How Cults Like QAnon Respond to Embarrassing Failures



Inauguration Day was agonizing for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. There was no blackout at noon. President Trump did not hang onto the presidency. He did not declare martial law or conduct mass arrests of liberal elites supposedly involved in child prostitution. Everything they believed was proven false, and they were shocked. “Anyone else feeling beyond let down right now?”, one supporterwrote in a QAnon online forum. “Well im the official laughing stock of my family now. Awesome,”wrote another.

I interviewed a historian of American religion and a therapist who helps people leave cults to understand what happens next with QAnon. They predicted that some people will leave the cult, but others will find a way to justify staying. The dark energy that feeds QAnon and other conspiracy theories will remain as potent as ever.

The first person I spoke with was Laurence Moore, a retired Cornell University history professor who is  the author or co-author of five books on American religion including Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. (Disclosure: He was my faculty adviser.)  Moore harked back to “the Great Disappointment” of Oct. 22, 1844, when the world disappointingly did not end, contrary to the confident prediction of the Baptist preacher William Miller.   

“When something doesn’t happen on the original schedule, a variety of things can happen,” Moore said. “One of them, some will just drop out. Others will be more fervent in their belief, change the date it’s going to happen, or change the script.” Some followers of Miller regrouped to form what became the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

One surprising effect of a bad prediction, says Moore, is that those who stick around become even more active in proselytizing because it helps ease the cognitive dissonance they feel: that queasy sense that one’s understanding of the world does not match what one is seeing and hearing. “To the degree they can convince other people that they’re right,” they will be surrounded by people who see the world the way they see it, and the cognitive dissonance they feel will ease, he says.

The cognitive dissonance theory appeared first in a 1956 book about a cult in Chicago that believed they would be rescued by a flying saucer before a great flood in 1954, and the psychological coping mechanisms the followers used when the saucer and flood failed to materialize. The book, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, is by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.

The zaniness of cults’ beliefs is a short-term asset but a long-term liability. In the short term the embrace of far-fetched assertions binds the followers together against a skeptical outside world. Eventually, though, the zaniness shatters the cult when the core beliefs are seen to be wrong. Says Moore: “They change the prediction with more particulars that are just as subject to disconformation. You can only go with this so many times.”

Rachel Bernstein is a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who has developed a specialty in counseling cult members. She has a weekly podcast calledIndoctriNation. When a cult’s prediction doesn’t pan out, she says, followers fall into one of three D’s, she says: the determined, the disillusioned, and the despondent. 

The determined are already concocting theories that Trump is still president, that the inauguration was a pre-recorded fraud with actors playing the politicians, and that Tom Hanks—a bete noire of QAnon who hosted a televised event that evening–is dead and was played by a body double. That’s a lot for even some QAnon followers to swallow. The middle group, the disillusioned, are “waiting and hoping,” she says. “Then you have the people who are despondent. They had a dopamine rush. They didn’t get to taper slowly off their drug. Those are the people who fell into tears. They felt left behind and all their self-sacrifice was for naught and that was devastating.”

Says Bernstein: “What’s very true about a lot of these groups is they have a militaristic bent. They trigger an aggressive part of their nature. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with them that feels like a conversation. They jump up out of their chairs. They’re so worked up into a frenzy and so angry and frustrated that I don’t believe [what they’re saying],  even though I haven’t said anything yet.”

“They think they’re trying to save us,” Bernstein says. “They’re conspiratorial missionaries.”

Bernstein says that the wildness of the conspiracy theories paradoxically makes them more believable to some. The followers figure that no one would say something so crazy if it weren’t true. “People have this suspended disbelief. That can continue for a long time.” When a major disconfirmation like the inauguration occurs, “Some say ‘I get it.’ Others will cleave to the leader’s side. You’re going to see both,” she says.

In the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, followers of QAnon were joined by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other right-wing extremist organizations. Those organizations don’t buy into all of QAnon’s worldview, but Bernstein says “the overlap is, ‘We have to fend for ourselves. We can’t trust the powers that be. We need to get into people’s faces and be militaristic about it to make a difference, to get back what has been stolen from us.’”

That sense of being the victim of a theft is “a universal message,” Bernstein says. “Whether it’s ‘our jobs’ or the election or the claim that ‘we are the superior race,’ the sense that something has been taken away and you have to reclaim it by force. The anger is the same.”

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