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The Invisible Empire of Alex Jones

In 1972, the soft-spoken psychedelic evangelist Terence McKenna emerged from the Colombian Amazon, where he and his brother had spent months trekking through the woods, ingesting heroic amounts of psilocybin mushrooms and pondering the secrets of the cosmos. Three years later, the McKenna brothers published Invisible Landscape, an esoteric tome that applied their shroom-gleaned jungle wisdom to the ancient Mayan calendar and the Chinese book of I Ching. “We believe that by using such ideas as a compass for the collectivity, we may find our way back to a new model in time to reverse the progressive worldwide alienation that is fast turning into an eco-cidal planetary crisis,” McKenna wrote. “The stupendous idea of an end of time is an attempt to negate the eternal stasis, to break the circle.”

McKenna claimed that the end of time would come in 2012, igniting a belief in the transformative powers of that date that still burned at the fringes of American thought 37 years later, when Alex Jones donned a black western shirt and sat down in front of a video camera to set the record straight. Jones, a rougher sort of prophet than McKenna, denounced the “doomsday hubbub” in a YouTube video published December 14, 2012, one week before the supposed apocalypse. The theory didn’t originate with the Mayans, he growled as an eerie synthesizer melody descended behind him. It came from “new age thinkers” like McKenna who sought to defraud and mislead the American people.

Alex Jones is a proud paranoiac, one whom might be expected to sympathize with McKenna’s message of worldwide alienation and planetary crisis. But the radio host, as he often does, sensed something even deeper afoot. He explained that a sense of futility encouraged by the 2012 theories might keep downtrodden people from standing up to their oppressors. “That is what the 2012 hoax is all about,” he said. “An artificial superstition to make people turn over control of their lives to the globalist technocrats.” To America’s greatest conspiracy theorist, even a conspiracy theory can start to look like evidence of a conspiracy.

Jones is a virtuosic orator and TV personality, more engaging to watch than just about anyone else on the airwaves, regardless of whether you believe what’s coming out of his mouth. He likes to boast that he doesn’t use scripts or teleprompters on his daily radio show and video webcast, but he needn’t advertise the fact any more than Ornette Coleman should have briefed listeners that he wasn’t playing his interstellar sax explorations from sheet music. Jones has an improviser’s natural sense of rhythm: Sometimes, he is a boulder tumbling downhill, picking up speed and debris as he crescendos toward angry and invigorating catharsis; other times, he’s a feather in the wind, fluttering down, then up, letting a thought hang in the air for one suspenseful moment before plunging in a different direction entirely. He is a lifelong Texan, and his drawl sounds like it is emanating from a throat filled with dust and syrup.

Today, thanks largely to the surprise success of Donald Trump’s undeniably Jonesian U.S. presidential campaign, Alex Jones is a bona fide force in mainstream American politics. His radio show is syndicated from his Austin, Texas, studio to 160 stations nationwide, and it reaches many more listeners over the internet. According to the web analytics company Quantcast, his website InfoWars reaches about 7.5 million unique readers per month, with 6.5 million of the site’s visitors based in the United States. Those numbers aren’t far behind Quantcast’s statistics for the long-running liberal publication Salon, which counts 9.1 million global and 7 million U.S. unique monthly visitors. (That probably says as much about Salon’s declining influence as it does about InfoWars’s grasp on the American psyche, but still.)

In December 2015, Trump phoned in to the Alex Jones Show for a 30-minute interview. “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” the candidate told the host. Jones and InfoWars have steadfastly supported Trump’s candidacy since then. On a recent Monday, the InfoWars homepage displayed 13 different pro-Trump headlines, several of which echoed the candidate’s insistence that the election is rigged against him: “Hillary Bores Audiences While Trump Knocks It Out Of The Park,” “Trump Devastates Hillary at Catholic Event,” “Trump Surges In Polls, Hillary Moves To Steal,” “Are The Polls Rigged Against Trump? All Of These Wildly Divergent Surveys Cannot Possibly Be Correct,” and so on. T-shirts and signs bearing the slogan “Hillary for Prison”—purchased via the InfoWars store or bootlegged after Jones popularized the phrase—were an inescapable sight at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Jones himself could be seen palling around with alt-right godhead Milo Yiannopoulos and erstwhile Trump advisor Roger Stone. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty,” Trump proclaimed at a campaign speech in West Palm Beach this month, channeling almost verbatim Jones’s obsession with the idea that the global elite are conspiring to create a one-world government. With its images of “international bankers” conniving in the shadows, the speech also carried a distinct whiff of anti-Semitism.

Alex Jones is not the most important influence on Trump’s campaign. To the extent that the candidate is influenced by anything other than his own wild hairs, that designation might go to someone like Trump campaign CEO and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, or former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Jones’s influence on Trump is unmistakable nonetheless. It would be unthinkable for any other major-party presidential candidate to willingly appear on a show with a man who believes that the U.S. government was involved in conducting the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, as Jones does, or to intimate that he would not accept the results of the election, an impulse that Jones encourages.

In 2016, Alex Jones has recruited the Republican nominee to join him in shouting out the basest fears of a nation where lunatics and police kill our countrymen in the streets, where suburban mothers fret over genetically modified baby food, where white supremacist poets post their lurid fantasias to Facebook Live, and where immigrants and refugees are pleading at our doorstep. Among the many twists in the most bizarre presidential campaign in recent history, few developments have felt more surreal than Alex Jones rising to become one of the philosopher chiefs behind a presidential candidate.

It is surreal to talk about issues here on air, and then, word-for-word, hear Trump say it two days later.

Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, believes that Trump’s initial embrace of conspiracy rhetoric was disingenuous, a ploy to reach Republicans who felt disenchanted with the GOP status quo, and that this audience eventually became his base. “But after the first debate, and after the second debate in particular, he just has the sense that he’s losing,” Fenster said. “And now the conspiracy theories are personal.”

Trump’s West Palm Beach speech, which also included allegations that establishment media companies are conspiring against his campaign, came less than a week after the Washington Post published a recording of the candidate talking about sexually assaulting women. The tape, and the string of assault allegations that followed, threatened to derail Trump’s candidacy entirely. “The irony is I’m not sure that Trump especially believed in conspiracy theories to begin with,” Fenster said. “But now he’s forced to believe it, because now the conspiracy has become pitched against him. Now he has no choice but to become a fully committed conspiracy theorist.”

“It is surreal to talk about issues here on air, and then, word-for-word, hear Trump say it two days later,” Jones once said on his radio show, in a clip that the Clinton campaign recently repurposed for an anti-Trump ad. Alex Jones has made a career from divining sinister patterns where there are none, but he is right about at least one thing: in 2016, Donald Trump sounds a lot like Alex Jones.

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Alex Jones believes that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He believes that Taylor Swift loves genetically modified bacteria poop. He believes that Justin Bieber will encourage Americans to hand in their guns and embrace the police state. He believes that the government adds chemicals that turn children gay to juice boxes and water bottles, as a means of population control. He believes that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, and that the Obama administration may have been involved in the crime. He believes, as Barack Obama noted in a recent Clinton campaign speech, that the president and the Democratic nominee are demons who smell like sulfur. He is not entirely closed off to the idea that Earth is controlled by a race of inter-dimensional lizard people.

For Jones, all of these seemingly disconnected points are stars in a constellation, one that spells out the phrase “NEW WORLD ORDER.” His life and work are wholly governed by a fear that establishment politicians like Clinton, financiers like George Soros, and secretive organizations like the Bilderbergs are plotting the creation of an autocratic government that would reign over the entire planet. Like a religious zealot—or a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel—Jones believes that nearly any earthly phenomenon can be ascribed to a higher power: in Jones’s case, the supposed existence of the New World Order conspiracy. In an ad for an InfoWars-branded herbal supplement called Super Male Vitality, one of dozens of herbal supplements and tinctures available for purchase at the InfoWars store, images of a young and shockingly buff Jones flash across the screen as he explains the pounds he packed on after the photos were taken: “I got so focused on fighting the globalists and their program for one-world government that I stopped working out.”

