Over the course of the past 10 months, I spent most mornings rolling out of bed and reaching for my phone to get my self-imposed, daily fix of Infowars. Among yawns, sips of coffee, and the occasional glare from a roommate when I couldn’t find headphones, I would spend about half an hour with pre-recorded segments from the site’s founder and host: Austin-based, right wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. While this exercise was intended to inspire a thesis novella draft that I have since finished, I was after more than just the cadence of a snake oil salesman in all of that listening. I was in search of the failures of a political establishment that could bolster such violent, fringe views and allow them the time of day on the national stage and the praises of a man now seated in the Oval Office.
“This guy is amazing,” President Donald Trump said of Jones during a 2015 interview. “I will not let you down.”
Throughout my time on Infowars, I began hearing of Jones’ history. As a high-schooler, Jones was radicalized during the aftermath of the siege on Waco, Texas in 1993. The siege was one of the longest standoffs in FBI history and culminated in the death of 75 members of the Branch Davidians, a religious cult with doomsday visions that illegally stockpiled an arsenal of weapons at their compound. While the cause of the fire that ultimately led to many of their deaths is undetermined, conspiracy theories surrounding the blaze exploded on the right, claiming foul play from the federal agency and providing fuel to recruitment efforts and the anti-governmental sentiments of many white supremacist and militia groups still active in America today. For Jones in particular, Waco was the spark that led him to a career under the alternative lights.
“It was like my soap opera,” Jones said of the Congressional Hearings held in the aftermath of the siege during a 2010 interview with Texas Monthly. “Hours and hours and hours of it on television.”
Jones, however, is most famous for his outright denial of the existence of the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre, calling it a government hoax. Throughout my time listening to him, he would occasionally allude to this lie, especially around the time of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting this past February. Just hours after the mass shooting, he was already twisting narratives, as well as cherry picking contradictions among the first-hand accounts of frantic school children during the massacre, pitting these statements against each other. This proved to be a means of leading him down a path that would end with an assertion that they were all just “crisis actors” in a government cover-up to strip away second amendment rights.
“Alex Jones is no longer a gimmick or sideshow. His audience rivals that of major cable networks, yet he refuses to exercise the most basic journalistic integrity,” Mark D. Bankston, the attorney to Marcel Fontaine who is currently suing Jones for defamation in connection to false reports, told The New York Times. “What happened to Mr. Fontaine is the predictable result of the reckless practices Mr. Jones has fostered at Infowars.”
It has been nearly a month since I signed off from that morning routine and a question keeps dogging me: was it worth it? I know my identities as a white, cisgender, straight male have allowed me a privileged position, from which I could explore this world without bearing the brunt of the dehumanizing rhetoric Jones and his white supremacist, xenophobic, racist, sexist friends spew on a daily basis. Is there any point in empathizing with such a figure, or is this a privileged question?
Arlie Russell Hochschild writes of empathy walls in “Strangers in Their Own Land,” a book that follows the effects of environmental deregulation and disaster in Louisiana among Tea Party members.
“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances,” wrote Hochschild.
Coming from a white sociologist, Hochschild’s call for empathy by way of environmental concerns seem limited in scope—she can get beyond the racial biases of her interlocutors and thus leave these lenses largely unaddressed in her findings. Unsurprisingly, I doubt that a coalition can be forged here as leftists look for ways to rebuild the remains of the Democratic Party. Moreover, beyond eerily mirroring progressive critiques of governmental corruption and the amassing of wealth at the very top, there is little overlap between Jones and me.
The flip side of these calls for empathy is a blatant disregard for the other side.
During my research, professors, students, friends, and family alike would often ask me about the craziest conspiracy theories I’d come across. They wanted to know the funniest things I’d heard, which speaks volumes to how little we’ve learned since 2016.
When presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced that half of President Trump’s supporters were in “the basket of deplorables,” she contributed to another form of dehumanization, and not the kind that Jones enacts every time he picks up a microphone. (To be fair to Clinton, this quote is often taken out of its entire context, all of which can be read on Politifact.) Clinton allowed her coastal white base to criticize at a distance, which let them off the hook to confront their own biases. They could think to themselves: well, I’m not a Nazi, so I must be an ally.
It’s easier to place white liberal anxieties at arm’s length and root them in foreign geographies like that of the white working class in Louisiana, or a broadcast studio in an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, or even in the halls of the Kremlin. I spent a year in the thick of it. The real work would be to not just stop at pointing out absurdities and supporting popular ethical issues, but to continue on and take the time to listen to groups disproportionately affected by systems of oppression, both new and old, in America. Look in the mirror and ask: how have I benefited from or perpetuated these systems?
After a year with the fringe, I can’t help but wonder if the idealistic labor and energy that Democrats are putting in on the mythical Trump voter might be better channeled in campaigns for coalition building with more realistic and untapped voting blocs. Voter turnout in the 2016 election, according to CNN, was at a 20-year low. Democratic efforts must be aimed at combating racist voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and energizing their party’s disillusioned left wing, as well as the millions sitting out on election day who have yet to voice their stakes in all of this.
These are rebuilding years for the Democrats. Regardless of the coalitions that we develop moving forward, understanding figures like Jones is important. You have to know how the other side thinks in order to deconstruct their positions, but calls for empathy will only get you so far in terms of political power.
Emmet Teran is a member of the Class of 2018 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ETerannosaurus.