By Peter Coy
Inauguration Day was agonizing for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. There was no blackout at noon. President Trump did not hang on to 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 supporter wrote in a QAnon online forum. “Well im the official laughing stock of my family now. Awesome,” wrote another.
I interviewed an 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’s 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 didn’t 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, said 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 doesn’t 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…