Alex Jones Meet Donald Trump's Propagandist
Right-wing radio host Alex Jones is America's top conspiracy theorist. He has millions of listeners, but his most powerful one happens to be the president of the United States. DER SPIEGEL takes you inside his media empire in Austin.
It's almost 11 a.m., with three minutes to go before his program goes on the air. It's a chilly 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the air-conditioned studio, but Alex Jones is sweating. He wipes his forehead and goes through the day's schedule.
His employees have found a number of magnificent outrages, says Jones, scandals that should have been exposed long ago. They include the alleged "secret plans" of major Internet companies to block conservative websites, and the "truth" about the radioactive contamination at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. "Jesus," Jones says with a groan, "where should we start?"
The screens light up behind him. A small red light starts to blink. Three, two, one, cameras on, filming. "We are live," Jones says into his microphone. "It is Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, and the Democrats are melting away like a bunch of mentally ill children."
Flirting with the Mainstream
No, Jones is not an ordinary radio host. The founder of the Infowars website has been living in his own world for the last 20 years. It's a world of clear friends and clear foes, filled with intrigues and scandals, cover-ups and conspiracies. Jones is convinced that the global elites have formed an alliance against the United States to destroy the country. He disseminates this message five days a week on the Alex Jones Show, broadcast from Austin, Texas. His show is aired on more than 100 radio stations, and his website reaches millions of Americans.
Alex Jones, 43, is the biggest conspiracy theorist in the United States. In the past, Jones had been labeled as a loony, marginal figure. But now, as he says, he is in regular contact with the president and feeds him his ideas. "Trump and I have talked several times since the election -- about freedom and our common goal to destroy our enemies."
The times have changed in America. Since November, loony, marginal figures have shifted closer to the mainstream, and in the days of alternative facts people with a bizarre worldview suddenly become influential media figures. There is no one this applies to more than Jones.
Jones offered Donald Trump his determined support during the election campaign -- and now the president of the United States is his most powerful fan, giving him a direct line to the White House. "Your reputation is amazing," Trump raved when he was a guest on Jones' show during the campaign. "What you're doing is epic. It's George Washington level," Jones said, returning the compliment.
It was already cause for dismay at the time that Trump was aligning himself with Alex Jones, a man who has said a lot of crazy things throughout his life. For example, he believes the government possesses weather weapons it can use to create artificial tornadoes. He's convinced gay marriage is a conspiracy by a global secret society "to encourage the breakdown of the family" and "to get rid of God." He is "95 percent certain" the World Trade Center was not destroyed by an attack on Sept. 11, 2001, but was in fact blown up by the government. The massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which 20 children died? A "hoax" created by gun control advocates. There is no subject on which Jones does not have his own version of the truth to offer, one supported by no facts whatsoever.
'Two Saints of the Same Zeitgeist'
Trump himself is prone to lies, fabrications and half-truths, which is why his symbiotic relationship with Jones is so disconcerting. The two men share a passion for breaking down the complex world of politics into simple thoughts. Both men appeal to an audience that could just as well do without Congress in Washington. They love raw emotion and breaking taboos, and they hate the big media companies and TV networks, along with the Republican establishment. "We are two saints of the same zeitgeist," says Jones.
With Trump now having declared war on the mainstream media, Jones views himself as the journalistic avant-garde. Some in Washington fear his dark way of thinking will affect policymaking. When Trump recently fantasized about millions of illegal votes and accused the press of insufficiently reporting on terrorist attacks, it was Alex Jones that many could hear in those words. He was one of the first to spread these theories. The same applies to the scientifically unsupportable claim, in which Trump believes, that vaccines lead to autism.
Alex Jones, a stocky, coarse-looking man with a round face and a pointed chin, devotes a lot of time to our conversation, using the breaks in his show for small talk, offering me water and talking about his three children. "It's hard to switch off," he says. "I constantly see propaganda everywhere."
Jones' studio is located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Austin. For security reasons, its exact location remains undisclosed. There are surveillance cameras above the entrance, black blinds cover the windows and guests are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Everyone in Austin knows Jones. When he goes out in public, people point to him or ask for his autograph. Jones is concerned about his safety and has a bodyguard. You never know, he says.
Trump's Propaganda Arm?
A sign on the wall at the entrance to the studio reads: "Freedom or Death." The words "Liberal Tears" are printed on a water cooler in the hallway. Jones' realm is enormous. There are four studios, and the state-of-the-art equipment makes it feel like they are part of a national cable broadcaster. There is a large room in which promotional videos are shot, and there are open-plan offices and recreation areas with a ping-pong table and slot machines. Jones calls his offices the "Central Texan Command Center and Heart of the Resistance."
For the first time in his life, Jones says, he's a little more hopeful that America's demise can be prevented, after all. The unsettling thing about this, though, is that Jones has begun to treat his company as a sort of propaganda arm of the presidency, one that is mobilizing the infantry to save the homeland. This can be more dangerous than simply spreading a few unfounded conspiracy theories.
Together with right-wing nationalist websites like Breitbart News, Gateway Pundit and LifeZette, which also have good access to the White House, Jones sees himself as part of a right-wing front that aims to break the power of the traditional media. When Jones talks about the president, it sounds as if he were talking about some Hitler-like Führer. He refers to the first few weeks of the Trump presidency as a "total victory."
The immigration ban? The deportations? Trump's dream of a police state? All wonderful ideas, says Jones, who believes toughness is what America needs today.
