“The world is more chaos than we like to imagine,” Bryce Reh tells Anna Merlan in her book, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. “The faster we come to terms with that, the more fluidly you can deal with it.”
Reh is the general manager of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, DC, pizza spot that in 2016 became the target of the wild, evidence-averse online conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. That Reh could take such a healthily detached view of Pizzagate—the world is all swirling particles, and sometimes those particles take the form of a man shooting up your restaurant because strangers on the internet wrongly told him you aid and abet pedophiles—is admirable and probably good for his blood pressure.
But as Merlan reveals in her riveting, deeply-reported safari through the American fringe, chaos theory isn’t the best lens through which to view conspiracy theorists. No matter how far-fetched, discriminatory, or downright silly conspiracy theories like vaccine skepticism, Sandy Hook denialism, or “lizard people” might seem, there’s often a not-too-distant point in American history where truth really was stranger and crueler than fiction.
Consider, for example, the 9/11 truth movement, whose calling card was the phrase, Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams! In a chapter dedicated to the “false flag” strain of popular conspiracy theories, Merlan astutely points out that 9/11 trutherism is bolstered by the very real existence of Operation Northwoods, a proposal floated by the CIA in 1962 to commit acts of terrorism against US citizens, blame them on Cuba, and use them as justification for a war.
That plan was abandoned before it could manifest, but its parallels to the Bush administration’s use of the World Trade Center attack to justify two Middle Eastern wars is noteworthy. 9/11 truthers might be wrong, but their line of thinking is anything but chaotic—rather, it’s predicated on actual history.
You can’t throw a stone through cyberspace without hitting a podcast or limited TV series about cults, conspiracy theories, or extremist politics. But too often, these deep-dives aim to titillate rather than educate. Merlan avoids falling into this trap and does her readers a real service in the process. I consider myself a fairly conspiracy-literate person, but Republic of Lies places current conspiracy theories within the tapestry of American culture and history in a way no other work I’ve encountered has managed.
Merlan peppers the book with enough strange firsthand anecdotes and encounters—the white supremacist at a protest who blanches and stutters, “That’s fine!” after she tells him she’s Jewish, for instance—to keep it from reading as strictly academic. But she walks an impressive tightrope, entertaining the reader without ever turning conspiracy theorists into a simple punch line. This is a book everyone from the Alex Jones faithful to the straight and narrow sheeple might learn from and enjoy.