There’s a moment in Anna Merlan’s new book, Republic of Lies, where any reasonable reader might gasp.
It’s early 2017, and the young reporter is attending a white-nationalist cookout in Pikeville, Kentucky. She and a photographer are surrounded by Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, who are “quietly eating fried chicken and biscuits out of Styrofoam containers.” Merlan describes a conversation with Brian “Sonny” Thomas, a man most famous for tweeting fantasies about shooting Latinos. He begins ranting to Merlan about the Jew-owned media and the pernicious influence of globalists.
“I’m Jewish,” she responds to him. She watches as his face registers “several different shades of surprise.” (Reading this, my stomach dropped 10 feet; Merlan, thankfully, emerges unscathed.)
This wry recounting is typical of Merlan’s understated style. With restrained but eloquent prose, Merlan unblinkingly documents our age of conspiracy. The book is filled with bizarre situations—Merlan moves from a conspiracy-theorist cruise to UFO conferences to Pizzagate rallies—and the author’s droll voice buoys us through it all, bringing in expert commentary and academic research along the way. While primarily focused on a conspiracy-drunk right wing, the book doesn’t confine itself to one side of the political aisle; nor does it focus only on theories broadcast and consumed by white audiences. Rather, the through line of the book is an investigation of the impacts that this kind of thinking can have on both its proponents and those unlucky enough to become fixations.
In an online environment saturated with content that’s flattened by the social-media platforms on which they appear, it is difficult to distinguish facts from the alarmist salvos of conspiracists. As Merlan notes, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram have become vectors for the instant spread of information that runs the gamut from a tad scammy to genuinely malicious. The self-reinforcing algorithms amplify sensationalist content, and the endless sprawl of the “research community”—as conspiracy theorists prefer to call themselves—provide a rich tapestry of alternative truths: the truth about vaccines, the truth about taxes, the truth about Jews. From measles outbreaks to white-nationalist violence, the effects of this ecosystem are undeniable.
A particularly striking example of the cost of conspiracy comes in Merlan’s chapter about the overheated—and ungrounded—theories surrounding the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich. Merlan casts a merciless look at the Alex Joneses and Sean Hannities and Newt Gingriches of the world, who spread lies about a dead young man for clicks and political convenience. But her narrative is augmented by a tender, thoughtful treatment of the agonies undergone by Rich’s family, whose grief over their child’s untimely passing was interrupted by the attentions of a series of increasingly shameless grifters. “It became hard to determine who might sincerely want to help, who might have a real tip, and who was peddling self-interested, publicity-hungry snake oil,” Merlan writes. In the end, the onslaught of falsehoods—and the family’s attempts to defuse the notion that their beloved relative was a secret-smuggling criminal—robs the family even of the ability to grieve. “This is taking all the emotion we have instead of it being put into grieving,” Aaron Rich, Seth’s brother, tells Merlan. A chapter on Pizzagate focuses on both the outlandish personalities who’ve glommed on to the notion that a powerful ring of pedophiles runs the United States—and the torment and fear endured by the innocent staff of the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, the unassuming restaurant at the theory’s heart.
A chapter about the proliferation of conspiracies in the black community in the United States receives a similarly nuanced treatment, one imbued with both historical consciousness and empathy. Merlan acknowledges the harmfulness of conspiracy theories within the black community—theories that the CIA daubed condoms with AIDS-infused oil, for example—while at the same time pointing out the long history of the state’s neglect, deception, and brutality toward its black citizens. In a country where government researchers left black sharecroppers untreated for syphilis in the Tuskegee experiments and where the state of Michigan poisoned the water of Flint, is medical subterfuge really so hard to imagine? Conspiracy theories that posit the targeting of black leaders have a real-life trail of assassinations to lean on. Using a patchwork of interviews, historical records, and news reports, Merlan draws a complex portrait of the centuries of government depredation that, as she puts it, have created circumstances in which “black Americans and other disenfranchised groups see no reason to let their guard down.”
Ultimately, the author places the responsibility for the rise of conspiracy theories not just at the feet of the Internet—which has sped up communication, but not changed human nature—but at an unjust society that heaps its riches on elites and leaves the rest of us unsatisfied. In such a situation, she argues, paucity of circumstance begets a restless urge for alternative explanations, a hunger for a nefarious foe or elaborate conspiracy to explain a reality that leaves our lives impoverished and our wallets empty. Into this void arrive “conspiracy entrepreneurs”—figures like Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones—who often sell mistrust along with dubious nutritional supplements.
Republic of Lies paints a portrait of epistemic breakdown, in which American discourse is riddled with unbridgeable chasms. In the zealotry of conspiracists’ convictions, the ability to conduct dialogue breaks down. If we cannot agree on the shape of our planet, what can we agree on, and what are such rifts doing to us? Against this formidable social trend, Merlan offers herself—a rock-steady narrator with a ready command of history, nerves of steel, and incisive social insights—as both guide and antidote.
One gets the feeling that we need a thousand of her, or a million, to enter such communities with fearlessness and empathy, catalog the personalities, and emerge with humane conclusions. But in the absence of the ability to clone Anna Merlan—and in an environment where journalists are beset by corporate greed, government attacks, and overlapping sloughs of layoffs—it’s difficult to imagine a solution to a quietly radicalizing populace, drifting further and further from even the barest notion of a common consciousness. The tech companies that promised us unbounded knowledge left out the part where some of us would be drawn to racist paranoia, garbage science, and charismatic baloney peddlers. Nonetheless, Republic of Lies offers, at the very least, a comprehensive sketch of where the rifts lie, and how much the paranoid American mind has changed in the age of instant communication. But it remains incumbent on us to figure out how to heal the thousand cuts of our country—and reconstitute the public trust.