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Politics

You Can Only Start So Many Fires Before Your House Burns Down

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yesterday had me thinking about a funny video which seems like it’ll get plenty of allegorical replay over our fresh new political decade. The year is 2018. Sitting at a bar in Austin, Texas, is Alex Jones, the magenta-faced auteur of conspiracy theory too outre for the cable-news crowd. This is more ambitious fare, aimed at the dingier YouTube and Facebook set: Sandy Hook-truthering, Pizzagate, fluoride in the water turning frogs gay, things of that nature. His network InfoWars has ferried many brains to very strange thresholds.

In the clip, Jones is enjoying a leisurely livestream with his friend Milo Yiannopoulous, when, mid-sentence, they are interrupted by a man in a big flat-brimmed hat that reads AUSTIN. “Big listener,” says the interloper, shaking Jones’s hand. “By the way, I own infowarsmusic.com.” Hat man seems a little, let’s say, corroded. He blabbers about a stunt he’d recently pulled, to establish his credibility in his idol’s eyes. Jones glassily listens along, but mostly is trying to suss out how the man found him here. Once Jones realizes that the man deduced his location from the live stream, all color abandons his face. He slugs the rest of his drink, slams down his glass, and slaps money on the bar: “I’m gonna scram, but I’m gonna get your drink—boom. I gotta go right now.”

But the hat man isn’t done with Jones. He still has his life’s work ahead of him, and this is the closest he’ll ever get to the man who inspired that work in the first place: “I wanna set up infowarsmusic.com. That’s why I moved to Austin, Texas. Can you help me do it?”

Jones burbles up a few inexplicably different versions of a producer’s email address—”Rob D,” “Rob Dew,” and “R Dew” at infowars.com—pinches his nose long enough for a selfie, and flees before he can be confronted by any more of his acolytes. It’s fun to cash checks as the boss at the poison factory, but less fun to actually spend time with folks who are throwing back several glasses of your product a night. You’d think they’d have something in common. But Jones would rather be stuck in that bar overnight with a starved Bengal tiger than spend two minutes with someone who took his words literally.

By 2021, the gap between a nomadic InfoWars mutant and a demonstrator at the doorstep of Congress has been collapsed completely. So I am thinking, again, of that featureless eel Josh Hawley, who chose to launch a future presidential campaign by patting an insurrection on its back. Hawley said he would formally object to the Senate’s certification of the electoral college votes, because he’s worried about the integrity of our elections, you see. Just like our president, and everyone else out there who shares this well-grounded skepticism. The Republican senator from Missouri was willing to lend some institutional credence to the suspicions of millions of true believers lying in wait all across in America, each with their own collection of flat-brimmed hats and wild-eyed dreams. Hawley even got a gaggle of his dumbest colleagues to fall in line.

I used to be frightened by Hawley, who seemed capable of channeling both economic anxiety and “economic anxiety” into some viable post-Trump reactionary movement—but then I realized he has absolutely no juice. He’s as bone-dry as his résumé might suggest, and the intellect of one Bret Baier had him shook. He’ll never have a stadium full of American maniacs lapping from his palm the way master Trump does; their standards are too high. Which is why it was particularly funny to see him, on Wednesday morning, walking around with mask off and fist raised to the rioters amassing around the Capitol.

Hawley was happy to represent the will of the conspiratorially minded, and even express solidarity on the morning of their DIY coup, but for some strange reason, he didn’t want to stick around for the show. He did not seem to relish “Bring Your Mass Delusions To Work” Day. Why was he whisked away to safety with the other legislators, along with all the boxes of votes he thinks are fake? Didn’t he want to hang around and chat strategy with the people whose interests he claims to represent, and whose paranoias he stokes with his every professional decision? Are you telling me that this Stanford- and Yale-groomed Supreme Court clerk doesn’t actually want to spend time with the guy storming his workplace in facepaint and an animal pelt? Has cause ever been so terrified of effect?

And there was Hawley on the Senate floor later, as ashen-faced as Alex Jones in the bar, mumbling about how “violence is not how you achieve change,” without revising any of the positions that inspired Americans to commit violence that afternoon. There’s no removing those ideas from popular consciousness, once they’re implanted in the minds of people browbeaten into alienation by your party’s policies and propaganda arms. There are no take-backs. So Hawley should spend a minute with the people whose hearts and minds he has aligned himself with, just to see how it feels, to check his heart rate, and see how his sympathetic nervous systems responds. None of the Josh Hawleys in America can understand— or even stomach—the forces they might claim to harness. All they can hope to do is ride the wave as long as possible, before they go under, too.

Correction (3:38 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly misinterpreted the name of InfoWars producer Rob Dew as “Rob Du.”