How Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, got Donald Trump's ear.
Last December, amid the jumbled Republican presidential nomination scrum, Donald Trump carved out a half an hour for a live video interview with a volcanic Austin radio and web-streaming host who broadcasts from a semi-secret location dubbed "The Central Texas Command Center and the Heart of the Resistance."
Alex Jones, America's foremost purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories, was in a buoyant mood that day. He'd had Matt Drudge, the influential conservative news aggregator, on recently. But this was much bigger.
Trump wasted no time signaling that his mind-set aligned with the host's. Trump said he wouldn't apologize for asserting that large numbers of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the collapse of the twin towers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a claim that fact-checkers have repeatedly refuted.
"People like you and I can't do that so easily," the New York developer, speaking from his office in Trump Tower, said. He would later call Jones "a nice guy."
The December interview would reverberate into the general election as Hillary Clinton tried to use it to paint Trump as an irresponsible crackpot associating with an irresponsible crackpot. It also pushed Jones, who operates the websites Infowars.com and Prisonplanet.com, from the realm of niche showman into the mainstream national dialogue. The man who said that the Newtown, Conn., school shooting was a "hoax" involving child actors and claimed that elements of the U.S. government were responsible for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building and for the 9/11 attacks had been granted an enormous new audience.
"I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media," says Roger Stone, the Nixon-era political trickster who orchestrated Trump's appearance on the show.
On Monday, Trump seemed to confirm Jones's status. Jones says Trump called to promise he would return to the program to thank the Infowars audience, an extraordinary gesture for an incoming president whose schedule is packed with calls from world leaders and the enormous task of overseeing the transition. The president-elect's team hasn't confirmed that the conversation took place.
Stone, who takes credit for persuading Jones to support Trump, envisions the Web impresario as a potent force during the new administration, a bridge between the presidency and a restless, skeptical slice of the population. "He's a valuable asset - somebody has to rally the people around President Trump's legislative program," Stone says.
Jones, who did not respond to interview requests, got his start hosting a public-access television program in Austin, where he grew up, the son of a dentist. He speaks cryptically about his family, fostering an aura of mystique when he says that his father's patients included CIA officials who were so important that they had to be guarded while under anesthesia.
"I had some family that did some things for the CIA," he once said.
In Austin, a city with a distinct embrace of quirky characters, Jones's histrionics could sometimes be a source of college-keg-party amusement. He became pals with the Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater, who cast him in small roles in the 2001 film "Waking Life" and in "A Scanner Darkly" in 2006.
"He's really smart. . . . I like the way he thinks," Linklater said with a smile during a Huffington Post Live interview to promote his 2013 film, "Before Midnight."
But Linklater added that he didn't share some of his friend's more controversial views: "I don't agree 9/11 was an inside job." On the couch next to Linklater, a shocked look crossed the face of the film's co-star, Julie Delpy. (Linklater declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Jones is a thickly constructed 42-year-old with bright piercing eyes and a retreating hairline. His Facebook bio describes him as "ruggedly handsome." His rhetorical style resembles an avalanche - of words. He makes assertions with the scantiest of proof, but delivered with utter certainty. His monologues explode with emotion. Some days he appears to be sobbing, holding his face in his hands. Then he's making deep, guttural growling noises. Then he's howling.
The Internet is thick with video clips labeled "Alex Jones Epic RANT!!" or "Alex Jones unleashed!" or "Epic meltdown." The more he screams, the more they listen.
It's as if he's one-upping himself in real time. During one show he went off on Hillary Clinton, calling her "a witch." But he didn't stop there. She is "evil," he said, "a whore of Babylon drunk on the blood of the saints."
He stuck out his tongue and unloosed a menacing yowl.
"So demonic," he said.
