United States of Conspiracy: An Interview with Anna Merlan

“Most people in America believe in one conspiracy to some extent, but the far end of the pool … is this desire to show that you really do reject all knowable authority.”

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)

 

On March 13, 2019, a twenty-four year old construction worker named Anthony Comello drove to Staten Island and backed his pickup into a Cadillac owned by the head of the Gambino crime family, Frank Cali. When Cali came to the door, Comello shot him. Comello was arrested a few days later in Brick, New Jersey, and upon his appearance in court, it became clear that he was a believer in the confusing and ever-shifting conspiracy theory, QAnon — whose adherents believe President Trump is locked in a mortal battle with a “deep state,” which they contend is running child sex trafficking rings (among other things). A photo from the arraignment shows that Comello had written the letter “Q” on his hand, along with “MAGA FOREVER” and “United We Stand.”

A mob boss, a cadillac, a murder, a town called Brick, New Jersey — all of those things make sense when itemized and grouped together. In 2019 it’s not even that surprising that a member of QAnon was involved. But, barring new information, what is surprising is the simplicity of the actual motive — Comello wanted to date Cali’s niece and Cali disapproved.

“Life is so much more random than we would like it to be,” Anna Merlan told me over the phone, when we were talking about Cali’s murder. “Everything is so much weirder and less meaningful than we would like it to be and I constantly see people that I talk to grappling with that idea — that maybe there isn’t a grand narrative under the surface animating everything.”

Merlan’s new book, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, which was released by Metropolitan Books on April 16, traces that frantic search for meaning from anti-vaccination activists to 9/11 truthers. (Read an excerpt on Longreads.) The United States, Merlan points out, has an unusual preoccupation with conspiracy theories

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Rebecca McCarthy: So you started working on the book after taking a conspiracy cruise, is that correct?

Anna Merlan: I took a conspiracy cruise in January 2016 and wrote about it for Jezebel and at the time I was like, “Oh, it’s really interesting how the Trump campaign is reviving and energizing all these conspiracy communities. What’re they gonna do when he loses, where is that gonna go?” And then that is not what happened. So I mean some of the impulse for the book came out of the understanding that I didn’t actually know as much about this country as I thought did. And I didn’t really know what was animating people or motivating people as well as I thought I did and I thought that I should probably take some time to try to understand that.

You cover pretty thoroughly in the beginning of the book the fact that conspiracy theory contains this sort of magical thinking that appeals to people when things are going really badly. Magic exists as contractual agreement and it’s more comforting than religion, because you can say certain words and get a result. I mean the chapter with Pizzagate [a conspiracy theory that claims John Podesta’s emails, obtained by Wikileaks, were full of coded messages pointing to a child sex trafficking ring run out of a pizza parlor in Washington D.C.] is very striking, I wasn’t aware they believe that only the NYPD can investigate Pizzagate? It’s like a Die Hard movie — the government can’t help us, just the NYPD.

I think conspiracy theories broadly offer people a narrative that is sometimes more streamlined than what is going on in reality and pretty often identifies an enemy that you can be mad at. Which is sometimes very helpful for processing events that are going on in your life or in the country or in the world. One thing that happened a lot within conspiracy communities that I was talking to was this belief that people were out there by themselves trying to investigate this great wrongdoing or that only a small group of people really cared. I saw a lot of conspiracy communities that got kind of torn apart by internal controversies and rivalries and accusations of being a plant and a shill and a government agent. It was really interesting to me that it was so difficult for people to pull together to find a common goal and, in some ways, this faith in the NYPD as the last honest agency was like representative of that.

Right yeah, because their “enemies” just keep growing. Like Marina Abramovic is involved and then Father John Misty and Guy Fieri. Did you see that evolve even as you were reporting on the book, the way these conspiracy theories were shifting?

I mean it’s like every time you check a message board or check back in with somebody there’s like a new theory or a new enthusiasm and it really is reflective of the ways that the internet sort of allows these communities to keep moving and keep reforming and keep coalescing against these things.

