There is the big lie, the ‘Elvis is alive and kidnapped my baby and they were all sucked up into a spaceship’ kind of lie so beloved by supermarket tabloids and fringe websites. “Pizzagate” falls into that category. When you hear a conspiracy theory about underground tunnels and a child-abuse ring involving government officials and a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., all you can do is shake your head — that is, unless you’re a guy with a rifle who decides to “self-investigate,” and ends up terrorizing a neighborhood.
Then there’s another kind of statement that sounds a little more reasonable than Elvis and aliens, but has a similar relation to the truth — the tales of millions of illegal and fraudulent voters who usurped my popular vote win or cost me that governorship, or of inner cities as unrelieved cauldrons of criminals, minorities and hopelessness. These stories are whispered by those who should know better, then repeated by more and more people in power. Uttered with a straight face, furrowed brow and a wheelbarrow full of fake concern, they insinuate themselves into policy that can change the character of our country.
I don’t know which is scarier.
Certainly Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, who is accused of traveling all the way to Washington to ferret out secret tunnels in a restaurant, shook a lot of people, including children, upset by a man with a gun. Now that Michael G. Flynn — the son of Donald Trump’s national security adviser pick, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — has been removed as part of the new administration’s transition efforts after tweets pushing “Pizzagate,” will he have more time to follow nefarious plots just waiting to be revealed and resolved? Alex Jones, whose Infowars website is a clearing house for tall tales, is a Trump supporter, and Trump has called Jones’ reputation “amazing.”
One wonders if the FBI and its director James Comey are having second thoughts about putting clumsy thumbs on the scale of the presidential election with on-again, off-again investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email. Will they now have to waste time tracking down every crackpot lead launched on dubious websites and spread on Twitter, with taxpayers footing the bill for trips down winding blind alleys?
President-elect and sore winner Trump has himself devoted plenty of time spreading the baseless theory that illegal voters put Clinton way ahead in the popular vote. Coming from the top, this story could have continued consequences for American citizens who just want to embrace a fundamental right. Trump’s charges have been backed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an early and vocal endorser of candidate Trump, who may play a part in the new administration. Kobach is the architect of and the inspiration for immigration laws and voting restrictions that continue to pop up across the nation even as courts find many unconstitutional.
North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory met Trump in New York on Wednesday for conversation and a possible job interview. McCrory waited weeks to concede his Nov. 8 loss to Democratic opponent Attorney General Roy Cooper, insisting for too long that voting fraud caused him to come out on the wrong side of a close contest. In his concession statement, McCrory said there remained “questions that should be answered regarding the voting process,” despite GOP-controlled state election boards disagreeing with his campaign’s assertions that something fishy was going on with felons, dead people and voters in heavily minority districts. This comes after most of North Carolina’s voting restrictions were found to target African-Americans with “almost surgical precision” and tossed out by a federal court.
And what better time than now, when the line between fact and fiction is blurring, for theories about minorities and crime to take root; many had never gone away. Giving voice to beliefs that widen the racial divide has been a specialty of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, poised to become more powerful. With “law and order” as a mantra and “stop and frisk” the solution he favors and Trump supports, despite flimsy legal justification, many minority Americans expect the worst. One bad sign: During his campaign, Trump tweeted an image with racially inflammatory and incorrect murder statistics, including the lie that blacks kill 81 percent of white homicide victims.
Perhaps South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, on Trump’s team as his choice for United Nations ambassador, can remind those in his inner circle that in the real world, fake news has serious consequences. Haley took some heat for an effort to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds after Dylann Roof — a follower of websites that spread white supremacist vitriol and conspiracies — murdered nine welcoming black churchgoers in Charleston in June 2015.
Just weeks after that horrific crime, Breitbart News ran the headline: “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage,” forcefully and falsely divorcing it from the hate it has often symbolized, especially since it was raised in 1961 not for noble purposes but in defiance of the civil rights movement, as politicians’ speeches made clear. Unfortunately, Haley’s message would have to be heard over former Breitbart leader Steve Bannon, a top Trump adviser.
Roof is now on trial in Charleston, where a video of a black man being shot in the back was not enough for a jury to call his killing by a police officer murder. We’re pretty far along in our transformation into a world where facts don’t matter as much as feelings and any theory to justify them. While it may not be pretty, it is the new normal, with validation coming from the top.
I think I saw Elvis in my living room last night. He was smiling.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.