A year after pizzeria shooting, bogus ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory lives on

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Hillary Clinton appeared at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music Thursday night, where she sat for an onstage Q&A with author Jennifer Weiner in order to promote her campaign memoir, What Happened.

Near the end of the event, however, a heckler stood from his seat and yelled at Clinton, “What about Pizzagate”?

Most of the audience at the event was an enthusiastic throng of Hillary die-hards. Before this incident, Clinton had talked about what went wrong for her in 2016, as well as the “karma” inherent in the fact that several prominent men in media who have been particularly tough on her, including Matt Lauer, have been felled in recent months by sexual harassment scandals.

“This is how deep the rot goes,” Clinton said as the man was escorted out of the auditorium. The heckler was identified as Howard Caplan, a local gadfly who has made news over the last two years for a series of incidents, including storming the Christmas Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul to yell about Pizzagate:

Before I explain what the Pizzagate “theory” is for those who don’t know or have forgotten, I have to start with this: it’s completely made up. None of it is true or even plausible. To say that its wild claims have been definitively disproven is being too generous, since that makes it sound like there were any facts worth checking in the first place.

The Pizzagate conspiracy theory grew out of Wikileaks’ release of John Podesta’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. Due to some bizarre code system — in which “cheese pizza” meant “child pornography” and “sauce” meant “girl,” or something — some of the more creative people on Twitter and Reddit decided that the Democratic Party elite was running a child trafficking ring out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington. D.C.

One year ago today, a man named Edgar Maddison Welch opened fire in Comet Ping Pong and was arrested. He claimed he was there to “investigate” for himself whether the child porn rumors were true. While no one was hurt in the shooting, Welch was sentenced to four years in prison.

Soon after, Alex Jones of InfoWars, a leading proponent of this “theory,” disavowed it in the face of a lawsuit. I assumed that these developments, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s election loss, would mean the Pizzagate theory that petered out. I assumed wrong.

I covered the Hillary Clinton event for the local news website Philly Voice, where I’m a contributor. Since my Twitter handle was included in the story’s social media promotion, I got quite a few interesting responses from folks who still, against all available evidence, haven’t given up the ghost on Pizzagate.

One respondent thought she had a “gotcha” when she pointed out that Clinton is “now on record that she is not involved in child trafficking/pedophilia [and] This will be played over & over when she is fully exposed.” Another asked how Hillary could use the word “rot” to describe “someone she was running for office in order to serve,” — because I suppose it was on her to be nicer to the guy who had just falsely accused her of child molestation, and we know that Donald Trump is nothing but polite to those who didn’t support him. And another asked me, incredulously, how I could possibly call Pizzagate “debunked.”

Conspiracy theories play an odd but shockingly durable role in American political life. Our nation’s history, after all, is full of assassinations and scandals that lend themselves to wild, freelance theorizing. Jerry Cohen, a college professor of mine who long taught a course on The Idea of Conspiracy in American History and Culture, used to explain conspiracy theories as a function of our natural inclination to ask “cui bono?” (“who benefits?”) and take things from there.

Most conspiracy theories aren’t true, and the ones that are true tend to get exposed relatively quickly. Watergate was a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true, and at this rate history may say something similar about collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

But Pizzagate is different even than most conspiracy theories in that it is based, without exaggeration, on absolutely nothing. It’s not true, there’s zero reality-based evidence that it’s true, and no one involved would stand to gain if it were true. Cuba, the Mafia, and the CIA may not have really been involved in a plot to kill John F. Kennedy, but you could argue that they may have had a motive to do so. But when it comes to Hillary Clinton and John Podesta carrying out child trafficking in the middle of a presidential campaign, there’s no there there. There’s nothing so much as resembling a “there.”

That the disgusting, hateful lie that is Pizzagate has persisted is perhaps not surprising, especially considering that the leading proponent of the equally bogus theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States is now the president. But at some point, especially a year after a man literally took up arms based on that lie, the truth has to start to matter, doesn’t it?