We’re all in the pool, right? Most people in America believe in one conspiracy to some extent.

It’s very sad, especially because if you read something like Jane Mayer’s Dark Money — that is essentially a conspiracy theory come to life. You don’t really need the Illuminati when you have all these scammy nonprofits run by billionaires. But it just seems like there’s this vast, misdirected energy towards rooting out these imagined evils rather than the ones that are very apparent in a dry, bureaucratic way.

I think in some ways this is reflective of a lot of people’s feeling that they can’t actually impact the systems that govern their lives, whether it’s politics or the financial system. So instead, whether folks realize it or not, they’re directing their energy towards this other thing that maybe feels more achievable or more — how do I put this — like a larger and more meaningful and more dramatic version of the battle that’s a little more fun to be engaged in. Although they would not say it’s fun, obviously.

Did you see people moving away from conspiracy thinking or has it just been an ever increasing cycle at this point?

No, I would say that I more see people shifting their enthusiasms. One of the only people that I can like really see taking a sharply different direction is David Seaman, who was a big Pizzagate promoter. Basically, David — as I understand it from his Youtube videos and checking in on him from time to time — he felt very attacked by the community that he felt like he was trying to help. And ultimately was like, fuck this, I’m just gonna focus on Bitcoin.

[Laughter]

But then found himself totally unable to stop sort of weighing back in on Pizzagate and QAnon related stuff and sending out these really, really wild email blasts to subscribers. One of them said something like, “You guys have hearts of stone and stone over [your] vaginas.” It was super wild. I’m gonna find it cause it made me laugh so much. Generally, I don’t know what it looks like when people stop believing in a conspiracy theory because they sort of just vanish or move onto something else. [Merlan finds the email] Oh, he said “cemented over vaginas,” I’m sorry. “Some of you folks have cemented over vaginas and hearts of stone, because what the actual fuck, where is the compassion. Soulless fake Christian trash some of you are, circled around your Golden Calf: QAnon. It makes me want to vomit, as I actually did do a number of times last night.”

Oh my god.

Just to be clear! Just to be clear, this is like his email blast.

Wait, so it’s directed at people who move towards QAnon?

Oh yeah, he got really mad about QAnon stuff. There’s this interesting division within people who were into Pizzagate and were really into QAnon — a lot of Pizzagate people came to see QAnon as a distraction. Again, there are all these conspiracy communities just riven with these, you know, what seem to us like really insane controversies and what to them feel like very urgent moral and tactical questions about how to take down the evil doers.

Right yeah, and they have different methods of going about that. On the other end of the spectrum you touch on the #Resistance Twitter personalities like Eric Garland [who wrote a fairly incoherent and now infamous “Game Theory” Twitter thread] towards the end of the book. What’s your take on that now that the Russia Investigation has been anticlimactic, to say the least?

So, first of all when I was writing that chapter I had to be very careful to question my own beliefs because of course I’m writing it before the Mueller report came out and I’m thinking, “Surely there’s something there — twelve Russian nationals have been indicted, we have these emails between Donald Trump Jr. and this Kremlin connected lawyer.” So I had to very careful to only write what I actually knew and try not to get out over my skis too much. I mean my main take is that, now that the Barr summary is out and the Mueller report isn’t, all of the Russiagate-centric media is sort of focused on, “Maybe there’s a new cover-up, maybe the Barr Report is covering up what’s actually in the Mueller report and you know, this is an outrage, this is an infringement of democracy.”

I think once the Mueller report inevitably comes out and is still not the smoking gun that they hope for it will move onto something else. We can see it sort of spiraling further and further away from reality, you know? I think it was the Atlantic that wrote about just what a cottage industry [Russiagate has] become and that’s very true. I’m very curious to see how they revise their narratives because all of the Russiagate people, you know — Eric Garland, Seth Abramson, Louise Mensch — have all relied on this idea that they have deep sourcing in the federal government and that they are making ironclad predictions. So now that none of them have come true, you know…it’s kind of like the day after the world doesn’t end in a messianic cult. When you have been telling your followers that the world is going end in 2012, what do you say the day after the world does not end?