I got so focused on fighting the globalists and their program for one-world government that I stopped working out.

Even when Trump isn’t quoting chapter-and-verse from the Alex Jones playbook, the xenophobia and distrust of globalism that powers Jones and other conspiracists is easy to identify when the candidate talks. It’s there in his hardline opposition to international trade deals, and in his repeated calls to strengthen American borders against Latin American immigrants and Syrian refugees. It’s there when Trump embraces outright conspiracy theories himself, as when he popularized the idea that Obama was born in Kenya. It’s there when he claims that vaccines cause autism, and that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to stunt the American manufacturing industry. It was there at the final presidential debate, when he refused to confirm that he’d accept the results of the election if he were to lose.

That Trump would seem to be the very image of the unscrupulous international elite that Jones so loathes—with his fabulous wealth, his luxury hotels, his decade-plus tenure as host of The Apprentice on liberal media titan NBC, his habit of screwing over the little guys that do business with the Trump Organization—apparently does little to dampen Jones’s Trump admiration or that of his supporters. 

Fenster likens Trump’s adjacence to conspiracy culture to that of Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and conservative ideologue who made a failed presidential run against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. (Incidentally, a young Hillary Clinton first entered political life after being galvanized by the Goldwater campaign, before taking a sharp leftward turn sometime down the road.) Like Trump, Goldwater ran an uncompromising far-right campaign that split the GOP establishment. Also like Trump, he enjoyed the support of one of his era’s preeminent fringe thinkers: Robert Welch, founder of the far-right extremist John Birch Society. The JBS, founded in 1958, advocated zealously for small government, and its McCarthyesque leadership saw communists lurking behind every corner—all the way up to the White House. Decades before Jones came on the scene, Welch was arguing to anyone who would listen that fluoridated water was a Communist plot to weaken America.

“It seemed inconceivable that an anti-establishment gadfly like Goldwater could be nominated as the spokesman-head of a political party,” old-guard conservative icon William F. Buckley wrote shortly before his death in 2008. “And it was embarrassing that the only political organization in town that dared suggest this radical proposal—the GOP’s nominating Goldwater for president—was the John Birch Society.”

In response to Welch’s insistence that President Eisenhower was a Communist agent, and his investment in loony ideas like the fluoride plot, Buckley published a 5,000-word screed against the JBS and its founder in the National Review in 1962, effectively excommunicating Welch from mainstream conservatism. Goldwater, too, soon distanced himself from Welch, and the Birchers were ultimately relegated to the backwaters of history.

Trump has yet to make any similar disavowal of Jones—in fact, by appearing on the Alex Jones Show, the candidate seemed to embrace the kookiest members of his base with open arms. In the interview, when Jones called Trump a leader in a “war for the soul of this country” against “globalists who want to have a world government,” the candidate said nothing to contradict that notion. Whether that embrace will continue past November is anyone’s guess. “What happens if Trump wins?” Fenster said. “What kind of a relationship is he going to have with Alex Jones? The over/under to me is six months, maybe even 3 months, before Alex Jones decides that Trump has actually sold him out.”

But even if Trump loses in a landslide, as Goldwater did in ’64, his ideas—and those of his favorite conspiracist—aren’t going away. “It’s a frightening parallel,” said Fenster. “If you think that Goldwater ended up causing Reagan—well, what’s Trump going to cause?”

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In the decades after the publication of Invisible Landscape, Terence McKenna backtracked from his original 2012 doomsday prophecy. He claimed that “the stupendous idea of an end of time” really meant “some enormously reality-rearranging thing.” A new beginning, like the technological singularity or a visit from space aliens, but not a literal apocalypse. Even Jones might concede some truth to this idea.

One year before the supposed end-times, Jones was already the most popular conspiracy theorist in America, but it had been about a decade since his insistent 9/11 trutherism launched him into the popular consciousness. In a 2011 Rolling Stone profile, Jones seemed fixated on the success of a Fox News pundit who shared his suspicion of government and penchant for on-air histrionics.

