We’d all come to see the Alex Jones show. Not InfoWars, the one that airs on over one hundred radio stations every weekday and streams on YouTube to two million subscribers—the one in which Jones has four unfettered hours to explain to his audience why, exactly, “there is a war on” for their minds.
This version, rather, played out inside of the Honorable Orlinda Naranjo’s 419th District Court. Spectators poured into the Travis County courtroom’s movie theater-style seats—reporters, fans, the curious. A retired attorney who moved to Texas weeks earlier found out about the trial from a buddy who told him, “You don’t want to miss this.” A young woman spent her entire week in court just to watch. “Are you a fan of Alex Jones?” someone asked her in the hallway during a recess. “Oh, no,” she said, laughing.
Jones, who built his platform by promoting a conspiracy-minded version of right-wing news and punditry, was facing off against his ex-wife, Kelly, for custody of the couple’s three children. Spectators weren’t there to gawk at a custody trial, though—they were looking for something that wasn’t on the docket. The credibility of the immensely successful conspiracy theorist—who can count the President of the United States among the millions of Americans who at least occasionally tune into his show—was on trial. Exhibit A: Statements given by Jones’s lawyer, Randall Wilhite, in which he argued during a pre-trial hearing that Jones was “a performance artist” who is “playing a character” on InfoWars.
That comment directly contradicted Jones’s entire persona, which is built around authenticity. Jones promotes the idea that he’s the one guy who will give you the truth when the media, government, and the occasional yogurt company are lying to you. He’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on, whether it’s who was really behind 9/11 or if Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show was a satanic ritual. The argument that the real Alex Jones isn’t the pundit shouting about chemtrails and the CIA, but a loving, devoted father was central to Wilhite’s case. That plan might be advantageous in a custody battle, but how would it affect Jones’s credibility?
Jones wore attire typical to his show—a blazer, buttoned even when sitting down, and a white shirt with no tie—to court. On that first day of testimony, Jones seemed ready to explode. Not, this time, over vaccinations or fluoride or the New World Order. This tension seemed aimed at Houston family law attorney Bobby Newman, one of the two attorneys hired by Jones’s ex-wife.
Newman, who’s a short, slight man with small eyes and hair slicked back in the style of an eighties movie villain, seemed like the perfect foil to Jones—a man who makes a sizable portion of his income selling male enhancement supplements online and who, seemingly to prove their effectiveness, is prone to whipping off his shirt at inopportune moments (including at least once during a family therapy session, according to testimony at the trial). During opening remarks, Newman talked about Jones like he wasn’t in the room, with a voice heavy on derision and “get a load of this guy” disbelief. Throughout the protracted opening statement, as Newman jabbed his finger in Jones’s direction, the host looked livid. In his life, Jones is the finger-pointer, not the finger-pointee.
But this was court, and it wasn’t Jones’s turn to speak. As Newman described Jones’s ex-wife’s relationship to her children, Jones’s face turned an ever-deepening shade of crimson; his lips pursed into a tight frown and he shook his head. When Newman noticed this, he seized on it, complaining to the judge. Judge Naranjo, who had never seen InfoWars before the case landed in her courtroom, twice cautioned Jones that there would be “no bodily comments” during Newman’s opening statement.
Newman—determined to prove that the Alex Jones who bellows into a microphone on InfoWars was the same guy that his client’s children lived with every day—seemed to be antagonizing Jones. It was as if Newman’s entire strategy revolved around poking at the host until he exploded, like a character on Law & Order.
And that Jones, which Newman was steadily trying to draw out, was the Alex Jones show that we were all there to see. Wilhite’s argument before the trial caught the attention of the world. Reporters from the Austin American-Statesman, BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast, Fusion, and Esquire were there. British author and journalist Jon Ronson hopped a late-night flight on Tuesday to be in Judge Naranjo’s courtroom in Austin by Wednesday morning. If Jones, as his lawyer contended, is “playing a character” and “a performance artist,” could it be that all of his influence is built on a foundation of lies?
On the first day of testimony, the man in front of the jury, red-faced and seething, unable to sit still until ordered to by a judge, looked an awful lot like what you might expect from the one from InfoWars. If it’s all a performance, then Jones seems to be a method actor.
