A Fake Conspiracy for Our Fevered Age
Walk in to Comet Ping Pong, a neighborhood restaurant about two miles from the White House, and you don’t think," Satanic den." You think, "How long will I have to wait to get a table," and "Geez, there are a lot of kids in here."
Comet may be a family pizzeria in a leafy neighborhood but it’s still in Washington in a political year. And that was enough to turn this hole-in-the-wall into an obsession of the alt-right, a loose collection of white nationalists and sympathizers who have ardently supported President-elect Donald Trump.
A Reddit page topped by a President Trump logo is rich with charges that Comet is the red-hot center of a Democratic sex ring that operates under the code name, you guessed it, “pizza.”
Responding to a thread of slurs about a pizzeria cum child-sex-trafficking ring, a Reddit user asked of an alt-right-friendly news site: "@BreitbartNews OMG -- do you know what this means?! Am I supposed to be mad or hungry?"
The answer is mad, and thousands are. Comet owner James Alefantis got wind of trouble when his Instagram account got clogged a week before the presidential election with violent messages like, “I will kill you personally.” He wondered why until he found out that on social media sites like 4Chan and Reddit and Facebook, and in the Twitter feed of Breitbart News, and as far away as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, he’d been accused of being in cahoots with Hillary Clinton and her minions kidnapping, molesting and trafficking in children.
The spark for the attack was the cache of e-mails stolen from John Podesta, chair of Clinton's campaign, and posted by WikiLeaks. The buttoned-up Podesta is one of the few people whose life could be laid bare and yet reveal little more than a taste for good Italian food. Still, the alt-right picked up on the fact that some of the e-mails talked about a fundraiser at Comet and praised the pizza that Alefantis baked for Podesta’s birthday. A friend of Podesta’s sent him an e-mail asking if he wanted a handkerchief that had “pizza-related” drawings on it, whatever that means, returned to him.
It was a small leap in today’s mash-up of news, fake news and craziness from the handkerchief to the headline, “How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.” Never mind that Alefantis has never met the Clintons. As close as he got was dating David Brock, a conservative turned Clinton defender who runs the conservative-bashing website Media Matters. They broke up five years ago.
You’d think the plot would have to thicken to keep the story going but it doesn’t. Amateur sleuths dug up property tax records, took pictures of suspect bathroom doors and described posters of people playing table tennis as pornographic. Videos of children at birthday parties were grabbed off YouTube and posted to show that there were nefarious goings-on. One Reddit conspiracist proved the conspiracy thus: “There are two main common denominators that keep popping up. Kids and Pizza. We are dealing with the Dark Lord here, friends.”
Nothing turned up to suggest that Podesta ever did anything but enjoy a slice or two, or that Alefantis is more than a victim of another attempt to smear the Clintons.
In its 10 years on Connecticut Avenue, Comet has garnered consistently rave reviews on Yelp and Facebook -- until the rumors started circulating. Now Yelp has to post an “Active Cleanup Alert” pointing out that not every review since “Comet has been in the news” is coming from “personal consumer experience.” Facebook issued no such warning, and it now carries more than 80 recent one-star reviews. Through word of mouth there’s been pushback and Comet defenders have retaliated with 100 five-star ratings.
Last weekend, I stopped by to talk to Alefantis. Comet was crowded with the usual mix of pizza-loving families and children playing foosball in the back. But it wasn't as crowded as usual. Maybe a few people found it an appetite killer to read on Yelp “AVOID THIS SATAN WORSHIPING BUSINESS!!! Pedophilia is the name of their game!!!"
Alefantis says a newer business might be doomed by the controversy. But he’s lucky to have customers across the political spectrum and he’s a fixture on the block. Before the uproar, he celebrated by hosting an open bar and pizza feast for everyone in the neighborhood.
The election may be over and Clinton soon a memory but the intimidation hasn’t stopped. On Monday, there were two protesters on the sidewalk in front of Comet. After much cajoling, they agreed to join Alefantis inside. Disappointed that they couldn’t find confirmation of the horrors they expected within, they left saying, “This place is a real dump.”
The Oxford English Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as its word of the year. In a post-truth world for the past two weeks, all eyes have been trained on Trump Tower, searching for signs of what our nation’s future is going to be like with a new president who has enthused the alt-right. The harassment of Comet is one sobering clue. For his part, Alefantis wants to make America great again by returning to the simple truth.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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