Alex Jones, the conspiracy trafficker who runs the website Infowars, believes that Sept. 11 was an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was faked. These are cruel falsehoods that most people don’t want to confront on broadcast television. Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview him, for a show to air Sunday night,has been roundly criticized by people who suggest that we would be better off denying this fringe extremist exposure.
Indeed, when Mr. Jones was merely a marginal figure on the paranoid right, the case could plausibly be made that he was better left in obscurity. But now that, at least according to Mr. Jones, the president of the United States has praised him and thanked him for the role he played in his election victory, it’s too late to make that argument. We can’t keep ignoring the fringe. We have to expose it.
We would naturally prefer not to reckon with the worst of what people do or say on the margins, but we have to. Especially if it seems possible to trace a line from vicious rhetoric on a computer screen to violent action. We can’t know exactly what drove a man to open fire last week at a field where Republican members of Congress were prepping for a charity baseball game, but in the aftermath of that shocking event, we can trace the shooter’s online presence to the fringe world on the left he inhabited where he railed that “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
While Alex Jones has no exact analogue on the left, we have to watch him, and also watch out to make sure that something similar is not emerging on the left.
It has almost become a cliché that we are a polarized country, but the reality runs deeper. We now have a politics deeply infused with paranoia and distrust not only of our institutions but also of one another. We do not simply disagree; we are at war. We do not merely differ with our opponents on matters of principle or policy; political paranoids believe that we are fighting in a twilight struggle for civilization. Mr. Jones, of course, didn’t create that culture, which has lain dormant on the political fringes of both the left and the right for years, but he has weaponized it.
His impact is not so much his bizarre individual conspiracy theories but that his style of righteous rage infects and, in some cases, dominates the political rhetoric on the right. Not all conservatives who read Infowars buy his outlandish theories; many seem to simply enjoy the theater and the anguish inflicted on the “swamp dwellers” targeted by Mr. Jones and his trolls.
The dirty secret of many conservatives is that they never admit to actually reading Mr. Jones’s ranting, but they also never publicly denounce him.
For years, we imagined that we could simply ignore the crackpots because they were postcards from the fringe. But I’m haunted by this question: Had we done more to expose the viciously dishonest hoaxes, might things have turned out differently?
At one time, the responsible gatekeepers of the conservative movement would have excommunicated Mr. Jones. Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. famously used his immense authority to cast out the John Birch Society. Had something similar happened, and Mr. Jones had been exposed as the lunatic charlatan he is, perhaps not even Donald Trump would have deigned to be associated with him.
Mr. Jones peddles weapons-grade nut-jobbery, but he has been promoted by the Drudge Report, one of the most heavily trafficked media websites in the country, and may have played a key role in the 2016 presidential campaign. “I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media,” Mr. Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone said in an interview last fall.
Mr. Jones, Matt Drudge and President Trump himself have played a role in reviving what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Reread in light of today’s politics, Hofstadter’s 1964 essay seems eerily prescient.
The paranoid spokesman, he wrote, saw the world “in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”
At the center of the paranoid worldview, Hofstadter wrote, was a sense on the right that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”
Since the situation is so dire and the stakes so high, the paranoid spokesman is not interested in half-measures. “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician,” Hofstadter wrote.
By the end of the 2016 campaign, Mr. Jones and his allies were no longer alone in making that apocalyptic case. And now he and his views were invited on broadcast television (on a network where I occasionally appear as a contributor).
On the Monday after the election, Mr. Jones said that Mr. Trump called him to thank him for his support in the campaign and that the newly elected president promised he would return to his show. Mr. Trump’s administration even granted Infowars a temporary press pass to the White House.
Since the election, President Trump has shown a persistent penchant for conspiracy-minded suggestions about his political opponents and elements of his own government. He suggested his predecessor plotted to wiretap him and has hinted at plots hiddenwithin the “deep state.”
Where could he possibly have gotten such an idea?