American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power
by Anna Merlan
In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists. As our boat rattled toward Mexico and back, I heard about every wild plot, secret plan, and dark cover-up imaginable. It was mostly fascinating, occasionally exasperating, and the cause of a headache that took months to fade. To my pleasant surprise, given that I was a reporter traveling among a group of deeply suspicious people, I was accused only once of working for the CIA.
The unshakable certainty that many of the conspiracy theorists possessed sometimes made me want to tear my hair out, how tightly they clung to the strangest and most far-fetched ideas. I was pretty sure they had lost their hold on reality as a result of being permanently and immovably on the fringes of American life. I felt bad for them and, to be honest, a little superior.
“The things that everyone thinks are crazy now,” Sean David Morton proclaimed early in the trip, “the mainstream will pick up on them. Twenty-sixteen is going to be one of those pivotal years, not just in human history, but in American history as well.”
Morton is a self-proclaimed psychic and UFO expert, and someone who has made a lot of dubious claims about how to beat government agencies such as the IRS in court. I dismissed his predictions about 2016 the way I dismissed a lot of his prophecies and basic insistence about how the world works. Morton and the other conspiracy theorists on the boat were confident of a whole lot of things I found unbelievable but which have plenty of adherents in the United States and abroad. Some of them asserted that mass shootings like Sandy Hook are staged by our own government with the help of “crisis actors” as part of a sinister (and evidently delayed) gun-grab. The moon landing was obviously fake (that one didn’t even merit much discussion). The government was covering up not just the link between vaccines and autism but also the cures for cancer and AIDS. Everywhere they looked, there was a hidden plot, a secret cabal, and as the Gospel of Matthew teaches about salvation, only a narrow gate that leads to the truth.
I chronicled my stressful, occasionally hilarious, unexpectedly enlightening experience onboard the Conspira-Sea Cruise as a reporter for the feminist website Jezebel, and then I tried to forget about it. I had done a kooky trip on a boat, the kind of stunt journalism project every features writer loves, and it was over. Conspiracy theorists, after all, were a sideshow.
Yet I began to notice that they were increasingly encroaching on my usual beats, like politics. In July 2016, I was walking down a clogged, chaotic narrow street in Cleveland, Ohio, where thousands of reporters, pundits, politicians, and Donald Trump fans had massed to attend the Republican National Convention. I was there for Jezebel again and was busy taking pictures of particularly sexist anti–Hillary Clinton merchandise. There was a lot of it around, for sale on the street and proudly displayed on people’s bodies: trump that bitch buttons, white T-shirts reading hillary sucks, but not like monica.
I stopped a guy in his twenties, dark-haired, built, and jaunty, walking past wearing an eye-catching black hitlery shirt: a photo of Hillary Clinton adorned with a Hitler mustache, smirking slightly.
“Can I take your photo?” I asked. He agreed, and then I noticed a bizarre sight: the guys walking with him. There were maybe eight of them, and they were enormous, muscle-bound, and heavily bearded. A couple were wearing camo pants and dusty boots. They looked like members of a militia, fresh from a training exercise in the desert, set loose in urban Ohio.
“Where are you guys . . . from?” I asked as delicately as I could.
One of them grinned at me.
“We’re reporters,” he said merrily.
“No, you’re not,” I blurted, without thinking. The biggest guy winked and showed me his press badge: they were from InfoWars, the mega-empire of suspicion—a radio show, website, and vastly profitable store of lifestyle products—founded by Austin, Texas–based host Alex Jones.
Later that night, I saw the enormous men again in a Mexican restaurant, quietly shoveling chips into their mouths with their bear-paw hands. After a few minutes, with a huge amount of bustling and self-important murmuring, a couple of them ushered in Alex Jones himself, installing him on a bar stool and pouring him shots of tequila.
I went over to say hello. The men looked concerned. One of them held up a hand: “You can have two minutes,” he told me.
Jones was red-faced and effusive. We’d never met before and I was interrupting his dinner, but he greeted me warmly. We had a brief, scattershot conversation: we talked about Trump, whom he was there to support. I asked whether he thought vaccines cause autism. “I think they contribute to it,” he said, nodding. (They don’t.) I asked whether he considered himself “woke,” the slang for a politically conscious, socially aware person.
“What?” he asked.
I explained what it meant.
“I’m one hundred percent woke,” Jones replied in his signature growl. He beamed at me. “I am woke,” he repeated. Everyone smiled at one another: the InfoWars guys, Jones, and me. One of them signaled that it was time for me to take my leave. I did.
As on the Conspira-Sea, my first reaction was to treat the exchange as a lark. It was the kind of interaction you might have with a harmless, nutty radio shock jock, because that’s what Alex Jones was, for many years: a guy shouting into a microphone, warning that the government was trying to make everyone gay through covert chemical warfare, the homosexuality agents leaching into our water supply and from our plastic bottles. (“They’re turning the freaking frogs gay!” he famously shouted. The clip quickly went viral and provoked mass hilarity on Twitter.)
