Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
A couple years ago, one of our old neighbors introduced me to an excellent podcast called TimeSuck. The show is hosted by Dan Cummins, a comedian who was born and raised in small-town Idaho. Cummins is known for his fairly raunchy jokes and uncanny ability to mimic someone’s voice. Suffice it to say his show is not for folks of a Puritan persuasion. (I’d say Victorian instead of Puritan, but the Victorians were rather risqué behind closed doors, lol.) Cummins spends a lot of time sitting in the naughty corner across social media platforms.
Each week, Cummins picks some random topic that he wants to know more about, researches that topic in depth, then spends his podcast discussing everything he has learned on that subject (and related issues if necessary). The topics are often suggested by his audience, who call themselves The Cult of the Curious. He has covered everything from famous Roman emperors (with sub-discussions on Roman history and the oddities of Roman culture) to the life of Houdini to Celtic mythology. One of the more consistent themes of the show, however, is true crime – serial killers, mass shootings, terrorist groups, violent cults, the drug war, you name it. The Cult of the Curious often goes to some very dark places.
I like listening to the show while doing garden chores, because it is an easy way to get lost in your head for a couple hours.
This weekend, while laying a couple hundred bags of mulch (not kidding), I listened to Cummins’ TimeSuck on the Las Vegas shooting and all the conspiracy theories surrounding it. I have also been curious about what caused this event because the media suddenly stopped reporting on it, without offering any intellectual closure (as Cummins would say) as to what motivated the chap to carry out such a sick attack. From local news reports, it seemed like the police department was oddly frustrating the media’s efforts to learn any new information. Not that it takes much to get the conspiracy theorists in our country going, but this seems like an event uniquely suited for their antics.
Here is the video of the podcast if you want to watch it (and I highly recommend doing so):
The show did not disappoint. You learn that Stephen Paddock was raised by a serial bank robber who was sought after by the federal government, then arrested, then escaped from prison. Paddock’s father was a classifiable psychopath, and Paddock seemed to inherit that trait. Paddock did not have any goal in his life beyond “getting rich,” and built a successful real estate business. (He seemed to be a fair and agreeable landlord, in fact.) He used the proceeds from his rental properties to amass quite an arsenal over the course of many years.
As far as psychopaths go, Paddock had a story similar to the kids who carried out the Columbine shooting. He enjoyed the idea of violence and planned to carry out something like this for years. He attended several other music festivals prior to the country concert he shot up in Las Vegas to fine-tune his plans. He had reduced mass murder to a bona fide hobby, much as robbing banks was for his dad.
Although he was not active on social media, nothing about the guy was really all that mysterious. Many people who knew him or interacted with him could have helped prevent what happened. But that’s basically the story of every mass shooting. The banality of evil.
Anyway, an interesting subtopic of the Las Vegas shooting is the market for conspiracy theories in the United States. And yes, it is a market. We love to dismiss people like Alex Jones as head cases – people who have lost their connection to reality and only walk among us for the same reason Stephen Paddock did, which is we closed the asylums.
But people like Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Candace Owens, Tucker Carlson, Sidney Powell, etc. are not hapless idiots consumed by delusions. One could say many of their followers are, but they are not. They are to American politics what televangelists are to Christianity. These folks have become multimillionaires by breaking the brains and wallets of simple-minded people.
To be honest, I have never given much thought to conspiracy theorists and their marks because I assumed this was an underclass problem – awful as that is to admit. I went through most of the last decade blissfully unaware of who Alex Jones was and why friends were so worked up about him. In a better civilization, access to a quality education would negate the conspiracy marketplace. But our education system cranks out gullible people, you know?
One of the more shocking things I have discovered since the 2020 election cycle is these conspiracy hawkers have a much larger (and oftentimes more sophisticated) audience than one would assume. It includes “elites” just as much as it includes backwoods libertarians and skinheads. I have met wealthy women on Florida golf courses with Ivy League educations and fancy sportscars who mainline Q Anon pages. They genuinely believe the country is run by a weird cult of vampire pedophiles who operate out of the back of pizza restaurants. You can even put it to them like that and they will not understand what the problem is.
When Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was carrying on to Mark Meadows about how Trump had secretly watermarked ballots to own the libs – a conspiracy theory pushed by Steve Pieczenik, one of Alex Jones’ comrades – I had already become numb to how far the stupidity had climbed the social ladder. (It was entertaining to learn, however, that Ginni Thomas had also been a member of the Lifespring cult back in the 1980s. From one charismatic leader to another. Good times.)
In fact, conspiracy-minded websites like InfoWars and ZeroHedge receive more traffic than many mainstream news outlets.
Zero Hedge is run by Bulgarian Daniel Ivandjiiski, whom financial regulators permanently banned from US financial markets for insider trading around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. His father, Krassimir Ivandjiiski, was a government official in the Soviet Union and important Soviet propagandist in Bulgaria. That’s why its so very shocking (sarcasm) that Zero Hedge’s platform has been used to push FSB propaganda during the Ukraine War. Like Paddock, Ivandjiiski is following in his daddy’s footsteps. (If you want to read an absolute mindfuck of an article on the elder Ivandjiiski, try Is Zero Hedge a Russian Trojan Horse? from The New Republic. I’m not a fan of that publication, but his interactions with the father are highly entertaining.)
Like all other far-right conspiracy outlets, financial Armageddon and cultural decline are always imminent on Zero Hedge. The authors talk like preppers and survivalists, bug-out bag at the ready at all times. If you actually traded like the people on Zero Hedge, you’d have lost your ass in two of the biggest bull markets the financial markets have ever seen. Of course, the founder of the site doesn’t live like some prepper in the hills. He lives in a sprawling mansion in New Jersey, where he’s not legally allowed to trade.
