The Pizzagate Polity
On August 15, 2017, the son and beneficiary of a racist real estate baron finally became President Pizzagate, a leader for those people who still cling to the fiction that Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Podesta were involved in trafficking children for sex, and were using a popular and beloved D.C. pizza spot as a front operation.
Trump started his day defending himself against charges that he had appeared sympathetic to white supremacists when he retweeted a claim about black crime from a man who was once ejected from a Washington, D.C., restaurant for covertly livestreaming his attempts at uncovering a Satanic child sex slavery ring. The President closed out the afternoon with remarks before a podium in his own gilded New York tower, in which—as if there had been a doubt just hours before—he openly sympathized with white supremacists. Meanwhile, over on Pizzagate Twitter, when the president extended conventional both-sides-ery to anti-fascist demonstrators for bringing violence on themselves, his words were applauded and echoed.
When Trump talks tough on sex trafficking, Pizzagaters hear him singing their song.
Yes, there is still a Pizzagate twitter, although this conspiracy theory community has dispersed considerably since a man, seeking evidence of the supposed sex ring, walked into Comet Ping Pong—the D.C. restaurant where Pizzagate pusher Jack Posobiec had livestreamed his “investigation” last December—and fired shots from an assault rifle. Later, in March, two months after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, a few dozen Pizzagate believers staged a rally near the White House. Since that time, I’ve continued to follow this group, a mixed bag of YouTube personalities who occasionally come above ground to pen op-eds for right-wing media or promote fundraising drives to back their “investigations.” Mostly, though, they retweet, feud, and relentlessly promote themselves. And there is one thing they do seem to still agree on: Trump is their man.
Pizzagate is the very definition of fake news, but that hasn’t prevented Pizzagaters from using apparently real news stories about sex trafficking to bolster their fictions. Likewise, the Pizzagaters’ affection for Trump isn’t supported by any overt nod from the man currently occupying the White House. But when they see Trump talk tough on sex trafficking, they think he’s singing their song.
Sex traffickers—this nefarious cartoon villain version of them, anyway—are the perfect enemy for Trump, who can deploy them as yet another force determined to destroy America. Back in 2012, Trump tweeted, “Got to do something about these missing chidlren [sic] grabbed by the perverts. Too many incidents—fast trial, death penalty.” In February, in his first presidential action on trafficking, Trump tweeted a news article about his own claim of a “human trafficking epidemic.” Ivanka Trump echoed the data-light assertion in an Instagram post in concert with her private White House anti-trafficking meeting in May. Trafficking, she said, is an “ugly stain on civilization.” This was upon introducing the annual Department of State report on human trafficking. The first daughter emphasized how child trafficking can be stopped at “points of entry” thanks to her father’s actions.
“Traffickers” themselves now make appearances, alongside gangs and immigrants, in Trump’s litany of figures out to victimize the American innocent, all of whom he claims his border wall will defeat. “The wall is going to get built,” Trump said in April at a roundtable meeting with farmers, “and the wall is going to stop drugs, and it’s going to stop a lot of people from coming in that shouldn’t be here, and it’s going to have a huge effect on human trafficking, which is a tremendous problem in this world—a problem that nobody talks about—but it’s a problem that’s probably worse than any time in the history of this world.” Trump has talked multiple times about how trafficking isn’t talked about; the Washington Post has also deemed this false multiple times. “People don’t realize how bad it [sex trafficking] is in this country,” Trump said at a February White House “listening session” on trafficking; the Post replied later, “Though human trafficking is a major issue in some regions of the world, experts and available evidence indicate trafficking for sexual exploitation is not a serious problem in the United States.”
Twitter being the true presidential pulpit, it should also be mentioned that a sex trafficking conspiracy theory tweet is the thirteenth tweet Trump has ever liked. This could’ve just been a mistake, as the tweet appears—no doubt to keep the Pizzagate crowd on their toes, they’d say—to allege Trump is involved in trafficking.
Liz Crokin is one of the higher-profile Pizzagate promoters who sees an unprecedented ally in Trump, who she says, in her own very Trump-like way, is cracking down on sex trafficking more than any president before him. In February 2017, TownHall.com published Crokin’s op-ed spreading the fiction that the mainstream media ignored anti-sex trafficking busts. “It’s been clear to me for a while that Trump would make human trafficking a top priority,” wrote Crokin. “My suspicions were confirmed on Feb. 23 when Trump gave a press conference from the White House addressing how human trafficking is a ‘dire problem’ domestically and internationally. He gave further confirmation when he said: ‘Dedicated men and women across the federal government have focused on this for some time as you know—it’s been much more focused over the last four weeks.’”
As proof that “the mainstream media” wasn’t covering this issue, Crokin listed seven examples; six linked to local television news reports, and a seventh unlinked example was also covered by local news. These arrests mostly involved online prostitution, targeting men alleged to be hiring sex workers. Some were part of a “National Day of Johns Suppression,” a large-scale anti-prostitution sting, not an anti-sex trafficking operation, and one that goes back to the Obama era.
If taking credit for these prostitution arrests is what Trump was doing in the statement Crokin quoted, and there’s no reason to believe that he was, it would also not be the first time he claimed initiatives originating under the former president’s watch were victories of his own. “Each of the past four U.S. presidents, right up to the incumbent, has loudly proclaimed his personal commitment to ending this scourge—as have religious leaders, celebrities and some of the world’s wealthiest individuals,” observes anti-trafficking researcher Anne Gallagher in an article published on the website of the World Economic Forum. Trump is on well-trod rhetorical ground.
