On a day where the news is full of doom and gloom, we thought we'd look at something a bit more light-hearted.
Published: Jan 26, 2021 1:52:57 PM
The final season of The Leftovers – HBO’s drama about a world adapting to the aftermath of a semi-apocalyptic event – opens with a montage separate from the show’s main narrative in the present day; we’re taken to a nineteenth-century American village, where we meet a family preparing for the rapture.
We see a preacher, standing before a packed and joyous church, working out some figures on a blackboard, and we see a date: 21 Jan 1844. We see the family—mother, father, son—all dressed in white, climbing a ladder up to the roof of their house, where they wait faithfully in the moonlight; a number of other white-robed groups standing glowing in the night across the town. But then we see the three trudging down deflated in the morning, cowing their heads from the jeers of their more skeptical neighbors.
At first, the family doesn’t give up. In an emptier church, the father is looking wearier when the preacher announces a new date: April 16. And so we see the family taking to their roof again. The mother waits steadfastly and the father looks at her grimly, his inevitable disappointment a fact he seems to have already come to terms with. Across the rooftops, only one other group waits with them. The rapture, of course, doesn’t come.
The priest announces a final date. The chosen shall be saved, he assures his now-threadbare and desperate flock, on August 1. The father is seen getting angry, fighting with the priest.
When the date rolls around, the mother takes to her roof alone. In the night there is no-one else there, all around. And so the mother stands waiting in the dark – all alone. She looks up to the sky, and it starts to rain. Surely now, having endured so much for her faith, she will be taken into heaven. But then she simply… isn’t. The next day, as she climbs down, her husband can no longer look her in the eye. She is in hell.
I thought of this little vignette last week, when the QAnon movement suffered its own apocalyptic disappointment. Since the conspiracy’s inception, followers have been fixated on an event called “The Storm” in which the secret cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles who they believe comprise the liberal U.S. political and media establishment would be arrested and killed on the instruction of their arch-foe, President Donald Trump. The evil at the heart of the deep state will be extinguished, child trafficking would cease, the cure for cancer will be revealed, and a Global Reset will mean the cancellation of all debt. Originally supposed to occur on November 3, 2017—one year on from Trump’s electoral college victory—the date of the event was repeatedly pushed back to January 20, 2021, to occur during (or instead of) Joe Biden’s inauguration.
There were, admittedly, already some jitters: in the wake of January 6 and the social media crack-down on Trump and his far-right supporters, even prominent Q grifters like Joe M. expressed some doubts as to the reality of The Storm.
“Next week, either Q turns out to be an elaborate well-intentioned hoax,” they wrote on January 16, “or we are all about to watch the Red Sea part and the unfolding of a new biblical-level chapter in human civilisation… Remain strong in your faith that God wins, and get ready for the world to change forever.”
Nonetheless, in the build-up to the inauguration, on far-right dominated social media platforms like Gab and Telegram, Q supporters appeared to be in a largely bullish mood, running polls on what form The Storm might take, and fantasizing about liberal politicians being decapitated.
Naturally, of course, it didn’t last. As Biden was sworn in, reality hit Q supporters like the absence of God appearing to those characters in The Leftovers: “Im done… Absolute hoax… No arrest! No military takeover! Q was fairy tale… I’m so disinhearted. Trump was our only hope and even he couldn’t drain the swamp.” For many, it seems, the fantasy has now been shattered. The dream of The Storm is over.
There has been some scrambling to disavow Q. “Now we need to... go back to our lives as best we can,” 8kun scion Ron Watkins wrote in a message board post, before teasing a “new project” coming soon.
“ATTENTION TO ANY AND ALL INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES,” another user wrote. “EVERY POST EVER MADE BY THIS IP AND ANY OTHER ASSOCIATED WITH IT HAVE BEEN DONE FOR NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN SATIRE. I HEREBY ABSOLVE MYSELF OF ANY AND ALL INTENT TO COMMIT ACTS OF VIOLENCE OR TERROR...”
So the rapture hasn’t come, the pedophilic deep state is still in power, and Trump is now being subjected to the sort of indignities his supporters had hoped would be inflicted on Hillary Clinton. If you are, or have been, a Q supporter… what do you do now?
QAnon is not quite a religion. But it certainly resembles plenty of historical movements associated somehow with the apocalypse or the (second) coming of the Messiah. And so, what happened to these movements when the world didn’t end can be illuminating on that score.
The scenes from The Leftovers were inspired by a group called the Millerites, who were active in the U.S. in the 1830s and early 1840s. The sect was founded by their namesake William Miller, a New England farmer with a belief in the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Based on an interpretation of a line from the Book of Daniel – “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” – which he reached by swapping “days” for “years,” Miller concluded that Christ would return at some point between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.
Promoting his views via public lectures, by 1840 Miller had attracted both a significant following and substantial financial support. His group started staging regular meetings, at which attendance was regularly in the thousands. To further spread their message, they started publishing newspapers: periodicals with titles like Signs of the Times, The Midnight Cry, The Advent Herald, and the Philadelphia Alarm.
Despite all this, there remained a great deal of controversy, even among believers, as to the exact date on which the rapture would occur. The first date some Millerites settled on was April 23, 1843, but this proved to be a non-starter. Then there was lots of excitement around the end of 1843. After this, the general consensus elected on March 21, 1844.
