In addition to being a historic event, one might be forgiven for thinking that the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris would sound the death knell of QAnon conspiracy theories. Now that Biden is actually president and QAnon predictions about Trump’s continuing hold on power have failed to come to fruition it would seem logical that they would pack up shop and admit that they were wrong. But if history has taught us anything it is that failed prophecies and frustrated predictions don’t always mark the beginning of the end for radical social movements. With apologies to Madonna, it’s prophets who are the mothers of reinvention.
In the early 19th century, New York farmer and Baptist preacher William Miller preached that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent. His prophecy was based largely on his study of the biblical book of Daniel. His interpretation led him to conclude, initially at least, that Christ would return sometime between March 1843 and 1844. When March 1844 passed without the appearance of Christ and his angels in the sky, Miller picked another date —April 18, 1844—which also slid by without cosmic incident or divine intervention. A follower of Miller’s, Samuel Snow, proposed a third date in October, but the Day of Judgment had still not arrived. The Millerites were understandably disillusioned. One member, Henry Emmons, wrote that he had to be helped to his bedroom, where he lay “sick with disappointment.”
You would think that three false prophecies, collectively known as the Great Disappointment, would be the end of the Millerites. To be sure, some members did leave to join the Shakers, but others began to reinterpret the prophecies about the end of days. One group began to argue that they were only partly wrong. The prophecies weren’t about the Second Coming and end of the world but, rather, about the cleansing of a heavenly sanctuary. It wasn’t an earthly event, it was a heavenly one, and this explained why, to us mere humans, it might appear that nothing had happened. It was out of this group that the Seventh Day Adventist Church arose. Today the Seventh Day Adventist Church has between 20-25 million members. They are, according to Christianity Today, “the fifth largest Christian communion worldwide.”
Ironically, the prophecies in Daniel that formed the basis for the Millerite (and many other!) prophecies about the end of the world were themselves the product of dashed expectations. Though it is set in the sixth century B.C., Daniel was written during the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV (175-164 B.C.). At the time Judeans were wrestling with the Antiochus’s attempts to eradicate Jewish customs and traditions like Sabbath observance, circumcision, and dietary laws. As a response to this crisis the book contains a series of prophecies about what would happen at the end of time. The dates are very specific and, after the first date for the restoration of the Temple given in Dan. 8:12 passed without incident, a later author was forced to add a second prophecy (Daniel 12:11-12) to account for the mistake.
Clinging to a belief despite evidence to the contrary isn’t just a religious phenomenon. On 8 June, 68 A.D. the Roman emperor Nero died a few miles outside of the city of Rome. Fearing the wrath of the Senate and concerned that a gruesome end awaited him, Nero had his secretary help him commit suicide. Even though Nero was dead, legends about his return persisted for centuries. At least three imposters emerged during the reigns of his successors. Each pretender gained followers, was captured, and killed but the Nero Redivus legend continued to gain traction with his supporters.
While it might seem that the moral of this story is ‘be vague about your prophecies,’ the book of Daniel is in our Bibles and the Seventh Day Adventist Church is a major denomination in Christianity. The initial prophecies weren’t strictly accurate, but the movements they generated pivoted and flourished.
Social psychologists call this phenomenon cognitive dissonance. In their classic treatment, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter studied the case of the Seekers, a small UFO religion that believed that they would leave the Earth in a flyer saucer before daybreak on Dec. 21, 1954. After the non-arrival of extraterrestrials, the group’s leader, Dorothy Martin, changed her name and continued to prophesy. Festinger and his colleagues concluded that when groups are deeply convinced that they are correct and individuals have social support from other members of their group, beliefs can be maintained even in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. According to Festinger, fringe members of a movement experiencing a moment of cognitive dissonance are more likely to admit they were wrong, but devotees double-down, reinterpret, and regroup.
Though Festinger’s work has been criticized by others, the theory can explain how some people cling to their belief structures even when they have been proven wrong. In the case of QAnon this has already happened. Hilary Clinton was supposed to have been arrested three years ago. Joe Biden was never supposed to have become president. As Chine Labbe, European managing editor at NewsGuard told the Financial Times, “there’s been lots of predictions from the beginning, none of which have come to fruition… but this didn’t prevent the [QAnon] Movement from growing.”
QAnon has already claimed a seat in Congress and branched out into the wellness industry, so there’s no reason to think that the 2020 U.S. election will be the death of the movement. It certainly doesn’t help that former President Donald Trump said in his parting remarks that he “will be back in some form.” All of which suggests that even if Trump is convicted, QAnon Trump loyalists—like supporters of Nero—may be holding out hope for years to come.