The question of Alex Jones’s credibility didn’t start with the trial. It’s a question that people have been asking for about as long as Jones has had a media presence: Is this guy for real? Jones has been on the air in Austin since the mid-1990s, when he began broadcasting as part of the city’s vibrant public access community. The content of his shows hasn’t changed much in terms of tone—today, he might go on the air to rant about the secret “gay bomb” the Pentagon has to compel people (and frogs) toward same-sex attraction; in 1997 he was going on television to rant about black helicopters watching Austin residents, but the gist is the same: Here’s a bizarre premise, unblinkingly reported, in which some unspecified “they” don’t want you to know the truth. His voice has grown harsher over the past couple decades—now it’s a full-throated rasp rather than his previous incredulous drawl—and his charisma now threatens to break through the screen. But Jones, as a personality, more or less follows along a continuum. His obsession with the Branch Davidians has been replaced with conspiracy-minded rants on the Sandy Hook shootings. The single biggest change with Jones is his sphere of influence.
I’ve watched Jones’s rise since I landed in Austin in 2002. Friends listened to InfoWars and found themselves doubting the official September 11 story. (“Could jet fuel really melt steel beams?”) Jones was a face in Austin, even as he moved off of cable access and on to syndicated radio. Austin film director Richard Linklater was charmed enough by Jones’s persona that he put him in brief roles in a couple of his movies, 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly. In each of them, Jones screams through a bullhorn about conspiracies that, in the worlds of the two films, turn out to be more or less true.
Jones continued to embrace his public persona as parody even as his career picked up steam in the mid-2000s. He cut PSAs for the Austin-based movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse, urging patrons not to talk during the film. “We’re going to find out who these talkers are, we’re going to find out where their funding comes from, and we’re going to shut them down!”
Jones’s audience began to balloon during Obama’s first term, as conspiracies went mainstream and the rise of “patriot groups” led by people who shared his publicly-aired concerns, at times about a New World Order out to take over American sovereignty, rose. (Last year, Vox noted that the number of such groups in the U.S. went from 149 in 2009 to 1,360 in 2012.) As the audience swelled, they also proved receptive to the sort of ideas that it seemed that some of Jones’s listeners used to listen to for kicks. “The New World Order wants to turn the Mueller airport facility into a Y2K prison camp” evolved into “Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery” and “Sandy Hook was staged by the government to steal your guns.” Suddenly, the conspiracies had a wide political constituency echoed by people with actual influence. If this guy was doing a bit, the way it sometimes seemed like he was, the tone of the whole act changed dramatically once he started telling the grieving parents of murdered children that their kids never existed at all.
In a 2010 Texas Monthly profile, Nate Blakeslee asked the question, “Can he really believe all of this?”, and he wasn’t alone in asking the question. Austin poster artist Tim Doyle, who spent four years as the head of the Drafthouse’s Mondo Posters division, recalled his own encounters with Jones at the theater in the mid-aughts, and took to Twitter to declare Jones was a fraud in late 2016. He went off on a string of tweets that were shared hundreds of times, including by many in the media, recounting his own experiences with Jones, and encouraged to add their voices to the mix.
I wasn’t the first reporter to reach out to Doyle about his tweets. “I talked to someone from GQ, someone from Wired, someone else came too,” Doyle says. Everybody, according to Doyle, seemed to be interested in the story about who Jones really was. But were we all falling into the classic conspiracy theory fallacy of starting with a conclusion and trying to work backwards, seeking out the facts that would make it true?
Meeting with Doyle didn’t offer any firm conclusions. “I used to work at Asel Art, and he and his wife would come in,” Doyle recalled of his first encounters with Jones in the early 2000s. “His wife had this tiny trophy dog, they were shopping for chalk pastels. It was like, ‘You people are not ready for the apocalypse if you’re doing landscapes of a beach.’ So it shattered the illusion real quick for me.” He found similar confirmation of his position during his time at the Drafthouse. “When I worked at the Alamo, he would do [an intro to a film], press play on the movie, and drink with the staff, hanging out. He’d say, ‘Ah, it’s all bullshit, whatever.’”
Doyle, like many, seemed bent on exposing Jones as a fraud, but there weren’t any firm sources—much less any tidbits from the man himself—to determine if it was all an act. One thing that nobody expected, though, was that Alex Jones’s own lawyers would be the people to make that case. And certainly no one anticipated that, as we hustled into Judge Naranjo’s courtroom, we’d ultimately see the strongest case for his credibility.