I was speaking to Jenny Odell recently who’s been reading a lot about cults — she wrote that piece about the drop shipping operation run by the cult that bought Newsweek? She was talking about how in certain cults it’s really just about the community, so even after the leader falls apart and the world doesn’t, they all just still meet up at diners and hang out. It seems like it’s become like a sort of social club in America — which conspiracy theory do you identify with.

Yeah, definitely, cause we’re all in the pool, right? Most people in America believe in one conspiracy to some extent, but the far end of the pool — there all these studies about it [that] show that some people who really buy into very deep conspiracy theories do it out of a desire to feel special. And I would suggest that is maybe part of what’s animating something like the slight uptick we’re seeing in Flat Earthers? Is this desire to show that you really do reject all knowable authority and that you are really all the way out there, questioning literally everything.

There are really specific conspiracy theories in the Black community that tend to be strongly informed by real historical events.

What’re the political aims of the Flat Earthers? I mean that one has always seemed sort of harmless to me cause they’re just like, disputing geology essentially.

So, I would say first of all Flat Earth is a much more fringe group than the amount of media attention it gets is reflective of. I have been a lot of places where there are a lot of conspiracy theorists, I’ve only met a Flat Earther in real life once. I would say though that my understanding of the Flat Earth phenomenon — Kelly Weill at the Daily Beast has written about this a lot — my understanding is that what they’re saying essentially is that it’s a government cover up that is hiding the existence of God. There’s a belief that beyond the ice shelf there is [sighing], you know, the heavenly realms or whatever, but I don’t think it’s a super political conspiracy theory it’s just sort of a more general, “No one can be trusted especially not the godless NASA scientists.”

It’s sort of romantic in a weird way.

Yeah! I also belong to a couple Flat Earth groups on Facebook and they’re so full of trolling now, it really is a bewildering world where you’re like, “Wait — how many people actually mean this and how many people are just arguing this point to entertain themselves.”

Especially because teens seem so adept at infiltrating those communities and shitposting in them now.

Oh yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of shitposting.

One of the saddest chapters is about the healthcare conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers and the way that’s been normalized. And you can see that rising logically out of a country that really doesn’t provide adequate or affordable healthcare, but that must have been difficult to go and see this anti-vaxxer convention.

I mean I have sort of an interesting relationship with the anti-vax world because I’ve written about it for so long that they know to get mad at me personally. Andrew Wakefield knows who I am and when I show up at things he’ll say things like, “Oh, back to write another mean article about us again, ey?” The last time, when I was at Conscious Life, I ran into his PR person — this woman Donna — who after a brief exchange said, you know, “I’m never going to answer another question from you and I’m gonna deny that we’ve ever spoken.” Which I was tape recording, so that wasn’t like, her best method. Especially with the case of anti-vaxx stuff I am very sympathetic to the people buying the products because they’re just worried parents. I am much less sympathetic to the people selling the products. But I think that anti-vax sentiments definitely come out of a super understandable desire to protect our children and if you really don’t know what a reasonable source of medical information is then, yeah, you’re gonna feel really fearful.

That seems to be the uniting thing between most of these conspiracy theories is that they really take off once people find a way to make a ton of money off of them.

Yeah and it’s hard to tell — people always want to talk to me about the question of motivation; who really believes this and who’s just in it to make a buck and I don’t know that the division is always [that] clear. You know sometimes people are their own best customers. But not always and it can be really hard to tell who believes what.

Like Sean David Morton, who’s part of the Redemption Theorists — they believe that everyone has a secret bank account that they can access if they commit the right type of tax fraud, is that correct?