Jones also made less adorably kooky claims: that a number of mass shootings and acts of terrorism, like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, were faked by the government; that the CEO of Chobani, the yogurt company, was busy importing “migrant rapists” to work at its Idaho plant; that Hillary Clinton is an actual demon who smells of sulfur, hails from Hell itself, and has “personally murdered and chopped up and raped” little children.
Jones was closer to the mainstream’s attention than most people on the conspiracy fringe, largely thanks to the seminal 2001 book Them by British journalist Jon Ronson, one chapter of which chronicled the pair’s extremely weird adventure of trying to get into a top-secret meeting of world leaders at Bohemian Grove in Northern California. (They made it inside; memorably, Ronson beheld a bunch of those world leaders putting on childish skits and peeing on trees as a sort of boys-cutting-loose weekend. Jones, meanwhile, has always maintained that the whole thing was an “occult playground” for the elites and that an effigy burned during the weekend was nothing less than a “bizarre pagan ritual” and that the world’s most powerful people engage in “ancient Canaanite Luciferian Babylon mystery religion ceremonies,” as a film he made about it declared.)
But while I was joking around with Jones, he was at the RNC on important business, it turned out: he was there to meet with Roger Stone, former Richard Nixon advisor turned dirty-tricks specialist and trusted ally of the Trump campaign.
Jones and Trump were in fact longtime mutual fans. After announcing his run, candidate Trump made one of his first media appearances on Jones’s show, appearing via Skype from Trump Tower. Jones endorsed him early and often and, in turn, many of the radio host’s favorite talking points started turning up in Trump’s speeches. Jones began darkly predicting that the elections would be “rigged” in Clinton’s favor, a claim that Trump quickly made a central tenet of the latter days of his campaign. At the end of September, Jones began predicting that Clinton would be on performance-enhancing drugs of some kind during the presidential debates; by October, Trump was implying that, too, and demanding that Clinton be drug tested.
Soon after, the United States narrowly elected a conspiracy enthusiast as its president, a man who wrongly believes that vaccines cause autism, that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” as he tweeted in 2012, and who claimed, for attention and political gain, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. And one of the first people President-elect Trump called after his thunderous upset victory was Alex Jones. In fact, Trump found time to call Jones along with a few—oddly prioritized—world leaders before he or any member of his transition team had contacted anyone at the Pentagon or the State or Justice Departments. Then, in a very short time, some of the most wild-eyed conspiracymongers in the country were influencing federal policy and taking meetings at the White House.
Here’s the thing: the conspiracy theorists aboard the cruise and in the streets of Cleveland could have warned me that Trump’s election was coming, had I only been willing to listen.
Many of the hard-core conspiracy theorists I sailed with weren’t very engaged in politics, given that they believe it’s a fake system designed to give us the illusion of control by our real overlords: the Illuminati, the international bankers, or perhaps the twelve-foot lizard people. But when they did consider the subject, they loved Trump, even the left-leaning among them who might have once preferred Bernie Sanders. They recognized the future president as a “truth teller” in a style that spoke to them and many other Americans. They liked his thoughts about a rigged system and a government working against them, the way it spoke to what they had always believed, and the neat way he was able to peg the enemy with sound bites: the “lying media,” “crooked Hillary,” the bottomless abyss of the “Washington swamp.” They were confident of his victory—if the globalists and the New World Order didn’t get in the way, and they certainly would try. Just as Sean David Morton said, they were sure that 2016 was going to change everything. (Although they perhaps didn’t imagine that Trump would win as a result of the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by one of the biggest margins in American history.)
Trump’s fondness for conspiracy continued apace into his presidency: his Twitter account became a megaphone for every dark suspicion he has about the biased media and the rigged government working against him, even, at one particularly low point, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of inflating the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. His supporters became consumed by the concept of the “deep state,” seized by a conviction that a shadow regime is working hard to undermine the White House. At the same time, Trump brought a raft of conspiracy theorists into his cabinet: among them was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who suggested that President Barack Obama would declare martial law and cancel the 2016 elections to remain in power. There was also National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (who was quickly fired), notorious for retweeting stories linking Hillary Clinton to child sex trafficking. Other conspiracy enthusiasts soon occupied positions in such staid government offices as the Department of Health and Human Services—where a Trump appointee named Ximena Barreto was hired despite her also claiming that Clinton was linked to a pedophile ring—and the National Security Council, where a senior aide and former Pentagon official named Rich Higgins sent out a furious, lengthy email on the various leftist conspiracies seeking to undermine the president.
With the candidacy and then election of a conspiracy peddler, conspiratorial thinking leaked from its traditional confines to spread in new, more visible ways across the country. As a result, a fresh wave of conspiracy theories and an obsession with their negative effects engulfed America. We all worried late in the election season about “fake news,” a term for disinformation that quickly lost all meaning as it was gleefully seized on by the Trump administration to describe any media attention they didn’t like. We fixated on a conspiracy theorist taking the White House, and then we fretted over whether he was a true believer or just a cynical opportunist. And as left-leaning people found themselves unrepresented in government, with the judicial, executive, and legislative branches held by the right, they too started to engage more in conspiracy theorizing.
