Possessed.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Behind the Venomous Witches of 'Pizzagate'

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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In the 1980s, Americans were persecuted, prosecuted and jailed on charges of committing horrible crimes against children. The details were often fantastical. Children were raped with knives in Massachusetts, yet somehow their wounds went unnoticed by doting parents. In suburban New Jersey, parents came and went to drop off or pick up children at day care without ever once walking in on the factory-scale abuse that, later, some came to fervently believe had been perpetrated there.

Like the 17th-century New England witch trials to which these cases were ultimately compared (tragically too late for some), these were instances in which the familiar and mundane were transformed into the diabolical and grotesque. Lives were ruined in the most spectacular fashion.

Eventually, overzealous prosecutors, incompetent social workers and gullible reporters figured out that they had been doing just about everything wrong. Protocols changed. Parents got a grip. The hysteria faded.

Yet it always returns. Indeed, it seems an altogether new kind of hysteria visited itself last week upon Comet Ping Pong. That's the neighborhood pizza joint in Washington D.C. that was shot up by a man who had traveled from North Carolina to investigate a conspiracy every bit as imbecilic and irresistible as the incantations of Salem.

The premise of the conspiracy has a familiar ring: The pizza shop, along with neighboring stores, was supposedly used by a vast child sexual-abuse ring. But the details of this story, and the response to it, are very different from the episodes of the 1980s.

The story, which was disseminated on social media and fake news, targeted Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair, John Podesta. Here's how Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman described it:

This strange and convoluted conspiracy theory, which also involves allegations of occult rituals, has its origins in false accusations about the Clintons that began spreading in late October. The original theory claimed that the Clintons and other government figures were involved in a global human trafficking and pedophilia ring.

When suburbanites in the 1980s thought children were being abused, they turned to the police, hospitals and social-service system. The conspiracy-mongers who convinced themselves that horrible things were taking place in a Washington pizza parlor turned instead to Reddit and 4chan and right-wing blogs.

The authorities are the dog that doesn't bark in this investigation. Some of the bogus stories mentioned an "FBI insider" as the source of information, but somehow the FBI and local police are completely AWOL, allowing a lurid pedophilia ring to operate -- with the apparent knowledge of the entire internet -- a few miles from the White House.

The imaginary abuse of the imaginary children continued, you see, because everyone is insanely vile and corrupt. Everyone, that is, except our pure and true and vigilant internet heroes.

It takes about six hours to drive from Salisbury, North Carolina, where 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch lived, to Washington D.C., where Comet Ping Pong is. Many have concluded that it was inevitable that someone like Welch would pack his guns and ride.

It probably was. But Welch, who brought a rifle into Comet Ping Pong, fired it and sent patrons scattering, is the exception in this story. He is obviously a dangerous knucklehead (or what's known in the gun-rights movement as a "good guy with a gun.") But he actually looks better than most of his peers, who trafficked in the same idiocy without ever getting up from their laptops.

Many of the conspiracy-mongers engaged in what the Washington Post described as "weeks of death threats and online attacks" intended to terrorize local merchants whose stores were near enough to Comet Ping Pong to be swept into the fever. “We’re going to put a bullet in your head,” said one caller to the owner of a nearby pizza restaurant.

Welch or someone else would have to rescue the tortured kids. The righteous right-wing trolls were too busy dumping hatred on Clinton for preposterous crimes, or spewing venom at random shop owners about whom they knew nothing. In the spirit of the movement, their pathetic, self-serving lies didn't end when Welch was arrested. They were simply adapted to incorporate the latest entertaining twist.

A sizable cohort of Americans is so drunk on cheap propaganda that they have the reasoning capacity and political acumen of a wino face down on Skid Row. They have a media system that fuels them. A political party that often affirms them. And, soon, a president who trafficks in the falsehoods they cherish, and perhaps even some White House senior staff who share their ugly delirium. A political structure sustains this witching hour. That's the scariest thing of all. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net