This post has been updated.
When Donald Trump called in to Alex Jones's radio show, during the Republican presidential primary, he told the host known as a leading 9/11 “truther” that his reputation is “amazing.” When Trump accused the media of covering up terrorist attacks, in February, the president appeared to be echoing a conspiracy theory promoted by Jones's website, Infowars.
And when Trump was preparing to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress, Infowars somehow got a preview of the president's talking points, hours before White House press secretary Sean Spicer shared them in a briefing with reporters.
If Trump buys into what Jones says on the air or publishes on his site, the president is falling for the work of a “performance artist.”
That is how Jones's own attorney described him at a recent pretrial hearing in a child custody case, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
“He's playing a character,” attorney Randall Wilhite said of Jones. “He is a performance artist.”
In court on Tuesday, another attorney, David Minton, described Jones's work as “satire” and “sarcasm,” according to American-Statesman reporter Jonathan Tilove, who tweeted live updates.
These argument — meant to help the Austin-based Jones win custody of his three children — amount to admissions that he does not really believe all the wacky stuff he says.
And I do mean wacky. My personal favorite Jones claim is that the government is lining juice boxes with estrogen to turn boys gay. Jones also has claimed that the government possesses the power to control the weather and use it as a weapon, and that the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax designed to increase support for gun-control laws.
There is a market for this stuff. Jones's radio show is syndicated on about 160 stations. He has racked up 1.3 billion YouTube views.
A journalist for Der Spiegel, the German magazine, profiled Jones in February and reported that his secretive “Central Texan Command Center” features four studios and that “the state-of-the-art equipment makes it feel like they are part of a national cable broadcaster.”
Filings in the child custody case indicate that Jones pays his ex-wife $43,000 a month in alimony — suggesting that his ranting and raving (and his male supplements) have brought a measure of financial success.
Jones's contention in court that he is merely “playing a character” on the air creates the appearance that he is an opportunist who exploits the paranoia of people on the far right. It also aligns with the observations of others.
“Jones isn't crazy,” Veit Medick, the Der Spiegel reporter who profiled him, wrote. “He is well-read, knows how to do his research and knows a bit about international politics. When the microphone is off, his speech sometimes sounds as dry as if he were a member of the European Commission. But when the microphone is on, he slips into his role and becomes a fury.”
Trump's alliance with Jones could be driven by opportunism, too. During the campaign, Trump mastered the art of lending credence to conspiracy theories without actually subscribing to them — seemingly as a way to appeal to fringe voters.
Last May, for example, Trump told The Washington Post that the 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, a Clinton White House attorney, was “very fishy.”
“I don't bring it up because I don't know enough to really discuss it,” Trump said. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder.”
Trump might not believe that the Clintons murdered Foster, but he wanted the votes of people who do. Jones might not believe it, either, but he wants the attention — and the money — of people who do. That is the clear takeaway from his court case.