They wouldn’t describe it as tax fraud, but yeah. Redemption Theory is this idea that has changed forms a lot of times, but fundamentally it is this belief that with the right set of legal maneuvers you can either gain access to a secret bank account that the government is holding in your name or you can get out of the more onerous aspects of being a federal citizen like paying taxes. Sean David Morton is actually a really good example of someone where everything that he has sold to other people he’s also done himself which ultimately resulted in him and his wife going to prison. So you know, it would be hard for me to say exactly what Sean David Morton believes in his heart of hearts, but I do know that he went to prison.

His parents were very involved in the John Birch Society, which has been like this huge driving force behind these very creepy strains of conservatism for a hundred years basically and if you grow up in something like that…

I think that Sean David Morton is in some ways a really sort of classic example of this overlap that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of, which is between right wing conspiracy theorism, new age thought, and natural healing ideas. He really embodies all of those things and my experience is that a lot of those things are more commonly found together than you might think? So finding out about his family history was really interesting for me.


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You grew up in New Mexico, right? In Santa Fe?

I did, yeah.

I was just out there — it does seem like everytime you meet someone out there it turns out they’re like, Oppenheimer’s grandchild or something, you know everyone has this insane backstory. Was that helpful, while you were doing your research?

New Mexico is definitely the site of both real government secrecy and government conspiracy theories — like whatever happened at Roswell, the Los Alamos National Labs, and it’s also the site of like a lot of woo woo New Age thinking. That is not the overwhelming culture there, you know I feel like when we focus on that we tend to forget that there are a lot of Native American people there who don’t buy into that shit, but I would definitely say that my upbringing and my background exposed me to a lot of people with alternative belief systems when I was pretty young and Santa Fe was still somewhat weird. And I have never had a huge amount of trouble talking to those people and I’ve never thought that I am better than somebody that holds an alternative belief system, which is very helpful when you’re trying to get people to talk to you. You know, people can really sense condescension and falsehood and if you’re quietly judging them and they will shut down.

If we take that cliche that all cynics are frustrated romantics, I think that in some way conspiracy theorists are frustrated participants in the American Experiment.

You write about how conspiracy theories tend to afflict, if that’s the right word, people who feel particularly vulnerable or who have been actually persecuted. And conspiracy theories among Black Americans are particularly upsetting, because there’s a lot of truth to them, like the Great Mississippi Flood, where you write about the levees being blown up and displacing thousands of people.

There is this school of journalism around conspiracy theories that is really snarky and is basically like, what I call the “Look at This Crazy Asshole” school of writing about conspiracy theories. I always say that we can actually replace that with a more culturally confident reading of conspiracy theories where we actually understand what they do for some people. And that is especially true in the case of Black Americans. There are really specific conspiracy theories in the Black community that tend to be strongly informed by real historical events.

The only reason why I found out about the conspiracy theory that the levees were deliberately blown up during Katrina is because my brother lives in New Orleans and mentioned that this was something that he commonly heard. Which led me to all this reading about why that is a conspiracy. It is because, as you say, this literally happened during the Great Flood in 1927. This decision was made to dynamite the levees thirteen miles below the city in order to flood a less populated region, hoping that it would save the city proper. It did that, [but] it also destroyed a number of people’s homes, it killed a number of people, we don’t know how many still, and it triggered one of the greatest mass migrations in American history. So the fact that during Hurricane Betsy in the 1960’s and again during Hurricane Katrina [in 2005], this idea that the levees were blown up on purpose would recur is not some crazy thing, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it comes out of a deep historical trauma. It’s really a deeply upsetting event that’s going to echo through generations.

The same thing is true with things like the Tuskegee experiment — a lot of men had syphilis for a long time when they could’ve been treated by the government because the government wanted to track the progression of the disease instead. So when you hear about people, particularly in the Black community who have a distrust of medical authorities, it’s not a crazy thing, it’s not something you can easily talk people out of. It is a strong belief that is based in a survival instinct.

You quote Michael Harriot who says, “The weird thing about being black is that some of it is true and some of it is not. But none of it is crazy.”

