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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. If you’re concerned as I am about the outsize influence of conspiracy theorists, disinformation and willful gullibility in American life, you must read Anna Merlan’s compelling new book “The Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.” The author joins me today to discuss the acceleration of lies in the public discourse and their historical and contemporary power. While fear and paranoia have always animated American politics, there is an unprecedented rush of incentives to deceive the public through monetization, popularization and dissemination. So now we’ll try to cover ample ground from the beginning history of the false flag to Hofstadter’s critique and McCarthy-era politics to QAnon, birtherism, Pizza-Gate, Seth Rich, trutherism, and of course UFOs. Thank you for being here, Anna.
MERLAN: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: At the top I said willful gullibility. Is it that people are too easily duped or is it that they know that they’re being duped and they want to dupe their fellow Americans?
MERLAN: Well, it depends on whether we’re talking about conspiracy peddlers or conspiracy consumers. Conspiracy peddlers are people like Alex Jones and you know, a far right figure named Mike Cernovich, people who have been able to monetize conspiracy theories are used them for political gain. I’ve always thought that in the case of conspiracy peddlers, it’s not necessarily a super profitable enterprise to ask whether they really believe it or not because I don’t know what’s in their hearts. I don’t know what’s in their minds. All I know is what they spend their time doing, which is promoting conspiracy theories. In the case of ordinary people, conspiracy consumers and most Americans are to some degree consumers of conspiracy theories. All the studies that we have show that like one in three Americans believe in some conspiracy theory to some extent. For the people in the very sort of deep end of the conspiracy pool, people who are consuming a lot of conspiracy content, I think it’s really important to look at the way it helps them make sense of the world and make sense of our political moment and make sense of, a lot of times like what’s happening in their own lives.
HEFFNER: The most vulnerable to these theories are folks who haven’t been educated, who haven’t completed high school or who’ve completed high school but not college. When I asked you before if we’re knowingly being duped, I was speaking of that consumer set, so the folks who haven’t had the education or the formative education to make those, you know, to discern what may be true, what might be false, those people, do you think a majority of them are knowingly digesting the propaganda and feeding it to other folks? Do they know even despite maybe educational imbalance that what they’re doing is not real?
MERLAN: So people who are very heavy consumers of conspiracy theories, what we would call conspiracy theories, talk about themselves as being members of the truth community or the research community. And they really, a lot of them think of themselves as engaged in trying to uncover truth in an environment that makes it really difficult for them. You know, in an environment where no one can be trusted, the media, mainstream politics; no one can be trusted to accurately convey what’s going on. So they really do see themselves as fighting this Sisyphean battle to figure out what’s really going on behind all of these locked doors. So it’s not that they’re knowingly, in many cases, promoting anything that is untrue. They just genuinely believe that the process of finding truth is very difficult.
HEFFNER: And Facebook and Twitter and YouTube said, come on down.
HEFFNER: And that’s where we are today. How does it differ in your mind from Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics? The essay turned into a book that described what was being glorified to some as the McCarthy-era tactics and just the general offbeat sensibility that was not the acceptable norm. Do you really trace it back to there or do you go further back beyond them?
MERLAN: No, I do trace it back to the mid 60s when Hofstadter was writing was the time when we were starting to the revving up of the culture wars in what we would later come to see as the conservative revival. We were coming to see this rising sort of disaffection on the far right in this sense that the systems of governance had gotten away from them. And were being controlled by people who were untrustworthy. So that’s what Hofstadter was observing is this revival of, or this birth of the far right, but what Hofstadter didn’t have at the time what American culture didn’t have at the time things like Fox News that found ways to take that anger and that disaffection in that suspicion and monetize it. And so now we have YouTube, we have Facebook, we have an army of conspiracy entrepreneurs who have figured out ways to really make money off of these sort of sometimes inarticulate feelings of suspicion and anger.
HEFFNER: Finally, we’ve had many guests here in the last five years speaking to this crisis. You have folks who are in these companies recognizing the problem. Until Donald Trump’s election, there was not even a verbal affirmation of it. What unifies in your mind these theories beginning with “Republic of Lies” we have the President presiding over a republic of lies who gained steam with birtherism, the idea that President Obama was not born here, false malicious and exploited that to engage in a campaign of conspiracy theories during the campaign: Seth Rich, the death of the DNC staffer, Pizza Gate. What to your mind was sort of the unifying thread of these more recent conspiracy theories that have emanated from the Trump propaganda machine?
