How I Discovered That My Dad Is a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorist
I talk to my father twice a year.
Around Christmas, we call each other and leave messages until one of us picks up. And our birthdays are just eight days apart, so we repeat the process around then for the second call.
This December, it was hard to put my shoes on. Remember December? Were you OK? I was not OK. I could barely get dressed. So it was almost impossible to do anything emotionally taxing. I was taxed enough already. I was my own tea party.
I’m a liberal, half-Mexican, half-queer New Yorker who’s spent her adult life in progressive feminist politics and was a senior communications staffer for the Hillary Clinton campaign. So on a number of levels, December was spent with the curtains drawn. My boyfriend, Chris, and I ordered disco waffle cheese fries. For breakfast. For a week straight. I was drunk more hours than I wasn’t.
So the Christmastime phone call to Dad loomed. I never want to make it, necessarily, but it’s benign. For about 45 minutes, my father tells me about the illnesses and achievements of a family I don’t know. I tell him about work. We make polite noises, a weird “I love you” is said, we hang up.
I think he likes me.
This year, I stalled. January rolled around. The check I get every year for Christmas sat on the counter. I can’t cash it until I thank him for it, that’s the rule. I learned the rule when I broke it one year. He missed the next six phone calls. By the time we spoke again, I was divorced, living in a different city.
“Just call him tonight,” Chris finally tells me. “You know you’re just putting it off, and that’s making it worse.” He is right. “You have to call your father, I have to call my mother, we all have to call our parents even when they’re awful.”
So when Chris goes to work that night, I call my father.
He lives in Michigan. The red part. I don’t know his politics. He knows mine, obviously, it’s my job. He’s proud of me, I think. I know he likes it when family members tell him they’ve seen me on TV. I know he doesn’t watch MSNBC. I remember he didn’t like George W. Bush; I can’t remember why. I think he voted for Mitt Romney, but when I asked him who his wife was voting for in 2012, he said he didn’t know, they’d never talked about it. This blew my fucking mind.
This year, I guess the subject was harder to avoid. He asked what I was doing for work. I told him I had a couple of interviews, one with David Brock. I started to explain who that was, that he funds progressive organizations, but my dad already knew about him.
Then he asked me if I knew George Soros.
“Like, not personally.” I am wary.
“Huh, yeah. Well, what do you think of him?” He is wary.
“He’s a very rich man who gives money to causes I care about. Dad, where are you getting your news?”
This is where I learn that my father gets his news from alt-right websites.
He’s always been a night person.
I ask him carefully if he’s ever read anything about me on these sites. He picks up cheerfully. “They write about you?” There is distinct pride in his voice. “I’ll look it up!”
I tell him about what can happen when these sites write about you and you are a woman who says woman-things out loud in public, the nauseating wave of insults, the rape threats, the blinking gifs of violent porn that fill your feed — if someone is feeling feisty, they’ll Photoshop your face onto the woman being violated. Your social-media feeds are unusable for days.
I keep my voice really calm, just adding info here, that’s all. I am pleased with myself when I end articulately, by saying, “So be careful. Those kids are bullies and I worry about you hanging out with them. They have a way of turning their political opponents into monsters, and that kind of thinking is what leads a guy to shoot up Comet Pizza.”
And he says, “Wellll.”
This is how I learn that my father believes there was a child sex ring being run by John Podesta and Hillary Clinton out of a Washington, D.C., restaurant called Comet Pizza and Ping Pong, where probably they sacrificed and ate babies in a ritual known as Spirit Cooking.
> I would like a moment to reflect that his daughter has just asked if he thinks she’s maybe involved with baby eating. And his answer was ambiguous.
I don’t know where to start. “I worked for John Podesta.” He’s horrified. “You did?!”
“He chaired the campaign, yes.”
“Did you notice anything weird about him?!”
“Dad, Comet Pizza is a family place. I threw my friends’ book party there. They have Ping-Pong tables.”
“Yeah, well, I saw photos of their walls, and they had some weird stuff painted on there.” He sounds a little shaken that I know the place, that I’ve been inside.
