Over the next couple of weeks, a Texas jury will examine whether one of Donald Trump’s go-to sources for fake news — conspiracy theorist and Infowars founder Alex Jones — is for real or is putting on an act.
It will be up to them to decide whether the radio and internet hothead is, as his ex-wife claims, as batty as the squeaky little creatures that swoop around their hometown of Austin at dusk this time of year. Or whether, as his lawyer in his child custody case argues, he’s “a performance artist playing a character” and should no more be confused with the joker he portrays on air than Jack Nicholson should be conflated with the Joker he played in “Batman.”
Their verdict will mostly matter to Jones, his ex-wife, Kelly, and their three children. But it’s up to us to decide whether the former reality TV star we sent to the White House is in on the joke that Jones now claims his show is, and whether that matters.
The president has appeared with, appealed to and repeatedly quoted Jones, repeating Infowars’ claims that the media cover up terror attacks, that Hillary Clinton was gravely ill during the 2016 campaign, that millions of undocumented immigrants illegally voted for her and that the years-long drought in California was a hoax. The as-seen-on-Infowars accusation that Clinton was taking performance-enhancing drugs before debates led the GOP nominee to call for a drug test.
Jones was also a major distributor of the baroque report that a top Clinton aide was involved in a child sex trafficking ring operating in tunnels underneath a Washington, D.C., pizza place. The armed North Carolina man who showed up to “investigate” the nonexistent ring in these nonexistent tunnels — and fired his gun inside the restaurant — was among the many who took the story seriously.
Without blinking or blushing in shame, Trump has praised the “amazing reputation” of a radio host so disrespectful of the real victims of real tragedies that he said 9/11 was an inside job. Jones has also called the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary “completely fake” — and in doing so, encouraged the abuse of grieving parents.
Stephen Colbert’s Monday impersonation of Jones only lightly enhanced the way the right-wing purveyor of everything you’ll need in the fallout shelter shouts into the camera: “I’m alive! My heart’s big! It’s got hot blood going through it fast! I like to fight, too! I like to eat! I like to have children!” (That’s not Colbert’s parody, but what Jones actually said in explaining how real patriots think.)
The Jones character on “Homeland” this season knew exactly what he was doing. But even if the real man behind so much madness is only pretending to be unhinged, his method acting approach to the craft continued in court, where during Tuesday’s opening statements the judge had to admonish him to stop making faces.
We can’t know whether he believes his high-decibel rants or just pushes them, along with various iffy dietary supplements, for fun and profit. But his body of work does matter, because his listeners don’t go to him for laughs, and because the same president who derides facts he doesn’t like as “fake news” is such a fan and imitator.
We can’t say for sure, either, whether Trump really thought Barack Obama was born in Kenya, a theory he pushed for years, then took credit for debunking. Either way, however, Jones and Trump have a lot in common. In his homages to Jones, Trump is either absurdly naive or is playing us; is not very smart or is convinced that we aren’t.
Maybe these men so love to sell that even they have lost track of the line between reality and marketing.
But we clearly so love to be sold that we’re more than willing to believe their wildest pitches. (Cheaper, better health care for everybody, overnight!) Like every mark, we’re not so much victims as co-conspirators in our own hoodwinking. And we believe not because the con is so convincing, but because we want to.