At 4:15 in the afternoon on the second day of testimony, Jones’s lawyers called their key witness: Alex Jones. He answered a few basic questions about his life—how long he’s been at his current residence, his kids’ ages, a stock of the family’s pets, what he does for a living (which Jones answered by explaining that he’s a radio host, a documentary filmmaker, that he does “satire,” and that he runs his businesses). When Wilhite asked him which “hat” he wears when he’s on the air, Jones didn’t so much address the jury as he seemed to focus on the media in the room. He explained that, during the course of his four-hour show, most of it is “hard, focused news and punditry,” with satire in the mix. Jones explained in the courtroom that when he films skits in which he’s playing the Joker from The Dark Knight or one of the lizard people from Star Trek, that those things are being done as a character. Still, according to Jones, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe any of the things he espouses on his show. “I believe in the overall political system I’m promoting,” Jones testified. “Americana and what makes it great.”
The dynamic in the courtroom was fraught: Wilhite, Jones’s lawyer, wanted to create distance between his client and the clips from InfoWars that the jury might end up watching during the course of the trial. Meanwhile, Jones seemed determined that—despite a gag order on everyone involved in the case—the word got out that that Jones was the real deal, despite his lawyer’s comments. Unless he was donning a costume and makeup, he was not claiming that he was just playing a character.
Newman, for his part, jockeyed for a more black and white approach: if Jones took one part of his show seriously, then the persona was up for scrutiny. He would interrupt Jones to raise objections during Wilhite’s examination, and when Jones would continue to talk through them, he’d appeal to the judge to silence the radio host. He would offer commentary in those objections—“Your honor, he knows better,” said in the tone of a disappointed high school principal—and laughing at Jones when he would respond. It was like he studied A Few Good Men before the trial in the hope of getting Jones to go the full Colonel Jessup—“Did you order the Code Red?” “You’re goddamn right I did!”—and Jones continued to take the bait even as Newman requested “some type of sanction” if Jones continued to talk over his objections.
Wilhite had to walk a fine line. He asked Jones questions that helped his client maintain a very precise defense—that the guy that fans watched and listened to was the true and authentic Alex Jones, but also not the Alex Jones that his kids lived with. Did he take the InfoWars delivery style home with him? Not when he’s “playing a character or being silly,” like with the Batman and Star Trek bits. Jones seemed tense as he explained to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that he did not, in fact, take the bombastic, high-intensity InfoWars style home to the kids. When Jones compared himself to the character that Stephen Colbert played on The Late Show a few nights earlier, when the talk show host played a parody of Jones, Wilhite quickly stepped up to ask him if he played a character similar not just to Colbert—who famously spent more than a decade performing the role of a faux-right wing pundit—but also to pundits Jon Oliver, Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, which, perhaps, was more comfortable territory for Jones as he sought to get the word out that he was not claiming to be a phony.
“They play characters to illustrate things. It doesn’t mean that’s how they are at home with their kids,” Jones explained. At home, he insisted, he still believed the things that he believed, but he didn’t need to get so worked up about it. “I don’t want to think about work when I’m at home,” he said. “I want to swim in the pool and eat hamburgers.”
Jones’s testimony seemed designed to throw cold water on his lawyers’ own assertions that it was all an act, and for good reason. His media empire is built almost entirely around his personality. InfoWars.com is the five hundred ninety-ninth most visited site in the U.S., according to QuantCast, and between the ad revenue and the online store, he’s cashed in—his ex-wife collects more than $40,000 a month in alimony, and his parents, who help him run InfoWars as “a family business,” take home seven figures a year, according to trial testimony. The stakes, if people decide that Alex Jones is a phony, are extremely high.
It was near the end of Wilhite’s examination of his client that Jones made the most convincing case for his authenticity. A clip of Jones appearing on The Joe Rogan Show in which Jones smokes marijuana with the host had been admitted into evidence earlier in the week, and his legal team was prepared for the jury to see it. When asked about his relationship to the drug, Jones explained that, while he smoked it some “in high school,” these days, he only does it once a year, “to test how strong it is,” the same way that law enforcement does. His verdict? It’s indeed much stronger than when he was a kid. “George Soros has brain damaged a lot of people,” Jones explained.
Soros, of course, is a longtime boogeyman of the right wing, especially the fringe elements that Jones represents. He’s got a net worth of over $25 billion, and he’s donated money to progressive causes in the U.S. for many years, including marijuana reform efforts in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere. (There is, of course, no evidence that George Soros is responsible for Jones’s perceived increase in the strength of marijuana.) His name gets tossed around anytime someone wants to create a living avatar of the idea of an insidious left-wing plot for one-world government. The mere fact that Soros’s name entered into the trial transcript meant one of two things: Either there was no way that Alex Jones was just playing a character with his InfoWars persona, or he had brought that character into the courtroom.
