When I first found 27-year-old Ashley Vanderbilt’s TikTok account, it only had a handful of followers. During the pandemic, Vanderbilt lost her job as an office manager in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which left her with plenty of time to browse QAnon conversations on Telegram and read conspiratorial QAnon posts on Facebook. By October, she was far down the rabbit hole thanks to a family friend, and she even eventually brought one of her cousins in with her. “I’d talk to a family member of mine, and he’d send me articles. I started believing those,” Vanderbilt told me in January. Indeed, before President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Vanderbilt’s TikTok was almost completely nonpolitical — her posts mostly featured her fiancé dancing while vacuuming, her 4-year-old daughter singing karaoke, and some axioms from her therapist. Engagement on her posts hovered around 20 to 40 likes, and not much more.
But the day before Biden would be sworn in as the 46th president, Vanderbilt posted something different. “I have two crazy theories,” she said in a video on Jan. 19. “My first one is tomorrow, everything goes down… I’m sure [Biden] will be arrested, along with thousands of Hollywood elites and politicians. We need to get our country back to the republic it used to be over a hundred years ago.”
The next day, she posted again from her front porch. “Well, I was wrong. And it sucks. I have spent the better part of the day crying,” she said, puffy-eyed. “I think I need to spend some time on personal development and time in prayer… I can’t go through that heartbreak and disappointment again.” From there, sometimes multiple times a day, Vanderbilt began posting videos explaining how she got wrapped up in QAnon in the first place, and what she was doing to deprogram herself from beliefs that clearly didn’t end up being true. “I thought that before Kamala [Harris] would be taking her oath, getting sworn in, I thought the emergency broadcast system would go across our TV and everything would go black,” she told me over the phone at the end of January. “I thought everyone would be arrested and then Trump would be back. Everything would go into martial law.”
For most of the time that Trump was in office, Vanderbilt believed in many QAnon-sanctioned mass delusions, from Pizzagate (the belief that the vast majority of the Democratic Party is engaged in a pedophilia ring) to Tom Hanks and Lady Gaga being baby-eaters (“Lady Gaga was wearing a red dress, and [Q supporters online] were saying Nancy Pelosi wears red shoes a lot. Those people wearing red is supposed to symbolize the blood of those children,” Vanderbilt told me). She had been so sure that nearly everyone at the inauguration, from Lindsey Graham and George W. Bush to the Clintons and the Obamas, would be arrested. (Garth Brooks, she believed, would have been spared.) But once Biden was inaugurated without incident, it finally became clear to her that the tenets of QAnon that she had believed were all untrue.
Vanderbilt isn’t alone: The inauguration seemed to be an inflection point for a number of QAnon believers who thought Donald Trump would return to office on Jan. 20. In theory, the siege on the Capitol a few weeks prior was just the beginning of the Q storm, sure to end with martial law and a second Trump term — despite his election loss.
Even after realizing that Kamala Harris would not be arrested and Donald Trump would not be moving back into the White House, Vanderbilt still wasn’t even clear on what she had really believed. It was through her then-modest TikTok following that she started to understand what she was a part of. “Everybody on TikTok was telling me it was a cult, or how I’m feeling, getting out of it, is the same as someone who’s getting out of a cult,” she said. “I don’t even know where to start. Where do I start looking? For what? There’s just so much.” The inauguration hasn’t signaled an end to QAnon, just the beginning of a new chapter for its believers.
I spoke with four former and current QAnon believers over the last few months — after Biden’s inauguration, during Trump’s second impeachment trial, and again after March 4, a date Q supporters believed would signal Trump’s return to office. Vanderbilt was the most deprogrammed of all the people I interviewed. Kirk, 37, and Luke, 39, a gay couple based in Texas who asked to go by their first names, still believe in portions of the movement even though Q’s predictions did not come to pass. And Mark, 51, based in upstate New York, who asked for a pseudonym to protect his family’s privacy, is still trying to pull his wife out of QAnon, a community she remains firmly rooted in.
Q seems to have disappeared for now. Whoever they are, they’ve largely abandoned their base after riling them up for years — and have not posted new “Q drops” since 2020. But the people who believe in Q are wrestling with whether to keep on believing or to abandon a cause that, for some, became core to their identities. Some might be deprogramming themselves, while others are cherry-picking the parts of the movement they want to hold on to. But the people I spoke to say their feelings have changed drastically from when they were following the inauguration to when Biden’s stimulus checks were being sent out. Vanderbilt has been using the weeks after QAnon’s disintegration to read more, learn more, talk to more people, and question absolutely everything she’s ever known. “It’s kind of a little bit of a do-over,” she said after the inauguration. “I’m going to learn the world again.”
When Vanderbilt and I spoke for the first time, she wasn’t even yet able to think about a Biden presidency; she was still processing how little she understood about her own political ideology. “My dad always said our family is Republican,” she said. “We’re a Republican family and that was it.” The first time she voted was in 2016, for Trump; when we spoke, she still believed that the Dominion voting machines used in the 2020 election were owned by Nancy Pelosi’s husband. (I told her that wasn’t true and she immediately took me at my word.)
Vanderbilt told me she never read any news sites, never fact-checked anything she read on Facebook, and that her only news sources were a QAnon Telegram chat and Jarrin Jackson’s Facebook page. (Jackson is a right-wing Christian, sympathetic to QAnon beliefs, with more than 50,000 followers.) “He goes live every night, and I watched him every night like it was church,” she said, adding that she followed Jackson to a Telegram chat with more than 10,000 people. “A couple days before inauguration, I was getting ready to watch Jarrin live and I had this idea in my head that I’m treating Jarrin’s [Facebook] Live as if it’s church. I go to church every Sunday. It was a weird feeling. Am I putting Jarrin above God?”
In fact, Vanderbilt was so protective of Jackson that it wasn’t until our final call that she would let me use his name in this piece. She just wanted to make sure his privacy was protected, even after she recognized some of his content to be untrue — it’s tough to go against your preacher. “It’s just this feeling that I’m putting more faith into these [Facebook] Lives than into the prayers that I’m sending out every night,” she said. “That would be my biggest regret. I’m always worried I’m not good enough. I just feel like I’m inadequate and I’m terrified to not go to heaven. It’s shaping how I’m looking politically.”
Anxiety is a big theme in Vanderbilt’s life, in or out of Q. Before the inauguration, she was perpetually on alert for some unspeakable horror to occur. How can you live day to day as a mother of a young child without thinking — believing — that your child might get snatched up by someone in one of those Nancy Pelosi–run pedophile rings? Mass delusions are, above all, exhausting. “When you’re in [the rabbit hole], you’re constantly stressed, you’re always afraid, because you think everything is bad,” she said. “I’m glad I’m out of that. Just compare how I feel living with my day-to-day life today versus last week, and it’s totally different.”
The first time I spoke with Vanderbilt, she wasn’t yet ready to liken her involvement in QAnon to being a member of a cult, despite the fact that many cult experts think that’s exactly what it is. “What you see with QAnon is a pattern of coercive persuasion, deception, deceptively recruiting people, radicalizing them online, very much like ISIS and al-Qaeda, which I regard as destructive cults,” said Rick Alan Ross, a cult deprogrammer and the executive director at the Cult Education Institute. “In my mind, the only difference between QAnon and al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the leader of QAnon is an enigma. Other than that, it fits.”
But that kind of assessment can feel a little too neat — after all, not all Q followers are built the same. They don’t even necessarily agree on the same set of “facts” or the same desired outcomes. Before the inauguration, Vanderbilt was just hoping for a second Trump term at any cost — she wasn’t aware that much of Q is rooted in racist and antisemitic rhetoric. “There are individuals that are radicalized by QAnon that are people that already had deep-seated feelings about minority groups and Jews,” Ross said. “A lot of what QAnon talks about is recycled conspiracy theories that echo things like The Protocols of the [Learned] Elders of Zion.” The Learned Elders of Zion is a text that claimed to be a Jewish plan for world domination, purportedly drawn from meetings held at Basel, Switzerland, in the late 1800s, at the time of the First Zionist Congress. Though it’s been labeled a hoax, it’s a text that antisemites have used as justification for their own rhetoric for decades. Similarly, conspiracies around baby-eating, devil-worshipping, and pedophilia among people in power have all been used as antisemitic canards in the past — much of the QAnon canon of delusion is just following a long-established tradition of making your enemy look like an amoral, fiendish, satanic monster.
