CLEVELAND — In the days before the Republican National Convention kicked off, a small plane could be seen buzzing above this city, trailing a garish and very visible banner:
HILLARY FOR PRISON 2016
The banner and plane were funded by InfoWars, the all-purpose media outlet founded by the Texas radio host Alex Jones. Plenty of the money came from sales of a "Hillary for Prison" T-shirt, $19.99 on the InfoWars website, alongside emergency food supplies ("as delicious and nutritious tonight as they will be in 25 years") and energy supplements with names like DNA force ("an advanced formula designed to help energize mitochondrial function, and sustain healthy cell cycles").
On Monday, the plane and banner were ripped from the skies, grounded by the FAA's regulations around the convention. The few hundred people who gathered Monday morning on the city's riverfront instead heard Jones himself bemoan the regulators, then declare victory for his slogan.
"Hillary for prison!" Jones shouted, in a voice that sounds like a car horn being run though a volcano. "Hillary for prison! Because you know, she is 'Crooked Hillary.' You know, that is the thing about memes. If the meme isn't true, it's hard to get it going. But when something's true, it's easy to get going — like Crooked Hillary and Hillary for Prison."
The other meme — "Crooked Hillary" — was Donald Trump's, not Jones's. And that was the point. While Monday's rally was small, it offered one more example of how forces outside of the mainline Republican Party had taken it over in the name of Trump. Jones spent Monday mobbed by reporters, sharing a podium with Trump adviser Roger Stone and welcoming several far-right candidates onstage as part of an "America First Project" unity effort.
Many of the people at the rally were Jones superfans, who said they discovered him at some point in the last decade and had come to view him as an honest source of news. Steve Tonas, 56, sported a T-shirt reading "9/11 Was An Inside Job" and said Jones was proved so right, so often, that "I don't even need to check his facts." During a lull in the rally, he played a Jones segment on his iPhone and put the speaker next to a megaphone. Trump, he said, had "vindicated" people who thought the real rulers of the world were abusing their power.
"The Bushes have a backup plan if things go south for them," he explained. "They have like 1,000 acres in Guyana."
Emmy Anderson, 30, had driven to Cleveland from New Hampshire; in the primaries she had supported Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), not Trump. "I worry about where he comes down on our civil liberties," she explained. But she had been turned onto Jones by a friend who shared her skepticism of the mainstream media and made him part of her media diet.
Jones had that effect on a lot of people, despite always existing on the fringes. Eighteen years ago, when he asked then-Texas governor George W. Bush if the Federal Reserve should be abolished, he seemed to launch into public events as if flung from another universe. When Bush became president, Jones had bit roles in two movies from Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater, playing an unnamed conspiracy theorist, always shouting.
But in 2015, Jones boarded the Trump train. He had readily supported Rand Paul and his father, former Texas representative Ron Paul, to the extent that media commentators asked why those politicians would indulge someone like Jones. Late in 2015, as Trump dominated in the polls, Jones brought him on the air as a bold thinker who — like him — kept getting proved right.
"You are vindicated on the radical Muslims celebrating, not just in New Jersey but New York," said Jones to Trump. "You said months ago, bomb the oil of ISIS, and the mainstream media laughed, because you said the sky is blue."
Trump indulged Jones for 30 minutes. "I was right about that," he said about the oil. "I was right in saying in a book I wrote — you covered it very nicely — that we better be careful with this guy named Osama bin Laden."
Half a year later, Trump was the Republican nominee, and Jones had a bigger audience than ever. On the way to Cleveland, he confronted Karl Rove at the Dallas airport; the former Bush strategist had to summon airport security after pleading that his Fox News contract prevented any appearance on "the Alex Jones show."
When the two men landed in Cleveland, Rove went to the TV studios, and Jones went to meet his gathered. After a few minutes, he spotted yet another threat to his free speech — Eric Andre, an absurdist comedian who was pushing closer and closer to the stage.
"These are not liberals!" said Jones, as his fans and bodyguards shoved Andre away from the podium. "These are anti-free speech, anti-freedom scum who need to take their asses to North Korea!"
But after Andre had moved away, Jones taunted him, inviting him to share the stage, to prove a point that he never got around to explaining. Andre's improvisational sabotage mostly consisted of dead-eyed agreement with the host.
"Who put bombs in Tower 7?" Andre asked.
"We exposed that," said Jones.
Finally, the host tired of the comedian and ushered him away for good. The rest of his speech focused on the victory of Trump's campaign, as one of many victories against "globalist" forces.
"Nationalism, sovereignty, true free market capitalism, is rising worldwide as the globalists try to implement their world government," Jones said. "It is dead on arrival."
Ater 15 minutes, he was gone, plowing through a scrum of reporters with questions both serious (the Trans Pacific Partnership) and absurd (the music of Chubby Checker). He retreated to a van on loan from a rock band fantasy camp. Thirty minutes later, Roger Stone emerged, wearing a suit the color of creme brulee, and joking that he was "Italian from the waist down."
The crowd was thinning out. Dozens of reporters, some of whom were hunting for white nationalists who had been rumored to show, had left already. Stone pushed forward with a speech that recited every Clinton scandal he'd encountered in a lifetime of looking. He accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of "making a fortune using insider information," then strongly hinted that she had murdered former White House counsel Vincent Foster.
"Carpet fibers were found on his body," Stone explained. "They had wrapped him up in a carpet."
As a few more people left the rally, Stone apologized for making them wait so long to see him. He had a good excuse; he had been meeting with Trump's campaign.