THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: A Journey Into into the Trump Campaign and the ‘Alt-Right’
By Jon Ronson.
Amazon Digital Services. $1.99
Jon Ronson, a British journalist who has previously written books about conspiracy theorists, psychopaths and public shaming, now has authored one about the influence of the alt-right movement on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Draw your connections as you will.
“The Elephant in the Room,” released in the fall as an Amazon Kindle book, is a slim, impressionistic volume focusing on Alex Jones, the incendiary radio host and Web impresario who has peddled the falsehoods that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged, that the U.S. government was involved in the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing, and that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both demonic (not in the outlandish metaphorical sense but in the for-real-they-smell-of-sulfur sense). He is also the creator of the “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts that were so ubiquitous at Trump campaign rallies — and that even earned a shout-out from the stage during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
“Alex is basically the most irresponsible man I have ever met,” Ronson writes. “He uses his powers to inflame paranoia. He boldly makes up stuff to suit his weird agenda. Alex eschews facts and reason and he definitely should not have political sway.”
Except now he does have sway, because it turns out Trump is a fan. As a presidential candidate, he was a guest on Jones’s radio show in December 2015. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told him. “I will not let you down.” And he hasn’t. In the days after Nov. 8, the president-elect reportedly called Jones to thank him for the support, promising that he’d be back on the show.
“The world in which Alex is a leading voice — a loose collection of internet conspiracy theorists and nationalists and some racists — suddenly has a name: the ‘alt-right movement,’ ” Ronson explains. “As 2016 continued, Trump delighted them, or derived inspiration from them.” Trump’s elevation of former Breitbart News boss Stephen K. Bannon to the role of senior White House strategist is merely the clearest indicator of the enduring connection.
However, Ronson doesn’t suggest a true ideological affinity between Trump and the alt-right — or at least between Trump and Jones. Yes, they were introduced via longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, whose beliefs, Ronson writes, are “just as crazy as Alex’s.” But what comes across in this book is more a marriage of convenience, a relationship based on mutual benefit and sustained by flattery and, above all, by audience.
Jones gushes when he explains to Ronson how he first heard that Trump was aware of him and appreciated his work. “I’d be sitting talking to a famous person,” Jones recounts. “They’d go ‘Did you know Donald Trump likes your show? Do you like Donald Trump?’ He must have the energy of 50 people to have tentacles out checking to see if I liked him even before he ran!” Jones goes on to explain that Trump regards him as a consequential, influential voice in American politics. “Trump has said to me . . . ‘You have one of the greatest influences I’ve ever seen. Do you know how big your influence is? . . . It’s greater than you know. Just know that your influence is second to none.’ ”
Other right-wing voices, such as Glenn Beck, have explained to Ronson that this is Trump’s MO — relentless adulation in the hope of favorable coverage and political support. “Alex, being sweet-natured and quite childlike in a way, didn’t see it as a manipulation,” Ronson writes. “He saw it as flattering and exciting.” The author added: “I found this touching and absurd. Alex was deriving meaning from one of Trump’s platitudes — from words as loquacious and showy as his golden rooms and as empty as air.”
But Jones gets something out of it, beyond sweet nothings. His bizarre ideas, already widely disseminated through his media platforms, now will enjoy access to the bully pulpit of the American presidency. Jones explains to Ronson how he communicated with Trump during the campaign. “I put out a video, a message to Trump,” Jones tells him. “And then two days later he lays out the case. It’s like sending up the Bat Signal.” Jones even suggests that Trump got from him the idea of publicly asking Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.
When Ronson asks Stone whether Trump needed some convincing to build a relationship with Jones, the answer is especially revealing. Stone says nothing about Jones’s theories and instead stresses his reach and audience. “Donald is a student of the internet,” Stone replies. “He’s an inveterate watcher, so he was well aware of who Alex is and everything Alex has accomplished. Donald told me he sees the many, many, Hillary for Prison t-shirts in his crowds. . . . He loves them.”
Ronson is an apt journalist to explore this relationship. He knows Jones well; in fact, he helped bring the radio personality to national prominence by partnering with him in 2000 to infiltrate Bohemian Grove, a Northern California campground that hosts a secretive annual gathering of prominent political, cultural and business leaders who engage in odd rituals and effigy burnings. The tale was featured in Ronson’s 2002 book “Them: Adventures With Extremists” as well as in Jones’s documentary “Dark Secrets: Inside Bohemian Grove,” which greatly enhanced Jones’s appeal to the anti-globalist crowd. “I am basically Alex Jones’s Simon Cowell,” Ronson admits.
In “The Elephant in the Room,” Ronson tracks Jones at Trump campaign events and steals occasional conversations with him, his entourage and his faithful. “I’m here because I believe Trump is a modern-day Moses and he’s been anointed by God,” one Trump supporter tells Ronson at a rally. “Hillary is a known Luciferian,” another Trump fan tells him. (“She’s not a known Luciferian,” Ronson replies gently.) And when he talks to a member of Bikers for Trump at the Republican convention and asks how the party establishment had welcomed him, he is quickly smacked down. “I’m more welcome than they are,” the biker says. “It’s up to me to make them feel welcome.”
Ronson doesn’t seem to embrace the notion that the news media created or enabled Trump’s political rise. But he reveals his contempt for the coverage of the Trump campaign via tales of journalists salivating for outrageous, click-friendly stories. When news spread of a woman about to burn an American flag outside the Republican convention, for instance, he writes, “the journalists were jostling each other so frenziedly for a view that she accidentally set fire to her trousers.” He notes, too, that the coverage tended to mock Trump supporters. “The media had been full of jokes denigrating the vulgarity and lack of fame of the celebrities Trump attracted,” he writes, “in comparison to those who support Hillary.” Those slights only fed the animosity toward the press — and toward its effort to inject truth and facts into the campaign discourse — that Trump stoked at every turn.
“The Elephant in the Room” has a first-person, story-within-a-story vibe to it, with Ronson admitting that his attempt to reconnect with Jones & Co. is mainly a desperate effort to find an angle for writing about Trump. At one point, while staking out Stone, “I had to remind myself that it’s good for journalists to feel demeaned,” he writes. “It means we’re onto a story.”
If so, it is a story that will probably be explored, many times over and with far greater detail, in the coming months and years. I’m bracing for an onslaught of books on the alt-right — thanks not only to its supporting role in the Trump presidential campaign but also to its uncertain influence over an administration that is still taking form.
“In previous campaigns, there was a clear delineation between the serious main event and the reckless fringe, but not in this one,” Ronson writes. “In these exciting times for people who thrive on chaos, Trump had emerged from the polluted waters of Twitter like a mutant fish, and the world could not believe its eyes. It was as if Alex Jones had taken charge of C-SPAN.”
Published several weeks before Election Day, “The Elephant in the Room” does not seem to anticipate a Trump victory. Though Ronson offers the requisite hedging (“If some disaster unfolds — if Hillary’s health declines further, or she grows ever more off-puttingly secretive — and Trump gets elected . . .” ), he ultimately minimizes the influence of the subculture he examines.
“The alt-right’s appeal remains marginal because the huge majority of young Americans like multiculturalism,” he writes. “They aren’t paranoid or hateful about other races. Those ideas are ridiculous to them. The alt-right’s small gains in popularity will not be enough to win Trump the election.”
He may be right that it was not enough, at least not on its own. But as we learned in 2016, the preferences of the majority may matter less than once thought, and the ideas of a fringe can assault the mainstream with astonishing speed and ease.
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