Metropolitan Books, 288 pages, $28
When it comes to conspiracy theories, are you a skeptic or a believer?
If you answered “skeptic,” do you know for sure that you’d never get sucked in? Maybe, if you lurked long enough in the internet’s darkest corners, you’d begin to take seriously the notion that high-level politicians gather in the basement of a (basement-less) pizza parlor to abuse children. If white nationalists were your neighbors, or your friends, or your boss, would the idea that the world is secretly run by tall Jewish lizards start to sound reasonable?
Testing those waters seems perilous at best. For some, such conspiracy theories are tantalizingly ridiculous, while for others, spending time with people who believe them is a stomach-churning concept. Journalist Anna Merlan, a senior reporter for the Special Projects Desk at Gizmodo Media, bravely dives into the deep end of the pool in her work of investigative nonfiction, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.
Merlan spends the first few chapters defining what a conspiracy theory is and discussing some of the very real ways the U.S. government has harmed or betrayed citizens, thereby fueling a reasonable paranoia. Among her examples are the forced sterilization of women of color and the CIA’s 1954 assistance in the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. She then explores — through research as well as in-person interviews — a dizzying array of contemporary conspiracy theories. These include the views of the anti-vaccination movement and theories about alien abduction, the Deep State “shadow government,” and “false flag” operations. (An example of the latter, according to the book, might be a belief that mass shootings are the work of government operatives paying actors to pose as victims, all in an attempt to demolish the Second Amendment.) When Merlan attends a white nationalist gathering, she does not shy away from telling people she is Jewish — a level of disclosure she did not have to make, but one that markedly ups the stakes and enriches her first-person account.
Merlan’s writing is witty and evocative, often veering to sharpness — especially in her descriptions of people — as she parses some of the intensely dense beliefs held by conspiracists. She refers to conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh as a “right-wing gasbag” and to Donald Trump Jr. as a man with “an excess of hair and a dearth of forethought.” Of Melissa Morton, a “redemption theorist” who, along with her husband, Sean David Morton, went on trial for scheming to defraud the IRS, she writes, “Melissa reminded me of a Sunday school teacher or, frankly, a sister-wife in a sunny fundamentalist fantasy.” Though this may elicit appreciative snickers from the reader, Merlan’s tone can distract from her very real investigative journalism. It was surely a sensitive line to walk: Being engaging and entertaining is crucial for a writer, but the cumulative effect of a sometimes cutting tone is unlikely to change the mind of someone flirting with conspiracy thinking.
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.
What might keep a reader up at night is just how common conspiracy thinking is. At least half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. And as Merlan’s facts and anecdotes pile up, readers might find themselves in a paranoid mindset. Your co-worker, your aunt, your old high school pal — at any moment, anyone you know could reveal his or her belief in lizard people. And then whom would you trust?