“People inside his company tell me [Glenn] Beck follows what we do closely,” he said. “It’s frustrating that I’ve never sold out, yet I’m being gobbled up by this giant Pac-Man who puts my work through his corporate-media assembly line. He takes information from me about secret combines and elites and then spins it against big government, but he ignores big business. He says George Soros is at the top of the New World Order power pyramid? Give me a break…New listeners tell me I’m a Beck wanna-be. I’m like, ‘No, it’s the other way around.’”

The same paranoia that guides Jones’s politics also seems to inform his sense of professional competitiveness: his jabs about Beck following him closely don’t sound much different from his complaints about the undercover detectives who supposedly watch him during visits to New York City. But like many conspiracy theories, the idea that Beck took Jones’s ideas and watered them down for mass consumption has a kernel of truth. Watching old clips of Beck’s performative on-air crying, it’s easy to imagine Jones taking off his shirt and roaring instead. Beck began talking about the New World Order after Jones had already been fretting about it for years. Rolling Stone devoted an entire sidebar of its 2011 article to the notion that Beck was biting Jones’s style. (Jones is no longer so friendly with the mainstream press—after many calls to his Austin headquarters, I was told by a representative that Jones is not granting interviews to any outlets for the foreseeable future.)

Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first.

But in 2011, Glenn Beck was the perfect pundit for America, rip-off artist or no. Republican candidates had just trounced Democrats in the previous year’s midterm elections, with many new conservative legislators riding into Washington on the support of the emergent Tea Party movement. Paul Ryan, five years away from the recent flood of “cuck”s from angry Trump supporters in his Twitter mentions, looked like the future of the Republican party. Ryan’s radical budget proposal called for a near total gutting of the federal government, but he had smooth enough edges to also serve as running mate to Mitt Romney, a firmly establishment candidate, in 2012. (Now, Ryan might still be the party’s future, but he’ll have to rebuild whatever’s left after November’s election.) Republican voters in 2011 were extremely suspicious of the political system, and they supported potentially cataclysmic plans to shrink it, but they weren’t yet primed to burn down the entire government. Beck’s softer, more identifiably Republican approach to doomsday prophecy resonated with Americans who weren’t quite ready for Jones and Trump’s fire and brimstone.

On December 14, 2012, Jones received a big break, wrapped in a national tragedy. On the same day that the host published his “2012 Doomsday Secrets Revealed” video, a 20-year-old Connecticut man named Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with a semi-automatic rifle and murdered 20 children and six school employees, then killed himself. Jones was quick to place the killing within his cosmology of psyops and false flag attacks. “Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured,” he said on his show a month later, in what has become one of his most notorious diatribes. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.”

Then came an unhinged CNN interview with Piers Morgan about gun control, in which Jones advocated for Morgan’s deportation to the UK and challenged him to a boxing match. Suddenly, he had more notoriety than he’d ever known. (The “global attention” garnered by the Morgan interview is still listed among Jones’s bona fides on the InfoWars about page.) By May 2013, after he decried the Boston Marathon bombing as a similar false-flag attack, the fact of Jones’s puzzling success was a rare point of consensus among liberal and conservative corners of the internet. Both Salon and the Drudge Report proclaimed that 2013 was “the year of Alex Jones.” From the vantage of 2016, that prediction looks quaint—like it would if a music critic had proclaimed 1989 “the year of Kurt Cobain” after Nirvana released Bleach.

Back then, Jones was plainly jealous of Beck, who was preparing to launch his own massively hyped independent conservative multimedia network, The Blaze. Now, Trump and Jones seem like good buddies, and Beck, a Ted Cruz supporter who has refused to hop on the Trump train, is reduced to dipping his face in Cheeto dust. Owing to a flurry of bad business decisions, to Beck’s reportedly erratic managerial style, and perhaps in part to his steadfast anti-Trumpism, The Blaze is in steep decline, its only recent success being the viral fame of right-wing firebrand commentator Tomi Lahren. Over the last 15 months, it shuttered its New York office and laid off dozens of employees. InfoWars seems to be doing just fine. If Glenn Beck was the perfect pundit for the Tea Party movement, Alex Jones is the perfect pundit for its more deranged successor—Trumpism.