But then there are people like Mark and his wife, who were both largely apolitical before his wife’s involvement in QAnon, though Mark’s wife was always interested in things like the paranormal, ghosts, and extraterrestrials (which have their own conspiracy theory history). Mark’s wife — who did not know he was speaking to me for this story — is a social worker in her mid-forties and started exploring QAnon after getting sucked into the mass delusion of Pizzagate in 2016. The rest of the family, including their two adult children, refuse to discuss her beliefs with her. “I don’t really know what happened,” Mark told me in our first interview. “I try to talk to her a little bit but she gets mad. Nothing ever really comes true, of course. It seems like there’s always another plotline.”
In 2008, the couple voted for Obama. Now Mark’s wife believes in some of the most fringe ideas from QAnon, namely that after the Civil War, the United States ceased being a country and became a corporation through a loan the US received from the Vatican. She also believes that the 2020 inauguration was supposed to be the day that Biden was arrested for a variety of crimes (many against children), and the day that the United States would be restored as a country — not a corporation — under President Trump. (This doesn’t take into account, of course, the fact that Trump would have also been an illegitimate president, for which Mark does not have an answer.) She still believes that most of the people in Washington, DC, including politicians on both sides, are currently under house arrest, waiting for Trump to return.
Mark told me that while he was sick of hearing his wife talk about Q, he was mostly concerned about their 10- and 12-year-old children, who were only attending class twice a week and were now hearing a lot of their mom’s theories. “She doesn’t tell them the bad things, the pedophilia and all that,” he said. “She just says Biden’s never going to be president. I tell them, ‘Listen, the whole world knows that Biden is president. Just don’t go to school saying that. Keep it to yourself.’”
Mark laughed when he explained his wife’s theories, but it was always with some bitterness and even embarrassment. It’s hard to explain that someone you love deeply believes in a version of the world that simply does not exist. “I love her to death,” he said. “I don’t want to leave her. I just want her to face reality.”
Kirk and Luke, meanwhile, seem to fall somewhere in between Vanderbilt’s aggressive online rehabilitation and Mark’s wife’s refusal to recognize a Biden presidency. They also don’t fit the mold of Q follower: They’re gay, and Kirk is a libertarian while Luke is more left of center. (Kirk jokes that he red-pilled his partner into QAnon.) “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached with someone assuming that I was a Democrat because I’m gay,” Kirk said.
When I first talked to Luke and Kirk after Biden’s inauguration, they were resolute in feeling that Q was no fraud, despite the mass delusion’s more fringe elements. “Do Luke and I believe there’s pedophilia in the government? Yes.” Kirk said. “Do we believe that it’s, you know, satanic, with people doing things around fire pits? No.”
“In my mind, the only difference between QAnon and al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the leader of QAnon is an enigma. Other than that, it fits.”
What Kirk and Luke do believe, however, seems complicated. They’re still Trump supporters, still likely to vote for him if he runs in 2024, still completely unwilling to accommodate an argument that Trump was ever a racist (they say his words were merely taken out of context) or that QAnon is rooted in antisemitism (they never heard Q say anything offensive about Jews). But they’re at a crossroads, seemingly in the throes of detaching from a community they feel has become unwieldy, while still very much believing in its basic tenets. Numerology, for example, continues to be important to them. “Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, and one of the things you’re going to see around President Trump a lot is the number 17,” Kirk said. “In one of his rallies, he [said] he has only been to Washington, DC, a total of 17 times.”
“Normally, someone would have said, ‘Oh, I’ve been about 15 times, or I’ve been about 20 times,’” Luke added. “He could’ve just rounded the number, but 17 is far from that.”