But then this, much like Biden’s inauguration, came and went. What is really interesting, though, is what happened next. Though the prophecy had technically been disproved, there was in fact a great intensification of Millerite belief. Based on the preaching of a man named Samuel S. Snow, Millerites began to settle on the new date for the rapture: October 22, 1844. “Think for eternity!” the editorial of what was to be the final edition of The Midnight Cry proclaimed. “Break loose from the world as much as possible… The Lord is Coming… This world passeth away.”
In the end, October 22 was, for the Millerites, the final disappointment (it is in fact remembered as the Great Disappointment). Millerism had weathered previous disconfirmations but by Spring 1845, the movement had largely disintegrated.
Responses were varied. Some decided that the Second Coming had in fact occurred, people just hadn’t noticed it. Others decided that based on a different line from the Bible they should start behaving like children, and did so. Some joined other sects, such as the Shakers. Most simply returned to their lives. A core of true believers remained committed in some way to Miller’s prophecies, though ultimately decided his interpretation of Daniel had been subtly wrong. Ultimately, they became the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which was officially founded in 1863, and now claims over 20 million members.
Another comparison is with the movement which sprung up around Sabbatai Zevi, a Rabbi from Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) who in 1648 proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. The era of redemption was supposed to start around then. When it didn’t, Zevi and his followers started focusing on the year 1666 instead. By 1665, his following was very large: as far away as Amsterdam and Hamburg, trade stagnated as Jewish merchants made preparations to return to the Holy Land. Historians have noted that the willingness of people to believe Zevi’s prophecies can be explained by the desperate state of the Jewish people at the time: pogroms in what is now Ukraine had wiped out as much as a third of Europe’s Jewish population.
To fulfill the prophecy, at the beginning of 1666, Zevi and his supporters gathered in Smyrna, then set out to storm Constantinople. But then, after landing nearby, their plans started to unravel. Zevi was arrested by the Ottoman authorities. Initially, throughout his imprisonment, his followers did not lose faith, seeing his incarceration as a test he would have to be put through before he could reveal his divinity. The Ottomans could not release Zevi, but were also reluctant to have him executed – fearing that he would be made a martyr. Ultimately, they offered him a choice: death, or conversion to Islam. On 16th September, Zevi came before the sultan, removed his Jewish garb, and symbolically donned the turban.
The reaction of his followers was diverse. Overall, the movement around Zevi was deflated. But many nevertheless kept faith with him. Some rationalized his conversion as part of some sort of overall divine plan – while others decided to follow his example and convert to Islam. Known as the Dönmeh (from the Turkish word for “turncoats”), this sect of Zevi’s followers followed the Muslim calendar, prayed in mosques, and fasted during Ramadan, but also continued to observe the Sabbath, practiced Brit Milah, and adhered to certain Sabbatian doctrines (such as the belief that adultery was not a sin). Prominent in their major center of Thessaloniki, now in Greece, until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the group is still a major focus of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Turkey.
So what does this mean for the Q movement? Clearly, there are some pretty substantial parallels with both movements: and even in the early days since the non-event of The Storm, there have been Q followers whose speculations sound pretty much like disappointed Millerites. Maybe The Storm did happen but the news is being withheld from an American public who would be unable to handle it; maybe Biden only seems to be the President and in fact the military are governing under the instruction of Trump; maybe Trump is still planning something… soon the truth will be revealed….won’t it?
Certainly, based on the historical examples I’ve explored, I don’t think we should expect a disappointed Q movement to simply go away. Q followers are, after all, by and large people who have been – for whatever reason – so desperate to believe there is some sort of order or plan to a cruel and confusing reality, that they have been willing to believe that Donald Trump, of all people, might somehow be a Messianic force for good.
Q conspiracies really do provide people with a robust source of meaning. I remember seeing an “anti-child trafficking” rally in the center of Newcastle last summer, and what I was struck by more than anything else was the Presbyterian character of the event. There was a sense that anyone in attendance was welcome to get up and say their piece so long as they accepted the organizers’ basic assumptions about the royal family harvesting adrenochrome from trafficked children.
And mixed in with the far-right conspiracy-mongering as was real pain about what had happened to children they had lost, as well as a real sense that people in power just simply did not care. The hopes and the grievances of these people are going to find some expression somehow. QAnon has, as yet, just been one particularly prominent medium for them.
Moreover, there are an awful lot of people who have literally made Q their business . Q grifters like the Watkinses, Joe M, PrayingMedic and Neon Revolt owe their livelihoods to Q doctrine. They have a direct material interest in ensuring that the movement doesn’t end here. Perhaps some of them might be able to diversify into other conspiracies (Ron Watkins at least seems to be about to) – and there is presumably a gap in the market now for other entrepreneurial grifters here. But the overriding incentive will be to find some way to keep the Q gravy train rolling. Eventually, this may well transform into something like the Q equivalent of Seventh-Day Adventism.
Ultimately, the problem with far-right conspiracies is not that there is a critical mass of people stupid enough to believe them, but that people want to believe them, because reality, such as it is, has come so radically apart from their desires. Q-type conspiracy theories will persist beyond the disappointment of being debunked or disproven – because they are not really being tested in the pedantic tribunal of reality at all. To really combat these theories, we must cut them off at the level of desire. The world itself needs to be a place from which people are not motivated to retreat into unreality. Only then will the storm clouds overhead begin to dissipate.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer. His regular column for Logically addresses the news and how to live with it.
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