Pizzagate, Satanic Panic, and the Power of Conspiracy Theories

Pizzagate, Satanic Panic, and the Power of Conspiracy Theories

In my forthcoming book Republic of Lies, I spent a lot of time thinking about the primacy of conspiracy theories in America, and talking to people involved in a variety of conspiracy communities. In this section, I attended a rally for Pizzagate believers across the street from the White House, and talked to them as they waited for David Seaman, a star in the movement, to take the stage.

“We need an investigation,” a woman named Angel told me patiently. A casino worker in her mid forties, she’d driven all the way to DC to hold a neat hand-lettered sign featuring a picture of a Comet staff member’s toddler daughter, her hands taped to a table with heavy white masking tape. “We can’t call people innocent without an investigation.”

Given that she believes the federal government is involved in the sex-ring cover-up, who should do the investigating? I asked her.

“We need an unbiased investigator,” she said, just as patiently.

Like a lot of people I spoke to, Angel was fairly certain there are no longer any children in the basement or back rooms of Comet Ping Pong.“I’m sure they’ve cleaned themselves up to the point where if you, look, there’s nothing there,” she told me.

“They use the word ‘conspiracy’ as a catchall to delegitimize any questions about anything,” complained a woman standing next to Angel wearing a black “Benghazi Matters” T-shirt and an NRA hat. Refusing to tell me her name—I was instructed to call her “LaLa”—the woman went on, vacillating between rage at the press and a slightly irritable but basically kind desire to set me on the right path.

“This is why Trump has emerged as someone people trust,” she said. “He calls things out as he sees them. And maybe these conspiracies aren’t just theories, they’re actually truths? That have been going on since the beginning of time?”

Amen,” Angel responded forcefully. “Having sex with babies and children, they say it gives them power.” She shook her head. “They get what they want in life.”

She produced a list of primary sources: an Oprah episode from the 1990s about a woman who was sexually abused by a cult virtually her whole life, a Dr. Phil episode from earlier in the week, and the “pedo rings” in England, by which I think she meant the very real sex abuse scandal uncovered a few years ago implicating some of the most famed presenters at the BBC. There’s absolutely no denying that sex trafficking is real, we agreed, that child abuse is sadly common, that rape and sexual violence are constant, daily realities for a lot of people, especially women and children.

It was at that point that I noticed a man in his late thirties hovering very close to us, filming us with his phone and talking quietly to himself; I realized after a moment that he was livestreaming, telling his viewers what he was seeing. When LaLa mentioned Trump, he laughed out loud, a short, sharp bark.

“Controlled opposition,” he said loudly, pointing the phone at LaLa. “Controlled. Opposition.”

“What?” I said.

“What?” LaLa and Angel asked.

“Controlled by what?” LaLa inquired.

“Nothing,” he said. And then, to me: “I’ll talk to you about it later.”

He couldn’t quite help himself, though. “You love Trump,” he told LaLa. “You love David Seaman.” The crisp NRA hat, the Benghazi shirt—it all looked to him as if she was a plant, sent to the rally to discredit the movement. (Later, in an online video dissecting the event, he zoomed in on her purse, which looked barely used. A sign that it was freshly bought and contains a hidden camera, he speculated.)

“Why follow David Seaman?” he said to her.

“I don’t know who that is,” LaLa responded. “I’m some kind of plant? That’s insane. I don’t even know her.” She pointed at Angel.

“I came with my friend over there,” Angel said. They looked at him together, baffled and offended.

“All right.” The man’s hands were shaking so violently I was concerned he was going to drop the phone. Then, to his viewers, “They’re telling me I’m wrong, guys.” He didn’t sound convinced. He drifted away.

David Seaman took the stage to cheers. He was tall and thin and mild-looking, with sandy brown hair and big glasses and a blue hoodie, like a Facebook employee or your company’s quietest IT guy. “According to Newsweek, I’m a mentally unstable con man,” he told the crowd.

They booed sympathetically.

“There’s a man here who’s been recording me all morning, who attacks me on YouTube,” Seaman said next. “I can’t think of anything lower.” He pointed dramatically at the man who was filming LaLa, Angel, and me. His name, it turned out, was Nathan Stolpman, and he ran a conspiracy-oriented podcast called Lift the Veil. He and Seaman were mortal enemies, each of them accusing the other of being plants, sent by God knows who.

