Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power

A riveting tour through the landscape and meaning of modern conspiracy theories, exploring the causes and tenacity of this American malady, from Birthers to Pizzagate and beyond.American society has always been fertile ground for conspiracy theories, but with the election of Donald Trump, previously outlandish ideas suddenly attained legitimacy. Trump himself is a conspira...

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Title:Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power
Author:Anna Merlan
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Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power Reviews

  • David Wineberg

    I never do this, but here is the first sentence of Republic of Lies: “In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”

    SOLD! Anna Merlan has put herself through a brain-exploding experience to tell us about the astounding variety of lies Americans tell about themselves and their country. It’s a whirlwind tour of conspiracies, hate, ideology, religion, UFOs, and politics. They are all urgent matters. The nation is at risk. Time is

    I never do this, but here is the first sentence of Republic of Lies: “In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”

    SOLD! Anna Merlan has put herself through a brain-exploding experience to tell us about the astounding variety of lies Americans tell about themselves and their country. It’s a whirlwind tour of conspiracies, hate, ideology, religion, UFOs, and politics. They are all urgent matters. The nation is at risk. Time is running out.

    To Merlan’s point (and book title), Americans have very good reason to suspect conspiracy. American governments and government agencies have a horrific history of conspiring against citizens and lying about it. The FBI under J.E. Hoover sent a blackmail letter to Martin Luther King Jr, instructing him to commit suicide lest his sexual history be exposed. The Freedom of Information Act has led to whole volumes of FBI files being made public, showing it had files and actively interfered in the lives of innocuous groups and individuals. The FBI admits its COINTELPRO program was designed to insert disinformation into various organizations in the hope they would spin out of control. Similarly, agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration are known to have given informants kilos of cocaine as payment or incentive. There was warrantless wiretapping exposed by Edward Snowden. The CIA experimented on the unknowing with LSD, plutonium and syphilis. So Americans come by the conspiracies legitimately. What you sow, so shall ye reap, someone once said. Americans are highly trained conspiracists.

    The government sterilized the feeble-minded (ie. blacks), incarcerated the homeless after Louisiana floods, and routinely classifies everything Top Secret. Most recently, government agencies have taken to seeding protest marches and demonstrations with thugs who start fights and riot in the streets to discredit the efforts. So yes, there is reason to suspect conspiracy.

    Into this atmosphere comes social media, the ideal incubator for conspiracy theories. The result is a huge overreaction of conspiracies like false flag accusations. In false flag, absolutely anything that happens can be construed as a government act to scare people, or prepare them for military occupation, a coup, or some loss of rights. So massacres at schools, night clubs and churches never actually happened. No one actually died. They’re all false flag scare tactics. Like astronauts landing on the moon, it was all staged for somebody’s advantage. On social media, this appeals to millions to disbelieve their own eyes, in preference for a conspiracy theory.

    Americans have a decided preference for child molestation and slavery conspiracies. They see it everywhere. They suspect it of the “elite” and lowly pizzerias. I remember the Wenatchee child molestation trials, where the complete lack of physical evidence was successfully submitted at trial as proof of guilt, because nothing could be that free of evidence. Merlan devotes a chapter to the epidemic, focused on Pizzagate, which nearly turned into a genuine tragedy when someone took it all as real.

    Possibly the most revolting part of the book is these followers’ harassment of the victims of massacres. They have attacked surviving students of the Parkland School and gone after the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook. They demand proof the murdered ever existed. They doxx the survivors. They find and circulate drivers’ licenses, social security numbers and other personal data so more followers can harass and attack them with demands and death threats. Sending threatening e-mails to one parent’s lawyer causes a bill to be generated: a quarter hour for each one received. An interesting way to bankrupt someone. It puts survivors in a double jeopardy having to deal with grief and then also being attacked for good measure. Not responding is no solution either, as the attackers assume that is proof they are hiding something. It is ruining the lives of many undeserving victims. The perpetrators remain largely anonymous and shielded.

    What all the causes, cults and movements seem to have in common is they are operated for and by white male Christians. Merlan is Jewish (not to mention a woman) and has reported on highly charged racist gatherings where white male Christians gather to promote the removal and/or death of Jews. She routinely reveals her religion to her interlocutors, which results in backpedaling and diversions like “Well, it’s complicated” or “You’re a very beautiful woman.”

    The most valuable service performed by Republic of Lies is the sheer variety of nonsense underway. There is a conspiracy for every topic and every event. There are followers for all of them. It is a much bigger sickness than a simple day of Fox News would demonstrate. There is also far more of it than I realized. Merlan describes a number of political conspiracies I had not known of, but which have thousands of adherents.

    And newly minted celebrities. The quickest path to celebrity in America seems to be by conspiracy theory. Whoever makes it up becomes the greatest authority on it, and is legitimized by the media interviewing them and profiling them. Very often, they seem to be losers, with criminal pasts and no future. Their conspiracy theories boost them into fame and a new direction in their failing lives. She profiles a number of them, and they tend to come off as rather pathetic.

    They eat their own too, constantly infighting, breaking apart and creating new groups. As one participant memorably described them: “We have a circular firing squad of everyone telling everyone else they are the opposition.”

    It has made the USA a paranoid laugh riot.

    David Wineberg

  • Mike

    I know far too many people who desperately need to read this book but never will.

  • Glenda

    If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of conspiracy theories, from beliefs in UFOs to anti-Vaccination conspiracies, “Republic of Lies” will bring you closer to understanding why seemingly thoughtful people from myriad political spectrums get caught up in conspiratorial movements. Particularly interesting is the author’s research into the lies our own government has spread in the past and how the past fuels current beliefs in conspiracies.

  • Jim Razinha

    I admire anonymously the monumental efforts like those of people at Media Matters, who endure hours upon hours of the likes of Fox News so that the sane of us don't have to watch to see what nonsense is being spewed at any given instance. And then there is Ms. Merlan, who takes such to extremes, diving into the belly of so many beasts to write this she has to have brain bleach on autorefill. Hat's off and bravo. There have always been conspiracists and their theories - whacky, out there, unreal.

    I admire anonymously the monumental efforts like those of people at Media Matters, who endure hours upon hours of the likes of Fox News so that the sane of us don't have to watch to see what nonsense is being spewed at any given instance. And then there is Ms. Merlan, who takes such to extremes, diving into the belly of so many beasts to write this she has to have brain bleach on autorefill. Hat's off and bravo. There have always been conspiracists and their theories - whacky, out there, unreal. I semi-argued in frustration with someone some years ago who thought the feed from the International Space Station was faked, as was the moon landing (it was faked, of course, by Stanley Kubrick, but he always liked to shoot on location ;) ). Sadly, she wasn't the only person I've known who believed that mind-boggling gem, and I know anti-vaxxers, some who think fluoride is poison brainwashing, and a few Deep Staters and birthers just for starters. The fallout from 2016 is alarming enough that when I saw this, I requested and was sent an Advance Reader's Edition from the publisher through

    .

    Ms. Merlan calls this "a surreal time", where the subcultures she writes about are "achieving a hallucinatory new level of fame." In the western hemisphere, conspiracies have been around since the Euro-occupants (my term) got here. She says

    Well, one need only look to religions to see the same thing.

    She's got a lot here, from the usual Pizzagate & UFOs to Agenda 21 and the kingpin, Alex Jones, medical conspiracies, mind control, Deep State, white nationalists, to the heinous false flaggers (the abuse and harassment the parents of the victims of the so, so many mass school shootings is heart-rending) who think that anything is a government action and government cover up. She's attended conventions, rallies, interviewed the more famous of the various conspiracy adherents...she even spent a week on a "cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists."!! Yes, there is a Conspira-Sea Cruise!

    I love her discard of restraint when she calls out the perpetrators: on a manufactured conspiracy around a tragic unsolved murder, rumors and BS were "spurred by the biggest conspiracy megaphone there is: Fox News, specifically Sean Hannity, the network's biggest Trump defender." On the real conspiracy of Russians trying to draw the T campaign into its meddling, she says, "we know this because we had the deeply idiotic emails between Trump son-in-chief Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin..." When Ted Cruz, on his first senatorial run, said on Glenn Beck's (another serial offender) radio show to cry about Agenda 21 he warned that it would end single-family homes, ranching, private cars, ... She says, "that's not a flase flag; it's just very, very stupid. (So stupid that the national Republican Party put an anti-Agenda 21 plank in their national platform...) Double slam in one paragraph. And in response to the too little too late semi/pseudo controls of the Facebbok, iTunes, Pinterests, etc. and the

    too little and way too late Twit-ter,

    Yep. Of course, the Twit-ter lets him violate their abuse policies incessantly, so don't hold any breaths.

    Sometimes the paranoia is too comical: some of the false flaggers even accuse the grand poobah Alex Jones of being a false flag! A government plant spreading hoaxes as real (but their hoaxes are not hoaxes, if you will.)

