- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
It sounds like the stuff of a paranoid conspiracy theory: A man operating from a state-of-the art studio in an undisclosed location in South Austin is exercising a kind of mind control over the Republican presidential candidate.
And that this gravel-throated prophet of doom — who has been preaching against the New World Order at the very top of his barrel-chested lungs nonstop for more than two decades to what has grown into a vast, subterranean national audience — might be playing a leading role in making this the weirdest presidential race ever.
But, as the 2016 campaign draws to a close, it’s becoming plain that Austin’s Alex Jones — a right-wing broadcast personality and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who until recently flew under the mainstream radar — might as well be the voice in Donald Trump’s head.
Trump might have heeded little of what he was told by a succession of campaign advisers, but, if you want to know what Trump is going to do or say tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, just tune into what Alex Jones is saying on the radio and online today.
“It is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word for word hear Trump say it two days later,” Jones said in August. “It is amazing.”
Jones was still pinching himself this month, what with the Clinton campaign last Sunday releasing a new video — “This is Alex Jones” on “Donald Trump’s disturbing admiration for fringe InfoWars radio host Alex Jones” — and President Barack Obama days earlier at a rally in Greensboro, N.C., replying to Jones’ assertion that he and Hillary Clinton were both demons who, Jones said he had it on good authority, smelled like sulfur.
“Ain’t that something?” said the president, giving his hand a sniff.
“I have to tell you, it’s surreal to realize that Alex Jones, little ol’ me, is one of the main points of opposition against these monsters,” Jones said on a recent broadcast.
Hillary for Prison. That’s Alex Jones. Obama founded ISIS. That’s Jones. The election is rigged. Again from Jones. Hillary Clinton is at death’s doorstep. Jones. And only drugs keep her going. Jones. Bill Clinton as rapist and Hillary his enabling enforcer. Jones.
These are heady days for Jones, who, while taking classes at Austin Community College after graduating from Anderson High School in 1993, got involved with Austin public access television.
It was, wrote Patrick Beach in the American-Statesman in 1997, the “weirdest, wonderfulest public access I’ve ever seen,” and Jones was its “current star.”
“He’s an absolutely riveting television presence, especially when he’s all wound up, which he usually is,” Beach wrote.
“An absolutely riveting television presence,” remains the sole such quote in his media press kit, the one that boasts of his now airing on more than 150 radio stations, of his InfoWars website’s 40 million monthly page views and 6.5 million monthly unique visitors, his half-billion YouTube views, 5 million monthly video views and 1 million monthly podcast downloads.
“He is Rush Limbaugh on steroids,” said Roger Stone, the Trump confidant who brought Trump and Jones together, referring not just to Jones’ persona but to a multiplatform reach that now dwarfs his radio and cable rivals.
“Alex Jones is cutting edge. He has found the formula. This is the model of the future,” said Stone, who has in recent months emerged as Jones’ frequent guest and political wise man.
Stone saw how ripe Jones’ anti-globalist audience was for Trump’s nationalist appeal.
“The majority of them are under 50, and they are all engaged. They are part of this digital sharing economy. They are willing to get out on the streets and do stuff,” said Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of Media Matters for America, a not-for-profit progressive media watchdog group.
“Even more so than people in the Fox News bubble or traditional right-wing radio, they are completely inoculated against the news media,” Carusone said of Jones’ following. “They don’t just think they’re all liberals. They think they are part of the globalist conspiracy run by potentially aliens and/or demons, and I’m not even being sarcastic because this is basically what the story line is.”
Jones didn’t make himself available to the Statesman for an interview.
Coming into the 2016 campaign, Jones’ fringe bona fides were still very much intact.
What few saw coming was a Republican presidential candidate with a weakness for conspiratorial thinking who prized the reporting of the National Enquirer and had his news consumption curated by Matt Drudge, who in the last five years switched his allegiance for political news of the weird from Glenn Beck to Jones.
“Drudge gave Jones a whole new audience and access to a whole new group of thought leaders, like Donald Trump,” Carusone said.
It used to be that there were “two, three, four, five steps” between Jones spinning a conspiracy theory and it gaining broader traction. But now, Carusone said, “It’s not working its way up the food chain any more. Donald Trump is consuming it directly.”
In a major speech in Reno, Nev., at the end of August, Hillary Clinton condemned the influence of the “alt-right” on Trump’s “paranoid fever dreams.”
It is, she said, “what happens when you listen to the radio host Alex Jones, who claims that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings were inside jobs. He even said, and this really is just so disgusting, he even said that the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre were child actors and no one was actually killed there. I don’t know what actually happens in somebody’s mind or how dark their heart must be, to say something like that.”