With a rush, much of the crowd surrounded Stolpman.

“What’s your endgame?” someone yelled in his face.

“You’re protecting child molesters, bro!” screamed a tattooed, heavily muscled man with the sides of his head shaved.

“Asshole!” an older woman cried. They were filming and photographing Stolpman, pressing in on him from all sides. The potential for violence seemed high; I could almost feel the air thicken.

Then, as if responding to a signal I couldn’t hear, they stepped away. The tension dissipated. The rally continued. Stolpman was smiling slightly, looking calm, still holding his phone aloft. Onstage, Seaman dropped to his knees and led a prayer for the abused, captive children. (Like me, Seaman is Jewish; I briefly wondered where he got into the Christian habit of kneeling in prayer.)

After Seaman and Wolfe finished their exhortations to arrest the unnamed molesters, anyone was free to speak. A winding and sometimes ragged group of people took the stage, one after another, for hours.

There were impassioned pleas against child abuse, rants against CIA mind control, heartrending personal tales of sexual assault and child neglect, a guy who talked about the family court system being biased against dads.

“The American Bar Association is behind all this child theft!” a man yelled at one point, to considerable applause.

For many of the people in attendance, the only hope in this morass of baby-abusing corruption lay in the New York Police Department, who they believed wasn’t beholden to the same pedophilic interests as the feds. They trusted that the NYPD was investigating Weiner, whose sexts with that fifteen-year-old girl could be the key to bringing the entire child-molesting house of cards crashing down.

I wandered the crowd, getting a sunburn in the crisscross pattern of the shirt I was wearing, sweating through my coat, trying to figure out what I was hearing. As chaotic and bizarre as the rally was, the common thread was clear enough: abuse, secrecy, and cover-ups, a government rife with pedophiles, and a media that refused to take a word of it seriously. A minor-league neo-Nazi podcaster was roaming the crowd, yelling intermittently at the stage about “Jewish ritual murder,” but he was there alone and nobody was taking him seriously. LaLa pulled me aside and assured me the Nazi, too, was a plant to discredit the Pizzagaters.

Pizzagate adherents break down into a number of subgroups. Among them are survivors of child sexual abuse who know firsthand the pain of that kind of violence. There’s also what I think of as the chaos arm: people like Mike Cernovich, brought in by the far right, prone to pushing anti-Democratic conspiracies (and who saw the lack of coverage by the mainstream media as evidence of their having been bought off by the Democrats). And then there are deeply religious Christians, often evangelicals, to whom Pizzagate is proof that the Devil is real and working hard on Earth.

If all this is beginning to sound unpleasantly familiar, it should. Medieval historian Michael Barbezat pointed out that Pizzagate looks a lot like the “nocturnal ritual fantasy,” a phrase coined by Norm Cohn, another historian: a belief that shadowy groups are gathering at night to plot the overthrow of society while participating in the ritual abuse, torture, and/or murder of innocents, usually children.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was popular to charge supposed heretical groups with meeting at night to solidify their bonds of friendship with orgies, black masses, and baby murder. Medieval Jews, Barbezat writes, were persistently accused of conducting rituals involving the abuse of children, beginning in England in the early 1150s.

“The belief that Jews tortured Christian children, which has come to be known as the blood libel, often featured a sexual component as well,” he explains. “In some versions of the blood libel accusation, kidnapped Christian boys were reportedly circumcised against their wills as depicted in a woodcut of the martyrdom of Simon of Trent in 1475. The Jews supposedly used the blood from this circumcision and other tortures to make the matzos for Passover.”

In all such accounts, the nocturnal ritual fantasy is used as justification for violence against the suspected group, Cohn and Barbezat write, a way of quantifying its wickedness in terms that justify any means to stop it. Writer and activist Chip Berlet calls the fantasy “coded rhetoric” meant to incite “scripted violence.”

Accordingly, accusations of ritually killing Christian and Muslim children have been used to justify mass executions of Jews across Europe and the Middle East. Claims of blood libel persisted throughout the twentieth century, intensifying with the 1903 publication of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (the forgery of minutes of a secret meeting of hand-rubbing Jews plotting world domination).

