In 2016, while working for the Dallas Observer, former Santa Fean and current senior reporter for G/O Media Anna Merlan got a tip from a reader about a cruise dedicated to conspiracy theories. Shortly thereafter, confirmed conspiracy theorist Donald Trump became President, and Merlan set out to write a book about the vast web of conspiracies spanning the country. Republic of Lies was published earlier this year, and Merlan comes home this week for a reading at Garcia Street Books (6 pm Friday July 19. Free. 376 Garcia St., 986-0151)—from the UFO section of the book, she says. We spoke with her to learn more.
Why did you write this? Why conspiracy theories?
I pitched it as a joke, then went on the cruise and found out it was actually a lot deeper, a lot more serious, a lot more distressing than I'd thought. It sort of plunged me into this world and this writing. And it was interesting because … the people on the cruise were very excited for Trump, even people who were left–leaning and were excited for Sanders or Jill Stein or whoever—they were increasingly seeing Trump as a truth-teller, somebody who was going to break down this corrupt system, somebody who wasn't bought or controlled because of what they saw as his independent wealth. So I thought to myself, it's very interesting that he's reviving this certain sector of the population, that he's creating this fresh energy among them—what're they gonna do when he loses? Then, of course, he didn't. And the fact that he did not really was, for me and I think a lot of other journalists, an indicator I didn't understand the country as well as I thought I did. So the book is a way to understand such forces and influences.
What do you think draws people to conspiracies? What are they looking for?
I think a lot of people fundamentally feel disenfranchised and locked out of systems of power; political and economic systems are not working for them, they can't influence them in any real way. One thing I think a lot of conspiracy theories do for people is to give people someone to blame, a more orderly narrative about what's wrong with world, who's to blame, who needs to be accountable. The other thing I think conspiracy theory communities do is make people feel like they're able to participate in a direct way. I see that a lot with QAnon—they believe they're engaged together in a global crusade, that they themselves are freedom fighters against a corrupt global establishment.
But there are a lot of things psychologically that make us prone to it: We tend to want really big world events to have really big causes. The idea that some things are random or don't have a tidy explanation are hard for us cognitively. At least 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, so dismissing them as an 'other' is incorrect. It doesn't take into account that a lot of people who believe in conspiracy theories are people who've been really badly disenfranchised by the American system. I have an entire chapter of theories among black Americans, because they've been the subject of so many real conspiracies.
Was there anything that particularly surprised you during your research?
I think a lot of the financial theories did, because it's this hidden world I didn't know about—that people are, in their day-to-day lives, going up against banks and credit card companies using these complete nonsense techniques, and they're going to jail over it. It's this hidden world people are involved in, and it's having intense effects.