I’ve met Alex Jones exactly once: during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer. Forget the boring speeches―the only reason you go to political conventions is to experience the surreal milieu. In that regard, I got my money’s worth.
We were joined by my colleague Jamie Weinstein and the equally intriguing Roger Stone. Admittedly, my memories of that night are hazy, and good taste prevents me from disclosing the details of our conversation. But my general takeaway was that, in this environment, Jones was much more rational and reserved than his InfoWars persona might suggest.
What is more, at one point, he seemed to imply that he wanted to be more careful going forward with conspiracy theories—because he knew that his increased notoriety bestowed upon him a greater responsibility.
I’m not saying he came across as completely normal, but the general impression I got from that one evening was that Alex Jones, the man, is different from Alex Jones, the brand. This was months before the Pizzagate conspiracy theory he helped perpetuate led an armed man to “self-investigate” whether a child sex ring was really taking place in the basement of a DC pizzeria. This was not exactly an example of restraint (Jones later apologized).
This, of course, is relevant in the wake of Jones’s child custody case―his lawyer has argued that Jones is a “performance artist” who is “playing a character.” His lawyer went so far as to say that judging Jones for his outlandish commentary “would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in Batman.”
On the witness stand, Jones appeared to contradict some of his attorney’s arguments. He may be torn between keeping his kids and keeping his lucrative career. They may be mutually exclusive. It is unclear what this revelation might do to the legions of fans who credulously tune in to hear his paranoid political rants.
Back in the 1980s, before it was renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, two stars of the World Wrestling Federation were arrested for drug possession. Both Hacksaw Jim Duggan (a good guy) and The Iron Sheik (a heel) were promptly fired by boss Vince McMahon. The interesting thing is that the arrest doesn’t appear to be what cost them their jobs. They had also committed an unpardonable sin: They had broken the fourth wall. They were supposed to be bitter enemies in persona, and here they were toking up together.
The conservative entertainment world now is probably where professional wrestling was then. Sophisticated viewers realize that (to paraphrase Duke from the movie Rocky) it’s a damn show, not a damn fight. But a lot of regular Americans are still hoodwinked.
And therein lies the problem. If someone in the sports world or the movie industry views themselves primarily as a moneymaking brand, there’s really not much harm caused by their antics. If a football player sets a bad example, you can still always say, “It’s just a game.” If an actor does something inappropriate, you can dismiss it by saying, “It’s just ‘la la land’ where people make pretend movies.” But politics is inherently different. The stakes are higher. And since ideas have consequences, our words can have grave consequences—even if the reason is tied to profit motive.
What is more, starting or spreading conspiracy theories—warning of false flags and ginning up the worries and fears of people who might already be struggling with reality—could result in horrific repercussions.
It’s one thing to sincerely believe the theories you spout out for public consumption (some people do), but it’s even worse to do it solely for fawning attention and a fat paycheck.
One particularly despicable example of this phenomenon occurred in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, when Jones advanced the theory that the shooting was a “false flag” hoax. Parents who had lost a child were already experiencing unimaginable pain, and Jones compounded that pain by spreading this false and emotionally damaging rumor.
In a way, Jones is just the logical conclusion of something that started around the same time Hacksaw Jim Duggan was battling it out with The Iron Sheik. The Eric Hoffer line about something starting off as a movement, turning into a business, and ending up as a racket rings true. But Jones didn’t invent this game―he just took it to the next level.
Who could forget 1980s talk show host Morton Downey, Jr., who gained fame by playing a sort of caricature of a politically incorrect right-wing host—except, unlike Steven Colbert’s show, much of Downey’s audience wasn’t in on the joke. These things don’t tend to end well; Downey’s act eventually came crashing down when he pretended that he had been attacked in an airport bathroom by three neo-Nazis. His attempt to gain publicity was foiled when it was revealed that the swastika scrawled on his face was backwards—the product of him having drawn it in a mirror. Downey’s story serves as a warning that a poseur’s 15 minutes of fame eventually expires.
Interestingly, the revelation that Downey was a fraud ushered in his replacement, Rush Limbaugh, who assumed Downey’s radio show in Sacramento. Although he, too, has become primarily an entertainer, Limbaugh’s role was originally designed to be provocative and (unlike Downey) authentic. “They brought me out, they said, ‘Look, we want controversy. We’ll back you up, but not if you make it up. If you’re going to say things just to incite riots, just to make people mad, if you’re going to say things just to rile ’em up but you don’t really believe it, we’re not going to back you up. But if you’re honest about it, and you stay sane, we’ll back you up,’ and they were true, they were honest about that,” Limbaugh explained in 2010.
To be sure, the most popular conservative commentators—even the ones who really do believe what they say and take their responsibility seriously—have to know how to garner attention. You can’t be 100 percent Edmund Burke without mixing in at least a healthy splash of P.T. Barnum. Salesmanship is a key part of the job. But there is a line that is crossed at some point—where someone ceases to be a political commentator who is entertaining and instead starts being an entertainer who exploits politics. Just like pornography, you know it when you see it.
And boy have we seen it. Jones’s custody case seems to hinge on his mental stability. But if he’s perfectly sane, that means he is guilty of saying inexcusably careless things that could possibly get someone killed—and definitely break the heart of a grieving parent.
His lawyer’s defense boils down to this: He’s not crazy—just evil. Having shared a drink with him, I’m inclined to believe his attorney.