MERLAN: Well, all of them have been aided and promoted by social media in ways that I don’t think the, you know, proprietors of social media companies necessarily anticipated or did enough to address. But with, when we talk about specifically conspiracy theories that Donald Trump is promoting, we’re talking about things that are politically expedient for him. We’re talking about things that could draw attention away from whatever was going on with his campaign and the Russian government, we’re talking about, anything that would help him maintain power a little longer and look a little bit more in control than perhaps he actually is.
HEFFNER: Right. If you watch, Get Me Roger Stone on Netflix, you’ll find the evidence right there of what Stone and Trump aspired to do.
HEFFNER: And they know, like you said, they’re the creators of the conspiracies, so they know they’re undertaking disinformation and Roger Stone, now criminally indicted says at any cost, so maybe and of course in the age of Nixon, if you watch the really extensive History Channel multipart documentary, Watergate, or “How to Stop an Out of Control President” – which is the title you’ll see there were threats to bomb, to firebomb the Brookings Institution, not just what ultimately transpired at the Democratic National Headquarters. So these, these ideas of deliberate malicious violence and carrying out plots have been with us for some time now. And now you just have actors, you have presidents who are willing to act on them. Is that kind of the way you read it?
MERLAN: Yes. We have a president who sees misinformation as a profitable means to an end or seemingly sees it and it’s actually so perfect that Roger Stone is the through line between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. You know, Roger Stone this summer, you know for the past couple of years really has been promoting the idea that the DNC emails were not hacked, that they were leaked by a disaffected DNC staffer who was then murdered and everything, all the information that we have now is showing us that Stone knew that that was a lie, knew it was a lie all along, was engaged in helping Wiki leaks disseminate those emails and was actively promoting an alternate storyline to cover up what he was doing.
HEFFNER: You went to the outset of this great book you went on a cruise for an assignment, which was a conspiracy cruise. There was a cohort within the cruise that believes all of this stuff. And you write in the book, “We’ve always been afraid of each other, fearful of the intentions of our neighbors, our government, our media. Some of us are especially prone to seeing ourselves as forces of good, fighting against whatever evil entities are trying to destroy society or religion.” When you think of the trickle-down effect of the conspiracy theorists and theories, on that cruise and to date as we’re recording this, are there things that entice you, that make you think that some of these are more plausible interpretations of actually what has happened because that’s the effect it’s supposed to have that even the most educated, and well rounded and thoughtful person could then kind of metamorphosize.
MERLAN: When you look at the history of American politics and American life, you’ll see that there is a pretty strong relationship between conspiracy theorizing and actual conspiracies, between government secrecy and suspicion of the government. And as our government has grown, we have gotten more suspicious of it. So personally I believe probably that the government has not told us everything they know about UFOs, aliens. We know that the government has, you know, that the Department of Defense is very, very interested in the question of UFOs and was devoting, you know, secret research money to looking into the idea of UFOs. So some of these ideas are not entirely outlandish even though they sound that way.
HEFFNER: But what is outlandish, you would, I think would agree was the truth or racism around 9/11, Sandy Hook, the most recent massacres, Las Vegas, you document the link between Oklahoma City and Alex Jones and being booted off public radio, and going on to found and then monetize this misinformation. You describe the political ulterior motive in capturing hearts and minds. But these major events that speak to false flags, right, the premise of the false flag. Can you tell our viewers what the initial idea of the false flag is and how it’s attempted to be manipulated?
MERLAN: When we hear conspiracy theorists in America talking about a false flag, what they mean is broadly an attack, an act of violence that is not what it seems. And so Alex Jones made his earliest appearances on public radio in Austin talking about the Oklahoma City bombing, as a false flag and claiming that what it really was, was an attack perpetrated by someone within the government to justify a crackdown on right-wing movements. And so every false flag theory from then to today, especially Sandy Hook, is the logic behind it is that the government is perpetrating an attack or elements within the governor are perpetrating an attack in order to advance a political agenda. A lot of the time it’s gun control, which is what happened with Sandy Hook and it’s why false flag and relatedly crisis actor can spirit conspiracy theories became so prominent around Sandy Hook, even though they were of course not true, they were complete lies.
HEFFNER: Often in the case of Oklahoma City, 9/11, they’re identifying not just a threat to the Second Amendment, but the threat of Jews. And there’s an anti-Semitic, explicit anti-Semitic alignment between that. And yet the original false flag was an act that justified heinous crime against the Jewish people. I don’t understand how are they, how are they connecting?
