St. Louis is grieving the loss of her relationship with the grandparents who helped raise her. She unfollowed them on Facebook when they started sharing racist memes and conspiracy theories. She has tried to keep in touch through phone calls, but has a hard time talking to them because of their outlandish beliefs.
“It absolutely gutted me to have my grandma publicly shame me on Facebook,” she said. “I spent my childhood with them. ... It’s like mourning someone who has died, but they’re still there.”
She partly blames Facebook algorithms, which show users content they are likely to agree with and then introduces them to more extreme sites. Social media has certainly played a role in radicalizing some of these adherents.
“They prey on people who are alone,” Brown said. With more people isolated and adrift during the pandemic, Brown says she has also seen stay-at-home moms find a community and sense of purpose in believing that they are “saving children.” In fact, QAnon purposely infiltrated mom groups on Facebook with messages like #SaveTheChildren to recruit followers, without revealing their QAnon connections.
When Brown’s young daughter asked her why they don’t see her great-grandmother anymore, she explained, “Nonni is believing things that aren’t safe for us. I don’t want to expose you to things that might hurt us.”
Melanie, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said both of her parents are heavily invested in “deep state” conspiracy theories. Her father is convinced the government will try to confiscate his guns, and their basement is full of ammunition. She visited them a couple of years ago, and when she put her toddler down for a nap in their bedroom, the little girl discovered a gun under the pillow.
“My heart stopped,” Melanie said. She hasn’t been back to their home since. “We’re pretty much not speaking to each other.”
Others prefer to try to maintain a connection with their relatives while trying to help bring them back.
“When the insurgency happened, it really scared a lot of people,” said Jess, who asked to be identified by her first name. Jess’ father sends her texts and mass emails with QAnon warnings.
She posted on her Facebook that people alienated from their QAnon-believing families needed a support group. After several people reached out to her privately for help, she created just such a group that meets through Zoom.
“We are all just trying to process how the people we love got where they are,” she said. “The larger question is, how do we prevent this from happening to more people?”
She said some of the indoctrinated parents even believe their own adult children are part of a pedophile ring, if they challenge their beliefs.
Jamie Collier of St. Louis began tracking the sites where some of these ideas take root after losing her relationship with her grandparents. She is trying to figure out how their brains have been short-circuited to accept such illogical ideas.
When she tried to challenge one extreme idea online, someone commented that “the Great Awakening will happen” and that “true patriots have a list of far-left liberals ... to get rid of.”
But now that their fever-dream political fantasies haven’t come to pass, there is a sliver of hope among those cut off from their families that they may have an opportunity to break through to their family members.
“We focus on what’s within our control and what isn’t,” Jess, the organizer, said.