Crokin’s claims about Trump, trafficking, and the media don’t hold up, but they’ve been useful to far-right media figures attempting to distance themselves from unfavorable attention. In March, Alex Jones offered something like an apology to Comet Ping Pong’s owner, and more generally for promoting the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to his Infowars audience. Jones had hosted appearances by Pizzagate livestreamer Posobiec, giving his “investigations” conspiracy theory legitimacy amongst the same people predisposed to believe in elite, secret sex rings. But, just days after distancing himself from the cause, Jones had pivoted to Pizzagate promoter Liz Crokin’s “MSM silent on sex trafficking” conspiracy theory. Infowars.com had republished her piece, too.
Jones returned to the sex trafficking conspiracy theory fray in an interview with Mike Cernovich, one of the original drivers of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, fresh off his CBS appearance in which he was questioned about promoting the conspiracy. Jones appeared to come to Cernovich’s defense, and he asserted—as Crokin had—that the mainstream media was intentionally ignoring sex trafficking busts. “The MSM is trying to act like that’s fake news,” Jones gruffed, before cutting to Cernovich, who repeated his enduring belief that Hillary Clinton was covering up the trafficking of children for sex.
This fantasy of high-level collusion is what linked Pizzagate to past sex panics, like the alleged Satanic ritual abuse of children kidnapped from day care centers back in the 1980s. At their core, these myths rest on the conviction that “global elites” trade children for sex, while the media look the other way or deny everything. The media does not; if anything, in the case of sex trafficking, they often cover the issue through their own sensationalizing lens. Some journalists have even promoted stories of sex trafficking that were reported to be false. Despite that, these conspiracy theories position the press as somehow themselves party to sex trafficking. If sex trafficking is the far right’s political trump card, it doesn’t take long for them to see sex trafficking in anyone and anything they oppose.
“We broke that first back when it was Podestagate, or Pastagate,” Jones yelled with pride on his show with Cernovich in March. “Guess what, we’re going back into that!” Not only would Jones, Cernovich, and co. retread their Pizzagate conspiracy theories, they would do so feeling as if they had Trump’s backing. As Jones wound up further: “Law enforcement now knows under Trump they’ve got support! They are moving against it. We are seeing the biggest bust for child porn, actual kids held as slaves, this is happening every day!” (It is not.) In July, Infowars was still pushing the myth that the media just wasn’t giving Trump the credit he deserved for fighting “child trafficking.”
On Long Island this July, in the same address to law enforcement in which Trump told them not to go out of their way to avoid violence against those they arrest, Trump also offered this Rorschach of a ramble, a mix of non-facts and typical Trump pseudo-exceptionalism: “Human traffickers. This is a term that’s been going on from the beginning of time, and they say it’s worse now than it ever was. You go back one thousand years, where you think of human trafficking, you go back five hundred years, two hundred years, one hundred years, human trafficking, they say—think of it, what they do—human trafficking is worse now, maybe, than it’s ever been in the history of this world.” Even the Daily Caller deemed this “unsubstantiated” based on available data, as did several outlets who singled out this quote for fact-check.
But there was also this lead-in to the remarks: “The Wall is a vital, and vital as a tool, for ending the humanitarian disaster brought—and really brought on by drug smugglers and new words that we haven’t heard too much of—human traffickers.” This, in a speech about cracking down on a gang, one that primarily targets immigrants—immigrants who are already being profiled as gang members themselves as a result of these crackdowns. The issue isn’t that (again) Trump is wrong on his trafficking math; it’s that he’s exploiting the issue of human trafficking to advance his broader racist, anti-immigrant agenda.
Combatting human trafficking, one might think, would be the last thing a self-avowed “pussy grabber” accused of sexual assault by multiple women would want to associate with his public profile, let alone his policy goals. But so long as “trafficking” is synonymous with gangs and immigrants, a man who looks like Trump can get away with it. Actual human trafficking, as reported by workers and labor rights’ advocates, is almost too ordinary to garner constant headlines. Human trafficking isn’t all “perverts” and conspiracies, just everyday labor exploitation and the violation of human rights. You don’t have look further than those who once worked for Trump Model Management to find allegations that workers were exploited, lied to about their visas and legal work status, housed in unsafe and poor conditions, and denied their earnings—or had them withheld to pay for inflated rent and other workplace expenses.
What looked like a completely conventional sex panic, rooted in racialized fantasies, has now borne white supremacist rot.
Again, given this gap, between what human trafficking is and the bogeyman status Trump has granted it, not to mention his daughter Ivanka’s alleged involvement in labor exploitation, you would think the president would shy away from the likes of the Pizzagate promoters, who would only draw attention to the unreality of it all. But if anything, some of the people who helped mainstream Pizzagate have gained greater proximity to the president.
In April, Trump’s son Don tweeted that Mike Cernovich deserved a Pulitzer prize. In May, Cernovich—who created an hour-long video called “Yes, #Pizzagate is True” in which he claimed the media was “normalizing” pedophilia—managed to get access to a White House press briefing. He used the opportunity to livestream himself yelling the question, “What about violence against Trump supporters at Berkeley?” Then he turned, camera still on him, to scold the press in a tone not unlike the one employed against journalists by the eventually ousted press secretary Sean Spicer. “Why will nobody here cover the violence against Trump supporters,” Cernovich demanded, “and why won’t you demand that leaders of the Democrats disavow the violent antifa the way you demanded Trump disavow violence from his supporters?”
What looked like a completely conventional sex panic, rooted in racialized fantasies, has now borne other more openly white supremacist rot. That May livestream performance Cernovich had disguised as a question drew the false equivalency Trump would go on to make himself in August, between social justice activists and marchers who beat them with burning torches, all while scolding the media three days after Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville for not reporting on all the good things Trump was doing for America.