What Happens When Reality and Conspiracies Intersect?
If you overheard, sometime in the past few years, a person talking about power-player pedophile rings, you could safely assume they were immersed in the most absurd right-wing hoaxes.
Now actual federal prosecutors have described a real power-player pedophile, Jeffrey Epstein, whose social circle includes the world’s most well-known politicians and public figures — some of whom also happen to feature in those same right-wing hoaxes.
This does not mean we can all start believing QAnon’s theory that JFK, Jr. is still alive and about to team up with President Trump on the side of Good delivering the nation from Evil.
The Jeffrey Epstein story, though, reveals a wrinkle in ascendant American conspiracism: conspiracy hoaxes can corrode conspiracy realities. When by sheer coincidence an aspect of a hoax becomes real, or intersects with reality in a significant way, the two contaminate each other. Reality appears to legitimize the hoax, and the hoax destabilizes our sense of reality.
We find ourselves in the strange place of acknowledging there’s a single kernel of truth to Pizzagate and QAnon, even though that kernel is from a different ear of corn entirely.
It also puts us in the strange place of not being able to trust ourselves: Pizzagaters sound deluded and bizarrely obsessed with pedophilia — do I sound like that? Or, I know I’m not crazy — does this make Pizzagaters feel vindicated? Wait, am I a conspiracy theorist?
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory bloomed at the end of the 2016 election cycle, after WikiLeaks published emails Russian intelligence had stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. Online amateur “investigators” dissected Podesta’s emails line by line, and one of these infinite monkeys thought they could perceive in the emails cryptic allusions to child sex trafficking.
The conspiracy went all the way to the very top of the Democratic Party, they believed. The Clintons, the Obamas, Podesta, David Brock, George Soros, and pretty much every other Democratic power player—they were all part of a cabal of cannibals, raping and eating kids in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor (that turns out to have no basement).
If that sounds bananas, well, it is. But it was plausible enough to Edgar Maddison Welch, who drove across two state lines with an AR-15 to rescue the children and, if need be, shoot up the place. He fired the gun inside the restaurant, thankfully harming no one, and was quickly arrested.
The incident threw some water on the hoax, but diehards kept the flame alive. Pizzagaters even protested at the White House, demanding the Justice Department look into it. The similar, but far more sprawling, conspiracy theory known as QAnon eventually became the more prominent right-wing hoax. Like Pizzagate, QAnon assumes as its villains a powerful, moneyed cabal of pedophiles.
Though there’s no hard evidence a foreign government generated the Pizzagate story, Russian social media trolls amplified and promoted it. Alleging pedophilia, we should note, is a time-honored smear tactic in Russia.
To the Pizzagate and QAnon true believers, pedophilia — along with satanism and child cannibalism, or “spirit cooking” — is the very foundation of the conspiracies themselves. The pedophilia cover-up, so these folks believe, is the prime motivator driving Democrats and deep-staters to do all the other dastardly deeds that spin out from these theories.
The purported deeds — which run from money laundering to murders — could just as easily be chalked up to greed, corruption, hunger for power, etc. But these liberal public figures are believed guilty of the most unforgivable crime imaginable—hoaxers obsess over these stories in lurid pornographic detail—as if only that can justify the otherwise unjustifiable rage Anons and Gaters harbor for the Clintons and others.
The hoaxes and hoaxers are patently preposterous. They have tied their own identities so closely to this stuff that they’ve been forced to construct an entire and ever-shifting alternate world history to fit their absurd beliefs with a few undeniable facts thrown in to give some semblance of coherence.
But now major members of the U.S. legal system — not online trolls and weirdos — tell us there’s a real-life pedophilia ring that could conceivably involve, as a ruling by panel of three judges suggested, “numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister, and other world leaders.”
Though we don’t yet have specific names, assuming the ring is real, some are likely to be the type of people who loom large in right-wing conspiracies.
And once fiction intersects with reality, however tangentially, the world tips a bit sideways.
Marooned on Lolita Island
Let’s not forget, we also passed through a convergence of reality and conspiracy during Russiagate. Unlike Pizzagate and QAnon, the bones of the story hold firm — yes, the Russian government tried to subvert the 2016 election; no, William Barr’s letter did not accurately summarize the Mueller report. But Russiagate spawned not just the QAnon twaddle but a miasma of ludicrous theories on the left, theories that found their apotheosis in Twitter swindlers such as the Louise Mensch gang.
For years even the most informed and level-headed among us could only speculate about the truth regarding the Russia story. Unsurprisingly, some absurd theories that were proffered with little evidence accidentally shared some of their narratives with reality itself.
The danger conspiracy theories pose in causing people to believe false things is well-known. Less discussed is that conspiracy theories can cause us to be unjustifiably skeptical of the truth. When Attorney General Barr first described the Mueller report, those prior hoaxes corrupted reality. People were too willing to believe just how bad the scandal could be.
Russiagate skeptics and deniers — many of them self-identifying with the far left — relished what they saw as the fall of the liberal pundit class. (Ironically, a great deal of those skeptics saw this through a conspiratorial framework of their own, selectively ignoring inconvenient realities.)
They painted with a broad brush anyone who believed, and still believes, that Trump colluded with Russia — which Mueller’s report in fact leaves room for. This created a sort of hoax horseshoe effect: Trump and his right-wing enablers giddily pushed this same false equivalency.
The Epstein case, however, is different from Russia. Though a handful of researchers, legit journalists, and political junkies have followed the story for a while now, and the #resistance rumor mill has always chug-a-lugged along, quietly generating theories, the general public has only been introduced to the horrors over the last week or so.
When the Epstein details came, they came fast and they came weird, and you could forgive someone for scratching their poor bewildered brainbox and wondering where they’ve heard this before.