Massive Public Exposure
His 100-percent identification with Trump was already evident every day during the campaign. He spewed hate-filled tirades against the Democrats for months. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and then President Barack Obama were his targets in October. On his show, he called Clinton an "abject, psychopathic demon from hell," and said that he had heard that "Obama and Hillary smell like sulfur."
His words spread like wildfire. Clinton mentioned Jones, and Obama joked about him during an appearance, smelling his hand and grinning. The scene became an Internet sensation, but it also provided Jones with massive public exposure.
Jones isn't crazy. He is well-read, knows how to do his research and knows a bit about international politics. When the microphone is off, his speech sometimes sounds as dry as if he were a member of the European Commission. But when the microphone is on, he slips into his role and becomes a fury.
Jones grew up in a suburb of Dallas, where his father was a dentist and his mother was a housewife. After high school, he became familiar with the world of conspiracy theorists through the John Birch Society, an extreme right-wing, anti-communist organization. He tried out his theories on the radio. After a right-wing extremist committed an attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, he accused the government of being involved. He gained a reputation in Austin, where a local station gave him his own show. He launched the Infowars website in 1999.
Echo Chambers of Hate
Jones's rise to prominence is an example of how the internet has revolutionized and to some extent poisoned the American media landscape. Small niche products have sometimes grown into impressive operations. Established brands are fighting for survival, while alternative platforms like Breitbart News, Newsmax and Infowars are creating their own worlds. They are echo chambers of hate, which have become a home for all those seeking easy answers in a complicated world.
Anything can be found in this world, and there are clues to support every crazy theory. Is Clinton a murderer? Obviously she is, says Jones, because as secretary of state she was partly responsible for the war in Libya. Is the government poisoning our drinking water? Well of course, because anyone who adds fluoride to water is gambling with the health of the people. "Jones is so effective because he presents this very clear theory about how the world functions and he bends every fact so that it fits in this theory," says Mark Fenster, a professor of law at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has spent years studying conspiracy theories.
Jones's staff push everything he says through multiple channels. Jones claims that he has as many as 3 million listeners a day. According to Quantcast, which measures audience demographics, the Infowars website attracts more than 8 million visitors each month. Jones has about 2 million subscribers on his YouTube channel and more than a million followers on Facebook. "I am in sort of a living room with my audience," says Jones. " It is like we are sitting around a campfire."
A Small Media Empire
He has more than 60 employees, including students, journalists, activists, techies and social media experts. They help Jones prepare his show, and they write stories for infowars.com. Not everything on the site is nonsense. There are ordinary reports from news wires about the latest poll results, and Infowars provides its own analyses of current developments in Washington. But there are also stories describing Lady Gaga's Super Bowl half-time show as a "Satanic ritual." Or about CIA exercises to murder Trump.
Two-thirds of Jones's funding comes from the marketing of his own products. He sells toothpaste and brain pills, bulletproof vests and guns, sleeping pills and potency supplements. The advertising breaks on his show are filled with his own products, and business is going well. Infowars.com holds an appeal for anyone who believes Armageddon is near.
As promising as the Trump era seems to Jones, it could also prove to be a problem. Not everyone in his milieu believes his staunch support for Trump is a good thing. In the past, Jones had always said that governments are the embodiment of evil, a dark power. He has groomed his audiences with his hatred for Washington. The way he goes on about Trump now, though, makes him seem like the president's propaganda minister. And this could ultimately disappoint some of his fans.
'Radical Islamist Hordes'
It's now shortly before noon, and the show is on a commercial break. Jones is irritated. Trump is under pressure over his executive order issuing the travel ban on visitors and immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries, a controversy Jones cannot fathom because he believes that the president merely wants to keep "radical Muslim hordes" out of the United States. "I was going to show some executions so that everybody understands how terrible these barbaric Islamists are," he says. " But I think I'm gonna do something else."
The camera starts rolling again. "There are 1 billion Sunnis," Jones says into the microphone. "These are the people that attack shopping malls. These are the people that throw gays off buildings. These are the people that put acid on women's faces." Images of disfigured women flash across the screens behind him, women without noses and with acid burns on the cheeks and foreheads. "There are your beauties," he says.
Jones is stunned that not all Americans share his panicked view of the "jihadists." Indeed, he believes the threat is so great that it would be best not to allow anyone at all to enter the United States anymore.
"Please forget the Statue of Liberty," Jones says during a break. "It's a symbol of propaganda. We should stop worshipping it and bending down to every Third World population that shows up with TB and leprosy."
'Foot Soldiers in the Trump Revolution'
Jones now plans to open an office in Washington. He says might hire 10 people to report on the White House, almost like a traditional media organization. He will be getting help from Roger Stone, a radical adviser to the president, who wrote a book in which he described former President Bill Clinton as a serial rapist without providing any proof. Under a deal reached between the two men, Stone began hosting the Alex Jones show for one hour a week a short time ago. "Elitists may laugh at his politics," Stone says, but "Alex Jones is reaching millions of people, and they are the foot soldiers in the Trump revolution."
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It's afternoon, and Jones is walking through the studio, his adrenaline level high and his blood sugar low. He needs to get something to eat. Platters of BBQ - chicken, beef and sausages - are set out on a table in the conference room. "Good barbecue," says Jones. "You tasted it already?"
He piles up food onto a plastic plate, and then he suddenly takes off his shirt without explanation. With his bare torso, he sits there and shovels meat into his mouth, a caricature of manliness, but also a show of power to the reporter sitting in front of him. He can do as he pleases.
Then Jones gets up and holds out a sausage. "Wanna suck?" he asks.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan