In the long history of United States’ presidents, the chief executive has defended the office against myriad accusations, but Tuesday is likely to have been the first time that a sitting president has had to deflect accusations that he might be a demon.
“Democracy in a big, diverse country doesn’t work if you constantly demonize each other,” President Obama noted Tuesday, speaking at a rally in Greensboro, N.C. “And I mean that literally, by the way. I was reading the other day, there’s a guy on the radio who — apparently Trump’s on his show frequently — he said me and Hillary are demons. Said we smell like sulfur. Ain’t that something?”
Obama then sniffed his arm for effect, delighting the crowd of Clinton supporters attending his speech.
The “guy on the radio” Obama was referring to is Alex Jones, a libertarian radio host who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America.”
Jones runs the website Infowars and is a purveyor of numerous conspiracy theories, among them claims that 9/11 was an inside job, that the government is turning American children gay through their juice boxes, that no one died at Sandy Hook and, most recently, that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are possessed by demons.
“I never said this, because the media will go crazy with it,” said Jones on his show Monday, “but I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon, and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like Hell.”
This is hardly the first time during the campaign that Jones has forced his way into the national conversation.
In late August, Clinton turned a spotlight on Jones, when she cited him as the source behind some false claims that her rival, Donald Trump, had repeated on the campaign trail. “This is what happens when you listen to radio host Alex Jones, who claims that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings were inside jobs,” she said.
Clinton’s speech was the most high-profile reference to Jones and his ideas in the mainstream media since his 2013 CNN interview with Piers Morgan.
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) October 4, 2016
Jones, a vocal supporter of Trump and a detractor of Clinton, does not stop at words, but urges his devoted listeners to action, exhorting them to push his agenda at campaign events. (Jones has 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube, and Infowars is estimated to have somewhere between 6 million and 8 million monthly visitors. He claims to reach at least 20 million people worldwide.)
At a Florida rally on Tuesday, Clinton, who was sharing the stage with former Vice President Al Gore, was interrupted multiple times by protesters shouting, “Bill Clinton is a rapist.” The protesters were drowned out by her supporters, but their purpose was clear: They were attempting to collect on a bounty offered by Jones to anyone who could be heard shouting that phrase or wearing a T-shirt displaying the slogan. Similar shouts were heard at a Bill Clinton event Saturday in Milwaukee and during Obama’s speech in Greensboro.
Considering how extreme his positions are (other examples include charges that the Boston Marathon bombing was perpetrated by the FBI and that the government can create tornadoes to use as weapons against its own people ), the outsized role his comments have played in the 2016 election may seem surprising. Trump appeared on Infowars in December, participating in a 30-minute interview in which Jones inaccurately praised his foresight for opposing the Iraq war and for building a successful business from “nothing.” (Trump’s claims that he opposed the Iraq war before it started have been refuted, and his business career was aided by his father at many points along the way.)
Trump finished the interview by telling Jones that his reputation was “amazing” and that he wouldn’t let him down. Trump maintains other ties to Jones. One of Jones’ allies in his quest to take down Clinton is Roger Stone, Jr., who has been an advisor to Trump throughout his campaign. Stone, a former Nixon adviser who has Nixon’s face tattooed on his back, has written extensively on Clinton conspiracies.
Even Jones has seemed surprised to see his rhetoric embraced by a mainstream party presidential candidate. He said in August that it was “surreal” to see the Republican nominee taking his ideas and repeating them “word for word.”
Journalist Jon Ronson considers himself the Simon Cowell in Jones’ rise to fame, having helped elevate him as a result of a joint investigation the two embarked on in 2000 into the Bohemian Grove in California, where some of the most powerful men in the world gather every July to participate in odd rituals. Ronson chronicles his history with Jones in the Kindle Single “The Elephant in the Room,” from their initial meeting, through time he spent with Jones during and after the Republican National Convention.
In an interview with Yahoo News, Ronson, when asked how much influence Jones has had on the election, replied, “I think he’s had quite a lot.”
“Trump at a rally in California,” Ronson said, “postulated that there was no Californian drought, and in fact the California elites and government had seized the water and were dumping it into the sea to protect a 3-inch fish. And that was practically word for word something Alex had postulated days earlier.
“Both Trump and Trump Jr. have retweeted Alex’s articles, always in positive terms,” Ronson said. “Alex and Trump have both been spreading the, I think, disgraceful theory that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the Twin Towers going down. That’s something that Alex and Trump embarked upon together.”
After audio was leaked in which Hillary Clinton referred to some Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” Donald Trump Jr. responded by posting a “Deplorables” meme to Instagram. The photo included Trump, two of his sons, vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, and Trump supporters Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York. It also included Jones, frozen mid-shout, and Stone, implying that they were members of the campaign’s inner circle.
Yahoo News attended the “America First Unity Rally” in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention in July, which Jones and Stone attended. Dozens of supporters wore “Hillary for Prison” shirts that are sold on Infowars, and when Jones finally took the stage after a series of introductory speakers, the crowd of a couple of hundred people rushed to the front and cheered loudly. Later that week, Jones was involved in an altercation with a group of Black Lives Matter supporters, but it was peacefully resolved when police escorted the host out of Public Square.
Before gaining notoriety online, Jones was known as a syndicated radio host in Austin, Texas, his home base. In addition to his championing of conspiracy theories, he is also a big promoter of a line of vitamins, testosterone supplements and vitality pills. His online store is a one-stop shop to purchase anti-Clinton shirts alongside products named Infowars DNA Life Force, Survival Shield X and Super Male Vitality.
Jones enjoys wide popularity online, of both the sincere and insincere variety. Jones’ extreme vocal styling also makes him a popular subject for clipping for social media, especially on the platform Vine. Twitter user @ToddDracula, who contributes to TheStreet and Cafe, has become quite adept at taking Jones’ already dramatic rants and adding his own touches.
— CAFE (@cafedotcom) October 11, 2016
Jones stands by his claims, however wild they may be. “I have deep context for every claim I make,” said Jones to Rolling Stone in a 2011 interview. “I know some people say I exaggerate, but I believe everything I say. It’s just that the denial is so strong, the apathy so deep, that people need something to shake them out of their morass. We’re like flowers who naturally turn toward the sun, and the globalists want us turned toward Hollywood and the TV so they can poison us. It’s like one of those drawings with a hidden pattern. Once you stare long enough, it appears. Then you wonder: How did I ever not see it?”
It’s not likely that Jones or his followers will recede from the national stage before the election. He claims to have allocated $100,000 in bounties to be paid out to disrupters, suggesting that more protesters are likely to stage demonstrations like the shouts of “rapist” in Florida this week. The fact that Jones’ theories, after so much time on the fringe, have become mainstream is perhaps the clearest marker of how outrageous the 2016 campaign has become.
“I’ve known Alex for 20 years,” said Ronson, “and on a personal level, I like him very much and admire what a charismatic and great broadcaster he is. But that doesn’t stop me from being aghast at the things he promotes, and especially aghast at how the things he promotes made it to the Republican Party.”