They have heard it. Except this one’s real. Epstein really does own a private Caribbean island (nicknamed “Lolita Island”) where he shuttled influential acquaintances on his private jet (dubbed “the Lolita Express”). He hosted parties for those friends, featuring plenty of young women. He set men up with “massages” (Prince Andrew at one point reportedly received them daily) and who knows what else.
Epstein appears to have kept what amounted to a harem of teenage girls, and assaulted and abused them emotionally, psychologically, and sexually — some of them as young as 13. He also abused them with uncommon and repulsive regularity — daily, according to reports. This is not amateur speculation. These are the allegations in the indictment. Epstein is a true monster.
There is even fodder over the occult-like speculations. Epstein constructed a bizarre sort of temple on his island. To what purpose? Who knows — and thus a conspiracy can be fed. Again, this isn’t just really weird, it’s really real. Here’s an aerial video. As Insider described last week:
The front is flanked by statues painted in gold; one of them appears to be the trident-wielding Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, while two others look like birds perched on the corners of the roof. It is surrounded by a line of palm trees and a terrace with a labyrinth motif. Finally, the exterior seems to incorporate an optical illusion, to create the impression that the exterior windows and door are set within carved flanges.
There’s also the question of his wealth. It’s still unclear how Epstein, purportedly a billionaire, made his money. He had only one confirmed client — Les Wexner, CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret — yet he amassed enough wealth to buy a Caribbean island.
One live possibility: Epstein blackmailed wealthy and powerful people — possibly after secretly recording them in sexual activity with underage girls Epstein himself had arranged — and promised not to release the proof if they invested in his fund.
Epstein’s ethnicity is another crucial reason to separate reality from conspiracy. Anti-Semitic tropes appear all too often in right-wing hoaxes — including Pizzagate — sometimes in abstract allusions to globalists or elites who “really” run the world. (We all know who those abstractions really represent.)
Hoaxers also use specific prominent Jews as stand-ins for broad anti-Semitism, such as the perennial invocations of George Soros and the Rothschild family. Epstein is also a mega-rich Jew well-connected to some of the most influential people in the Western world, but who — at least until now — kept a low profile.
But again, the fable’s collision with reality creates a far more troubling problem, because unlike the baseless and deadly fictions about Soros and the like, the Epstein scandal is real. Rational people can’t dismiss it as myth, and this gives ammunition to white supremacist recruiters, who can incorporate this reality into their toxic mythology: “See? We were right all along.” And indeed, white supremacist groups are already reportedly warping Epstein’s story into a recruiting tool.
The Epstein reality coincides with the public ascension of anti-Semitism on the right, both dog-whistled and shameless. There has been an outbreak of white supremacist terrorist attacks connected to anti-Semitism, some of which have targeted Jews directly, and some of which have been carried out in the name of white supremacist ideologies in which anti-Semitism is deeply nested.
The man who carried out last year’s Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, for instance, had steeped himself in online anti-Semitic hoaxes. For the susceptible, then, a selective understanding of Epstein can help justify the unjustifiable.
Look, conspiracies are usually nocturnal — they feed in the dark — but they’re also nocturnivores: They feed on the dark. To that point, we’ve got to remember the Epstein case isn’t fully exposed, and it might not ever be. This opens some tempting doors: Who else will be implicated? Prince Andrew? Bill Clinton? Donald Trump? Gasp — Alan Dershowitz?
I start to feel shaky here. On the one hand, we have good reason to believe the rumors about Trump’s history of sexual assault. On the other, could this be mere conspiracy— and further, unfair? Does a shameful part of me want Trump to be implicated here, just so I can see him fall, humiliated, and universally despised? So that I — like the Pizzagaters with Clinton — can know for a fact he’s as deeply evil as I believe he is? What’s with this weird, uncomfortable…appeal?
We Know the Enemy, and it is…Hope?
Fundamentally, people are drawn to conspiracy theories because they allow us to exert some degree of control over the uncontrollable, a way to countermand or understand a world that’s changing too quickly, or one that has already changed and no longer feels pleasant or even recognizable. One way to regain control of this world is to write your own alternate reality. And if it’s sufficiently open-ended, you can write the story forever and never in your head be proved wrong. Added bonuses: it’s fun, and it provides a false sense of intellectual superiority over the sheeple.
Seen one way, then, these hoaxes — though often dark, twisted, and the product of deeply disturbed people — are weirdly optimistic. It’s not your fault, so don’t feel bad anymore: the powers that be are indeed covertly working against you. You’re smarter than they are, though. You see through the ruse, and one day the righteous will prevail. The powerless aren’t so powerless after all. The world is once again understandable, maybe even manageable. At its core, this is really just hope and faith. A perversion, sure, but hope and faith nonetheless.
This is also how many people feel about the Trump presidency. We’re powerless against it. We’ve lost something precious that only a few years ago we took for granted as infinite. At this point, salvation can only be delivered deus ex machina style, and given all Trump has survived so far — and the GOP protection he’s been afforded — not many things can take him down. Epstein? Yes, that will finally do it. Yes!
Hope and faith. That’s the ticket. And AR-15s, child rape, satanism, civil war, etc. And that’s exactly why hoaxes are so very dangerous, and they make reality dangerous. Whatever comes of Epstein and his heinous friends, this story is real — but it should never be a source of hope. It’s a source of grief and anger and pain. As long as we remember the center of this story is the girls Epstein destroyed and the justice they deserve, we won’t wander the way of Pizzagate.
If it doesn’t offer a false hope, it’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s reality. For better or worse.
Roger Sollenberger is a writer whose work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Arc Digital, and other places. Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.