Pasatiempo: Do you remember the first time a conspiracy theory caught your attention? What attracts you to these ideas or this mode of thinking?
Anna Merlan: Throughout my time as a journalist, I’ve always been interested in alternative belief systems and the many ways people choose to interpret the world around them. I became more interested in conspiracy theories when I realized how common they were; at least 50 percent of Americans are estimated to subscribe to at least one conspiratorial belief. I’m especially interested in the ways that opaque systems — in the United States, the federal government, the financial system, and the healthcare system, just to name a few — feed citizen paranoia and give rise to suspicion and mistrust.
Pasa: Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but society has tended to pretend that they don’t exist or that the people who believe in them are not worth paying attention to. Why is this book important now?
Merlan: Conspiracy theories have waxed and waned throughout history, and we tend to see more of them during times of upheaval, broad social change, and civil unrest. But we’re also seeing something new, which is an increased number of conspiracy peddlers who have found ways to gain power, money, and political influence through spreading misinformation. At a time when we have a conspiracy theorist in the White House, it’s worth paying attention to the ways that people use conspiracy theories for political and economic gains. I’m also interested in understanding what people get from believing in conspiracy theories and the kinds of harm they can do to their targets.
Pasa: Pizzagate is one theory that posited a government rife with large, organized pedophile rings. While certainly there are pedophiles everywhere, the idea of numerous well-known politicians being involved with a child sex-trafficking operation seems far-fetched. Do you have a sense of where this particular kind of conspiracy theory comes from?
Merlan: Accusations that a secret group of powerful evildoers is meeting to ritualistically abuse children is a claim that’s recurred since medieval times; it’s an almost primal paranoia.
Pasa: Throughout the book, you spend time with white nationalists, who espouse hatred of Jewish people and women. As a Jewish woman, did you ever feel personally at risk?
Merlan: There were times when I felt uncomfortable, but thankfully not truly unsafe. I did my best to weigh the physical risk of the situations I placed myself in, like attending a white supremacist gathering on private land. I think it’s useful and instructive to see how white supremacists respond when they’re informed that their interlocutor is Jewish, which is why I made a point of mentioning it during my interviews.
Pasa: You conclude the book with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. New information was revealed even as Republic of Lies was being published. How did you know when to end the book?
Merlan: I thought it was important to try to wade carefully into how the “Deep State” and Russiagate conspiracy theories mirror each other — both are suspicions about a secretive group seeking to undermine the integrity of American politics. I had to be careful to tell readers that I was writing from a particular time and vantage point, before all the facts in the Mueller report were known.