There were no mass arrests, no martial law and no “Great Awakening” on Inauguration Day.
Instead a new president pleaded for unity and an end to the assault on truth and democracy. The first woman, Black, South Asian daughter of immigrants became vice president.
This was not what QAnon, the followers of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, had been promised. They’ve been devoted to the notion that Trump was secretly saving the world from a global sex-trafficking ring of Democrat, child-eating Satanists, and that their God-king would remain in office. The rise of this cult-like, alternative world is perplexing enough from the outside.
But for those whose loved ones have fallen directly into it, it’s also painful and isolating.
Kayla Elliott, of DeSoto, said her mother-in-law was a hardcore liberal when she met her 18 years ago. Now, it’s as if a switch flipped.
“She has MS and doesn’t work. She sits and listens to Fox News and goes down rabbit holes on the internet,” Elliott said. After her mother-in-law tried to convince her that Democrats were aborting full-term babies, Elliot completely disengaged with her. She said QAnon has given people’s latent racism a place to bloom.
“I didn’t think it would happen to people I know, who would claim they don’t have a racist bone in their body,” Elliott said, who is Black and married to a white man.
Audrey Brown, of St. Louis, is grieving the loss of her relationship with her grandparents, who helped raise her. She unfollowed them when they started sharing racist memes and conspiracy theories on Facebook. She has tried to keep in touch through phone calls but has a hard time talking to them because of their outlandish beliefs.
“It absolutely gutted me to have my grandma publicly shame me on Facebook,” she said. “I spent my childhood with them. ... It’s like mourning someone who has died, but they’re still there.”
She partly blames Facebook algorithms, which show users content they are likely to agree with and introduces them to more extreme sites. Social media sites have played a role in radicalizing some of these adherents.
“They prey on people who are alone,” Brown said. With more people isolated and adrift during the pandemic, Brown says she has also seen stay-at-home moms find a community and sense of purpose in believing that they are “saving children.” Some may not even realize that QAnon purposely infiltrated mom groups on Facebook with messages like #SaveTheChildren to recruit followers, without ever revealing their QAnon connections.
When Brown’s young daughter asked her why they don’t see her grandmother anymore, she explained that “Nonni is believing things that aren’t safe for us. I don’t want to expose you to things that might hurt us.”
Melanie, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said her father is a civilian contractor, her mother a government employee, and both heavily invested in “deep state” conspiracy theories. She visited them a couple of years ago with her then-3-year-old daughter. Melanie put her toddler down for a nap in their bedroom. The little girl discovered a gun under the pillow.
“My heart stopped,” Melanie said. Her father is convinced the government will try to confiscate his guns. Their basement is full of ammunition. Melanie hasn’t been back to their home since.
“We’re pretty much not speaking to each other,” she said. It’s been unsettling for her to watch educated members of her family believe that “an insider” is leaking information about the Pope and Hillary Clinton trafficking children.
“I’m willing to give up my family if it means living a life that aligns with my values,” she said.
Others prefer to try to maintain some kind of connection with their family while searching for a way to help bring them back.
“When the insurgency happened, it really scared a lot of people,” said Jess, who asked to be identified by her first name. She said people worried about their loved ones getting caught up in real-life consequences of disinformation campaigns. Jess’ father sends her emails with deeply conspiratorial warnings. She posted on her Facebook that people alienated from their families in this way needed a support group. Several people reached out to her privately for help.
She’s created an online group that meets through Zoom.
“We are all just trying to process how the people we love got where they are,” she said. “The larger question is, how do we prevent this from happening to more people?”
She said some of the indoctrinated parents have gone as far as to believe their own adult children are part of a pedophile ring if they challenge their beliefs.
Jami Collier, in St. Louis, began tracking the sites where some of these ideas take root after losing her relationship to her grandparents. She is trying to figure out how their brains have been short circuited to accept such illogical ideas. She tried to challenge some of the extreme things she sees posted.
“The Great Awakening will happen,” one poster responded to her comment. “Each of the true patriots have a list of far-left liberals who are on their agenda to get rid of.”
But now that their fevered dream political fantasies haven’t come to pass, there is a sliver of hope. Perhaps those estranged from people they love have an opportunity to break through the programming.
“We focus on what’s within our control and what isn’t,” Jess, the organizer, said.
Her father still believes Communists are plotting to takeover the country.