A Moral Panic for the Age of Trump

“Pizzagate” is the latest in a long line of child-sex-ring myths.

A general view of the exterior of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, U.S. December 5, 2016.

Exterior of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2016.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Over the past six weeks, some people have become convinced that Hillary Clinton and other prominent members of the Democratic Party establishment are participating in an international child sex ring. It began in October, when a baseless rumor about emails allegedly discovered on Anthony Weiner’s laptop made its way through Twitter and 4chan and conspiracy-theorist websites. Eventually, self-deputized online investigators began to comb through the emails of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, which had been published by WikiLeaks. Finding only campaign talk and recipes, the investigators concluded that innocuous terms used in Podesta’s emails were a code: “pizza” for girl, “ice cream” for male prostitute, and so on. Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that had hosted a Democratic fundraiser, was identified (also baselessly) as a headquarters for sex-ring activities. The conspiracy theory acquired a name, “Pizzagate.”

On Sunday a man wielding an assault rifle entered Comet Ping Pong and opened fire. He said he was there to investigate Pizzagate. 4chan users are confident that the man is part of a false-flag operation being carried out by the establishment to discredit their investigation.

The Clintons have been accused of almost everything over the course of their 30-plus years in politics, though maybe never of something so cartoonishly villainous. But if child-sex-ring conspiracy theories are new ground for presidential politics, they are not so for the United States. This kind of story has a history stretching back at least 30 years. Judging from that history, it’s a story that won’t be stamped out in the near future.

The most famous version of this story is the day care and ritual-abuse hysteria of the 1980s (which I described in my book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s). During that decade, nearly 100 people—most of them child care workers—were wrongly convicted of committing grotesque sex crimes against children, and many more were falsely accused or charged. In southwest Los Angeles, teachers at the McMartin Preschool were thought to have abused around 400 children in secret tunnels underneath the school. Just outside Minneapolis, two dozen people were accused of organizing sex-abuse parties involving games of hide-and-seek played outdoors, in the nude, in full daylight. At the Massachusetts trial of a gay teacher’s aide who would be wrongly sentenced to several consecutive life terms, the prosecutor told the jury that allowing a gay man to work in a day care was like putting “a chocoholic in a candy store.” In a number of these cases, the abuse was said to have been a component of a Satanic ritual, complete with robes, candles, forced abortions, and animal sacrifice. It took more than 10 years for the panic to die down and much longer for its victims to be released from prison.

Less well remembered are the equally unfounded allegations that emerged in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1989, and eventually made both the Washington Times and Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News. That story involved a local credit union, a prominent Republican fundraiser, and a famous Omaha orphanage called Boys Town. It implicated some of the state’s most prominent political and media figures in a cannibalistic cult; connections were drawn to the Iran-Contra affair, and there were reports of child prostitutes receiving a midnight tour of George H.W. Bush’s White House to thank them for their service. A federal grand jury determined that the allegations were a hoax and indicted one of the alleged victims for perjury—but then, that’s exactly what a conspiracy theorist would expect a federal grand jury assisting in a cover-up to do, isn’t it? The story persists online.

One reason it’s hard to think about conspiracy theories—including obviously absurd ones like Pizzagate—is the fact that some conspiracies are real. Hillary Clinton isn’t sexually abusing the children she meets as she travels around the country, but that is exactly what British TV presenter Jimmy Savile did for decades as he made charity appearances at hospitals, orphanages, and reform schools around the U.K., often with the complicity of the staff. Similarly, if the idea of preschool teachers using games as a pretext for widespread abuse in the 1980s seems a priori ludicrous, consider Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who for 15 years abused children who attended his charity football camps. For every Church of Satan, which did not cover up sexual abuse by its clergy, there is a Catholic Church that did. The only way to tell the difference between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies is to look at the evidence—to ask, for example, if there’s any reason to believe that, when John Podesta referred to “walnut sauce,” he was talking about a multiracial orgy rather than a pasta topping from northwest Italy.

But that’s all the evidence can tell you. Pointing out the implausibility of the Pizzagaters’ fever dreams doesn’t explain why the theories stick.

Moral panics function somewhat like parables: They validate a group’s anxieties in a dramatic way, they exonerate the anxious from culpability, and they assign blame. Not all child-sex-ring conspiracy theories are alike. In the 1980s, the alleged abusers were ordinary people—day care workers and babysitters who lived in the same communities as the children they were charged with hurting and the parents who called for their prosecution. The day care cases were parables of social rot from within, of communities that had allowed a horrible fate to befall their children—which is how many Americans in the 1980s would have characterized the decline of the nuclear family and the entry of middle-class women into the full-time workforce. As the institution that cared for the children of working mothers during the week, day care became an object of suspicion for people who believed that a woman’s proper place was at home with the kids. The Satanic-abuse story was a reactionary morality play for a reactionary moment in the country’s history.

Pizzagate is different. It is not about domestic life in local communities, not about victimized children and their too-trusting parents. This story is about Hillary Clinton and her allies getting away with something, and it features a child sex ring because organized pedophilia is the worst thing Americans can imagine. (No class of criminal aside from the child sex abuser is widely thought to deserve rape while in prison.) With its allegations of international sex trafficking and cavalier discussion of vile crimes via comical secret codes, the story depicts Clinton’s camp as a depraved, globetrotting elite, utterly detached from normal life, concerned only with the gratification of its own desires.

This kind of anti-elite rage is in keeping with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In fact, the Pizzagate allegations resemble a grotesque version of the Clinton-email-server controversy—another parable about a person who believed herself to be exempt from the rules the rest of us obey. If Pizzagate’s advocates want to see how far this can go, they might follow the precedent of the Omaha case and persuade some emotionally vulnerable adolescent to fabricate disturbing stories of sexual abuse aboard Clinton’s campaign jet. These allegations will be easily debunked, but that won’t stop them from spreading. So long as the country’s anti-Washington mood persists at this fever pitch, new versions of Pizzagate may crop up from time to time. Now that Donald Trump has announced that he didn’t mean it about wanting to “lock her up,” that he thinks the Clintons are in fact “good people,” maybe he’ll be the target of the next one.