I never thought that Qanon would disappear when Trump lost the 2020 election. I am not just saying this to suggest that I am always right, but I thought what would happen would be a slow decline of influence, following the pattern of other conspiracy theories.
Take, for example, conspiracy theories in the United States during the 19th century concerning Roman Catholics – including the fear that, once a Roman Catholic politician was in office, they would have a divided loyalty between the US and the Pope. According to that particular panic, the Vatican had secret plans for the US, which would be enacted via Catholic politicians. Elements of this fear could be seen during the election of JFK, with some people still claiming that Kennedy would be a puppet of the Pope – but by the time Kennedy was up for election, the conspiracy had lost almost all of its popularity and power, and so it didn’t really have a great deal of influence.
However, just because it wasn’t hugely influential, that doesn’t mean it vanished entirely; to this day, we still see references to the Vatican and Jesuits in other conspiracy theories, and some groups still believe that the Pope has nefarious plans for the US. Chick Tracts – short evangelical books created by Christian fundamentalist Jack T. Chick – still espoused this belief well into the 21st Century, and in that conspiratory universe, all of the evil in the world is more or less the fault of the Vatican or Jesuits.
In the same way, the QAnon conspiracy theory was unlikely to disappear the moment Trump lost the election – in the best case, it would slowly fade in relevance, becoming a background detail in other conspiracies, before eventually, some decades from now, finishing as a narrative believed only by a handful of small groups.
That would be the best-case scenario; instead, what actually happened was that the movement managed to adapt itself to the loss of its leader and spiritual figurehead, and that adaptation merits some investigation.
The continuation of the QAnon conspiracy can be attributed, at least in part, to “Patel Patriot”, the creator of the Devolution theory, and as such the individual responsible for providing the most widely cited theory among QAnon circles as to why Trump lost. The theory was born on Patel Patriots Substack blog on July 2nd, 2021, and it posits that Trump knew all along that the election was going to be stolen, and so, using making use of emergency laws, managed to enter a state of “devolution”.
According to this theory, Trump is actually still in office, and everything we’ve seen since has been a continuity of his government. It’s rather like what would happen during a nuclear war: the US president and all of its staff would head to the bunkers, and from there they make use of a vast array of legal decrees made for just such an emergency in order to continue governing in exceptional circumstances. Crucially, this emergency scenario would require cutting out congress and the Supreme Court, because in such a dire national emergency there is always the chance that neither would be able to be rescued or that communications with either would be lost. Under this devolution scenario, the president would be able to hand over control of various areas of the US to local authorities or the military, who would govern for themselves.
All of these laws and frameworks do actually exist, and they can actually be implemented… but this emergency legal apparatus was designed as a response to a catastrophic situation happening, such as a nuclear strike by the Soviet Bloc. These laws and procedures were designed to create a continuity of government given the prospect of a war that could cut all communications to the head of state at any second. How then does this apply to a US presidency losing an election?
Patel Patriot has a simple answer to this which is summarised in his first part of the Devolution series:
None of this added up. As I’ll show you in this series, Trump knew that the political establishment was using Covid-19 and the resulting push for mail-in ballots to cheat on a massive scale. Was Trump really going to let them get away with it? Was Trump going to allow America to fail without putting up a real fight? Did Trump just walk away after having his second term so obviously stolen from him?Patel Patriot, Part 1
Patel, and the larger conspiratory community, couldn’t see how Trump could have possibly lost the election, especially if (as he claimed) Trump knew in advance that the election would be stolen. Rather than accept the reality – that Trump lost, and that his false cries about election fraud were a pre-emptive excuse for his own failure – Patel started to look for alternative explanations, and in doing so began to see patterns that weren’t there. By combining decades-old Cold War legal provisions with some of Trump’s last-minute appointments, Patel concluded that Trump had been putting the ‘right people in place in order to secure this continuity of government in the emergency situation Q had been hinting at for so long.
Still, how could Trump enact these old Cold War laws, if they were intended to only be used during a nuclear conflict and communications blackout? Patel mistakenly believed that such devolution provisions could be applied far more broadly, and he also believed that COVID-19 was an act of war by China against the US, in order to make Trump lose the election (a belief that Trump had not been shy to encourage). If the US really was at war, all those continuities of government laws could now be applied. According to Patel, this provided a legal explanation for what was really happening: that Joe Biden has no power and is just a puppet with no real authority or control because the true president is still Donald Trump.
Unsurprisingly, this theory is filled with holes. It doesn’t explain how and why, according to QAnon believers, Biden has managed to crash the US economy and disrupt the amazing plans Trump put in place – if, according to this theory, Biden has no real power, how could he have such a catastrophic effect on anything in the US? Equally, if the Democrats really did lose the election and steal it, definitive proof would have appeared in days, and all of the judges would have ruled in favour of Trump – yet no judge has found claims of stolen elections to be credible, even though Trump appointed a large number of them. It doesn’t add up.
Followers of this theory rarely spend any time putting these pieces together; instead, they speculate about how Democrat policies will give a taste of the real agenda of the Globalists and Deep State, and when Americans experience that they will reject it and call for Trump to be returned to power.
This awakening of the ‘sheeple’ – the regular folk who don’t yet know the real truth about the world – is central to the narrative; when it comes, the US electorate will demand the return of Trump and his policies, at which point he will reveal the real truth about the stealing of the 2020 election, along with the deep corruption of the Democrats. So, while it is usually the goal of QAnon believers to wake up the people to how amazing Trump really is and how evil his enemies are, under this theory that eventual widespread acceptance is actually a condition of Trump’s return – he can’t step back out of the shadows until the American electorate demands it.
Previously, it didn’t matter what the US population thought or what the QAnon followers did – Trump would win regardless, and the evildoers would be destroyed. But the theory has evolved, and now it requires that ‘patriots’ make the first move. The ‘good guys’ can’t do it all by themselves, it’s now the task of every QAnon follower to awaken the maximum number of people, to change elections law to make sure fraud doesn’t happen again, and to actively participate in local politics. Under this evolved QAnon narrative, followers must essentially establish a grassroots political movement to welcome Trump back into office… whether that’s in 2022, or in 2024 when he inevitably runs again.
As the QAnon theory has evolved, we’ve seen it flip the narrative for conspiracy believers: instead of sitting back and participating in a “meme war” to awaken the sheeple, they now have to do something real: running for office or getting involved in politics for real. To the outsiders, this might appear funny – generating, as it does, countless videos of people screaming about the Deep State in a local municipality debate – but the narrative those people bring is becoming increasingly central to the American conservative worldview.
The election was stolen, they believe, so stronger election laws must be enacted, and that means running for local office… the upshot of which is that congress is packed with diehard supporters of Trump. The conspiracy and paranoia are being weaponised by a Republic party beholden to Trump, committed to ensuring that the conservative movement stays in his hands.
The Devolution theory provides a reassuring picture of how to ensure that Trump never loses; everything is going alright, but true ‘patriots’ need to put in some work in order to make sure it continues. It explains why it at least appears that Trump lost, while also providing a clear and optimistic blueprint for what to do in the future. By analysing and understanding the Devolution theory, we can see how the QAnon movement is adapting and evolving. Now it is trying to go truly mainstream and to establish grassroots all around the US in order to welcome back their saviour.