One thing was clear in the trial: Judge Naranjo didn’t care what Alex Jones believed. The media did. Kelly’s lawyers did. And Jones did—in segments he taped during the trial and posted online (which Kelly’s attorneys argued skirted the boundaries of the gag order), he asserted that he believed every word he said. But Judge Naranjo wasn’t going to let the stuff that captivated spectators around the world dominate the custody trial happening in her courtroom.
To that end, Judge Naranjo took on a particular mission both before and during the trial: to keep politics out of the courtroom as much as possible. That’s a tall order with someone like Alex Jones. Whenever his ex-wife’s attorneys sought to introduce evidence from InfoWars, Naranjo cast skepticism over it. Jones, on InfoWars, screaming at a woman he didn’t know on the street and calling her “cupcake” and “sweet cakes” was, she decided, part of his politics and not something that affected how the jury should view him.
Naranjo’s intentions were understandable. Whatever you think of Jones’s public persona, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the right to parent his own children. In execution, though, the attempt to parse what was “politics” and what was “personal” seemed arbitrary. In the end, the only clips that the jury saw were a couple of brief excerpts in which Jones talked about alcohol or drug use, or appeared to be visibly intoxicated—and Jones’s lawyers argued that even the clip where, slurring his words and rambling outside at night on his way to the “DeploraBall” in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Jones declares that he’s going to find a tree to pee on, was ultimately about his political views.
It’s an unenviable task to try to determine where InfoWars Alex Jones ends and private-life Alex Jones begins. That’s something even his oldest friends struggle with sometimes. Kevin Booth has known Jones since the early 1990s. As the co-founder of Sacred Cow Productions with comedian Bill Hicks, Booth became familiar with Jones through his public access show. Austin’s public access community in the early nineties was vibrant, and attracted a lot of the city’s creative community (its facilities were used to edit early films by Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez), and Booth and Jones struck up a close friendship. Sacred Cow put out a compilation of Jones’s early work in 2000 called The Best of Alex Jones, and Booth produced Jones’s 2005 documentary Martial Law 9/11: Rise of the Police State. Jones also appears in Booth’s 2010 documentary How Weed Won The West. Although the two haven’t worked together in years, Booth says they’re still friends. The InfoWars website still sells DVDs of Booth’s 2013 documentary, American Drug War 2: Cannabis Destiny.
“It’s really silly how everyone is running with a dumb notion about Alex as a performance artist,” Booth tells me, comparing Jones to Hicks and another comedian friend who died in the early nineties, Sam Kinison—both of whom had over-the-top stage personas. “After Bill died, people would ask me if he was really like that in person, and I would say, ‘Well, no, in person he was a really giving, polite, quiet, good friend.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, so that was just an act? Bill was a phony?’ No, he just wasn’t screaming ‘Suck Satan’s pecker’ at the dinner table! The idea that Alex is some sort of phony who’s putting on an act he doesn’t believe in, it’s just not true. It’s just that it’s an extension of who he is.”
But as we continued to talk, even Booth expresses doubt that Jones cares deeply about some of the things he says on air, which evolved around the rise of President Trump. “Alex used to be anti-Fox News, anti-Republican, anti-establishment in general,” Booth notes. “The hardest thing to wrap my head around in all of this is that Alex is the establishment now.”
Booth noticed that Jones’s priorities have shifted as a result. According to Booth, when he asked Jones to participate in a documentary he was making about Vladimir Putin, Jones asked him, “Are you working for George Soros?” Booth was shocked. When it comes to marijuana reform—an issue close to Booth’s heart (he’s about to launch Tenaya Acquisition, “a multimedia company working inside the cannabis industry”)—he’s been surprised to see Jones suddenly take a hard stance against the drug.
“Alex was almost on the verge of being willing to sell CBD products on his website, and when Trump got in office, that all wound back a little bit,” Booth told me. “I usually go on [InfoWars] and Alex is like, ‘Here’s my old liberal buddy from Hollywood’ and that seems like it’s changed a little bit since Trump got in office. I hate to say it, but he’s trying to keep his fans happy and I guess he’s trying to be in step. That’s the only thing that bothers me about this Trump thing. Alex has never had a boss before, and now it seems like Trump is his boss.”
