Engrossing assessment of the profitable mainstreaming of conspiracymongering in civic and political life.
In her debut book, Merlan, a reporter at Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk, captures this unsettling narrative succinctly and concretely. As she writes, once “the United States narrowly elected a conspiracy enthusiast as its president,” there followed the codification of a long-gestating seamy underbelly of shared belief in ominous, far-fetched plots. The election of Donald Trump allowed a network of conspiracy profiteers, ranging from InfoWars’ Alex Jones to white supremacist Richard Spencer, to accrue wealth and credibility; their acolytes “loved Trump, even the left-leaning among them who might have once preferred Bernie Sanders.” Yet, she notes, “conspiracy theorizing has been part of the American system of governance and culture and thought since its beginnings.” These dual lenses of current events and longitudinal narrative allow for clear structure. In each chapter, Merlan focuses on a conspiracy subtopic—e.g. UFO theories, false-flag proponents, anti-vaxxers, the sovereign citizen movement—chronicling her conversations with prominent adherents and the academics, activists, or investigators who document and fitfully counter them. She is cleareyed about the harm done by figures like Jones and his ilk, who have inspired harassment of Sandy Hook victims and the family of DNC staffer Seth Rich, whose family discovered that “social sites give enterprising self-investigators access to the subjects of their conspiracies as never before.” Similarly, while attending a “white nationalist cookout” shortly before the 2017 Charlottesville events, the author concluded that the much-discussed “alt-right” relies on familiar, shopworn conspiracy theories regarding immigrants and Jews: “Hate groups all over the world are fueled by terrified, wild conjectures about the people they hate.” However, Merlan has sympathy for conspiracy theorists influenced by actual abuses of power, noting that “the history of UFOs is a perfect illustration of the way in which genuine government secrecy feeds citizen paranoia.” The author ably navigates this troubling landscape, with thought and some humor, though she seems more engaged by recent figures and controversies.
A lucid, well-researched look at a slippery topic.