Tina Nguyen and Mark Scott
POLITICO . Thu, January 21, 2021, 12:39 AM
The pardons went to Democrats, lobbyists and rappers, with nary a “patriot” among them. The mass arrests of Antifa campaigners never came. The inauguration stage at the Capitol, full of America’s most powerful politicians, was not purged of Satan-worshipping pedophiles under a shower of gunfire. Even the electricity stayed on.
The moment the clock struck noon on Wednesday, Jan. 20, it was over — and the extreme factions of Trump’s diehard base were left reeling.
Inauguration Day 2021 was supposed to be a culminating moment for the legion of online conspiracy theorists and extremists who have rallied around the now former president. But the lengthy list of prophecies they’d been told would eventually happen under Trump’s watch never came.
In the days leading up to Trump’s departure from office, his online followers watched with horror as his pardons that were supposed to go to allies and supporters instead went to people who were inherently swampy: white-collar criminals convicted of tax fraud, family friends, Steve Bannon, even Democrat Kwame Kirkpatrick.
“So just to recap: Trump will pardon Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, high profile Jewish fraudsters … No pardons for middle class whites who risked their livelihoods by going to ‘war’ for Trump,” fumed a user in a white supremacist channel on Telegram, the encrypted messaging service that has gained thousands of new subscribers since the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.
Conspiracies flew — out of the mouth of Fox News host Tucker Carlson — that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had blackmailed Trump out of pardoning Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, further infuriating MAGA hardliners. Trump’s anti-immigrant base, who’d been with him since his initial run for the presidency in 2015, flipped out when he granted amnesty to tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants.
“Please vote to convict,” Ann Coulter tweeted to GOP senators.
And the QAnon community, a group that had desperately hoped Trump had one final ploy to stay in power and fight against the nebulous forces of darkness in Washington, erupted in despair as Joe Biden became president of the United States. It got so bad that one prominent QAnon online forum threatened to ban any users who posted negative content.
“There’s a lot of grief and confusion in Q world over the plan seeming to fizzle out, and feeling as if Q abandoned them,” Mike Rothschild, a disinformation researcher working on a book about QAnon, told POLITICO. “But I think that will very quickly turn into determination to continue down the path they’ve committed to.”
Taken together, the reactions across MAGA internet reveal a mosaic of anger, denial and disappointment that the former president let them down in his final days.
Without their leader to direct next steps, the MAGA coalition — the extremist militants, the hate groups, the conspiracy theorists, and the stans — is starting to turn on itself.
“The movement is self-driving now,” said Shane Creevy, a disinformation researcher at Kinzen, a data analytics firm that tracks online falsehoods and works with social media companies to counter potential threats. “With Trump gone, the head has been decapitated, but that doesn’t mean this is going away. The big question is what happens next?”
Since the Jan. 6 riots, which resulted in five deaths and scores of arrests nationwide, more mainstream right-wing influencers like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino scaled back their support for potential challenges to the results of the November election. But rather than calming their millions of online followers, the efforts have produced a backlash, with posters calling these high-profile personalities traitors for not fully supporting insurrection.
Conspicuously missing was any direction from Trump.
Without his Twitter account, the ability to communicate with his base was muted. The polished videos posted on the White House’s official Twitter account were greeted with suspicion. But in the build up to Inauguration Day, Trump supporters, QAnon acolytes and extremist militias still, at a minimum, held out hope that the outgoing president would stick it to the establishment on the way out the door.
On encrypted message boards and digital apps, followers labeled Jan. 19 as “national popcorn day” in the hopes that they would have a front-row seat to the mass arrests of Antifa campaigners and, possibly, Trump imposing martial law in an effort to turn the election.
As the hours ticked closer to Biden’s swearing in, the online chatter became more tense, with different online users questioning the loyalty of others, while increasingly getting desperate that “The Storm,” or the violent overthrow of deepstate agents, would never materialize.
In white supremacist Telegram channels—some of which have tens of thousands of followers—the anger soon spilled over into outright hatred toward Trump, as well as a call-to-arms to the outgoing president’s more mainstream followers that they had been misled.
“Let this be a wake-up call for QAnon followers and normies,” one post read just ahead of the inauguration. “No one is coming to save you. No one man can defeat this evil marxist machine.”
Amid accusations and counter-accusations, different parts of Trump’s base began to turn on each other. QAnon supporters lashed out at militia groups, claiming they were part of the deep-state plot to undermine Trump and that the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill were part of an elaborate coup attempt, either by parts of the federal government, Black Lives Matter campaigners or, bizarrely, China. They even turned against certain QAnon celebrities — Lin Wood, Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn — for hyping them up.
Elsewhere, mainstream MAGA voters ridiculed QAnon groups’ unbending belief that Trump was the savior — even as he boarded Air Force One for the last time on his departure from the White House.
“It’s all been a con from the start. Promises made and not kept,” one user posted on TheDonald.win, a website that has been flooded with conspiracy theories and calls for violence in recent weeks, in reference to the QAnon movement. “You sat on your butt waiting for someone else to do what everyone should have taken care of themselves.”
Several members of the QAnon community scrambled to suggest that Biden was now going to execute the conspiracy theory’s underlying beliefs, or even that the incoming president had switched faces with Donald Trump. But in a sign that Trump’s reign was truly over, former 8kun administrator Ron Watkins, one of the only people who allegedly knew the identity of the mysterious Q, published a post on Telegram surrendering to the inevitable.
“We have a new president sworn in and it’s our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution regardless of whether or not we agree with the specific details regarding officials who are sworn in,” Watkins wrote.