Jones is also a filmmaker, having produced a stream of long, densely scripted, often thinly supported documentaries with titles such as "Terrorstorm: A History of Government-Sponsored Terrorism," "9/11: The Road to Tyranny," and "Fall of the Republic: The Presidency of Barack H. Obama." In his films, as well as his hours-long radio and Web broadcasts, Jones frequently returns to his core theme of the threat posed by shadowy, malevolent, elite "globalists" bent on worldwide domination.
The United Nations, he claims, intends to release plagues that will kill off 80 percent of the people in the world. The remaining population, he says, will be herded into crowded cities where they will be enslaved by the elite, turning the Earth into a "prison planet." A smaller population would mean the elite would have less competition for mysterious "life extension technologies."
The recurrent message is that these powerful interests foment insecurity to then foist policy changes on an addled public. Hence, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, in Jones's telling, was confected to thrust gun control on America.
"Sandy Hook is a completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn't believe it at first," Jones said on one program. "I know they had actors there clearly. But I thought they killed some real kids."
Other tragedies, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, he says, were "false flags" employing CIA-manipulated dupes who take the blame. The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound was faked because the terrorist leader was a CIA asset. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was behind the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. It goes on. And on. And on.
In the mid-1990s, at the outset of Jones's career, he was befriended by Ted Anderson, the owner of Midas Resources, a Minnesota gold coins and precious metals firm that sponsored his show. In an interview, Anderson recalls the young Jones as having "a lot of drive. Not a terribly big audience. At that time it was just raw energy. He's more refined now."
Anderson was the founder of "The Ron Paul Air Corps," a group of pilots who flew planes pulling banners promoting the "Ron Paul Revolution" during the former congressman's 2008 presidential run. Paul, who has appeared frequently on Jones's program, did not respond to an interview request.
Now, another Anderson company, Genesis Communications Network, syndicates the Alex Jones program to 129 radio stations, many of them in small markets. It's difficult to confirm Jones's audience size, but the host has said he has 5 million daily radio listeners and recently topped 80 million video views in a single month. He claims to have a bigger audience than Rush Limbaugh.
Jones is able to multiply his audience by simulcasting his radio programming via his website and further spreading its reach on his YouTube channel. The costs are minuscule in comparison to running, say, a cable television network, and it's conceivable he could be generating millions in profits.
One of the engines for his media fiefdom is the sale of Infowars-branded products, including T-shirts and Infowars-branded dietary supplements and cleansers. He touts the company's detoxifiers, including one made from the green hulls of black walnuts, the bark of a South American tree (the quassia) and the buds of organic cloves. For the survivalists in his audience, he offers a $1,797 "Infowars Life Select" one-year food supply.
Jones has always had flair for the dramatic, as he displayed during this year's Republican National convention when he stormed onto the set of the liberal program, "The Young Turks," and got into shoving match with the hosts that looked like it could have come straight out of the erstwhile Jerry Springer show.
Jones was largely ignored by the mainstream media. But in 2006, he drew substantial attention from cable news programs when the actor Charlie Sheen, then the star of the popular TV show "Two and a Half Men," appeared on his show and agreed with Jones that the government might be covering up the true story of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Suddenly, Jones had a perch as a guest on CNN. On the network, he boasted that he had "intel" two months before Sept. 11 that "elements of the military industrial complex were going to carry out the attacks. I said they'll use bin Laden. . . . That is their patsy to take blame for attacking the towers."
The excitement about the Sheen comments would die down, but Jones never relented, returning to the allegations over and over. His claims about "globalists" were interpreted by some critics as a veiled anti-Semitic code. Jones appeared eager to address the suggestion during a program in which he turned his attention to the Emanuel brothers: Rahm, Zeke and Ari.
"They're always trying to claim that if I talk about world government and corruption, I'm anti-Semitic," Jones told his audience. "The Emanuels are Jewish mafia. It's not that Jews are bad. It's just that they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States."