Indeed, pitching permadoom to conservative readers is big business. The site gets just under 40 million views a month, allowing the founders to live large off of advertising revenue. It’s pretty funny to think of how effortless pushing propaganda is for Putin cronies. American companies will pay them to shovel this horseshit to millions of people. And then folks wonder why American politics is such an acid trip, and why a “normal” candidate could never survive an election cycle anymore.
But Alex Jones is even worse than Zero Hedge. He has the televangelist shtick down to a science. He’s such a zealot about how everything is rigged that he’ll even start crying on cue. He started sobbing on air recently talking about how unfairly poor, innocent, unprovoked Vladimir Putin was being treated by people in the United States. Ignore the livestreams of Ukrainian cities being bombed to smithereens, the images of Ukrainian children missing limbs because they left their basement to seek food and water. That’s all fake. Crisis actors. The millions of refugees pouring into Europe, also fake.
While we are at it, 9/11 was an inside job. So was the Boston Marathon bombing. So was the Navy Yard attack. So was the Oklahoma City bombing – Timothy McVeigh, bombing a day care, such a martyr. So was Waco – David Koresh, an actual pedophile, such a martyr. Basically any major violent event in the world is a scam to scare Americans into accepting the New World Order.
Most people would read the above and think, “Seriously, how many people are so stupid they would actually believe any of that?” The answer is a lot more people than you think have the New World Order religion this man (and others) are selling.
As with televangelism, this is a lucrative demographic to milk. If you believe what Alex Jones says on his show, the government and other influencers have ruined him financially. That’s why it is so urgent that you support his causes! The Lizard People want to shut him down because truth-tellers like him are so dangerous to the New World Order.
When parents of kids murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting sued Alex Jones for pushing the conspiracy theory that the shooting was all staged and their dead kids were crisis actors (I mean, really, in Jones’ world, being a crisis actor is one of the biggest employment opportunities in the country and an important component of the Gross Domestic Product), a lot about Jones’ financial situation became known through discovery.
Jones is definitely not struggling. The conspiracy theory market has made him a multimillionaire. According to financial records for the InfoWars store, where Jones sells prepper gear and dubious supplements to his listeners (eating silver will cure all your health problems!), the company pulled in $165 million in 3 years alone. Let that wash over you for a second – $165 million to listen to some crank literally make fun of parents who have just suffered the unthinkable tragedy of having their young children murdered. Alex Jones had his audience so wound up that they were even willing to track down the parents of the murdered children and harass them at their homes.
Cummins gets into some discussion of the psychology of conspiracy theories, but in many ways this isn’t any different than Paula White or Joel Osteen pushing the prosperity gospel. Human beings have a powerful need to believe in something, to have some God in the Machine that neatly organizes their lives and promises to solve their problems. In communities of like-minded people, they also find a sense of approval and belonging. They have the pleasure of being in on something. The fact that the rest of the world finds them utterly ridiculous does not matter to them any more than it does to Appalachian snake handlers. They have their own in-group. The joke will be on you when the truth is revealed for all to see. The same way evangelicals are convinced they are the ones God wants, Jones’ followers think they are the special ones who have been blessed with understanding the mechanics of the Deep State.
(If you want another rabbit hole, read about the origin of the phrase “Deep State” from War on the Rocks. Humorously, it was actually progressives who popularized the term in the United States to talk about the military industrial complex’s pull on US politics. Trump and Alex Jones basically hijacked the way progressives talked about neoconservatives to instead talk about globalist neoliberals. And folks absorbed it seamlessly, because truthiness.)
Another really interesting overlap between televangelists and conspiracy-minded political personalities is how they work to cut people off from outside content. Becoming an all-consuming influence is important to their business model in two ways: (1) it prevents people from being shamed back to reality by competing narratives and concerns, (2) people who linger spend money.
If you ever talk to these people, they legitimately seem hypnotized. Many are carrying around so much rage about what they perceive to be current events, by the threat of one manufactured catastrophe after another, by the sense that these people are constantly preventing them from getting ahead, that they can and do eventually become dangerous to society.
The fact that this business model is so lucrative has caused conspiracy content to trickle into otherwise mainstream news sources too. I remember when Tucker Carlson was a preppy Young Republican figure with perfectly polished pennyloafers. Then he realized that rage, conspiracy, and senseless contrarianism sells. He’s getting paid $10 million a year to push culture wars garbage and even outright repeat Russian propaganda in a Zero Hedge sort of way. Some marketing analytics firms estimate Carlson is responsible for nearly 20% of Fox News’ ad revenue. The more he acts like Alex Jones, the better he performs financially. Even Fox News’ advertisements (silver coins and supplements) are starting to resemble the InfoWars store – perhaps the best clue that the audience overlap is getting serious.
This is definitely not the Republican Party that existed before Trump. The party that used to pound Ayn Rand has morphed into some never-ending X-Files episode. It’s pretty strange to observe.
What is there to do about all this? I do not support infringing on anyone’s right to free speech. In fact, I would say that I think it is a good thing how boldly stupid these personalities are. In previous centuries, bad actors would be forced to wear a sign around their neck. These people gleefully put one on themselves. I think it is a good thing that Americans now know that there are Q Anon folks sitting on the Supreme Court. Letting these folks and their followers go stark raving mad in public is useful in a democracy.
But it is a real problem in this country, across the political spectrum, that people have started to live in information silos. This is the awful legacy of social media. I think people like Alex Jones are being treated differently now from a societal perspective than they would have in earlier years precisely because we have normalized blocking and harassing anyone who comes at you with an inconvenient truth. It’s dehumanizing in a way, how many people have become fatalistic products of rigidly policed cultural inputs. And they genuinely believe they are critical thinkers.
In a strange way, cultural decline is becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.