R.I.P., The Transparent Paranoiac
Conspiracy theorists no longer even pretend to marshal “evidence,” and the results spill well beyond the world of conspiracy.
By Jim Knipfel
Purveyors of conspiracy theories don’t cater much to the idea of transparency these days. Ask them too many questions, push them too hard for evidence, and you’ll get exasperated evasions. At most, they’ll point to hyperlinks that prove only that the conspiracy theory exists online. Conspiracy culture is increasingly a self-referential, circular exercise, consisting of loops that lead nowhere.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not all that long ago, when professional conspiracy theorists prided themselves on amassing what at least appeared to be legitimate documentation born of original archival research. This corroborating evidence could take many forms: Medical and police reports, official memoranda, declassified intelligence or Project Blue Book files, chains of historical events researched in books and carefully mapped out on whiteboards with markers and strings. Even if selectively and spuriously interpreted, conspiracy theorists like the recently departed Mark Lane (1927–2016) and Jim Marrs (1943–2017) were known for putting in the hard work to validate even their wildest assertions.
Consider the mind-numbing charts produced by Mark Lombardi (1951–2000). His byzantine webs — connecting American and foreign politicians, banks, corporations, real estate developers, criminals, and the Catholic Church — were so well-grounded in exhaustive research that after his (mysterious) death, the CIA and FBI requested access to Lombardi’s files, as even they didn’t know about all the connections he had documented. Even lesser conspiracy theorists of the postwar era, like the bestselling authors Erich von Daniken and Charles Berlitz, did their best to provide patinas of academic-style archeological and archival evidence.
Alas, the conspiracist’s art of assembling exhaustive “evidence,” once a defining feature of the subculture, has gone the way of the dodo.
The harbinger and embodiment of this decline is Alex Jones, the most successful U.S. conspiracy monger of his generation. Jones thinks of himself as belonging to the tradition of rightwing “New World Order” conspiracy that dates, in its U.S. variant, to the mid-twentieth century. But the foundational works of this school were based on deep, if deeply questionable, bibliographical research. This includes the book Jones calls his primary inspiration, Gary Allen’s heavily footnoted 1971 bestseller, None Dare Call it Conspiracy.
While Jones has never attempted anything on that level of research, he once made at least token efforts to ground his theories in historical records, both known and those supposedly exhumed by him and his staff. But by 2012, the leading U.S. conspiracist had lost all enthusiasm for the basic research once considered essential to the conspiracist’s trade. He was just throwing stuff out there as it came to him while he was on the air — like his baffling, if entertaining, theories about “inter-dimensional clockwork elves in little green hats.”
This lack of interest in even rudimentary evidence collection has had enormous practical consequences — for Jones’ operation, and for the rest of us. It was Jones’ lack of interest in substantiating his claims about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that led to the massive ongoing defamation case that now threatens to put Jones out of business. The original Infowars recordings have been expunged from the Internet, but Jones’ language throughout his Sandy Hook segments was littered with the phrases “it seems to me” and “I believe.” The closest he comes to citing any evidence are references to other Sandy Hook hoax conspiracists.
This may well have been the precise moment in the long evolution of American conspiracy theory when providing even the illusion of supporting evidence ceased to be an issue. Perhaps not so oddly, the moment Jones abandoned all pretense of backing up his assertions or suppositions, the number of believers in these assorted conspiracies began to flourish as never before. In June of 2015, not quite three years after Sandy Hook, one of these people announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
Trump’s campaign and election marked the beginning of what some have called the Post-Truth Era. It can be easy to forget what a radical shift in consciousness this is. People who only a few years earlier would have laughed off Jones as an irksome kook now reject everything in The New York Times as a blatant fabrication, yet embrace as unquestionable truth intricate and unsupported tales about Satanic pedophilic cults operating underneath D.C. pizza parlors.
