Alex Jones, the radio host and media mogul, is more responsible than any other single person for the spread of “Pizzagate” — the totally false theory that DC pizza joint Comet Ping Pong is a front for a child sex ring involving Hillary and Bill Clinton. In one YouTube video, on November 4, Jones said that “Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped [children].”
Over the weekend, a man entered Comet — a family restaurant that I’ve taken my niece and nephew to several times — with a rifle and fired at least one shot. When Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, defended the Pizzagate theory after the shooting, it cost him his job.
Yet Jones has yet to apologize or back down. Why would he? Jones has said plenty of things that are as or more absurd — and yet has managed to gain a huge following and even, it seems, the ear of Trump himself.
A partial list of things Jones believes include: The US government is secretly controlled by a shadowy international cabal called the New World Order. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is going to put Americans in concentration camps. The “Jewish mafia” controls Uber and American health care. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are literal demons — like, the kind that come from hell and smell like sulfur.
A lot of other people — including many supporters of Donald Trump — seem to believe these things too. One of Jones’s websites, Infowars, got 10 million unique visitors in the past month, according to Quantcast. That’s more than National Review, America’s premier conservative journal, and nearly four times as much as Rush Limbaugh’s site. It’s also more than mainstream sites like the Economist and Newsweek.
Jones interviewed Trump in December 2015, at length. During the show, Trump told Jones that “your reputation is amazing,” and promised, “I will not let you down.” Jones paid back the compliment, telling Trump that “90 percent” of his listeners back him. Trump has tweeted out Infowars links, as has his son Donald Trump Jr. Roger Stone, a top Trump adviser, is a frequent guest on Jones’s radio show.
Alex Jones believes a lot of things — like, as Spin’s Andy Cush documents, the notion that Justin Bieber is part of an evil plot to confiscate your guns. This kind of idea is, slowly but surely, being dragged toward the conservative mainstream by Donald Trump.
How did this happen? How did someone as demonstrably bonkers as Alex Jones get so close to the Republican presidential nominee?
The rise of Alex Jones is in part a story about the enduring appeal of conspiracy theories in American life, and the way the internet is reshaping our information ecosystem.
But it is also a story about the institutional breakdown of the Republican Party. By spurning the mainstream media and cultivating its own alternative ecosystem, it opened the door and invited people like Jones in.
The making of Alex Jones
The Alex Jones story starts in the famously weird city of Austin, Texas. Jones went to high school there, graduating from Anderson High School in 1993 and attending Austin Community College part time afterward.
It isn't entirely surprising that Jones developed his belief in conspiracies, both global and domestic, while living in Austin. The Texas state capital is best known as countercultural hub, a home base for beleaguered Texas liberals. But it’s also served as a kind of clearinghouse for conspiracy buffs.
The city serves as a melting pot for right-wing anti-government types and post-hippie radicals like Willie Nelson, creating a place where conspiracy theorists of all types can share their theories on evil government plots. They meet at places like Brave New Books, a basement storefront where, on one 2014 visit, I overheard a staffer and a customer discussing how the government planned the Boston Marathon bombing.
“There’s this really distinctive Austin personality that goes back to the New Left and counterculture days in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Jesse Walker, the books editor of Reason magazine and author of The United States of Paranoia. “They [do] this very American style of radicalism and populism.”
After graduating from high school, Jones worked his way into this scene, hosting local cable access and radio shows in the mid-’90s. At the time, the Clinton presidency, and events like the 1993 Waco siege, had caused a surge in far-right, and at times violent, anti-government activity. Jones glommed onto these ideas, arguing that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a “false flag” planned by the US government as a pretext to crack down on dissenters.
Jones’s presence in the Austin conspiracy scene eventually earned him attention from national hate watchers. “I first heard about him in late 1998,” recalls Mark Pitcavage, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
People like Pitcavage tracked Jones because he was part of a much broader movement, an anti-government far right that blames the world’s ills on a grand global conspiracy.
Jones and those like him believe the world has been secretly taken over by a secret global cabal, the so-called “New World Order.” These “globalists,” as Jones types derisively call them, want to take over the United States, which they see as the final stronghold of freedom on Earth.
Jones and his fellow travelers also believe that the leadership of the United States, regardless of political party, is secretly working to bring New World Order rule to America. That’s why Jones talks about FEMA setting up concentration camps and Obama taking your guns. (Note: Neither of these things is happening.) They’re laying the groundwork for when a New World Order putsch comes.
