IN THE SUMMER OF 2001, six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, a twenty-seven-year-old national radio host warned his listeners to wake up, imploring and beseeching them. “Please call Congress,” he said. “Tell ’em we know the [Bush administration] is planning terrorism.” He mentioned the World Trade Center—and Osama bin Laden, who was not yet famous. “Bin Laden is the bogeyman they need in this Orwellian, phony system.” He called George W. Bush “the bipartisan imperialist elite’s front man.” He later executive-produced a documentary explaining that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government.
He’s still around, ragging on the military-industrial complex (“sending troops to die in illegal wars”), the horrors of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, the Bilderberg Group (“the apex of the…power structure”), Goldman Sachs, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, corporate America in general (“Madison Avenue makes us addicts of consumerism”). He has been a supporter of Edward Snowden. In an on-air conversation with Noam Chomsky, a towering intellectual avatar of the far left, the men agreed that the elite imposes an illusion of consent on the people, that U.S. elections are mostly meaningless, that the Democrats and Republicans (as Chomsky remarked) are really just “two factions of one party.” During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, he said that the National Guard was “clearly being given orders to brutalize the press…and to threaten to kill the press.” “You’re one of the only prominent leaders,” he told Louis Farrakhan during their conversation in 2016, “that addresses that there is a conspiracy…[of] the power elite.”
“We’re on the march,” he says again and again, the way Henry V said unto the breach, “and the empire is on the run.” So who is this overwrought left-winger with an influential radio program syndicated on a hundred stations, live online TV shows beaming out for hours a day, eighteen YouTube channels (one of which has more than a billion views), a website with more traffic than lots of big daily newspapers? Why, that’s no left-winger, it’s Alex Jones, routinely described as “conservative” because he rants against gun regulation, government-subsidized healthcare, and taxes. Populist? Alt-right? Crypto-nihilist? Our language simply hasn’t kept up with the new permutations.
He is the very epitome of cutting-edge political discourse, where outright fiction is presented and consumed as nonfiction. What’s more, he’s no longer a fringe freak; he’s a freak who has both a huge following and the ear of the president of the United States.
In 1996, the year Fox News brought politicized talk radio to television, Jones started broadcasting on a radio station in Austin, encouraging darker, more fantastical fever dreams. Soon he was syndicated nationally, then on the Internet everywhere. He got attention by leading a team of patriots two hours up to Waco to rebuild the Branch Davidians’ compound—a stunt that caused his station to fire him, producing a martyrdom that redounded to his national popularity and influence.
Growing up, he was schooled by “some neighbors who were members of the John Birch Society [who’d] come over for dinner….The John Birch Society was right about everything.” Reading his dad’s old copy of None Dare Call It Conspiracy as a teenager was an aha moment. Coming of age in the early 1990s, just as Communism ended and the era of Behold a Pale Horse and X-Files began, he was a natural omniconspiracist, a native fusion paranoiac.
Long before Breitbart.com existed or Trump entered politics, Jones was ignoring the standard ideological lines to forge a confederacy of paranoids. JFK was “the last true president of the United States,” and Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy—just like Timothy McVeigh. “The Establishment,” he has said, “they want to make it…right-wing versus left-wing.” Glenn Beck, for instance, “spins it in a neocon-ish way that reinforces the controlled, left-right paradigm that divides people.” Jones does consider the center-left more dangerous than the center-right—“the Democratic Party,” he told Farrakhan in 2016, has “got black people in their web murdering your people and they love it.” But whenever Jones’s beliefs in the metaconspiracy contradict conventional conservative positions, he defaults to the former. His despised New World Order has always included the Republican donor class. Climate change is a hoax, but a hoax that serves the interests of the international financial elite. And when the stories the right tells aren’t fantastical enough, Jones goes all the way: he doesn’t just oppose firearms regulation, he has been a Sandy Hook truther, insisting two years after the massacre that it was “a synthetic completely fake [event] with actors.”
The evil lurks everywhere. Life is a horror movie. “What’s coming to take over,” he says, “is your smart car taxing you by the mile, what’s coming to get you is the smart meter frying you in your house, what’s coming to get you is fluoride in the water, what’s coming to get you is cancer viruses in the vaccines, what’s coming to get us is the soft-kill New World Order.”
The advertising on Jones’s various media platforms illustrates the overlaps among regions of make-believe. Marketing Infidel body armor (“excellent protection that stops AK-47s”) makes obvious sense. But on an ad for a natural medicine called Ancient Defense Herbal Immunity Complex, Jones himself does the voice-over: “the knowledge of the ancients, tried and true, trusted herbs and extracts fused with the latest neutraceutical science.” He’s also acutely attuned to a different overlap—between his fictional journalism and fictional prime-time depictions of it. The sixth season of the paranoid CIA thriller Homeland featured a character based on Jones. His site Infowars both complained—it was “propaganda” from the “establishment” conspiracy to “smear” him—and reveled: it proved that “Infowars is part of the cultural zeitgeist and cannot be ignored.” The 2016 miniseries reboot of The X-Files also had a character modeled both on him and on his rival Beck. This triggered a perfect Jones harangue in which he struggled to parse the layers of fiction and reality: “Glenn Beck, who’s a character based around me—I’m a real person, he’s a character based around me,” you see, and “now there’s a TV show, the new X-Files.” Yet a year later, his own lawyer in a child custody case was arguing in court that he’s not really the frightening nut he appears to be all over the media. Rather, he’s just “playing a character”—a character called Alex Jones, yes, but otherwise no different from Jack Nicholson playing the Joker in Batman. “He is a performance artist,” Jones’s lawyer said of his client.