    She calls to task Joesph Uscinski, coauthor of

    who said

    Nailed it. And she continued: "More important, Facebook and Twitter have a way of flattening information, making every source look the same or appear equally plausible." There lies a problem with our anti-social media...they feed, we can skip, but not unsee.

    In her epilogue, she has a sobering observation that there "are no brakes available. There is no mechanism to prevent another Edgar Welch storming into a pizza parlor or another James Field getting behind the wheel, speeding toward Heather Heyer."

    So true. She also observes that we cannot just label something as fake and turn away, because "millions of people across the country are not doing the same." Take one look at a certain "News" Channels ratings and you'll see what she means (my words.)She quotes reporter Sarah Jones, writing for the

    The alternative is to allow conservative propaganda to fester. An impenetrable bloc of voters will continue to blame Latinos for their woes, to ignore basic facts that are staring them in the face, to trumpet American exceptionalism while neo-Nazis roam the streets, and to look to a strongman in their image to save them. We will have an unfree country, ruled by fear, and if we do not act we will bear some of the responsibility."

    Too much to summarize, read the book. Or don't. The best way to arm oneself against stupidity is too learn about. Read Ms. Jones's point again.

    [On the overall book, one problem I had was the sourcing, or lack, of a lot quoted material. There was a ten page list of sources in my copy, and no index, but no citations. And the list seemed incomplete. I noticed because I was trying to figure out where one part of a thread came from and didn't see anything in the end list of sources.]

  • Jason

    We're all familiar by now with the fact that the poor, disenfranchised and undereducated are prone to believing in conspiratorial theories and driven by grandiose fantasies of nefarious forces colluding against them. If those people aren't in our immediate families, they're at least visible enough on our social network feeds that we're aware they exist. And, while it's been easy to ignore these people and mock their backward, peasant-like ignorance, it's all become less funny now that they're sh

    We're all familiar by now with the fact that the poor, disenfranchised and undereducated are prone to believing in conspiratorial theories and driven by grandiose fantasies of nefarious forces colluding against them. If those people aren't in our immediate families, they're at least visible enough on our social network feeds that we're aware they exist. And, while it's been easy to ignore these people and mock their backward, peasant-like ignorance, it's all become less funny now that they're shooting up public places, bringing back previous-vanquished illnesses and, worst of all, electing leaders every bit as delusional as they are. This is ground that's been covered extensively in books, articles and documentary films, but Anna Merlan's

    is more than just a simple retread of

    or

    .

    For one thing, Merlan has the advantage of writing this book in the wake of the 2016 Election, the apotheosis of batshit conspiratorial thinking. She can reference phenomena like Pizzagate or QAnon, occurrences so outlandish previous writers on this topic could never have envisioned them. Beyond that, what Merlan really does well is look past the believers of conspiracies themselves--people to whom she's surprisingly kind (often too much so for my taste) in her portrayal--and focusing instead on the assorted hucksters, con artists, flimflam men, etc. getting really rich and successful from stoking fear and spreading division: people like Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich and, of course, Donald Trump. Merlan's analysis raises the question of whether these people are true believers or cynical opportunists.

    Merlan has previously written for the publication

    , but she employs little of that site's trademark snark or intentional mischaracterization of alternative viewpoints here. Instead, she immerses herself with the various anti-vaxxers, false flag "researchers" and alien abduction enthusiasts. It's great analysis: timely, well-written and, as much as possible, balanced. She's skilled at contextualizing even the craziest of viewpoints and referencing moments of actual conspiracies that really happened in American history. At the same time, she follows the obvious thread linking nearly all conspiracy theories and subgroups of believers: antisemitism and white supremacy. All in all, it's a clear and exhaustive exploration.

  • Susan (aka Just My Op)

    I received an advance copy of this book through a LibraryThing giveaway.

    “In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”

    The interesting first sentence of this book couldn't help but draw me in, and began her tales of her time on the “Conspira-Sea Cruise." It took much much too long to read this book. The lesser reason is because I have a hard time reading paper books. The greater reason is I could handle only a little of this a

    I received an advance copy of this book through a LibraryThing giveaway.

    “In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”

    The interesting first sentence of this book couldn't help but draw me in, and began her tales of her time on the “Conspira-Sea Cruise." It took much much too long to read this book. The lesser reason is because I have a hard time reading paper books. The greater reason is I could handle only a little of this at a time.