The only way to stop this, Jones argues, is for citizens to fight back. For some, particularly those in the militia movement, that means arming yourself against the government. For Jones, it means arming yourself with knowledge about the true nature of the conspiracy — winning the “InfoWar.” His site’s tagline: “There’s a war on for your mind!”
Lots of people around the country preach a similar message. What differentiates Jones from his competitors is his energetic presentation style. He yells and rants and raves. He cries, grunts, and growls. He rips off his shirt, slams the table, and pleads with the cameras. He promises you information that “they” are keeping from you, truths about a coming catastrophe that you need to prepare for and that only Alex Jones has the research prowess to uncover.
The sheer energy of an Alex Jones performance puts every cable news broadcaster to shame. What he says is clearly ridiculous, but the way he says it is just incredibly watchable.
By the early 2000s, Jones’s gonzo style had turned him into a kind of local celebrity in Austin. He appeared in famed Austinite Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, delivering one of his patented spittle-flecked rants in animated form.
But what really caused Jones to break out, on a national level, was the birth of the World Wide Web.
“He’s become what he has today because of the internet,” Pitcavage says.
Think of him of a conspiracy theory equivalent of early political bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan or Josh Marshall.
These men understood, intuitively, that the internet was going to be the 21st century’s dominant medium for information dissemination, and distinguished themselves from other writers by adapting to the technology early on. Jones did the same thing, just with a different target audience in mind.
He created websites, Infowars and PrisonPlanet, to disseminate his message. The sites sold VHS tapes and later DVDs of Jones’s monologues and documentaries. As internet technology got more sophisticated, Jones cut out the middleman and just started streaming his broadcasts on his sites and uploading the videos to YouTube.
He found a huge and receptive audience. By 2010, PrisonPlanet and Infowars combined for about 4 million unique monthly visitors, according to Texas Monthly; his radio show had 2 million monthly listeners. One 2013 estimate put his empire’s revenue at over $10 million a year.
Jones had gone from being a cable access host in Austin to one of the more recognizable figures on the political internet.
“Alex Jones is the primary producer of conspiracy theories in America today,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells me.
Jones in the Obama era
Jones’s large audience has given him the ability to impact real-world events. In 2009, the National Guard had scheduled an exercise in Arcadia, Iowa, where volunteers in the town would playact as foreign civilians to practice operations in an urban environment.
Jones, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw something far more nefarious. He aired a radio segment in which he called the exercise an “invasion” plot by “dirtbag Soviet scum, the ones that funded both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.” The National Guard, Jones warned, “want to cull our butt!”
This led to a massive outcry from Jones fans, who flooded the National Guard with complaints and plans to protest. The guard canceled the operation — and while they claimed the cancellation had nothing to do with the Jones-led uproar, that’s kind of hard to believe.
“He can take nothing and turn into a real world problem because his followers can then go act on things,” Pitcavage says.
The number of people willing to listen to this kind of talk has only grown since Barack Obama’s election. In 2009, there were 149 so-called “Patriot groups,” organizations that share Jones’s belief in the New World Order conspiracy, according to SPLC data. By 2012, there were 1,360 nationwide, an increase of more than 800 percent.
This mirrored the far right’s surge during the Clinton years; it seems that Democratic governance inspires anti-government extremism. Race may also have been a factor, though Pitcavage stresses that the overlap between the Alex Jones crowd and the white supremacist crowd is surprisingly minimal.
Interestingly, online racists hate Alex Jones, as they believe he focuses too much on the New World Order and not enough on the threat from minorities and Jews. He recently got into on-air fight with David Duke, the infamous former Ku Klux Klan leader, surrounding Jones’s refusal to focus on the Jewish role in the New World Order. (Jones’s wife, incidentally, is of Jewish descent.)
“I have long said that one of the biggest roadblocks we have in bringing large numbers of people to our ranks is Alex Jones,” writes one poster at the Daily Stormer, one of America’s premier neo-Nazi sites. “He talks about many real issues but does everything in his power to discredit factual information on Jewish and Zionist power.”
Whatever the reason behind the surge in Jones-style conspiracy theorizing, its rise definitely helps explains Jones’s audience growth in the past eight years. As far-right conspiracy theories become more popular, so too has the most famous proponent of those theories.