But beneath the new conspiracy furor—talking heads worrying about it on CNN, Clinton’s campaign sending out media blasts to decry Alex Jones—the reality is that we’ve been a nation gripped by conspiracy for a long time. The Kennedy assassination has been hotly debated for years. The feminist and antiwar movements of the 1960s were, for a time, believed by a not-inconsiderable number of Americans to be part of a communist plot to weaken the country. A majority of us have believed for decades that the government is hiding what it knows about extraterrestrials. Since the early 1990s, suspicions that the Clintons were running a drug cartel and/or having their enemies murdered were a persistent part of the discourse on the right. And the website WorldNetDaily was pushing birther theories and death panels (the idea, first articulated by Sarah Palin in 2009, that under Obamacare bureaucrats would decide whether the elderly deserved medical care) long before “fake news” became a talking point. Many black Americans have, for years, believed that the CIA flooded poor neighborhoods with drugs such as crack in order to destroy them.
The Trump era has merely focused our attention back onto something that has reappeared with reliable persistence: the conspiratorial thinking and dark suspicions that have never fully left us. Conspiracy theorizing has been part of the American system of governance and culture and thought since its beginnings: as journalist Jesse Walker writes in his book The United States of Paranoia, early white settlers, including history textbook favorite Cotton Mather, openly speculated that Native Americans were controlled by the Devil and conspiring with him and a horde of related demons to drive them out. Walker also points to the work of historian Jeffrey Pasley, who found what he called the “myth of the superchief”: the colonist idea that every Native-led resistance or attack was directed by an “Indian mastermind or monarch in control of tens of thousands of warriors.”
The elements of suspicion were present long before the 2016 election, quietly shaping the way large numbers of people see the government, the media, and the nature of what’s true and trustworthy. Sometimes, too, conspiracy theories are the “official story,” the cause of real and far-reaching state action, as with the Red Scare, where a fear of Communists undermining the country led to life-ruining hearings and blacklists.
And for all of our bogus suspicions, there are those that have been given credence by the government itself. We have seen a sizable number of real conspiracies revealed over the past half century, from Watergate to recently declassified evidence of secret CIA programs, to the fact that elements within the Russian government really did conspire to interfere with U.S. elections. There’s a perpetual tug between conspiracy theorists and actual conspiracies, between things that are genuinely not believable and truths that are so outlandish they can be hard, at first, to believe.
But while conspiracy theories are as old as the country itself, there is something new at work: people who peddle lies and half-truths have come to prominence, fame, and power as never before. If our conspiratorial world is a vast ocean, 2016 was, clearly, the year that Alex Jones—along with other groups, like anti-immigration extremists, anti-Muslim think tanks, and open neo-Nazis and white supremacists—were able to catch the wave of the Trump presidency and surf to the mainstream shore.
It seemed that something new could be learned by riding the conspiracy wave back out: from the stormy center of Trumpland to the farthest reaches of the conspiracy world, into the subcultures that most people never see. Traveling through the ecosphere of suspicion, I found a multiverse of alternate societies, humming below the surface of American life the way some people imagine an alien military base is doing just under Antarctica. I found decades-old belief systems that have never disappeared, new ones that are just starting to form, and strange, unlikely alliances coalescing among deeply improbable groups.
To understand why people believe things that are at odds with all provable truths is to understand how we form our views about the world and the resultant world we have made together. The riotous profusion of conspiracy theories in America shows us something about being American, even about being human—about the decisions we make in interpreting the complexities of our surroundings. Over and over, I found that the people involved in conspiracy communities weren’t necessarily some mysterious “other.” We’re all prone to believing half-truths, forming connections where there are none to be found, finding importance in political and social events that may not have much significance at all. That’s part of how human beings work, how we make meaning, particularly in the United States today, now, at the start of a strange and unlikely century.
I was interested, too, in understanding why this new surge of conspiracism has appeared, knowing that historically, times of tumult and social upheaval tend to lead to a parallel surge in conspiracy thinking. I found some of my answer in our increasingly rigid class structure, one that leaves many people feeling locked into their circumstances—in contrast with what we’ve been taught is the American dream—and desperate to find someone to blame. I found it in rising disenfranchisement, a feeling many people have that they are shut out of systems of power, pounding furiously at iron doors that will never open to admit them. I found it in a frustratingly opaque healthcare system, a vanishing social safety net, a political environment that seizes cynically on a renewed distrust of the news media.
Together, these elements helped create a society in which many Americans see millions of snares, laid by a menacing group of enemies, all the more alarming for how difficult they are to identify and pin down. I saw a disturbing thirst for vengeance, a willingness to punish enemies and vanquish evildoers that is then easily twisted by opportunists. These things were in the country around me, in my own life—shadows that seemed to grow longer and longer, even as people became increasingly aware of the destructive power of conspiracy theories and began doing their best to fight them. Still: we are the suspicious and the conspiracists are us, and there are more of us all the time.
Copyright © 2019 by Anna Merlan.