It’s often been said that Donald Trump defies satire — his real life persona is so exaggeratedly ridiculous already that any attempt to exaggerate it further for comedic effect tends to fall flat. Now, it appears the same principle is applying increasingly to the storylines of everyday life in Trump’s America. After all, where else could you find a story about a libertarian dickhead with a gun showing up to a random Washington, D.C pizza restaurant to investigate “rumors” of a Hillary Clinton-led child sex abuse ring in the basement? A restaurant that, it should be noted, doesn’t even have a basement?
Just like pretty much everything else that’s happened since Trump won the Presidential election last month, this story is absurd, but it’s not amusing. The story is being referred to online as “pizzagate” — which is the first and last time you’ll read that term on Flavorwire, because the “-gate” suffix implies there is some sort of controversy, some uncertainty, some sort of suppressed truth being exposed. This is not a gate. Hillary Clinton is not running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant. There is no uncertainty about this. The whole stupid story is, objectively, complete and utter bullshit. It’s so ridiculous it could be a satire dreamed up by a creative writer to illustrate how deranged some of Trump’s most ardent fans are — except, of course, it’s real.
None of the real life facts, of course, mattered much to our gunman, one Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina. Welch presumably had no time for the multiple reports disproving this crazy theory — who can trust the mainstream media???? — because he prefers to get his news from Infowars. And so he girded his loins, grabbed his assault rifle (yay! America!) and drove across the country to “self-investigate”, as he later told police. He marched up to the restaurant, popped off a few rounds in a room full of blameless families trying to eat their dinner, and was arrested for his trouble. Thankfully, no-one was hurt. Because he is a white man, Welch will probably get off with a slap on the wrist and be free to wave his assault rifle around again in the support of some other stupid idea again soon.
The term “post-truth” has been thrown around a bit after Trump’s victory. It’s important, however, to bear in mind exactly who understands what truth is, and who deosn’t. The perpetual teenage nihilists of 4chan, who started the pizza conspiracy theory in the first place, know it’s not true — but they don’t care. They think it’s hilarious to posit a ridiculous theory and watch it take hold. The fact that it affects the lives of innocent people — even before the tragicomic Welch turned up with his gun, the restaurant’s business has suffered, and they’ve had to deal with a deluge of harassment, including phone calls and threats from other morons who believe the world is being run by lizard people — is either irrelevant or part of the fun.
If you can endure subjecting yourself to Reddit, have a look at these threads discussing the “controversy,” because they’re a case study in how a man with a gun ended up at a humble pizza restaurant. About half the posts are people clearly egging each other on, trying to one-up one another by adding more details to something that is self-evidently absurd. And the other half are from gullible, deluded types who clearly believe the whole thing. What could possibly go wrong?
Once a story like this gains enough momentum, it takes on a life of its own. It jumps from Reddit to right-wing sites that publish heavily biased or flat-out fake news, the sorts of sites with “freedom” in their name that you see turn up on Facebook every so often because your crazy cousin shares their #content. (The latest version of the idea, hilariously, is that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by the Clintons because he was investigating the story. If only.) And, due to Facebook’s well-documented inability or unwillingness to stop giving fake news sites the same weight in its sharing algorithm that it gives real media outlets, the story reaches people who’ve already demonstrated a fondness for similar content. People like, oh, I don’t know, Edgar Welch.
It doesn’t really need pointing out that the mix of cynical manipulative types and deluded angry men with guns is dangerous. If nothing else, this whole sorry affair demonstrates how easily people like Welch can be dog-whistled into real-life action. (Especially when members of Trump’s government-to-be actively encourage the spread of conspiracy theories in a startling display of political cynicism.)
And if this is what happens when online far-right nihilists are bored and decide to dream up a ludicrous story about Hillary Clinton and child sex, the implications of what might happen when the power to mobilize the likes of Edgar Maddison Welch is targeted deliberately are obvious: sooner or later, someone is going to be killed. Welcome to the Trump dystopia.
Correction: This piece originally stated that the pizza restaurant incident happened in Chicago, and that the gunman was from Northern California. In fact, the restaurant is in Washington, D.C., and the gunman is from North Carolina. We regret the errors.