The Protocols and the idea of ritual killings or blood libel are cited even now. In 2013, to pluck one disturbing example out of dozens, Khaled Al-Zaafrani, founder of the Egyptian Justice and Progress Party, declared, “It’s well known that during the Passover, they make matzos called the ‘Blood of Zion.’ They take a Christian child, slit his throat, and slaughter him. Then they take his blood and make their [matzos]. This is a very important rite for the Jews, which they never forgo… They slice it and fight over who gets to eat Christian blood.” At the Pizzagate rally, then, the neo-Nazi yelling about “Jewish ritual murder” was making a connection between Pizzagate and the blood libel, although he might not have known the historical and cultural roots of what he was doing.

Pizzagate also looks chillingly like a revival of a more local paranoid fantasy, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s, when dozens of childcare workers, teachers, and parents were accused of engaging in the ritual abuse of children. The panic was partially set off by the publication in 1980 of a book called Michelle Remembers, cowritten by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, his patient and eventual wife. The book purported to be a chronicle of Smith’s recovered memories of horrific Satanic ritual abuse in the 1950s, and it initiated some two decades of procedures in which self-proclaimed experts guided vulnerable patients through “recovering” similar memories.

Satanic Panic was an irresistible blend of sex, black magic, and crime, and stories about it soon pervaded the culture: huge media outlets from Oprah to 20/20 ran straight-faced stories on Satanic ritual abuse. (Angel had referred to the Oprah episode in our conversation, remembering it as the story of a woman abused by a Satanic cult for generations. I later figured out that the specific episode she was likely referring to recounted the case of a woman named Laurel Rose Wilson, who under the name“Lauren Stratford” claimed to have been used as a “breeder” in a Satanic cult, producing babies for sacrificial rites. Her stories were deemed unfounded by police, investigative journalists, and the Christian magazine Cornerstone, and her books on the subject were pulled from print.)

Heavy metal was also seen as a culprit and a signifier of Satanic activity, as was the game Dungeons & Dragons. Three teenage boys in Arkansas, the so-called West Memphis Three, were convicted on the flimsiest of evidence of the ritual murder of three little boys; one of the teens, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death, and all three would have died in prison had their case not been covered by a popular documentary series, which attracted intense celebrity support. The West Memphis Three were eventually released from prison after close to twenty years, as were several other people—daycare workers, babysitters, teachers—falsely accused of child abuse.

In the case of Pizzagate, the demonic aspect of the plot was enhanced by an additional thread discovered in John Podesta’s hacked emails: “spirit cooking.” Podesta and his brother, Tony, were purportedly attending Satanic rituals conducted by the artist Marina Abramović where guests dined on semen and blood consumed on “earthquake nights.”

“WIKI WICCAN: PODESTA PRACTICES OCCULT MAGIC,” yelled the far-right aggregation site Drudge Report when the telling emails came to light. Alex Jones dubbed spirit cooking “black magic,” and Mike Cernovich weighed in with “sick stuff” and “sex cult.” Abramović’s repeated rebuttals that “Spirit Cooking”—the title of an art installation—was just that, art, and that nobody ate semen, blood, or anything else unsavory, had no impact. Those who bought into spirit cooking as a real demonic activity are certain that Abramović and the Podestas and everyone else involved in this Satanic sex-and-death cult will face their judgment, sooner or later.

These outbreaks of religious hysteria recur so persistently in American life for a reason: they are, like so many conspiracy theories, a response to moments of social change and perceived societal fracture. Satanic Panic allegations first arose during a moment in the 1980s of intense concern over the number of women in the workforce and a subsequent rise in “latchkey kids” and paid caregivers.

Pizzagate emerged during the 2016 elections, a time when Americans were re-litigating, to an exhausting degree, our beliefs, our vision of America, and our sexual ethics. The paranoid idea of sexual predators hiding in the highest echelons of power was not so paranoid; Pizzagate, though, spun it through a nexus of faux black magic, imagined ritual, and nonsensical accusations that were somehow both unbelievable and yet, for a lot of people, unbelievably powerful.

From the book Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power by Anna Merlan. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Merlan. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

Editors Note: David Seaman was briefly an intern at Jezebel in 2007. In 2018, he sued the Daily Beast and freelancer Jennings Brown for defamation; Brown, who was dismissed from the suit in December 2018, now works at Gizmodo. The suit against the Daily Beast is ongoing.

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