But that’s only a partial explanation. To understand how Alex Jones became the incredibly well-known, popular figure he is today, you need to understand his relationship with more mainstream conservative media outlets — or, more specifically, his relationship with Matt Drudge.
How Alex Jones and the Republican Party became intertwined
Drudge is the famously secretive proprietor of the Drudge Report, perhaps the most well-read and important website on the right today. Drudge, like Jones, was an early internet adopter, only he operated in the mainstream — most notably by breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Though the Lewinsky scoop turned him into a household name, the Drudge Report is more of an aggregator than a news-breaking operation, mostly linking out to other sites rather than reporting its own stuff.
Drudge has always had a very tabloid sensibility in what he links to, which sometimes verges on the irresponsible. He has repeatedly posted stories alleging that Bill Clinton had an illegitimate black child, for example, and claimed (without evidence) that John Kerry had an affair with an intern during the 2004 campaign.
Sometime in the early days of the Obama administration, Drudge latched onto Alex Jones. It was a match made in heaven: Jones’s fact-free but immensely entertaining rants were a perfect fit with Drudge’s gossipy, right-wing paranoiac approach to news. He began linking heavily to Jones’s work on the Drudge Report, driving millions of clicks to Infowars and bringing Jones’s work to a more mainstream conservative audience.
“If you had to say there was one source who really helped us break out, who took our information, helped to punch it out to an even more effective level, [Drudge is] the guy,” Jones said in a 2011 interview with New York magazine. “Three years ago, there was almost no news coverage of Bilderberg [an alleged ‘globalist’ hub] in this country; there was an electronic Berlin Wall. Drudge, every year, takes our reportage and links to it on our site.”
As the Obama administration went on, Drudge and Jones’s relationship deepened. In early 2013, Drudge declared that the coming year would be “the year of Alex Jones” — a prophecy that had been set up by his own work. Between April 2011 and April 2013, Drudge had linked to 244 separate articles on Infowars or PrisonPlanet, according to Media Matters’ Ben Dimiero. These articles include:
A November 2012 article promoting claims that James Holmes, the man [then] on trial for the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, may actually have been under the influence of CIA "mind control." The piece was based around a story told by an "alleged inmate" supposedly in jail with Holmes, who claimed Holmes told him he was "programmed" to kill by an "evil" therapist.
A July 2012 post highlighting an interview between Jones and Joseph Farah, editor of conspiracy website WND. During that interview, Farah suggested that if Obama were re-elected, people like him and Jones would be "hunted down like dogs."
A March 2012 piece suggesting that the death of conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart may not have been the result of natural causes, but instead related to a "damning" video about President Obama Breitbart had supposedly planned to release the day of his death.
Drudge wasn’t the only Jones validator on the mainstream right, according to Dimiero. The Paul family, both former Rep. Ron and Sen. Rand, have appeared on the Alex Jones Show (the former was a frequent guest). Fox News personalities Lou Dobbs and Andrew Napolitano have been on; conservative celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Ted Nugent also paid Jones some visits.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. As historian Rick Perlstein details in the Baffler, the conservative movement has long been afflicted by conspiracy theorists, going back to its origins in the ’50s and ’60s. Oftentimes, these people have exploited the fears of conservatives for profit.
Think, for example, of Glenn Beck’s commercials for Goldline — a company that warned of an impending market crash under Obama to convince the elderly to buy its absurdly expensive coins.
About three years ago, I investigated a similar company, called Reboot Marketing, which had been advertising its wares in outlets like National Review and RedState. Reboot used Jones-like warnings about FEMA camps and “communist food brainwashing” to sell products with names like Food4Patriots (preserved food) and Power4Patriots (home energy kits). It turns out that the food was a marked-up basket bought from another vendor, and the home energy kits couldn’t work as advertised. The entire thing was cooked up by a Harvard grad named Allen Baler, who saw paranoid conservatives as easy marks.
Unlike Baler, Jones almost certainly believes most of what he’s saying. You don’t start your career on cable access if you’re in it for the money, as Pitcavage noted in our conversation.
But the key point here is even “respectable” elements of the conservative movement like National Review and Beck have, for decades, been very happy to manipulate far-right conspiracies — either to build support for typical Republicans or to make a buck. This strategy made it much, much easier for someone like Jones to get a foothold in the party, to come into contact with actual Republican legislators and key conservative media figures.