For Clinton, it was the latest incarnation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that she has long seen as arrayed against her.
But, if the alt right is generally tarred as racist, Carusone said that doesn’t apply to Jones.
“He is not racist,” Carusone said, and unlike many others in the right-wing media, “he doesn’t peddle in racial anxieties. He just doesn’t.”
No matter, Jones wore proudly the “dark heart” Clinton pinned on him.
“When Hillary Clinton attacks him by name, she is only increasing his audience astronomically,” Stone said.
And, Stone said, “let’s go back to Stone’s Rules – the only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring. The guy’s never boring.”
Stone, who in 2013 wrote a book alleging that Lyndon B. Johnson killed John F. Kennedy, first met Jones in passing at a Kennedy assassination conference in Dallas. But he didn’t really get to know him until he appeared on Jones’ show last November while in Austin to talk at Brave New Books about “The Clintons’ War on Women,” written with Austin’s Robert Morrow.
On air with Jones, Stone offered to set up an interview with Trump, saying he thought they would hit it off.
The resulting December interview on Jones’ show was a little odd. Trump was a blurry, back-lit Big Brother from Trump Tower, talking about the need to increase domestic surveillance to fight terror, and bragging, “I’m the most militaristic person there is.”
Jones seemed a bit awestruck.
“My audience, 90 percent supports you,” Jones said, telling Trump that he had been brought along by Stone and Jones’ own 13-year-old son, Rex.
“I know now from top people that you actually are for real, and you understand you’re in danger, and you understand what you are doing is epic, it’s George Washington-level,” Jones told Trump.
But he still wanted Trump’s reassurance that he was not a Clinton “mole.”
“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump said. “I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed, I hope. And I think we’ll be speaking a lot.”
Jones’ confidence in Trump was nourished by the enemies he made.
“I don’t like Trump because he patted me on the head,” Jones said recently. “I like Trump because the whole New World Order is against him.”
And there was Trump at the Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., blaming President George W. Bush for 9/11.
It was 9/11 that defined Jones.
On July 25, 2001, Jones, who, at the time was still doing his cable TV show in Austin in addition to his syndicated radio show, claimed that the U.S. government was plotting a false flag terrorist attack in the United States that it would blame on the likes of Osama bin Laden as a pretext for domestic repression.
Less than two months later, Carusone said, “On 9/11, on that actual day, he started to attack the United States government.”
Some radio stations canceled Jones.
“He was just too hot,” Carusone said. “His ascent was totally blunted.”
But, Carusone said, “that set in motion the version of Alex Jones that Trump is heralding on the campaign trail.”
In the years since, Jones has built a web presence that could survive the loss of all his radio stations, and mostly bankrolls the operation with direct sales of his own products — from political paraphernalia to survivalist and health products, such as the one he swears by “that blocks the estrogen mimickers that feminize men.”
Unlike his rivals, Jones has no one to answer to.
“He was less accountable,” Carusone said. “It just makes all the difference in the world.”
Prophet with a bullhorn
Until Trump came along, Jones was, unlike his main competitors, never a partisan figure.
He was, said Carusone, more intuitive, more authentic, more consistent and more earnest. A true believer.
He was more or less the street prophet with the bullhorn he played (albeit rotoscoped) in a cameo in Richard Linklater’s 2006 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, “A Scanner Darkly,” accosting authority, whether it was U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, Gov. George W. Bush or GOP strategist and Bush loyalist Karl Rove.
In 2000, documentary filmmaker Kevin Booth did a video compilation — “The Best of Alex Jones” — of some of his favorite moments of Jones confronting the world for its comic possibilities with an eye to interesting Hollywood in a reality series. (It ultimately morphed into the Jesse Ventura series “Conspiracy,” on which Jones appeared.)
There is the old footage of Jones in the 1990s driving into an Austin seat-belt checkpoint — what he characterizes as a Bill Clinton initiative.
“Hello Waffen SS,” Jones greets the cops. He mentions concentration camps being set up in California.
“I’ve been researching this for eight years,” Jones shouts out. “I’ve been laughed at. Now I’m on the front page of the Statesman.”
In 2004, Booth was with Jones in New York when Bush was renominated for president, in the anti-Bush camp.
“This latest twist, Alex for the first time backing a mainstream candidate, that’s what’s been so disorienting to me,” said Booth, who lives in the Hollywood Hills. “I’m trying to wrap my mind around it.”