JONES IS ONLY the most important and prominent figure in a large and vibrant realm, where he and the other overheated conspiracy hounds must navigate their complicated networks of rivalries and alliances. It’s like the situation among overheated Christians: they share beliefs in some basic narratives, but evangelicals are temperate compared to fundamentalists, and both may roll their eyes at charismatics. Somewhere between Jones and people who know that extraterrestrials secretly run the world is a fuzzy frontier—on one side, maybe a hundred million Americans with strongly conspiracist predispositions and ideas, and on the other, several million committed to beliefs that seem symptomatic of mental illness, way beyond the pale.
But the pale, the agreed-upon boundary line between reasonable and deranged, has moved by thousands of miles in Fantasyland. Fantastic beliefs that were beyond the pale twenty years ago are now mainstream. Alex Jones is deluded and hysterical, but he draws lines—between unbelievable and really unbelievable conspiracies, such as the one overseen by shape-shifting reptilian humanoids.*
He concedes that among his followers are some unfortunate loons. In his pity for them, he gets poetic. “Some unstable people are drawn to the bright flame of enlightenment that is so-called ‘conspiracy culture,’ ” he said in 2011. “Some trees are going to become uprooted in a storm like this. But we can’t stop telling the truth for fear of what telling the truth is going to do.”
Thus he seems saner to his listeners and viewers and probably to himself. And he makes more middle-of-the-road conspiracists who partly agree with him—about the rigged system, elite puppet masters, consensus reality—feel reasonable and sensible because unlike Jones, they don’t scream or sob in public or believe that the New World Order is deliberately frying their brains by means of home energy meters. His influence and celebrity are thus optimized.
In Fantasyland, everybody is graded on a curve.
JONES IS BOTH symptom and cause of how knee-jerk, florid conspiracism has become rampant and normalized in America, a fixture of the way people now think and talk, eclipsing simpler Occam’s razor understandings. Let me repeat once again: I’m not saying that large secret plots haven’t existed in the past and don’t exist now. For decades, people in the U.S. government, especially those whose work involves high-stakes secrecy, did a lot to make Americans start imagining conspiracies everywhere. The Warren Commission investigation of the Kennedy assassination was full of bungles and became a growth medium in the conspiracists’ petri dishes for an infinity of bacterial theories—even though its essential conclusion was almost certainly correct. The government did lie about UFO sightings over the years—in order to cover up air force surveillance aircraft experiments. The Watergate burglary and cover-up were conspiracies—and promptly exposed, investigated, and punished. Among the most significant recent conspiracies, the cover-up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and elite of its sexually predatory clergy was finally exposed—after we’d wasted vast resources and ruined hundreds of lives exposing and prosecuting a satanic sexual abuse conspiracy that didn’t exist.
In fact, it was the sudden, shocking exposure of actual conspiracies starting in the 1970s that made Americans overcorrect, to assume that anything bad is the intentional result of some conspiracy. Which may make it harder, ironically, to expose and dismantle the rare real ones. Our news and Internet-enabled media discourse are clogged more than ever with conspiracy theories. All the fantastical noise obscures the occasional signals. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Russian government’s interference in the last U.S. presidential election, to which too little attention was paid as it was happening. In the middle of 2016, it sounded like just one more wild speculation.
Donald Trump appeared on Alex Jones’s show as a candidate and, right after the election, according to Jones, phoned him. “He said, ‘Listen Alex, I just talked to the kings and queens of the world, world leaders, you name it, but…I wanted to talk to you….We know what you did early on, throughout this campaign.’ ”
“It shows he’s not the average elitist,” Jones continued, still jazzed from his conversation with the president-elect,
these stuck-up nobodies who believe they control the world, who believe everybody’s an idiot…the people who tell you you have absolutely no rights or freedoms….They stole five states on November 8th but still lost. And this whole criminal multinational enterprise…is now coming down….We finally have people in Washington that…don’t buy the propaganda of the big mainline corporations that are using weaponized media to mind-control simple-minded people….Once we restore the fact that it’s okay for men to be masculine in America and defeat this big Ford Foundation program…people will become humans again and will be free….[Trump won] because a lot of patriots, the Pentagon and you name it were part of the research program to carry this out—it was so horrifying they finally said, “No, we’re not gonna do this to these people, we’re not gonna turn them into cowardly jellyfishes.” Your hoaxes did not work on us!
* According to a 2013 Public Policy Polling survey, 10 percent or more of Americans who describe themselves as “very conservative” or “very liberal” believe in the reptilian conspiracy. The notion actually began as a piece of pulp fiction in a story in Weird Tales and was adapted by the fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft before being recast as nonfiction and becoming the basis for the contemporary conspiracy theory.