What the Study of New Religious Movements Can Tell Us About QAnon

In 2022 candidates running for secretary of state in over a dozen states endorsed the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen. A Yahoo poll found the 66% of Republicans insist that “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” Shortly after the insurrection of January 6, 2021, Rev. John Zuhlsdorf livestreamed an exorcism aimed at reversing the alleged election fraud. (Zhulsdorf claimed he had the permission of his bishop to perform this exorcism. The diocese denied this claim and he agreed to leave the diocese.) The “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate is a serious threat to American democracy and near the heart of it is QAnon, a movement based on an internet conspiracy theory whose followers participated in a violent assault on the nation’s capitol on January 6 and who continue to work to delegitimize the 2020 election.

As a scholar of new religious movements, I am sometimes asked whether QAnon is a “cult” or whether adherents of this movement are “brainwashed.” To me, these are loaded questions. They presume there are such things as cults and brainwashing and that we simply need to determine whether QAnon passes some litmus test to qualify for these designations. But thinking this way does little to help us understand why people support QAnon. Instead, it is more a case of “labeling taking the place of analysis.” But the toolkit of new religions studies does contain some concepts that help to analyze QAnon and The Big Lie. These include “conversion,” “millennialism,” “charismatic authority,” and “failed prophecy.” These concepts provide better ways of interpreting QAnon, which in turn may help us to mitigate its danger.

The term “brainwashing” was coined by journalist and intelligence officer Edward Hunter in 1950, who wrote, “The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet—a human robot—without the atrocity being visible . . . with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body.” Since then, the term “brainwashing” has become increasingly ambiguous such that nearly any viewpoint or opinion can be described as evidence of “brainwashing.” However, in 1987 the American Psychology Association concluded there was no evidence to support the “robot model” of brainwashing described by Hunter. It should also be noted early research into the possibility of brainwashing examined prisoners of war whose captives had near total control over them and could even execute them if they refused to comply. By contrast, QAnon is primarily an Internet phenomenon and every QAnoner is free to leave at any moment with the push of a button.

The concept of brainwashing remains popular primarily because it is useful—both to those seeking to delegitimize someone else’s viewpoint, and people seeking exoneration for some action condemned by the public. After the attacks of September 11, 2011, friends and family of arrested Al-Qaeda terrorists insisted that their loved ones had been manipulated by a “brainwashing cult.” Similarly, rioters arrested for their participation in January 6 attempted a brainwashing defense. A lawyer representing rioter Garrett Miller claimed that “Donald Trump was a cult leader” and that he was working to “deprogram” his client.

There is no evidence that Trump “programmed” QAnoners’s brains like a computer, but these people did undergo a change to a new worldview, a process known as conversion. QAnon began in with a series of cryptic posts on the website 4chan from someone named “Q,” who claimed to have a high level of government security clearance. Some have noted that the community that formed around interpreting these “Q drops” resembled a sort of game. Rather than being indoctrinated into an ideology, QAnoners seem to take pleasure in contributing to the conspiracy theory. In fact, the conspiracy theories within the QAnon milieu have grown stranger over time, including escaped “mole children” under New York and the prophesied resurrection of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Unlike Hunter’s model of prisoners being subjected to “thought reform,” conversion to QAnon appears to be a fun, creative process. Rather than brainwashing, becoming a QAnoner seems to be more closely resemble “mutual conversion.” Criminologist Albert Cohen coined this term to describe the way juvenile delinquents encourage one another to act out. Cohen explained, “Each actor may contribute something directly to the growing product, but he may also contribute indirectly by encouraging others to advance, inducing them to retreat, and suggesting new avenues to be explored.”

Another key concept for understanding QAnon is “millennialism.” NRM scholar Catherine Wessinger defines millennialism as a pattern of belief characterized by as “an imminent transition to a collective salvation (either earthly or heavenly) effected by a supernatural or superhuman agent.” The word millennialism references Revelation 20:1-6, which prophesizes that the martyrs will be resurrected and reign with Christ for one thousand years. First-century Jews awaiting a messiah to free them from Roman rule would be one form of collective salvation. But similar prophecies about a coming savior or a better world to come can be found in many religions, including Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, and New Age traditions. Political movements can also be described as “millennial” if they promise to bring about “the final state of society.” Echoing Revelation 20, the Nazis claimed their Third Reich would last one thousand years.

QAnon began with a rumor about “The Storm”: a coming event in which Trump would round up a cabal of Satanists, pedophile rings, “deep state” agents, and democrats and (in some versions of the rumor) have them publicly executed. For QAnoners, The Storm is a prophecy of collective salvation. Everything that is wrong in American government and culture is caused by evil, conspiratorial forces and Trump is destined to eliminate them. The Storm will also prove to the rest of us that the QAnoners were right all along. Political scientist Michael Barkun noted that it is common for millennial expectations to work hand-in-hand with conspiracy theories in this way: the conspiracy theory explains all the misfortune in the world, and the prophecy offers hope that the conspiracy will be destroyed, making way for a better world.

Wessinger, an expert on varieties of millennialist movements, suggested that QAnon is better understood not as a “cult” but as a “Euro-American Nativist Millennial movement.” Millennial religious movements often form when a culture experiences its traditional way of life being destroyed by a foreign, colonizing government. One example of a “Nativist Millennial” movement would be the Ghost Dance of 1890 practiced by Native Americans throughout the Great Plains. Ghost Dancers acted on a prophecy that their practices could restore the land to how it had been before the arrival of White settlers. Objectively, the situation QAnons find themselves in is no way comparable to that of nineteenth-century Native Americans. Nevertheless, QAnons feel that their traditional way of life has been destroyed by subversive forces. Trump’s “MAGA” slogan is an appeal to these Nativist sentiments. Wessinger adds that QAnon is really a continuation of white supremacist millennial movement that was already well underway in the 1990s and exemplified by terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.