“Alex has a magical ability to find his way into the center of these cyclones,” Booth said. “How much better promotion can you get than having the people running for president talking about you? How much better can it get than that?”
“I’ve actually lost friends over my friendship with Alex Jones,” Booth said. “He’s actually a very sensitive, intelligent, loyal kind of guy. Then that always leads people to ask me, ‘Does he really believe everything he says?’”
Booth’s answer: “He’s like Orson Welles doing the world is coming to an end broadcast. When you have to tell people the world is ending six times a week, five hours a day for 340 days, 20 years in a row, you know, you’re going to talk about Hillary smelling like sulfur.”
‘The bat signal’
To Jon Ronson, author of “The Elephant in the Room,” a new e-book on Jones’ involvement with Trump in the election, Jones is “a beat poet of paranoia.”
When Ronson, a Welsh journalist who has immersed himself in fringe politics, first encountered Jones 18 years ago, Jones was broadcasting from a child’s bedroom with choo-choo train wallpaper and a staff of three.
“Now,” writes Ronson, “more than 50 people worked for him in a huge industrial space housing three large television studios, four smaller ones, a vast warehouse for his products, and offices for social media people and nightly news reporters and graphic designers and IT people. I noticed quite a lot of diversity among Alex’s staff. This was not a white male enclave.”
When Ronson asked Jones how he communicates with Trump, Jones said, “I put out a video. A message to Trump, and then two days later he lays out the case. It’s like sending up the bat signal.”
On July 30, Jones posted an “extremely important message to Donald Trump,” in which he said that Clinton had stolen the Democratic nomination from Bernie Sanders and, “I want you to seriously think about making the issue of Hillary’s election fraud in the primaries one of the central issues to defeating her in November.”
Two days later, at a rally in Ohio, Trump declared that Clinton had “rigged” the primaries and, “I’m afraid the election’s going be rigged.”
As much as Ronson personally likes Jones, he is aghast at his influence on Trump.
“Donald Trump might be on the verge of becoming the leader of the free world, and it was incredible to discover that he takes Alex seriously — that Alex might be influencing him,” Ronson writes. “Alex is basically the most irresponsible man I have ever met. He uses his power to inflame paranoia. He boldly makes stuff up to suit his weird agenda. Alex eschews facts and reason, and he definitely should not have political sway.”
But, speaking at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 13, Obama placed Trump’s embrace of Jones in the context of a Republican political culture in Texas that last year indulged Jones’ fear-mongering that the Jade Helm 15 military training exercise, which took place in Bastrop County and other rural areas, was intended to be a clandestine federal takeover of Texas.
“This is in the swamp of crazy that has been fed over and over and over and over again,” Obama said
Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise. The monitoring consisted of four to five guardsmen keeping tabs on the Army and giving Abbott daily reports that recapped military activities in the previous 24 hours and the schedule for the coming 72 hours, according to Abbott’s office.
An Abbott spokesman said after the two-month exercise has concluded that Jade Helm “operated on schedule and proceeded as planned.”
The second debate
Jones’ influence on Trump reached its apex with a speech the GOP nominee delivered Oct. 13 in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors,” Trump said in language that seemed ripped straight from Jones.
But much of the coverage and reaction also suggested it was straight out of classic “Protocols of the Elder of Zion” anti-Semitism.
Jones vehemently denied the suggestion, saying both his grandfathers nearly lost their lives in World War II.
“I almost don’t exist because of World War II and the Nazis,” Jones said.
On the evening before the second presidential debate, it was a wrathful Jones sending the bat signal up for Trump: “I’m Alex Jones from InfoWars.com and I’ve got a message for Donald Trump — attack Hillary or drop out.”
Jones said the message was delivered from “a literal 400-foot cliff” above the Colorado River at Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge for a reason, the video spliced with images of lemmings racing off a cliff.
Whether or not Trump heard Jones’ message, he delivered the performance at the second debate that Jones demanded.
After the final debate Wednesday night, Jones, completing 13 hours of live InfoWars coverage, talked with Stone about how Clinton was on the run and about how his own audience numbers were through the roof in recent months.
Jones repeated his mantra that Trump’s internal polls show him winning in a landslide and that all those public polls you read about that show Clinton ahead were disinformation to make a Democratic theft of the election look plausible.
But then he said something that sounded new.
“If they steal it, we win,” Jones said. “Don’t freak out if they steal it folks. Maybe it’s not supposed to happen.”
“Go ahead and steal it, because it’s going to blow up like Mount St. Helens,” he said.
For Alex Jones, that sounds like something to look forward to.