    The author covers a lot of conspiracy theories, and some of them (think Watergate) were proven true. Our government, with some of the unconscionable experiments it has done in the past, can engender conspiracy theories. But some of them are so outrageous, so blatantly false, that you have to wonder why people believe them. The author did try to explain that to my satisfaction, but not entirely. So much of it seems driven by hate, by conflicting views of feeling superior at the same time as needing to feel someone is lesser because of (choose whatever option of many here). Some are harmless. Some are not only continuing to divide this country but are deadly. I can't imagine the survivors and parents of Sandy Hook must feel when they hear that they did not exist at all or that they are simply actors. Some of these theories are believed by incredibly gullible or naive people who will not look beyond their biased “news” sources. And some of the people starting these theories just want to make money. Despicable.

    While most of these are right-wing theories or the tin-foil hat set, the left is not immune, as with “Russiagate.” Some of the theories might have some degree of truth to them, but most are made of whole cloth. In these days of social media, the hatred, the lies, the paranoia easily becomes viral.

    This is an interesting book for anyone who cares about the direction our world, and especially the US, is headed.

  • Colleen Corgel

    This is really, really good. It explores the reasons why Americans are given to conspiracies and why it is important to recognize their importance in the current discourse.

    The chapters all run on themes, from Medical conspiracies (which she points out has some historical precedence, especially for African Americans), to Military, and to UFOs. It's all tied into the overarching theme I stated above. She bravely goes into the rallies, conferences, and other places where she is often not welcomed

    This is really, really good. It explores the reasons why Americans are given to conspiracies and why it is important to recognize their importance in the current discourse.

    The chapters all run on themes, from Medical conspiracies (which she points out has some historical precedence, especially for African Americans), to Military, and to UFOs. It's all tied into the overarching theme I stated above. She bravely goes into the rallies, conferences, and other places where she is often not welcomed to see what people are talking about. It's not biased; how can it be when she is talking to people who think that her religious group are responsible for the ills of the planet? But she keeps an even tone, a monumental task, I feel.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it could easily be longer - and enjoyed that it shows why conspiracy culture is relevant, and how it can be so disruptive, even if most people think the conspiracy is harmless.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Covers the rise of conspiratorial thinking and its takeover of our political culture especially since 2016. Most conspiracy theories have a kernel at the center of them that might have a little basis in reality but they go off the deep end and become hermetically sealed from further facts. most of them are natural responses of uneducated powerless people who use them to make sense of who is screwing them over. Most are false and a good deal of them are racist or medically dangerous. explores thi

    Covers the rise of conspiratorial thinking and its takeover of our political culture especially since 2016. Most conspiracy theories have a kernel at the center of them that might have a little basis in reality but they go off the deep end and become hermetically sealed from further facts. most of them are natural responses of uneducated powerless people who use them to make sense of who is screwing them over. Most are false and a good deal of them are racist or medically dangerous. explores this subculture at the heart of trump's post-fact America.

  • Emily

    I bought this book on the strength of one of Merlan's tweets, which for me encapsulated 2017.

    The weak side of this book is that it recounts conspiracy-related beliefs and internecine quarrels that I have, for the most part, already read about. I know about the white supremacist who had an affair with his wife's stepfat

    I bought this book on the strength of one of Merlan's tweets, which for me encapsulated 2017.

    The weak side of this book is that it recounts conspiracy-related beliefs and internecine quarrels that I have, for the most part, already read about. I know about the white supremacist who had an affair with his wife's stepfather's wife and how InfoWars and Goop are sourcing their woo-filled pseudomedical products from the same places and the Pizzagate people who are convinced that abuse is occurring in the basement of a building that does not have a basement. If you've been reading about all these stories all along, it weakens the rationale for picking up this book.

    The strong side is that Merlan does pull out some fresher themes. One is that, given all the terrible things the government has done (especially to black folks) and tried to cover up, it's not insane to believe some of these theories. Another is that some conspiracies are now fueled by what she calls "conspiracy entrepreneurs," which may not be a new thing but is certainly more effective in the Internet Age. Sobering for the library crowd is the habit of conspiracy believers to say that they were awoken after having "researched" a matter, or urging others to "do some research" to learn the truth--where "research" apparently means to Google and watch some nutty YouTube videos. A parallel notion of how discover the truth appears to be solidifying out there on the Internet.

    Finally, she ends the book with an exploration of wishful-thinking liberal Twitter, where people (people I have long since muted) try to convince each other that a massive, clearcut Russia plot is about to be revealed, leading to a decisive impeachment movement. If you were tempted to laugh at the conspiracy theorists in the earlier chapters, this is a sobering antidote.

  • Martha Toll

    Here’s my review of this book on NPR.

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