While not all millennial movements have messiahs, many do, and Trump is the prophesied hero figure of QAnon’s millennial scenario. Trump exhibits what sociologists call “charismatic authority.” This is a type of authority distinct from either tradition or office. Charismatic authority often appears as a feature inherent to the leader’s personality. In reality, charisma arises from the relationship between the leader and their followers. Trump may not be able to brainwash people, but he has proven adept at understanding what his followers want and nurturing a charismatic relationship with them. This ability, which many charismatic leaders possess, is sometimes described as “impression management.”

Charisma can be very powerful and throughout history religious and political movements centered around charismatic authority have re-written the social order. But charisma is also inherently unstable. If the leader cannot maintain the special relationship with their followers, the followers will cease to perceive them as extraordinary and their authority will fade. This paradox of unstable power is especially true where prophecy is concerned. One path to charismatic authority can be to predict the end of the world as we know it. But this authority only lasts until the prophecy is disproved. If the prophecy fails, the leader must scramble to somehow account for this. Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen may be an attempt to return to the White House or just salve his own ego, but it can also be read as an attempt to salvage his charismatic authority with his followers.

Many religious groups have predicted the end of the world and so far they have all been wrong. For this reason, failed prophecy is a recurring topic in new religions studies. Some millennial groups have experienced crises of morale in the wake of a failed prophecy, especially if a great deal of resources were invested in anticipation of the prophecy. But in other cases, the group seems unaffected or may even become more energized in the wake of a failed prophecy. A key factor in these outcomes is the leadership’s ability to quickly communicate a new interpretation of the failure. As new religions scholar J. Gordon Melton observed, “Prophecy does not fail—it is merely misunderstood.” Often leaders will announce that prophesied catastrophe was merely a “test of faith” that the group successfully passed. Another strategy is what Melton called “spiritualization” in which the prophesied event is reinterpreted as referring to some invisible, spiritual event instead of an observable one. Sometimes the leadership will simply blame the disappointment on others. After the Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, a Watchtower Society president in Canada told his audience, “‘Do you know why nothing happened in 1975? It was because YOU expected something to happen.”

QAnon has opted for one of the simplest responses to failed prophecy: postponing the date. The predicted date for The Storm has been reset over and over again. Even after the violence of January 6, QAnoners began proclaiming that The Storm would finally come on January 20, 2021, when Biden would be arrested on national television during his inauguration. It should also be noted that what appears as a glaring inconsistency to outsiders can often go unnoticed within a millennial movement. Q never predicted a scenario in which an election would be stolen from Trump, but QAnoners have no problem believing in Q while also believing “The Big Lie.”

However, millennial movements that do lose hope of achieving their goal can become desperate and potentially dangerous. Millennial movements are not inherently violent and, in fact, can be quite passive. For that matter, new religious movements (NRMs) rarely engage in violence. The association of NRMs with violence is due to the so-called “heuristic fallacy”: we are generally unaware of the thousands of NRMs that exist, but keenly aware of the few anomalies that ended with spectacular violence, especially Jonestown and the Branch Davidians. With this caveat, when new religious movements do engage in this kind of violence, millennialism is nearly always one of the factors that precipitates it.

In her book How the Millennium Comes Violently, Wessinger examines a number of episodes involving NRMs and violence including the mass murder/suicides at Jonestown (1978), the Branch Davidian siege (1993), the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway (1995), and the mass suicides of Heaven’s Gate (1997). Each of these groups was centered around some expected collective salvation. That goal––whether it entailed Aum Shinrikyo’s goal of transforming the world into a paradise called Shambhala or Heaven’s Gate’s goal of transcending the Earth in a spaceship and joining “The Level Above Human” (TELAH)––was their all-consuming purpose, or what theologian Paul Tillich called “an ultimate concern.” There is no evidence these groups began with the assumption that violence would be necessary to achieve their goals. Instead, they resorted to violence after their initial plan for achieving their millennial goal failed. Based on her study of these cases, Wessinger suggested that if the members of a millennial group “perceive themselves as being persecuted by outside cultural opponents, and furthermore perceive that they are failing to achieve their ultimate concern, this will be a group that is likely to commit violent acts in order to preserve its ultimate concern.”

This pattern fits QAnon as well. Initially, QAnons were assured, “nothing can stop what is coming” and told to, “trust the plan.” But when Trump was defeated in 2020 and The Storm never came, the movement seemed to become more amenable violence. QAnons led the charge on January 6 when over 140 officers were injured. It remains to be seen how many QAnons will become further radicalized. Some may leave in the movement, others may lose interest in The Storm and invest their hopes in other prophecies like the miraculous appearance of John F. Kennedy, Jr. at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and for still others QAnon may be a gateway into a darker milieu of militia groups and domestic terrorism.

Like many religions, at its core QAnon is about hope for a better world. To bring people out of QAnon, the hope invested in prophecies like The Storm or fantasies of a second civil war must somehow be replaced with hope that they can have satisfying, meaningful lives under existing democratic institutions. This can be a tough sell: democracy is slow, frustrating, and involves compromise whereas millennial scenarios––at least in the imagination––are perfect and can happen instantly, like a thief in the night.

One finding from studies of conversion to NRMs is that new members often form “affective bonds” with their new group. In other words, they care about other members of the group and believe the other members care about them. Forming these affective bonds can often precede expressing belief in the group’s ideas. Therefore, to bring our fellow Americans out of QAnon, it will help if we share affective bonds with QAnon believers instead of driving them into the arms of aggrieved conspiracy theorists. This is a difficult task, but it will be even more difficult if we brand them as “brainwashed cultists.”