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Jackson Hickey, a 22-year-old heavy metal guitarist from the Pittsburgh area, first became aware of Alex Jones as a teenager, at a party hosted by a fellow musician. “We’re going to be showing some of these films, and they’re political,” the party host announced. “If you’re not into this kind of stuff, we ask that you let the people that are into it do their thing, and not disrupt them.”

The host urged Hickey to watch a film, which turned out to be one of the many documentaries that Jones has helped produce over the years. Hickey doesn’t remember the title, but he said it dealt with “Alex Jones’s stereotypical stuff: a lot of police state stuff, a lot of going into the global elite, financial crises, collapses, that kind of stuff. Government control was definitely a big target issue. This kid was basically inviting people over to his house and turning them on.”

Hickey had a traditional conservative upbringing, and he was skeptical of what he heard that night. But something stuck with him, and over time, he occasionally revisited Jones’s ideas, supplementing them with his own research. “The bigger false flag stuff, could the government be behind it?” he said. “I started researching it myself, and I started seeing that historically, this has happened before. It’s not impossible for it to happen. And that turned into, with more research, it looks like it could have happened. And then, from my point of view, with more research, it’s like, OK, it definitely looks like it did happen.”

Hickey now considers himself a “die-hard” Jones supporter. He reads InfoWars every day, alongside sites like Breitbart, The Drudge Report, and End the Fed. He listens to or watches the Alex Jones Show as often as he can, but he has a new commitment that has cut into his free time: volunteering with the Pennsylvania GOP, knocking on doors for Trump. That means he’s also canvassing for Pat Toomey, a sitting Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who has been decidedly lukewarm on his party’s presidential candidate. “It’s kind of funny, because I’m not even going to vote for Toomey,” Hickey said with a laugh. “But when I have that shirt on, I kind of have to support him.”

When Trump gives speeches like the one in West Palm Beach, it resonates with InfoWars fans who recognize Jones’s ideas in the candidate’s rhetoric, Hickey said. He pointed to a relatively minor position as a key reason for his support of Trump. During the primary race, Trump agitated for the release of 28 pages that had been classified from the 9/11 Commission Report, speculating that they would show Saudi involvement in the World Trade Center attack. In July, the Obama administration released those pages–with redactions–and indeed, they contained potentially troubling information about Saudi government employees contacting the hijackers before 9/11.

 Does Alex Jones know of your activity?

Trump was far from the only voice calling for the release of those pages, or even the most important voice. A bipartisan group of lawmakers penned a House resolution asking Obama to release them back in 2013, when Trump was still hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. And the legitimate concern that the Saudi government somehow assisted the 9/11 attackers is very different from the theory that the U.S. government perpetrated the attacks itself, an idea that Jones espouses on his show, which Hickey believes. Still, Hickey said, Trump’s tactic of “going on what a lot of people would call conspiracy theories, and making them into large talking points, and being very successful at it,” is appealing to Jones supporters.

“I kind of have to watch what I’m saying, going door-to-door,” he said of his GOP volunteer work. He has occasionally talked to voters about what he believes are the multiple false-flags attacks that have been conducted on U.S. soil, but he only does so if the voter brings them up first. “Sometimes they’ll say, I love what [Trump] stands for, but I don’t like the fact that his mouth gets him into trouble all the time,” Hickey said. “That’s usually how it starts. And it’s like, ‘What do you agree with?’ and they start listing.”

Of the dozen Jones supporters I contacted for this piece, Hickey was one of only two who expressed interest in being interviewed. Another, a young black man from Kentucky who’d published a positive review of Jones’s Super Male Vitality supplement to YouTube, was initially chatty and enthusiastic but eventually backed off. “Does Alex Jones know of your activity?” he asked at one point during our email correspondence. I told him no, he doesn’t, and that I’d recently requested an interview with Jones and had been turned down. “I spoke with a few key people in the Info Wars Camp and they said they did not know who you were,” he wrote in his next email. “It may not be in my best interest being of all the things that are going on with the inside of his camp. Any bad statements made towards any other presidential campaign runners might [result in] and very fascist consequences.”

