So fed up was young Edgar Welch of Salisbury, N.C., that Hillary Clinton was getting away with running a child-sex ring that he grabbed a couple of guns last Sunday, drove 360 miles to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., where Clinton was supposed to be holding the kids as sex slaves, and fired his AR-15 into the floor to clear the joint of pizza cravers and conduct his own investigation of the pedophilia syndicate of the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
When the police arrived to arrest him, Welch admitted that he had found no trace of Clinton's foul work. For two months, stories had floated out of the Donald Trump campaign and across the internet and other media that Clinton's international ring was run out of the little pizzeria's basement, which was connected to tunnels where the little lambs were sexually abused and tortured. Welch found no tunnels and no basement, only angry owners who had already endured six weeks of death threats by phone, Facebook and Twitter.
You may find a place in your heart for a young man so concerned with the abuse of kids that he would go so far at such risk on a mission of mercy. But you also may be alarmed that the country's tradition and acceptance of dirty tricks has reached so far beyond the mere destruction of political reputations.
Pizzagate, as it was called, was only the last and maybe the craziest of the fake news and conspiracies of the 2016 election, but like all the others it spread across the land through alt-right blogs, Facebook, tweets, radio and some of the mainstream media and got a toehold in the psyches of perhaps millions of voters.
Six days before the election, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a campaign adviser who in seven weeks will be President Trump's national security adviser, tweeted about the Clinton sex ring, which magnified the story. Gen. Flynn said prosecutors in New York had evidence linking Clinton and her senior staff to pedophilia, perjury, money laundering and other crimes. It was all supposed to have come from decoding hacked emails of Clinton staffers. Her arrest was imminent.
After Welch's arrest, Flynn's son and chief of staff tweeted that Clinton's pedophilia operation still had not "proven to be false" and that the yarn should continue to be circulated. Twitter accounts spread reporting that Welch actually was an actor used by the mainstream media to keep the law away from Clinton's basement sex market.
Our democracy has a hoary history of political dirty tricks, some only funny like John F. Kennedy's aides turning up the heat in the debate hall with Richard Nixon in 1960 so the sweat dissolved his makeup and made him look dark and menacing, others as vicious as Pizzagate or the other conspiracies that turned Hillary Clinton from a woman resented for her scolding moral superiority into a traitor and the queen of darkness.
You remember a few tricks from the history books: Thomas Jefferson having his pal James Callender circulate pamphlets claiming that President John Adams was a hermaphrodite who was planning a war with France; President Nixon's Watergate plumbers and other dirty tricksters in the 1972 election; the fake letter from President Garfield in 1880 saying he favored unlimited Chinese immigration to America; and George W. Bush mastermind Karl Rove's planting of a story during the pivotal South Carolina primary in 2000 that Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.
Every state has its annals of fake stories. Ours includes the rumor, widely circulated by Democrats in 1966, that Winthrop Rockefeller, the future governor, was gay and kept a giant porn collection in his and his wife Jeannette's home on Petit Jean, and the charge leveled by Gov. Orval Faubus in the campaign two years earlier that the displaced New York playboy had desecrated graves in a cemetery near his Lonoke County grass farm.
But 2016 introduced a whole new order of treachery and filth, much though not all of it aimed at destroying the reputation of Clinton: a video of an old enemy in Arkansas who was fired from a minor state job by Gov. Bill Clinton claiming that he and others had committed many murders at the direction of Hillary Clinton; the widespread internet tale that the only Clinton spawn was fathered by another man; and that all sorts of crimes and treasonous acts would come to light if prosecutors or the Kremlin could recover all the texts from her email server or get full access to the William J. Clinton Foundation records. Scores of millions of voters expected her to be jailed before or after the election.
The internet and the social media revolution in one decade have changed the definition of truth and facts. Anyone with a cellphone or a laptop can fling his fevered imagination into the ether and have it compete for the credence of multitudes.
History will record the 2016 election as the nadir of democracy or else the demise of its accepted norms like the search for truth. Now there is no such thing as truth. Leslie Harris, former president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, explained it: "The reason why it's so hard to stop fake news is that facts don't change people's minds."
Edgar M. Welch can be the monument to the historical turning point.