“No, they don’t. I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t real. None of this is real.” I don’t understand why it’s not enough that I’ve been inside. I should be able to end this with that one fact.
On the one hand, this is horrifying in a profoundly sad way. On the other hand, I’ve got a live one here. I never get to talk to this person. And I know this one well, if weirdly. I can ask it all kinds of impertinent shit. I don’t have to make it OK because it’s an undecided voter.
“Let me get this straight. There’s a pedophile, possibly-baby-eating ring run out of Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C. You, sitting in Michigan, know about it. Alt-right websites know about it. But no one is doing anything about it. That means the *Washington Post*, the *Wall Street Journal*, the Washington, D.C., police department, the FBI, every Democratic politician, probably the schools and the church, they’re all ignoring it because they’re all a part of it. Dad, does this sound sane to you?”
I don’t remember what he says, but it isn’t “You’re right.”
“If this scenario were true,” I say, “the only person I feel OK about is the guy who showed up with a gun to self-investigate. Children are being murdered and everyone knows and no one is doing anything? I mean, what the hell are you doing in Michigan? Why aren’t you shooting up the place yourself?” He sort of chuckles.
I realize this is probably the first time he’s even said this stuff out loud. He doesn’t talk politics with his wife, he’s just been hanging out in the comments section all night, where no one tells him he sounds like a lunatic.
“No,” he says. “Maybe not in Comet Pizza, but this pedophile thing is a really big problem with Democrats.” You know this is a thing that conspiracy theorists say, right? The Clintons run child sex rings, there’s a satanic element involving ritual sacrifice. They say this. And in the same way you know if a politician can’t stop talking about how gay people are evil and must be stopped, that that politician is (1), this line of attack makes me want to ask them: Are you guys eating babies?
“It’s a huge problem in England,” my father is telling me.
I say: “No, no it’s not.”
That when countries do horrible things to children, we know about it. We know about drowning girl babies and Boko Haram. We’d know if British baby-stealing was a huge problem.
“So now we’re adding the British newspapers, and Downing Street and MI5 and probably the Vatican to the list of people who are in on it? Right?” He’s quiet, so I go for it.
“Dad, do you think I’m part of the baby-eating conspiracy?”
The motherfucker PAUSES. He backtracks in descending order. “No, I mean, I have no reason to, I mean, I hope not.”
I would like a moment to reflect that his daughter has just asked if he thinks she’s maybe involved with baby eating. *And his answer was ambiguous.*
A few questions later, and I just can’t do it anymore. “Oh, look, it’s eleven, I have to go.” We say our goodbyes and I hang up.
I call my mother immediately afterward. And in a quick minute, I learn exactly what’s wrong with our country. “Ma, I just had the weirdest conversation with my father, you will not fucking believe it.” And my mother, who votes every time, who organizes, who’s super-informed, has never even heard of Pizzagate. I fear that we have no chance of moving forward if my father can get that far down a rabbit hole my mother doesn’t even know exists.
She apologizes for her ignorance, and her choice of parental partners. She asks how long before Chris gets home. She asks if I’m OK.
I have no idea if I’m OK. This is the most animated conversation I’ve ever had with my dad. Usually, we sort of monologue at each other about our very separate, non-intersecting lives from parallel tracks, passing the talking stick back and forth at the conclusion of our paragraphs. This time, we were making points, asking questions, hearing answers. It wasn’t fatherly, or even kind, but it was a dialogue. Sometimes talking is painful, but how else do you get to the part where you understand, or respect, or even agree?
My birthday is September 10, my dad’s is September 2. I have five months to decide whether to make the second annual call. I mean, we actually connected. I spent an hour on the phone with my father, fully engaged, learning about his inner life. On the other hand, his inner life was a frightening and paranoid place, and I hated it.
We have a thing going, my dad and I: a reliably distant, regulated, and unstable relationship I know I can count on. I’m worried getting to know each other will ruin everything.
*Jess McIntosh is a Democratic strategist living in Brooklyn, who is fairly confident her father doesn’t read Lenny Letter.*