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Earlier this month, Jones turned introspective during an episode of his show. “I look at my life—the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it was all building,” he said, gesticulating and widening his eyes to emphasize syllables, moving toward what seemed like an optimistic climax. “What I’ve done for twenty-plus years on the air. All of it building towards the time we’re in. All of the skills, all of the background, all of it, clicking, right when it was needed in God’s plan. It’s so humbling, to be associated with all of you, the listeners, and to be in this fight. It brings tears of joy to my eyes, and I’m somebody who didn’t even used to cry at my grandparent’s funerals.”

Then he paused, contemplated the middle distance, tugged on his right earlobe, and suddenly became grave, as if the mention of a funeral had psychically transported him to one. “I think they’re going to kill Trump,” he said resignedly, a transition so jarring it was comical, despite the macabre subject matter. “Or they’re going to have an assassination attempt on Hillary. All hell’s going to break loose. Get ready.”

Fenster, the conspiracy theory expert, believes that figures like Jones are vital to our democracy. Conspiracy theories are an “intense articulation of populism and, at their essence, are strident calls for a better, more transparent government,” Fenster writes in Conspiracy Theories. Watching Jones, it’s easy to see this dynamic in action. Often, he’ll wait until the end of his arias to dramatically pull down the curtain and reveal the connection between juice boxes or Diet Coke and some supposed globalist plot. When he digs into asset forfeiture and the drug war, or the corrupting influence of big banks, it’s easy to see why he was a cult figure for certain leftists during George W. Bush’s presidency. The idea that America’s problems are caused by a cabal of demonic greedheads, and not the crushing forces of history and inertia, is deliciously tempting. It’s a lot more fun to imagine bringing down the evil empire than it is to vote for a candidate who promises marginal improvements to the status quo.

The monologue that best encapsulates Jones’s essence and appeal is from 2011. It has been immortalized on YouTube, variously, as “Alex Jones – Justin Bieber Rant,” “Alex Jones: The “Justin Biebler” Rant,” “Alex Jones goes ballistic because people are worried about Justin Bieber is doing,” “alex jones Justin Bieber rant – with EPIC soundtrack,” “Alex Jones – Justin Bieber Rant (Mortal Kombat edition),” “Lego Alex Jones Lego Justin Bieber Rant,” “Alex Jones Meltdown – Justin Bieber Is Pure Evil,” and “Godspeed You! Emperor Alex Bailey Jones – Bieber Rant.”

It begins with Jones denouncing various evils of modern culture: professional basketball, Lady Gaga, carbon taxes, and yes, Justin Bieber. “They tell your kids they’ve gotta love Justin Biebler,” he guffaws, inserting an extra L into the singer’s name, despite having pronounced it correctly just seconds before, and pronouncing it correctly again just seconds later. It’s hard to explain why, but this a stroke of comedic genius, the bizarre extra letter serving as a damning indictment of Biebler.

I think they’re going to kill Trump. Or they’re going to have an assassination attempt on Hillary. All hell’s going to break loose. Get ready.

Suddenly, Jones pivots into high inspirational mode, swinging his arms and screaming about the 16th-Century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. “That’s destiny!” he shouts, the flames rising in his eyes, as the janky TV screen behind him displays the image of a grim reaper standing on the White House lawn. “That’s will! That’s striving and being a trailblazer, and explore! Going into space! Mathematics! Quantum mechanics! The secrets of the universe! It’s all there! Life is fiery with its beauty, its incredible detail! Tuning into it!”

Eventually, of course, the magic evaporates. Jones pulls the curtain down, telling us that Justin Bieber is a tool of the globalists, meant to shutter our minds against their deadly assault, just like everything else. But for a few transcendent seconds, you forget the conspiracies, the rage, the xenophobia, the government plots, the rhetoric that helped Donald Trump bring America to the edge of catastrophe. For a few seconds, Alex Jones is utterly convincing.