It’s a typically disorienting winter day in an unremarkable part of Los Angeles, the palm trees bristling above the Walgreens and the tire shops, the golden light washing insistently over the slowly rotating sign above a twenty-four-hour burger joint, its paint peeled away into nonexistence. The sun doesn’t penetrate into this vast, windowless ballroom out by the airport, where I’m learning about the secret pedophiles who make up 30 percent of the federal government.
Journalist Anna Merlan takes readers on a highly readable walk through some of America’s most notorious conspiracy theories of late, and introduces the theorists responsible. She focuses on the most recent incidents, particularly contributors in the lead-up to the 2016 election and their ripple effects through politics, mainstream news and sometimes, endings in tragedy.
She also does due diligence in covering where myth has intersected with reality, something often hard to discern after conspiracy theories have blown up.
There’s often (though not always) some relationship in America between conspiracy theory and actual conspiracy, between the shadows on the cave wall and the shape of the thing itself.
In addition to very smooth and easy to follow storytelling (no small feat considering the inherent complication and near-nonsense beliefs of some of these) her writing is at times just sublime, as the above passage demonstrates. I hate to say the cliche makes-you-feel-like-you’re-there, because I’m not eager to attend the conventions and meetings of groups she bravely does, but she has that journalistic gift of capturing her surroundings and making the reader feel that impression fully. Like when she describes being “treated to the charming and unexpected sight of old ladies with haloes of snowy hair carefully taking notes while they listened to presentations about Nazis flying experimental spacecraft over DC.”
Merlan circulates amongst various gatherings and events, providing camera-like reportage on what she observes and explanatory context about the groups, their leaders and core beliefs. Her reporting doesn’t uncover anything earth-shattering, but rather distills the essences of individual movements and motivations, clearly and concisely analyzes the sociopolitical context in which they arose, and makes it all informative and page-turning. It doesn’t necessarily say massive amounts that’s new. That was fine for me as I enjoyed her impressions and walk-throughs, but it’s worth knowing. To have so much information about these beliefs collected here and reported brilliantly makes a worthwhile, and dare I say, enjoyable read.
Pizzagate represents a type of story to which Americans are particularly susceptible, a religiously based hysteria and conspiracism featuring the Devil and children and sexual horror. Different versions of the same scenario have dogged us from the Salem witch trials through the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s.
And some of these conspiracies, like Pizzagate, I’d paid scant attention to (you really have to limit conspiracy consumption in your daily news intake, lest you feel too hopeless and/or confused) but didn’t know much about in detail. In the Pizzagate story, she explains its origins and what a dangerous belief in unfounded rumor can unleash, following the story through to the shooter who showed up at Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C. looking for Hillary Clinton and John Podesta’s basement child sex slave operation. Sometimes I can’t even believe the words I’m writing and I can only imagine what it was like for Merlan to be in these places, talking with these people and trying to explain it all in the book. I have to wonder what she did to stay sane.
Also worth noting is that Merlan wisely only marginally involves herself in the story, and her appearances are generally just to demonstrate the hypocrisy, disorganization and confusion among members (something also demonstrated to great extent in Vegas Tenold’s Everything You Love Will Burn, about white supremacist groups, some of which also make appearances here.)
Otherwise, this remains a fairly objective and richly observational look at what’s happened/happening and why, with only a few mildly questionable personal interjections of opinion. Learning what we learn, it’s hard to fault her, and they are funny, although I would’ve liked to have seen a different approach to journalistic integrity, something at which she truly excels elsewhere.
And I have to take a hats-off moment for the publishing team here, who may have achieved something remarkable. That combination of title and cover imagery just might be enough to get this into the hands of people who need it most, albeit through the belief that it’s on their side, but still. It just might do it (if the subtitle gets overlooked).
Topical and important narrative journalism on the disturbing, but not worth ignoring, issue of conspiracy and fringe groups and their increasingly loud voice in American politics, especially with a “conspiracy enthusiast” in the White House. 4.25/5
“These outbreaks of religious hysteria recur so persistently in America for a reason: they are, like so many conspiracy theories, a response to moments of social change and perceived societal fracture. Satanic Panic allegations first arose during a moment in the 1980s of intense concern over the number of women in the workforce and a subsequent rise in “latchkey kids” and paid caregivers. Pizzagate emerged during the 2016 elections, a time when Americans were relitigating, to an exhausting degree, our beliefs, our vision of America, and our sexual ethics. The paranoid idea of sexual predators hiding in the highest echelons of power was not so paranoid; Pizzagate, though, spun it through a nexus of faux black magic, imagined ritual, and nonsensical allegations that were somehow both unbelievable and yet, for a lot of people, unbelievably powerful.”
“One of the most intense and immovable American fears is of subliminal, hidden government control…that’s one reason for paranoia about such threats as mind-controlling fluoride in the water supply, subliminal messages in advertising and Disney movies, and brainwashing in schools through the Common Core curriculum.”
“The logic of false flaggery has become so convoluted that…lesser conspiracy theorists have said that Alex Jones is himself a false flag, a government plant designed for a sinister purpose.”
On whether Twitter should ban Trump for violations: “Surely, in part, some of these services are hamstrung by a grim, darkly funny logical endpoint: Trump is the best-known political figure on earth to use social media to spread conspiracy theories. Any banning policy would, in the end, have to cover him, too.”
“The Chapman survey noted that more Americans believe in UFOs than believe in natural selection or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.” (That one bummed me out)
“In the end, though, conspiracy theories are the symptom, not the disease; they are a function of the society in which they breed.”
Republic of Lies:
American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power
by Anna Merlan
published April 16, 2019 by Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.