With Jones’s politics off the table in the courtroom, Newman, antagonistic from the beginning of his cross-examination, was still hoping for a dose of InfoWars-style Alex Jones. Newman pushed Jones on the idea that what he did was a performance, seemingly hopeful that doing so would get Jones to overplay his hand. He asked if words like “provocateur, outrageous, performance art” applied to what he did; when Jones avoided the question, he said, “You provoke people purposefully, don’t you?” Jones said that he tried to provoke them “for thought.” Newman played the DeploraBall clip and asked Jones if he was intoxicated in the video—Jones, who’s seen slurring his words and rambling in the clip, insisted that he was not.
Newman often put words in Jones’s mouth, framing his questions as long statements that would end with “wouldn’t you agree?” or something similar, and then objecting immediately if Jones tried to clarify. They’d bicker over who took the kids to the dentist in 2015. If Jones would respond to a question with an “mm-hmm,” Newman would demand, “Is that a yes?” It got to the point that Jones became convinced that Newman was trying to trick him at every turn—at one point, Newman misspoke and identified Joe Rogan as actor Seth Rogen, which left Jones confused and complaining from the stand that Newman was doing it on purpose. When Newman entered a line of questioning about whether it was safe to do the show from his home office, given death threats that he and his children have received on the internet, Jones became visibly frustrated at the idea that the threat was somehow more credible based on where he taped the show.
“Did it occur to you to stop doing the show from your home after death threats were made to your children?” Newman asked.
“No, because Obama—” Jones started before he was drowned out by an objection. If the goal was to get Jones to make a political non sequitur from the witness stand, which it may well have been, he succeeded.
Still, if Newman wanted to get the sort of Alex Jones explosion that would show the jury the guy who was in all of the InfoWars clips that hadn’t been admitted into evidence, his time was running out. Jones talking about George Soros on the stand got media attention outside of the courtroom, but the jury was selected in large part because they weren’t the sort of people who would recognize the contentious relationship between Soros and Jones. So Newman went personal.
Newman displayed an exhibit from evidence on the monitors in the courtroom containing an ad posted online in 2011 by Jones’s current wife, whom he married in January. The ad purported to be for massage services, but Newman said that it was actually a thinly-veiled pretext for sex work.
Jones didn’t dispute that interpretation, but he seemed more baffled than angry by the evidence in front of him. He insisted that she had been dealing with a case of “identity theft,” and told the attorney, “I know all about her house getting broken into and this stuff getting planted.” When Newman told him that his wife had testified in her deposition that she wrote the ad in full, it didn’t seem to do much to shake Jones’s confidence that she had been the victim of an elaborate plot, ostensibly dating back years before they even met, to frame her, or even him. He didn’t seem to understand why this wasn’t obvious to everyone else in the courtroom.
Jones’s reaction to the introduction of his wife’s ad in court was more authentic than hours of yelling at the media could have been. It was more true to the core of the Alex Jones that’s been on the air for decades, getting increasingly famous, than a thousand mentions of George Soros or “because Obama!” It reminded me of something that Tim Doyle had told me earlier, about the appeal of Jones.
“The Sandy Hook thing, and the 9/11 stuff—that’s all about imposing order on chaos,” Doyle said. In an uncertain, frightening world, believing that the U.S. government was actually behind the most terrifying major news stories in the world feels less chaotic than the idea that terrible things happen sometimes, and the people who suffer are decided more or less at random. It’s easy to see the appeal of that kind of narrative. A vast, shadowy conspiracy with an unlikely hidden objective may not make much sense under scrutiny, but it’s gentler on the system than accepting that the world sometimes contains things that we don’t want to believe are true. With that in mind, of course Alex Jones believes—or at least believes that he can convince others—that an ad his wife posted before they met was the result of a targeted campaign built around planted documents and secret break-ins. Believing that sort of thing, and convincing other people to believe it, too, has made him a rich, powerful, successful man.
And in that way, it doesn’t really matter what Alex Jones believes. As in a courtroom, what matters is the evidence. If the success of Alex Jones and InfoWars tells us anything, it’s that people are strongly inclined to pick and choose the truths they want to buy into. It’s possible that Jones believes every single word he’s ever uttered during every radio broadcast, every video he’s ever filmed, everything he’s ever published. It’s also possible that the Alex Jones who appeared in the courtroom was just a deeper level of the character—that rather than us seeing the “real” Alex Jones on InfoWars, the InfoWars Alex Jones testified in the 419th District Court of Texas. In a world that isn’t governed by conspiracy theories, a person is defined by the things they say and do, not whatever might secretly be buried in their heart, and Alex Jones makes that as clear as anyone. That’s as much certainty as a person can hope for.