In July of 2016, an anonymous online user, posting under the name FBIAnon and claiming to be a Bureau insider, stated there was more to the Hillary Clinton email scandal than was being reported. The Secretary of State was not only corrupt, she was a pedophile as well. The story mutated and spread around the web into the autumn, eventually jumping the fence into the mainstream media. What had started life as a wholly unsubstantiated rumor had grown into a monster cobbled together from bits and pieces of pre-existing conspiracies and B-movie storylines.
The lack of any transparency or credible supporting evidence for the Pizzagate story not only didn’t matter, it wasn’t even questioned. A generation (almost two!) of watching Fox News and listening to AM radio has spawned a rightwing conspiracy market that isn’t much interested in reading dense government reports or FBI briefs. They just wanted a good story, preferably one that confirms long-held notions that Hillary Clinton is evil. If they wanted “evidence,” they could have a much better time making up their own by deconstructing the pizza parlor’s website, which many did. In the end, it was enough to convince Edgar Maddison Welch, who, echoing a scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, marched into the Comet Ping Pong Pizza Parlor on December 1, 2016, armed with an AR-15, a hunting knife and a handgun, demanding to be shown the basement where all the abducted children were being held.
Even without an official appointment with the new administration, Jones found himself in the unique position of being one of the few journalists in the country the President took seriously. It not only gave Infowars a flood of new Trump-loving followers, it also gave Jones a sense of power and invincibility. He understood the mindset of both the President and his listeners, and he gave them what they wanted. He couldn’t help himself. As he had with Sandy Hook, without offering the slightest hint of evidence Jones declared both the violence in Charlottesville and the Parkland shooting false flag operations orchestrated by a diabolical liberal cabal of political insiders he and the President both referred to as “The Deep State.” (The Deep State was akin to James Bond’s nemesis S.P.E.C.T.R.E., one of many Bond references trickling through today’s conspiratorial storylines.)
Ignoring, or perhaps simply forgetting, the violent backlash he faced following his attacks on Sandy Hook families, Jones posted the addresses and phone numbers of the alleged Charlottesville and Parkland “operatives” and their extended families. His listeners took the hint.
In Jones’ mind, it wasn’t simply the mainstream media that was making things up. Everything in the world, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that ran counter to his and Donald Trump’s opinions was a work of fiction, a simulacrum with insidious intent. Transparency and evidence aren’t necessary when the world outside your head is a work of fiction that’s part comic book, part Ian Fleming novel, and part Roger Corman film.
(Jones was recently slapped with yet another defamation suit, this one filed by Brennan Gilmore, who’d been targeted as a Deep State operative by Infowars and other online conspiracists after filming a car plowing into a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Along with damages and court costs, the suit also aims to compel Jones to admit publicly everything he reports is fiction. In his own defense at a preliminary hearing, Jones compared himself to Woodward and Bernstein.)
Although Pizzagate hysteria faded dramatically following the election, it had only gone into hibernation. As the Infowars empire crumbled in 2017 after Jones was slapped with multiple defamation suits and booted off YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, Apple, Spotify and Instagram, Pizzagate re-emerged in a new and much more dramatic form, which once again reconfigured the basic structure of American conspiracy.
People have claimed QAnon is the work of Russian trolls, or a group of Italian art pranksters, or even Johm Kennedy Jr., after faking his own death. Whatever its source, it’s clearly a hoax perpetrated on Donald Trump’s more unbalanced supporters. It also marked a new phase in the decline and fall of conspiracy transparency. After an October 28th, 2017 4Chan post in which QAnon claimed to be a government insider with top security clearance and access to the President, he established the two fundamental kernels of the myth to come: that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested, and Donald Trump, like James Bond, was waging a secret war against the malevolent forces of the Deep State. After that, he consciously and deliberately crowd-sourced the conspiracy, encouraging the public to come up with their own collective story —none of which required any supporting evidence.
Instead of weaving elaborate stories and presenting them fully formed as conspiracists had done traditionally, QAnon posted cryptic Socratic questions — Q drops, as they’re known. Many were just provocative haikus bordering on the nonsensical, but they almost always closed with a question mark. Once received, the Anons, as Q’s fanatical followers call themselves, then set to the feverish work of decoding every word and sharing their findings with thousands of fellow Anons on Qresearch, The Storm and other 8chan and 4chan sites.
In between the rare Q Drops, Anons spend their time scouring headlines and news photos for encrypted hints of Trump’s unreported heroism and symbolic clues to the Deep State’s latest nefarious offensive. A large percentage of Anon postings consist of little more than seemingly innocuous photos with captions like, “You see? IT’S ALL THERE!!!!”
While it’s easy to dismiss the QAnon phenomenon as little more than another symptom of the country’s current obsession with comic book culture, it’s actually much dumber than that. Superhero comic narratives have through-lines and resolutions. The QAnon conspiracy lacks both.
It doesn’t matter to the Anons that none of their predictions have come to pass. Like members of a millennial evangelical sect whose world doesn’t end on a prescribed date, they shrug and move on. Or maybe they work the prediction’s failure into the increasingly incoherent storyline. In other cases, they refocus attention on deciphering the hidden meaning in the latest Washington Post headline or scouring news photos for buried Q-centric symbols as they await the next drop.
It’s less a conspiracy than a game, one that’s part Daily Jumble and part Pictionary.
Unfortunately, it’s a game with very high stakes. In June of 2018, Matthew Phillip Wright, a well-armed 30-year-old Q follower from Nevada, stopped his armored truck in the middle of the Hoover Dam Bridge, blocking traffic. In a speech riddled with Q-isms, he demanded the release of the Justice Department’s internal report on the Hillary Clinton email scandal, apparently unaware the report in question had actually been made public earlier that week.
Then, in August, well-armed 55-year-old Tulsa resident Jeffrey Boyd drove to Pennsylvania where he attempted to rescue a fellow Anon he was convinced was being held captive by sinister Deep State agents. When it turned out she was just going about her business at home, he admitted he was also planning to kill President Trump, who was holding a rally in Pennsylvania a few days later. Boyd claimed Deep State forces (including the long-defunct MK-ULTRA) had been conducting psychological experiments on him, which is why he heard those voices telling him to shoot the President.
Around the time Boyd was being taken into custody, a 51-year-old Q follower named Forrest Clark became convinced he had discovered a secret campground where the Satanic Globalist elites rape, murder and eat abducted children. When he decided to do something about it, the result was the largest and most devastating wildfire in California history.
As questions of transparency, facts and evidence have vanished from the world of conspiracy, belief in its assorted theories has become a matter of faith. And the term “faith” here is intended with all the gravity found at the heart of any religious order. You don’t ask for transparency when it comes to the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist; likewise, you don’t ask for tangible proof of clockwork elves in little green hats or the blueprints for pizza parlors alleged to have torture basements.
Over the past two decades, as conspiracy culture has thoroughly infiltrated contemporary American discourse, its adherents have grown from a ragtag eccentric subculture into a weirdly mainstream cult, with an accelerating trajectory that points inexorably toward the formation of a new and distinctly American religious movement. Everything is already in place. The Anons in particular, like the early Christians, have a savior in the form of Donald Trump, and devils in the forms of Hillary Clinton and the Deep State. Their prophet Q offers arcane insights into the ongoing struggle between Good and Evil, and the martyrs are increasingly plentiful. The Anons spend their days interpreting holy scripture, and as a group they feel they’re being persecuted for their beliefs.
It’s not that big of a leap to imagine that in their next incarnation — and there will be a next incarnation — we’ll begin hearing about the assorted miracles Trump has performed, and the Anons (or whatever they’ll be calling themselves) will start petitioning for tax-exempt status. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
Jim Knipfel is the author of three memoirs, five novels, a short story collection and a volume of pop cultural sociology. His most recent book is Residue (Red Hen Press). He lives in Brooklyn.
Last edited: March 12, 2019
Author: Jim Knipfel
Editors: Alexander Zaitchik, Jeff Koyen