MERLAN: So, yeah, when we talk about something like the Reichstag fire or more recently the apartment bombings in Russia that precipitated Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, apartment bombings that we now believe orchestrated by the FSB, the FSB is what the modern day KGB is,
MERLAN: Those things are pretty clearly attacks that were orchestrated for political ends. Whereas when we talk about something like Oklahoma City or more recent false flags, a lot of times, as you say, this anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of the One World Government or the New World Order comes up. And sometimes people promoting it don’t know necessarily that it’s an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, but that’s what it is. This idea that these globalists or Jews who were in power, in a room somewhere or orchestrating these attacks as a way to create a One World Government and bring us all under one world control.
HEFFNER: There’s this strange alignment of the right wing who, who want to call liberals Nazis like Jones and Stone and others. I mean, and so do they believe the historical event that took place, or they denying the Holocaust too?
MERLAN: That’s an interesting question. You’ll probably find a diversity of opinion on that. There are a lot of Holocaust deniers among conspiracy theorists, but I would not say that it is overwhelmingly common. It is interesting though because sometimes when you ask a direct question about whether they believe any historical event happened, you get sort of a non-answer. I had this experience when I was talking to someone about Pizza-Gate, which is obviously a conspiracy theory about children being imprisoned as sex slaves in the basement of a pizza parlor. And so I was talking to a woman who was a Pizza-Gate proponent and I said do you believe the shootings at Sandy Hook happened? You’re very concerned about the safety of children. Do you believe that this undeniably real event that led to the deaths of real children happened? And she didn’t want to tell me she didn’t want to answer the question. I think one thing that we see a lot in hardcore conspiracy theorists is this sense that nothing can really be trusted, that no historical event really happened in the way that it’s described. That sort of empirical knowledge is not possible.
HEFFNER: And is that because these folks did not really ever have the education of the scientific method or understand the importance of truth in that there is such a thing as an objective truth?
MERLAN: I think we can definitely point to a weakness in the American education system. That really did not fortify a lot of people against being fed especially really sophisticated misinformation.
HEFFNER: So how do you see QAnon evolving?
HEFFNER: And their influence on Trump’s base looking towards 2020.
MERLAN: I think it’s really obvious that the 2016 elections were marked by a ton of misinformation, both successful and less successful. And influence too from places like the Internet Research Agency in Russia who traffic in active disinformation to try to interfere with American political life. And so I think there’s going to be a big concern in 2020 about trying to identify misinformation and rooting it out. And I think there’s also going to be a concern among journalists about figuring out what to cover and how much weight to give things and to make sure that we’re not promoting conspiracy theories by accident in trying to debunk them, which is always a problem, but it’s going to be a huge issue in 2020.
HEFFNER: How can we do that in this conversation right now? What can you say? How can I ask you the question? Right, so that it’s like, I like to say George Lakoff’s “truth sandwich” is the only way to do it, to my mind, start with the truth. Correct the lie. Repeat the truth.
MERLAN: I think that’s true in most of the studies that we have about persuading people out of conspiracy theories kind of say that, that it’s really helpful to be able to replace, you know, a negative belief with a positive one, replace a lie with the truth. The same time with my work I try to have what I call a culturally competent reading of conspiracy theories where I try to understand where they came from and the purpose that they serve for people without necessarily giving them credence. And I try to approach my conversations with those people in a way where I don’t agree with something that I don’t actually think is true, but I also try to have empathy and give them room to talk about what this conspiracy theory does for them.
HEFFNER: And you don’t assume that they are just seeking infamy as some of the most notorious people who want to be the next Roger Stone or Martin Scarelli or folks like that. Are the examples we have, you don’t want to assume that that’s their intent, but there are folks out there with that intent.
MERLAN: Yes. I think people like Alex Jones have created a blueprint for the ways that promoting conspiracy theories can be profitable, can give you some amount of fame, infamy. I mean, he really has monetized in a way that few other people have been able to replicate. But a lot of people are trying, even if it’s just through saying outrageous things on Twitter or spreading misinformation on platforms like YouTube.
HEFFNER: We were talking about Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” and I see a lot of overlap between your important books and just this idea that at a certain point the conspiracy will overwhelm the republic and it will meet, we will meet our demise. When is that scenario? It’s sooner around the corner you were suggesting to me then we might think,
MERLAN: I think that we’ve always had that anxiety as a nation that there’s going to be some tipping point where conspiracy culture overwhelms us. And I would suggest that actually what we’re more in danger of having happen is reaching a point where we’re able to be convinced by conspiracy pedddlers and conspiracy peddlers in power that the truth is not knowable, that there is no empirical truth or empirical reality and so we might as well give up looking for it. And for people like Donald Trump, promoting that idea is beneficial. We want, people in power, like Donald Trump want us to be confused about what is true, what is real, and to give up looking for it.
