The long read: Outsiders and the disenfranchised have always embraced the existence of wild plots and cover-ups. But now the biggest conspiracy-mongers are in charge
In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists. As our boat rattled toward Mexico and back, I heard about every wild plot, secret plan and dark cover-up imaginable. It was mostly fascinating, occasionally exasperating and the cause of a headache that took months to fade. To my pleasant surprise, given that I was a reporter travelling among a group of deeply suspicious people, I was accused of working for the CIA only once.
The unshakeable certainty possessed by many of the conspiracy theorists sometimes made me want to tear my hair out, how tightly they clung to the strangest and most far-fetched ideas. I was pretty sure they had lost their hold on reality as a result of being permanently and immovably on the fringes of American life. I felt bad for them and, to be honest, a little superior.
The things that everyone thinks are crazy now, the mainstream will pick up on them, proclaimed Sean David Morton early in the trip. Twenty sixteen is going to be one of those pivotal years, not just in human history, but in American history as well.
Morton is a self-proclaimed psychic and UFO expert, and someone who has made a lot of dubious claims about how to beat government agencies such as the IRS in court. (In 2017, he was sentenced to six years in prison for tax fraud.) I dismissed his predictions about 2016 the way I dismissed a lot of his prophecies and basic insistence about how the world works. Morton and the other conspiracy theorists on the boat were confident of a whole lot of things I found unbelievable, but which have plenty of adherents in the US and abroad.
Some of them asserted that mass shootings such as Sandy Hook are staged by the US government with the help of crisis actors as part of a sinister (and evidently delayed) gun-grab. The moon landing was obviously fake (that one didnt even merit much discussion). The government was covering up not just the link between vaccines and autism but also the cures for cancer and Aids. Everywhere they looked, there was a hidden plot, a secret cabal and, as the gospel of Matthew teaches about salvation, only a narrow gate that leads to the truth.
I chronicled my stressful, occasionally hilarious, unexpectedly enlightening experience onboard the Conspira-Sea Cruise as a reporter for the feminist website Jezebel, and then I tried to forget about it. I had done a kooky trip on a boat, the kind of stunt journalism project every feature writer loves, and it was over. Conspiracy theorists, after all, were a sideshow.
But I began to notice that they were increasingly encroaching on my usual beats, such as politics. In July 2016, I was walking down a clogged, chaotic narrow street in Cleveland, Ohio, where thousands of reporters, pundits, politicians and Donald Trump fans had amassed to attend the Republican national convention. I was there as a reporter and was busy taking pictures of particularly sexist anti-Hillary Clinton merchandise. There was a lot of it around, for sale on the street and proudly displayed on peoples bodies: from TRUMP THAT BITCH badges to white T-shirts reading HILLARY SUCKS, BUT NOT LIKE MONICA.
Some of the attendees were from InfoWars, the mega-empire of suspicion a radio show, website and vastly profitable store of lifestyle products founded by Austin, Texas-based host Alex Jones. For many years, Jones was a harmless, nutty radio shock-jock: a guy shouting into a microphone, warning that the government was trying to make everyone gay through covert chemical warfare, by releasing homosexuality agents into the water supply. (Theyre turning the freaking frogs gay! he famously shouted.)