Luke and Kirk are both largely isolated in their homes, partly by choice — “We’re almost reclusive,” Kirk said — and partly because of COVID-19. Both of them are immunocompromised; Luke has cerebral palsy and relies on an implanted drug pump to relieve his muscle spasms, and Kirk has panic disorder, fibromyalgia, and spinal damage. Throughout quarantine, their limited socializing has been spent online, dissecting Q drops with others. Even after the inauguration, they were still following Q crumbs, looking for signs that Trump would return: Luke told me that the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue jacked up its prices for the night of March 4, around $1,300 per room, up from a nightly average of $500. But once it was clear Trump wasn’t coming back, they were at least willing to give the new president a chance. “I want to be fair,” Kirk said. “I’m not spitting venom just yet. We’re still waiting to see what happens. But so far, he’s signed 17 executive orders today that canceled essentially four years’ worth of work.”
“I feel like we were let down, period. Because if the plan was to root out corruption at every source within our Capitol, yes, that failed.”
The two of them are mainly trying to process a feeling of abandonment: by Q, by Trump, by the larger QAnon community. “I feel like we were let down, period. Because if the plan was to root out corruption at every source within our Capitol, yes, that failed,” Kirk said. “If the plan was to deliver the House to the other side and lull us all into a false sense of security and complacency, that was a success. But I consider that a failure.” At the time, Trump had left the White House with little word to his supporters, or to people online who thought that either Trump or Q would give them next steps.
It felt, on some level, like a betrayal — especially after all Trump’s voters had done for him. “We’ve been lied to for so long. All of us had,” Kirk said. “I blame President Trump for not shutting it down and not saying, when he was asked on several occasions, ‘What about these QAnon people?’” Even Kirk — an avowed Q follower — thought Trump let his possible connection to the community go on unconfirmed for too long.
“He should have said, ‘They’re my supporters. I love them. But they have a few things wrong,’” Kirk said. “If he would have just said they have a few things wrong, people could have dug deeper. But we were told, ‘I’m either Q or I’m with Q. So run with it.’” To be clear, Trump never claimed to be Q, and in the past he often played coy about the movement, once saying, “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
When I spoke to Vanderbilt a second time, in mid-February, she had gone through a kind of seismic shift in her own understanding of QAnon. Her TikToks, meanwhile, were exploding online. She had thousands of followers who posted hundreds of comments on her videos. She was posting multiple times a day, answering questions and often apologizing for her involvement in a movement she now understood to be racist, antisemitic, and ultimately full of misinformation and lies. She addressed queries about how Q works and how she was working her way out of the community, trying to save others from getting red-pilled themselves. She also started doing more and more interviews on the subject, dialing in remotely to CNN and The View. “I’m hoping I’m doing something good by doing them,” she told me. “But it’s exhausting. Apparently I never get over the nerves.”
During our second interview, Trump was going through his second impeachment trial, and Vanderbilt said she hoped to see him convicted. She was also concerned about Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a member of Congress and QAnon believer, saying, “I don’t think anyone that supports QAnon should be in government.” Since I spoke with Vanderbilt, a resolution to expel Greene from Congress has been introduced, saying that she “advocated violence against our peers, the speaker, and our government.” She has also been kicked off all House committees.
But Vanderbilt’s biggest shift was that she was suddenly fact-checking everything. “I did fact-check that Biden doesn’t have an island like Epstein,” she said, half laughing. “I looked on Associated Press for that one. If I hear something now, and someone’s telling me something, or they send me a video, I will google it and see if I can find an AP or BBC or Reuters article about it. I’ve watched CNN news a couple times.” As we spoke, I could hear her livestream of CSPAN in the background. “It’s crazy!” she said. “But I just don’t want to fall for any lies ever again.”
Vanderbilt is also contending with things she’s never thought about before, namely her white privilege. “I didn’t pay attention to any of that, and I know that I’m never going to know what it’s like to live a life of a minority, ever. I can say all day long I’m not racist,” she said. “But that’s not good enough. I want to educate myself and see what I can do and how can I have these conversations and be more open-minded.” It was through her friends on TikTok that she learned how Trump’s lone term in office negatively affected people of color; one such follower was a Puerto Rican woman whose family was on the island during Hurricane Maria in 2017. “Trump was so insensitive to them. He said cruel things about them, which I would never expect anyone to ever say that, but let alone a president,” she said. (At the time, Trump claimed that the hurricane wasn’t a “real” catastrophe before complaining about how giving aid to a US territory was putting the budget “out of whack.”)
Before Vanderbilt started posting more on TikTok, she wasn’t even aware of the Trump administration’s scandal over immigrant children being separated from their families at the border and put in cages. (Which, in all fairness, is still very much happening under a Biden administration.) “It’s horrible,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone taking my kid away from me.” She thought about the last time she left the country — for a trip to Haiti — and how easy it was for her to stroll back through the country with her white skin and American passport. “To be honest, I never thought I had white privilege,” she said. “I sound so ignorant to say that I had no idea. I’m just now seeing that.”
While Vanderbilt was in the midst of an actual awakening, Mark is still waiting for his wife to have one of her own. He told me she had gotten quieter about her beliefs in the weeks since the inauguration, though not any less sure of them. “She came to me a couple weeks ago and showed me two different pictures of Biden, and in one his earlobes are attached, and the other, they aren’t. She’s saying there’s a doppelgänger [of] Biden.”
He laughed while his 6-month-old grandson squirmed in his arms — he was babysitting for the day. “I said, ‘Well, maybe he got a facelift.’”
“Find another star to wish on. Find something else to put your faith in.”
“The storm didn’t come,” Mark said. “She still thinks something’s going to happen. On Super Bowl Sunday, she said, ‘Keep an eye on the television at 6:30 and tell me if anything happens.’ That’s when kickoff is. I think she thought there was going to be a blackout and it was going to be the emergency broadcast.” Her theory was that since so many people watch the Super Bowl, it would be a good time to broadcast the “truth” about the government. “[My kids] were like, ‘Well, what were we supposed to look for, Dad?’”
Mark believes his wife simply doesn’t want to admit defeat, and he hoped that Trump would be impeached so he wouldn’t be able to run for office again and they could put this all behind them and just move on. “I do have those feelings of, am I going to have to get divorced? Is this ever going to change? But I do love her. I’m hoping it’s just a phase,” Mark said. “Next thing, it’ll be ’24 and Trump will be running again. I’m hoping it distracts her.”
Though Luke and Kirk still believe in big portions of Q, and though their positive feelings on Biden seemed limited to the possibility of a stimulus check, they still wish other Q acolytes — like Mark’s wife — would just let go of any possibility of Trump returning to office during a Biden term. They know the storm isn’t actually coming. “Find another star to wish on,” Kirk said. “Find something else to put your faith in.”
There are always dates floating around when it comes to Donald Trump’s resurgence, or Q’s promises of governmental reform (which often predict that Trump will become president again and a Democrat-run sex ring will get busted). Even now, some Q followers posit that the real date of reckoning was March 20. Or maybe March 21. Or April 1.
The one I heard the most frequently when speaking to Q followers over the last few months was April 20 — which is also Hitler’s birthday, coincidentally or not. This, too, is a long-held characteristic of a cult; there are always arbitrary dates to work toward. “By no measure are we done with [Q],” Ross, the cult deprogrammer, said. “Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the end of the world at least three times; the last time was in the ’70s. There were people who sold homes, cashed out insurance policies, that made their plans in life based on the expectation that the end of the world is coming.”
Vanderbilt believes that it’s still good news if Q followers are chasing dates; at least it tells us exactly where they’re at. “When there’s no more date to look forward to, that’s when they’re going to start switching their language,” she said. “That’s when they’re going to start making plans to overthrow the government. It’s going to be a Civil War, or a Revolutionary War, all over again. That makes the insurrection a drop in the bucket.”
“I think in the near future there will still be Q followers,” Ross told me, adding that it’s even more likely that these people will just move on to a new movement instead of disavowing Q altogether. “What you see in QAnon is not an original movement, but a composite of themes from other groups that precede QAnon.”
Ross thinks that the Sovereign Citizens, an armed extremist group rooted in racism and antisemitism, is likely where many Q followers will land. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Sovereign citizens believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement, or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes.” Who knows — Trump still has yet to formally announce what his next move is, be it television network or political party. But Ross wants to be clear: Trump is no cult leader. “He’s not interesting enough, he’s not that smart, he’s not that well read. I just don’t see him as deliberately brainwashing people.”
Even if QAnon, in the incarnation we once knew it, might be inching toward an end, that doesn’t mean its followers have dispersed. QAnon followers might just be dormant for now, waiting for the right leader to bring them back to the surface. There will always be new conspiracies to uncover, and for now, many of them center around the COVID vaccine.
Mark’s wife, for instance, has effortlessly moved on to new conspiracy theories, largely focused on tech and pharmaceutical companies. “Because everything’s falling apart, they’re turning everywhere: Bill Gates is trying to be like Thanos and kill half the population,” Mark said. “They can regrow limbs and there’s all this stuff that big tech has kept from us.” Mark hasn’t gotten the COVID shot — he said he doesn’t get vaccines for “stuff that you can get better from”; his wife is completely unwilling to get it, believing that the shot may hurt her.
Meanwhile, their eldest son — who has asthma — is still getting the vaccine, even if his mother thinks he has a 50% chance of dying from it.
Luke and Kirk, meanwhile, are both ready and waiting for the vaccine. Of all the people I’ve spoken to about QAnon in the last few years, they’re the most complicated to explain. They believe in some of it and outright reject the rest. It’s hard to boil down their beliefs because a lot of them aren’t even about Q. They just don’t really like the Democrats — but they also don’t like big swaths of the Republican Party. (Don’t get them started on “Lyin’ Ted.”) They were also quick to accept defeat. “Things have passed,” Kirk said. “Look forward. Stop looking at what could have been. I stopped a long time ago watching for dates, because they don’t pan out. But if they do, you’re pleasantly surprised instead of being disappointed.”
“I love her to death. I don’t want to leave her. I just want her to face reality.”
Vanderbilt has embraced this wish to look forward. But despite having one of the quickest trajectories out of Q, she still has quite a personal mess to clean up. She’s now terrified for completely different reasons, and plagued with guilt and doubt — guilt over her involvement in something she now sees as racist, and doubt over whether she’s actually right this time. “What if I’m wrong?” she said. “What does next year at this time look like? Like, if crap hits the fan and they end up being right, now I’m going to be a target. It’s just, it’s shaken me.”
Vanderbilt has recently stopped posting about Q on her TikTok account — which is now private — and fitted it with a new username. Instead, she’s posting more about her mental health, namely the panic attacks she’s been experiencing. It’s unclear if she’s experiencing symptoms from some underlying mental health issues she’s always had — including PTSD from a serious car accident she and her daughter were in three years ago — or if it’s part of recovering from Q. “Am I making myself a target to the people that are angry in QAnon?” she said. “I mean, I’m just readily available. They know where I live.”
She’s spending her time figuring out the right medication combination for her — as well as sorting through her feelings about the vaccine. (Unsurprisingly, they all seem to be pulling from the same conspiracy theories about vaccines, which are also definitely untrue.) “I’m not afraid that there’s a chip in there,” she said, which is exactly what Mark’s wife thinks and is also a long-standing conspiracy theory about nanotechnology supposedly being in vaccines. Vanderbilt’s current goal is to work through those anxieties to eventually get to a place where she can, comfortably, get the shot. “I don’t know why, I still feel like I would die if I got it. For some reason, I’m relating ‘vaccine’ and ‘death’ together,” she told me. “I feel like a crazy person.”
Mostly, she wants to focus on her life after Q instead of dwelling on the past. She even got her job back. But her quiet work of rehabilitation continues. “I hope it doesn’t make me a hypocrite,” she said. “I’m interviewing and I’m, you know, being an example and stuff. And it’s like, sometimes I wonder if they think, Oh, she’s, she’s completely free and clear. She’s of sound mind. And like, I’m still struggling.”
She still has no idea whether she’s a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent. She’s still struggling to determine what media figures and outlets she can trust. All she knows for sure is that she survived something brutal — in fact, she made a coffee tumbler for herself with a slogan printed on the side, to remind her for the rest of her life: “I SURVIVED CULT 45.” ●