Drudge may have been especially responsible for mainstreaming Jones, but he was pushing on an open door.
Donald Trump and the GOP get Jonesified
Alex Jones tends not to see a lot of good news in the world. Donald Trump’s primary victory was an exception.
Jones sees Trump as a kind of quieter kindred spirit, someone who understands the perfidy of the New World Order but doesn’t talk about it quite so openly. He claims the Trump people have been courting him, for this reason, since early 2015.
“There’s no way the Trump people would have reached out to me a year and a half ago, if he wasn’t aware of the work,” Jones told reporter Alexander Zaitchik in July 2016. “He’s been what you call a ‘closet conspiracy theorist’ for 50 years. I think he’s been a chameleon in the system, and now he sees the time to strike.”
It’s easy to see where Jones is coming from. Read the following set of quotes and tell me whether they’re Trump or Jones:
- “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”
- “It's a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
- “This election will determine whether we remain a free nation or only the illusion of democracy.”
They’re all Trump quotes, of course. Like Jones, Trump sees dark conspiracies everywhere — an elite that’s secretly oppressing Americans, and that only he can fix. Trump doesn’t need to say the phrase “New World Order” to get the point across to people like Jones; language about “globalism” is clear enough for those people to glom onto it.
This isn’t just a dog whistle for the Jones crowd. As my colleague Yochi Dreazen notes, Trump’s language about a global economic elite is directly reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, ones embraced by many Trump fans on the “alt-right.” Jones himself has also dabbled in this stuff, despite his feud with the neo-Nazis: In one October broadcast, he warned of a “Jewish mafia” that controls the health care system, which is soon “going to hurt you.” Nevertheless, Jones insisted, “I’m not against Jews.”
Trump has at times gone further than dog whistling, and actually amplified conspiracies invented or promoted by Infowars.
Trump declared that the Environmental Protection Agency manufactured the California drought to protect a fish, a claim that appears to have originated on Infowars. His theory that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, or that Antonin Scalia may have been murdered? Yep, both on Infowars.
Can we prove that Trump is getting his conspiratorial ideas from Jones? Not really, but there isn’t another explanation that makes a lot of sense.
Trump clearly reads Infowars, judging by his Twitter account, and he sung Jones’s praises when he appeared on the show. But the most obvious conduit is Roger Stone, a shady right-wing operative who has wormed his way into the Trump inner circle. Stone is a longtime Alex Jones fan and guest on his program, and you can easily imagine him handing off what he “learns” there to Trump.
Interestingly, Trump doesn’t appear to take in a lot of mainstream information from right-wing sources like National Review or the Weekly Standard (perhaps because the editors of those publications have mostly disavowed Trump). The publication that most closely tracks Trump’s view is Breitbart, a far-right site that often peddles in Jones-lite conspiracy theorizing.
Intellectually speaking, Trump is much more a product of the fever swamp than the mainstream right. Yet the formal leadership of the GOP has had a hard time disavowing him, even during the primary. And the rise of Jones helps explain why.
Think about it. In a normal party, implying that an opponent’s father had helped assassinate JFK would get you laughed out of the race. But it didn’t.
A nontrivial percentage of Republican voters had imbibed Jones’s snake juice, and didn’t see anything weird about Trump’s theories. Republican leaders and media outlets were too used to conspiracy theorizing to get all worked up about it, like they did with the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape. It was just a part of the movement.
The Democratic Party, as an institution, doesn’t have the same the same level of comfort with this out-there weirdness. Left-wing publications don’t run advertisements by shady vendors who sell their products based on political paranoia. There’s just a fundamental asymmetry between the organized American left and right, one that allows completely absurd ideas to seep into one side in a way that it just doesn’t with the other.
To seep so far, in fact, as to influence the GOP’s actual nominee for president of the United States.
This isn’t a problem that ends with Donald Trump. Jones may have started as a fringe figure, but years of mainstreaming have allowed him to build a real presence among Republican voters. It’s not clear how more responsible conservatives can prevent his ideas from spreading further or roll back the bizarre ideas he’s already injected into the party rank and file. And the more these ideas are out there, the harder it will be to take back the party from the kind of people who elected Trump in the first place.
Alex Jones is one more big problem for the Republican Party in a year that’s already full of them.