Satan sits at the edge of a continuum of crazy, and Donald Trump has moved us a lot closer to it.
That should be the takeaway from the bizarre news that an armed man motivated by a conspiracy theory—#Pizzagate—went to the pizzeria in question to liberate nonexistent children who were not being held hostage in its nonexistent basement, pending their trafficking in a nonexistent Satanic pedophiliac sex trade, involving Hillary Clinton’s no longer existent presidential campaign.
Most coverage of the episode has focused on the phenomenon of “fake news,” in which utterly baseless stories run on bogus news sites and are then shared on social media, generating ad revenue for the sites, and causing further degradation of our national political discourse.
This coverage has been misleading and misinformed.
First, this wasn’t fake news at first. In fact, it was an unsubstantiated Reddit post put up on Nov. 4 on the subreddit r/The_Donald, peopled by Trump supporters. In other words, this wasn’t a fake-news story that some cucks shared on Facebook; it was a story planted in the heart of Trump’s fan base, and which spread from there.
No wonder Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, promoted the insane conspiracy theory on social media. It was part of the water in which Trump supporters were swimming.
The original post was subsequently deleted, but users on Reddit and Snopes have reconstructed the details of the original conspiracy theory, a stew of homophobia, panic, and paranoia among Trump supporters. More than anything, the #pizzagate tale is an eerie reminder of the “Satanic Panic” and child-molestation scares of the 1980s—and before that, of mob panics from colonial witch-burnings to the lynching of blacks, the blood libel against Jews, and McCarthyism.
According to the conspiracy tale, Comet Ping Pong pizza is a hub in a secret network of pedophile sex trafficking (false), coordinated by Clinton campaign leaders, including John Podesta (false). The original post noted that its owner, James Alefantis, was once the romantic partner of David Brock, the ex-conservative author (Blinded by the Right) and pro-Clinton advocate (true), and subsequent ones said that Alefantis’s Instagram was filled with sexual images of minors (false). The pizzeria, a hangout for D.C. Democrats (true), was said to have pornographic pictures in the restroom (false), secret doors (false), coded symbols for pedophilia on its menu (false), a downstairs “killing room” where children were kept (false) and sexual imagery throughout its artwork (false). Snopes.com’s reconstruction of the original post says that “the artists that work for and with the business also generate nothing but cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex, and of course pizza.”
Finally, the ‘Satanic’ element was added later on by fake news sites, as the #Pizzagate myth was linked with every sex scandal in the world, including allegations that British TV host Jimmy Savile, who actually did abuse minors (true), was part of a “Satanic ring” (false) and chanted “Hail Satan” when he abused his victims (false).
Now, is this insane? Of course. But is it different in kind from Birtherism, Trutherism, Climate-Trutherism (i.e., the allegation that climate change is a Chinese hoax and the Western media is in on it), or the stories about Vince Foster, or from Clinton Cash, or The Clintons’ War on Women, that regularly ran on Breitbart.com? Or, for that matter, the baseless claims that Hillary Clinton knew more about the Benghazi attacks, and deleted emails to cover her tracks?
No, Pizzagate is not different in kind; only in degree. Like the others, it alleged a shadowy conspiracy, aided by “the media,” involving the most heinous crimes. Like other conspiracy theories, it made use of Russian-hacked emails—this time those belonging to John Podesta—which indeed mentioned pizza many times. (That’s not surprising, since Podesta was running a campaign filled with hungry staff people, but according to the theory, “pizza” was actually code for pedophilia.)
But we’ve been here before. While Reddit, fake news, and the magnifying power of the Internet is new, wild conspiracy theories involving child abuse and Satanism are not. During the 1980s, when, as will soon be the case again, a revanchist populist occupied the Oval Office promising to roll back recent cultural changes, dozens of cases of “Satanism” were alleged—often including sexual abuse—and yet no serious Satanic crimes actually took place.
This period became known as the “Satanic Panic.” Beginning with (false) allegations of ritual abuse at a California preschool, the Panic took on anything having to do with kids, including child-care centers, schools, heavy-metal music (which did have Satanic imagery), and Dungeons & Dragons. Bogus therapists who “discovered” childhood traumas, cops, preachers, pundits, even Oprah warned that Satanic rituals were being performed in the woods out back, and that children were falling prey.
Sound familiar? It should. Pizzagate and the Satanic Panic echo earlier scares: McCarthyism (“there’s a commie in your bathroom!”); the witch trials, with their focus on illicit sexuality and adolescent girls; lynchings of black men accused of making sexual advances on young white women.
These kinds of panics are always about children being compromised, because children represent a lost innocence, threatened by a new world order: the multiculturalism of 21st century America, the sexual revolution, postwar transformations in American life, the New World, Emancipation. And they exist not in a vacuum, but on a continuum of paranoia. Pizzagate, in other words, is just a somewhat more extreme version of Steve Bannon’s harangues against coastal elites undermining “real” Americans.
Bannon is not, as some have alleged, a conventional bigot or anti-Semite. His populism is far more dangerous; like, yes, German fascism, but also like contemporary Russian and other right-wing nationalisms, it alleges a “real” American volk that is being undermined by a class of elites. Listen to his 2010 address to a Tea Party rally: one part Bernie Sanders economic populism, one part Vladimir Putin cultural conservatism. Watch his batty documentaries (or better yet, read this Politico summary of them). You’ll learn that Western civilization is under attack by 1 percenters, multiculturalism, illegal immigrants, the liberal media, Hollywood, New York—anything that isn’t white Middle America.
Or move a half-step to the less-insane, to Trump’s calls to “Second Amendment people” who will stop Hillary Clinton, or to the Tea Party. This is the standard “paranoid style in American politics,” dating back to Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn. Move a step closer to the center, and you’ll find the Christian Right arguing that our religious country has been hijacked, or Pat Buchanan. A step closer, and you’ll find only slightly extreme Republicans, and their funders in the Koch, DeVos, Coors, Scaife, Olin, and Bradley families.
In short, the Satanic allegations of Pizzagate, like those of the 1980s Satanic Panic, sit at the extreme edge of a paranoid continuum—with the Comet Ping Pong gunman perhaps at the extreme edge of that edge.
But one thing is quite new. As everyone has noticed lately, the White House is now only a step or so away from that edge with Bannon and Flynn (and his son, who is even nuttier) calling the shots. Never in the history of our country has executive power been in the hands of the kinds of populist-paranoid conspiracy theorists who normally populate the underbelly of Reddit and, of course, Breitbart.
For all its lurid detail, Pizzagate is not really that new. What’s new is who believes it.