He and I had a really interesting conversation where I was amazed at how much shit I hadn’t heard about, you know? A lot of sort of conspiracy theories are so specifically culture-bound and then you know the ones that we hear about in the broader culture tend to be the ones that White Americans are talking about, because we always reflect the anxieties and priorities of white Americans in media — whether they are real anxieties or invented ones.

Right, yeah, I guess conspiracy reporters tend to be white guys who are really into 4Chan conspiracies.

I mean I don’t think it’s surprising that a lot of conspiracy reporters are focused on internet stuff and the way that the internet works, both because it’s extremely important and because it is the milieu that they are comfortable in. And a lot of people who report on conspiracies are men and I would argue that influences what they notice and also the experiences they have in these worlds. You know, my experience of interviewing people and talking to people are informed by being Jewish and being a woman and that changes the way that people treat me. So I see different aspects of the people that I’m talking to. I think most women reporters have the experience of realizing that maybe someone is talking to you because they mistake your professional interest for personal interest.

Yeah, that one guy [at a Neo-Nazi rally in Kentucky] who says “I know you’re a Jew and all, but you’re a beautiful woman.”

That was…oh man. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to react.

I don’t think there is a good way to react to that honestly.

Yeah I just stood there, I was like, ‘Well, that happened.’

You touch on this at the end, the idea that the only way we’re going to rid ourselves of this unusual preoccupation with conspiracy theories is if the country becomes a fairer place, could you expand on that?

I’ve said this a lot, but I think conspiracy theories are the symptom, they’re not the disease. I often think that conspiracy theorists are — you know if we take that cliche that all cynics are frustrated romantics, I think that in some way conspiracy theorists are frustrated participants in the American Experiment. So, when we get to a point where that experiment works better for everyone we have less conspiratorial thinking and the conspiratorial thinking that we do have has less impact on the public discourse as a whole. Because we’re never going to get rid of conspiracy theories, we’re a country that has a super vibrant free press and free communication and that’s a great thing and it also means that there will always be some level of suspicion and distrust and misinformation. The question is really how do we build a stable enough society that it doesn’t keep derailing us, the way that it repeatedly has in the last three years.

Do you think that has to do with the fact that there’s no longer a workable finance model for news? Like because of the decline of local papers people don’t see a reporter who they know, so they think that reporters are all one monolithic group?

I think that there’s so many different things going on. As we talked about, there’s a really opaque financial system, there’s a really opaque political system, there has been this decreased trust in news — but that is a less organic phenomenon I would argue. It’s more something that has been driven by organizations like Fox News and now the president. I wrote about this, that the desire to destabilize people’s trust in the news media is political, it has a political end — which is to make sure that if somebody is writing about your misdeeds that news outlet is seen as untrustworthy. I don’t even think it’s necessarily about knowing reporters better. The Capital Gazette shooting was perpetrated by someone who had really direct grudges against the people who worked at that newspaper and was just finally motivated by, I would argue, this poisonous environment to act on his murderous impulses. So I would say the demonization of the press is in some ways the least natural outgrowth of what’s been going on.

The book ends on a very grim note before the epilogue, with Trump saying, “The press, the public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you.”

I think a lot of things that Trump does are incredibly hamfisted and ineffective, but we can definitely say that Fake News rhetoric has certainly worked. Anybody who has been out talking to people in the last few years can tell you — yeah, the number of people calling us Fake News, the number of people saying that they don’t trust anyone? Even people who are not necessarily on the far right, you know? I got into an argument with a Buddhist teacher. Who wrote a blog post about something I had reported on and said “Well, you know I don’t know how much this is true.” And I was like, “You don’t actually get to just make that claim without evidence,” and he said “Well I don’t trust anyone. I don’t trust any news organizations.” That’s not a good thing, that’s not actually something to be proud of — that is a symptom of something that’s deeply wrong in our country.

If you’re interested in what Merlan has to say on the Politics of UFOs, you can read about that here.

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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller based in Philadelphia. She’s written for The Awl, The Outline, Medium, and others. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky