Remember Edgar Maddison Welch? He is out of prison now. In late 2016 Welch drove more than 300 miles from his North Carolina home to Washington, armed with an AR-15.
He was on a mission to save children from a sex abuse ring operated by powerful Democrats in the basement of a pizzeria, or so he believed.
But he encountered a significant problem once he arrived: his mission was based on a patently preposterous lie, a viral conspiracy theory he imbibed while surfing the web.
In an incident known as “Pizzagate,” Welch, 28, entered the popular restaurant where families were dining, looked around for the purported dungeon, and fired a shot into a locked closet door.
He was convicted for his crime and sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Four years and one Trump presidency later, we are living in a Pizzagate world on steroids. Outlandish conspiracies pervade American politics, none zanier than QAnon, a pro-Trump cult that believes a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs the planet with nefarious designs.
QAnon’s move from the fringes of sanity to mainstream politics is personified by Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who decisively won her congressional seat in November.
Greene, 46, is now at the center of the Republican Party’s internal struggle over its post-Trump future because of her past statements embracing wild conspiracies. QAnon’s claims are so unmoored from reality that the FBI considers the group a domestic terrorism threat.
In the latest episode of History As It Happens, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, an esteemed chronicler of early American history, said our politics have always been plagued by conspiratorial thinking, even if today’s currents appear more bizarre than past ones.
“Conspiracy theories are as old as American history and you don’t have to start with the Constitution,” said Ellis. “The opposition to Britain [in the early 1770s] was based on a conspiracy theory: Great Britain was plotting to enslave American colonists.”
“There’s always a kernel of truth to any conspiracy theory, but in this case, Great Britain was attempting to consolidate its North American empire after winning it in the French and Indian War,” Ellis explained.
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“They wanted to make colonists second-rate British citizens but not slaves. Nonetheless, if you read the pamphlets of the American Revolution, among very sane and sensible people including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, [and] James Otis, slavery is the word.”
Even as the nation’s first generation of leaders transited in some irrational ideas, they feared the passions of the general population. The founders drew on the works of Thucydides, Tacitus, and other ancient thinkers to explain their dread of democracy — or mob rule — as fertile ground for dangerous ideas, Ellis said.
“Any republic which has a base that is democratic… because the foundation of the republic is popular opinion, popular opinion is inherently manipulable. It is vulnerable to demagogues who are looking to tell you who to blame for your problems,” Ellis said.
“The current problem is amplified by the internet but it is merely a continuation and expansion of a problem that we will always have with us, as long as we are a republic with a democratic foundation.”
For more of historian Joseph Ellis’ thoughts on QAnon, Donald Trump, and the power of conspiratorial thinking throughout American history, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.