Jones's remarks have put him in the crosshairs of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled him an "extremist." In an interview, the center's Heidi Beirich called Jones a "gateway drug for people who end up in harder aspects of the movement," such as neo-Nazi groups.
She pointed to the case of Jerad and Amanda Miller, a couple who died in a shootout after the ambush killing of two police officers and the murder of one civilian in Las Vegas. Citing the pair's Internet postings, Beirich described the couple as "Alex Jones superfans," who moved on to other groups and eventually violence.
After the shooting, Jones said on his program that "my gut tells me that the coldblooded, degenerate, evil killing . . . is absolutely staged, ladies and gentlemen. . . . There is so much proof that this was staged that my mind exploded with hundreds of data points, and quite frankly it's conclusive."
Anderson, Jones's radio syndicator, doesn't mind the criticisms of his star host: "As long as they spell Alex Jones correctly, they can think of him anyway they want," he says.
Jones gained an important ally in 2013 when he met Roger Stone in Dallas. Stone was there to promote a book he'd written suggesting that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
A couple years later, Stone says, a Jones employee reconnected them.
"We really kind of hit it off," Stone says. "He's fearless. A showman. He likes a drink. A cigar. Bawdy stories. Hunting and fishing. He's a man's man."
Stone says he had spent nearly three decades trying to figure out how to make Donald Trump president. He thought his new friend, Jones, could help.
He particularly liked the idea of Trump appearing on the Jones shows, because "they are reaching the Trump constituencies," Stone says. "They are reaching the people who knock on the doors."
Trump, according to Stone, wasn't difficult to persuade. The president-elect is "an inveterate watcher of television. He has watched Infowars, Stone says. "They hit it off."
During his wide-ranging interview with Trump in December, Jones hit on themes at the center of the mogul's candidacy, such as radical Islamists allegedly flooding into the country and a reevaluation of Russian President Vladi-mir Putin.
"Why are we starting a fight with Russia when they're not doing anything to us?" Jones asked.
Trump responded that Putin is "tough and he's smart. He's a difficult cookie. I will probably get along well with him."
As the campaign progressed, Jones became more and more of a presence. He marketed "Hillary for Prison" T-shirts, and they became wildly popular. Stone recalls Trump remarking to him that he liked seeing so many of the shirts in the audience at his rallies.
Clinton took notice. In late August, during a stump speech in Reno, Nev., Clinton called out Trump's attacks on her health as "fever dreams."
"It's what happens when you listen to the radio host Alex Jones, who claims that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings were inside jobs," Clinton told her audience. She noted that Trump had told the radio host: "Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down."
Jones was now, officially, a campaign issue.
Jones, in response, does what Jones does: He went ballistic, blasting Clinton for months. In October, he wondered aloud to his audience, "I'm told there's a rotten smell around Hillary. . . . Folks, I've been told this by high-up folks. Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur."
The president took the bait. During a campaign appearance for Clinton, less than a month before the election, Obama said that "a guy on the radio" had been calling him and Clinton "demons" who "smelled like sulfur." To illustrate his point, the president sniffed his hand. "I mean, c'mon," Obama said with a big smile.
It all seemed meant to make Jones and Trump look like jokes. But Stone was loving it.
"They're merely making him bigger," Stone says, looking back. "They're only making him more important. I think it had the reverse effect."
On election night, Stone joined Jones at his friend's Austin studio. They popped open champagne.
Jones had much to celebrate. But he was worried, he told his audience. He's been warning about it for a long time: Elites will try to assassinate Trump. Jones can feel it in his gut.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Jones once led a raucous protest at the Texas Capitol over the Legislature's failure to criminalize invasive airport pat downs. "Every one of [those senators] is an enemy of the Republic and the Republic of Texas!" Jones bellowed.
In 2010, Jones was among those upset that the controversial film "Machete" might receive state support for shooting in the state.
Disclosure: Richard Linklater has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
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|Publication:||The Texas Tribune|
|Date:||Nov 17, 2016|
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