HEFFNER: And is that dystopia, is that a kind of dystopia that you’re projecting or you’re describing that with the absence of truth or knowable truth and acknowledgement of that, you shrink to a point of, of not having rule of law because rule of law is dependent upon the truth and some consensus around the truth.
MERLAN: It feels very dystopian to me in that it feels like a blueprint for creating an authoritarian regime where we only have one source of information and that is the government. And we don’t really have an alternate way to seek out our own facts.
HEFFNER: So what’s the firewall for us in 2020 because the election of Trump or reelection of Trump would further incentivize this dystopian future, further propel us towards that? And, what from your exposure to the conspiracy theorists, the bigwigs and the kind of lay population what must we all be doing right now that we’re not doing it?
MERLAN: I mean, I say this as a journalist, but I think good journalism is going to be really important in 2020. I think the idea of trying not to promote lies without debunking them is really important. I think it’s very important to recognize that the Trump Administration really wants to destabilize trust in the news media. It is something that he works really, really hard at. Fake News, enemy of the people. Those phrases have a really powerful appeal for him because he knows that the news media is a check on his ambitions.
HEFFNER: What about our vulnerabilities? There are many women who are going to seek the Democratic nomination and one of them is likely to be, or is a very plausible nominee who runs against him in the other major party slot are women more vulnerable, do you think to the innuendo, and conspiracy mongering, or is it an equal opportunity kind of thing? Of course, Hillary Clinton was her own greatest enemy in some ways of a reputation that, you know, she didn’t help herself, you know, but… What are some of the vulnerabilities you see based on kind of the, what’s happened so far?
MERLAN: Hillary Clinton was really unique because there are so many right-wing conspiracy theories about both Bill and Hillary. You know, the idea of a Clinton body count, which is this false claim that the Clintons killed their political opponents, has been around since the 90’s and again was promoted by Trump advisor Roger Stone. It’s unclear yet what the vulnerabilities will be for 2020 candidates running against Trump because we don’t know who they are, but we do know that he will use every possible available mechanism to conspiracy-monger and rumor monger against them. And I mean we saw a preview of it in 2016 when he suggested that Ted Cruz’s dad had something to do with the Kennedy assassination. Like it doesn’t matter how outlandish it is, they will try everything until something sticks.
HEFFNER: The birtherism of President Obama, that allegation had a lot of potency and really allowed Trump not just to survive, but thrive in that climate. And so don’t you think it’s likely there will be a kind of new lie that will be big and brash and maybe it will be emanating from the candidate running against him? Maybe it’ll be something different.
MERLAN: Yeah. It’s important to recognize too that the Trump Administration and the right-wing ecosystem have the same goals and work in a way that is a little more organized. So whatever the lie is that the Trump administration or the, you know, the Trump campaign comes up with, they’re going to have a lot of help promoting it, if nothing else, he’s going to go back to the idea of a rigged election or the FBI or some other government agency working against him because that is the idea throughout his presidency that’s had the most potent for his followers. The idea of a deep state is the term that he uses the idea of this shadowy body within the federal government working against him. I strongly expect that to come up during the 2020 elections as a way for him to suggest that things are being rigged against him. And that, you know, every sort of powerful entity within the federal government is trying to see him not get reelected.
HEFFNER: For many, many years we’d walk through the grocery store before or Amazon Prime and all the new services that exist. And we couldn’t help but see National Enquirer, Hillary Clinton, it’s enemy number one. She just had an alien baby that week after week of alien babies. If, and that wasn’t Hillary Clinton, it was Oprah or something like that, but for so many years we would just do that. And you know, most of us were told or realized, you know, that’s for other people and small subset at that. Not so much anymore and the accumulation of all those years of us neglecting this problem and just saying that’s a problem for someone else. Isn’t that the issue too?
MERLAN: I think that what we fail to sort of reckon with was how many people were going to realize, oh, conspiracy theories are politically useful. They are monetizable. They are something that I can use to my own ends. Conspiracy theories are for everyone. They help…
HEFFNER: They are not just an afterthought at the checkout line,
MERLAN: They’re not.
HEFFNER: And your book is a testament to that. Thank you for writing it. Thank you for being here.
MERLAN: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.