The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the right built up Alex Jones — even long after his Sandy Hook comments

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attempts to answer questions about his emails during his trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3. (Briana Sanchez/Pool/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
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Update: Alex Jones was ordered to pay $965 million to the families of eight Sandy Hook victims on Wednesday. Below is a post from August, when a Texas jury ordered him to pay nearly $50 million in a separate trial. The new judgment brings the total judgments against him to more than $1 billion.

It has been a decade since Alex Jones made transparently ridiculous claims that the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary was a “false flag” intended to generate support for gun control, and that the families mourning their children were “crisis actors” in on the “giant hoax.”

Jones has now been punished for the harm those lies caused: A Texas jury this summer ordered him to pay nearly $50 million to the parents of one of the young victims for compounding their pain and suffering, and a Connecticut jury added another $965 million on Wednesday.

That the verdicts took this long is one thing. That so many figures on the right cozied up to him in the meantime, despite widespread knowledge of these comments, is quite another. And better than most anything, it should serve as a moment of reckoning for the GOP as it increasingly embraces Jones-ian conspiracy theories — or just allows them to metastasize within its base.

The Washington Post’s Timothy Bella has recapped the actions of two major players in the effort to legitimize Jones: former president Donald Trump and Joe Rogan. But the effort to mainstream the Infowars host and draw in his supporters, even after his Sandy Hook comments, was significantly more widespread than that.

Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon last year mused that Jones was “one of the smartest guys around on the topic of transhumanism,” and this summer called him “a man of action” and a great political “thinker.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) appeared on Jones’s show in 2016. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has repeatedly appeared on his show, even in recent months, as the two of them have tried to stoke speculation about Greene seeking the presidency. And last year, Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance favorably compared Jones to liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, saying Jones was “a far more reputable source of information.

Vance later tempered those comments, saying he had been “kind of trolling.” The tweet remains live.

Indeed, Jones has often been wielded by the right more to make a point than anything else — about social media and Big Tech censorship of people like Jones, about how reputable the mainstream media is in comparison, etc. But in the process, he’s been legitimized.

Leading the charge on that front has been arguably Jones’s most significant validator, Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Carlson in June 2021 suggested that perhaps Jones was on to something with his theories about human engineering. Late last year, like Vance, he called Jones “a far better guide to reality in recent years — in other words, a far better journalist” — than a pair of prominent NBC and CBS journalists. (He dismissed Jones’s conspiratorial excesses as mere flamboyance.) In February, he favorably compared Jones’s credibility and rigor to a prominent coronavirus expert and State Department spokesman Ned Price: “Alex Jones lies far less and is far more credible than Ned Price is.”

The latter three comments, it bears noting, all came after judges had ruled that Jones was liable for damages in multiple lawsuits brought by Sandy Hook families — including the one that resulted in the nearly $50 million price tag.

And to be clear, these are far from the only things Jones has said that might give one pause. Here are some of Jones’s choice conspiracy theories that we isolated late last year:

• Claimed the federal government has turned “weather weapons” on its citizens.
• Claimed the government has used chemicals to turn people gay — and that “the majority of frogs in most areas of the United States are now gay” because of the experiments.
• Said people would “let [Robert] Mueller rape kids in front of people, which he did,” before walking back the assertion.
• Promoted the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and top aides were running a satanic sex-trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza restaurant, then backtracked and apologized.
• Suggested the following were inside jobs and/or false flag operations: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, Charlottesville, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the Brussels terrorist attack and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
• Falsely connected the Chobani yogurt company and its employment of refugees to child sexual assault and a rise in tuberculosis. (Jones later settled a defamation suit brought by Chobani.)
• Was sued after Infowars falsely identified the shooter in the Parkland massacre.

Whatever one thinks of Maddow or any other figure compared to Jones above, there is simply no comparison.

As that Texas trial progressed in recent months, Carlson has utilized Jones in a slightly different fashion, accusing critics of his own conspiracy theories of treating him like they do Jones. “Oh, sound paranoid? Alex Jones stuff?” Carlson said in a segment on guns in June. “What are you, Alex Jones? No,” he said July 19 in a segment on replacement theory. “That’s an Alex Jones thing,” he mocked his critics as saying during a climate-change segment a day later.

While Vance and Carlson appear to be interested in creating at least some separation between themselves and what Jones has actually spouted, one prominent Republican has more explicitly disowned Jones.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) appeared on Jones’s show before deciding that he would no longer do so in 2018, after another massacre of schoolchildren in his home state. Gaetz said that “the things that Alex Jones has said and done are so hurtful to so many people that a member of Congress should not grace that platform and legitimize it, and I would not go back.”

And yet plenty proceeded to legitimize Jones.

Virtually nobody is defending Jones now, save for Greene, who claimed recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that Jones was being persecuted.

“He didn’t build his Infowars on that [Sandy Hook claim],” Greene ventured. “He built it on a lot of other news. And Alex Jones has been right pretty much most of the time.”

She added: “Alex Jones has been right most of the time, except of course on Sandy Hook.”

Saying someone is “right most of the time” is perhaps the definition of damning with faint praise — especially for a supposed journalist. And it’s indisputable that what has made Jones popular among a segment of the extreme right is precisely the kind of stuff he said about Sandy Hook.

That Greene would be the first (and perhaps only?) to leap to Jones’s defense isn’t surprising; she’s proven the most willing vector in Congress for these same kinds of conspiracy theories. But the comments at issue here have been a part of the public record for a very long time — and still the effort to treat Jones as somehow legitimate proceeded apace.

Perhaps certain Republicans are really that concerned about censorship or think the Sandy Hook stuff was just overzealous flamboyance from someone who is mostly an entertainer. But our court system has now found that it was far more than that: These lies were so harmful to the grieving parents of dead children that they warranted a massive judgments against Jones.

Yet, to some of the most prominent conservatives in the country, these lies about murdered children were apparently a pittance.