Courtrooms are the place where we find Truth. We know that from many fine movies and television shows, such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Over the last two weeks, the custody trial of radio provocateur Alex Jones, in Austin, has been cast as an opportunity to find the truth about Jones—to determine whether Jones is “real.” But 2017 is not a particularly auspicious time for truth, and family court is not a particularly likely place to uncover it.
On Thursday, four days into a brain-melting trial, the lawyer of Kelly Jones, Alex’s ex-wife, produces an personal ad from a woman named Anja—later in the ad spelled repeatedly as Ajna, the name of the third-eye Chakra, so who knows—who describes herself as “a sensuous, sophisticated and intelligent companion for hotel room service.” The ad hints strongly, and at some length, that the woman is an escort. The lawyer says the ad was written by Jones’ current wife, many years ago.
Jones pushes back forcefully. The ad is not from his wife, who was never an escort. Jones had conducted a “forensic investigation” on his wife’s past, which had debunked this line. She had been the victim of “identity theft,” stemming from a home break-in some years back. For all practical purposes, he is saying that the ad is a false flag, in the rhetorical style he traditionally uses on his show. The lawyer responds that Jones’ wife admitted, in her deposition, that she had written the ad. Jones refuses to accept it, and the two move on, as if nothing had happened. Does Jones genuinely believe it to be fake? Is he trying to defend his wife’s reputation against a pretty pointless smear?
Who knows. No one found truth in the 419th District Court of Judge Orlinda Naranjo this month. The Jones custody trial was a great opportunity to take stock of Alex Jones on a personal and intimate level as he sits at the height of his powers. Like watching a celebrity take top-billing in a touring company production of The Maury Povich Show, the trial was an irresistible tabloid story told at the expense of the Joneses’ three children. But it was not, as it has been characterized in some quarters, an unmasking, nor will it be the end of a career. The character of Alex Jones, more than two decades in the making, is secure. And the story of the story of Jones v. Jones says more, on the whole, about how we build narratives than he does.
When the Austin American-Statesman brought the imminent trial to public attention, on Sunday, April 16, it went viral, for reasons that are easy to understand. After years on the fringes of American life, Jones finally has real influence and power. He started his career as an adjunct of the fiercely anti-government militia movement in the 1990s, and now he is a friend of the president and the president’s friends. He has enough money to invest in a Rothschild bank, should he so choose, and he reaches millions of people with his nationally syndicated radio show and millions more with his website. He is due, in some people’s reckoning, for a comeuppance.
The Statesman article related that Jones’ legal team were arguing that he was a “performance artist,” and that his outlandish public persona shouldn’t be taken as evidence of his mental stability or his ability to care for his children. His ex-wife’s legal team would argue the opposite: that he believed what he said, and that he was unbalanced. The events of the trial, then, could pose a risk to Jones’ relationship with his fans.
When that story went viral, the narrative at the heart of it got simplified, as tends to happen. The idea that Jones’ time in family court would be a referendum on whether Jones was “real” or “fake” took hold. In one telling, the case “could be the media trial of the century.” It was not only Jones himself, but “the dark new media” that was on trial in Austin. The case “offer[ed] the hope of answering a near-impossible question: Where does Alex Jones the character end and Alex Jones the person begin?”
In that framework, Jones v. Jones would be a kind of modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial on mail-order nootropics, a showcase that would say something meaningful about truth or modernity or whatever. It’s “a referendum on politics, the internet, and the media in the post-Trump ecosystem.” In Judge Naranjo’s courtroom, a pained nation would get “a rare shot at the truth.”
It’s hard to imagine a place the character of Alex Jones would enjoy spending time less than district court at the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, in downtown Austin, a New Deal-era fortress with tall, white stone faces. A cornerstone commemorates that the courthouse was built with the assistance of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Texas, of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. You enter the building through the basement, like a rat, and ascend through dark and gloomy halls to the third floor. The courtroom itself, like most courtrooms, is dinky—florescent lights and wood ceiling fans.
When, on Wednesday, Jones first takes the stand, he sits in front of a Texas flag, which, like its U.S. counterpart on the other side of the bench, bears the gold fringe of an Admiralty Court. He does not mention it. Barrel-chested and loud, Jones seems too big for the booth. Naranjo is strict, and repeatedly chides Jones for his answers and behavior. He makes sure to smile widely as he accedes to her authority. There’s only one sign of comfort for Jones: Sitting right behind the judge, next to the witness stand, is a cartoon frog statuette that looks, with its bug-eyes and red mouth, disconcertingly like Pepe.
“We all sort of wear different hats in life,” says his lawyer, as an introduction. “What are the hats you wear?” Well, Jones says, he’s a businessman, a radio host, an entertainer, a satirist, and an actor — he’s played parts in two Richard Linklater movies. But the most important hat he wears is that of “Dad.” Aw.
In an earlier deposition, Jones got in trouble for not being able to remember some basic info about his kids, which he laughed off with a joke about how much chili he’d had for lunch. Would Jones care to describe his children now, his lawyer asked? He would. With a broad grin, he turns to the jury directly. “They’ve absolutely flowered the last 3 years or so,” he says. “It’s been a real blessing from God.”
He recounts at some length the interests, strengths, and developments of each Jones child. Then the lawyers put up family pictures, all showing happy kids with Alex. Birthday parties, family trips, intimate family time. His lawyers ask him to identify the children in the photos and describe the circumstances, which is able to do. He laughs. “I didn’t pick these,” he says to no one in particular. “These are funny.”
Earlier in the trial, Kelly’s legal team makes repeated complaints during testimony from others that Jones is shaking his head and smirking. The jury can see it, as they face him, but the judge can’t. Finally, rattled, one of Kelly’s lawyers stands up and exclaims to the judge that he’s doing it again. He is, but the second the lawyer starts to speak, Jones’ faced has been wiped, and now he is miming a persecuted man, surprised and confused at the allegation. He has a broad, expressive face that is tightly controlled, and it turns on a dime.
Right now, Alex has custody of the kids. Kelly wants custody. Her best shot is for her lawyers to get Alex rattled on the stand, which means that the outcome of the trial, to a large extent, depends on Jones’s acting ability. And he’s an incredible performer, here as he is on his show (and in those Richard Linklater movies). He nails the character of the engaged, loving dad. That role may well be real, and felt, but on the stand he is an exuberantly loving dad.
The cross-examination begins. The jury is shown a video Jones filmed in D.C. on the eve of the Trump inauguration. He’s in front of the Capitol, and he’s drunk, slurring his words and wobbling. He’s about to go to the Deploraball. “I’m gonna sneak off and piss on some tree or something,” he says. But first, he mumbles to the camera “the age of fake bullshit is over. The return of man is here. Get ready because we’re gonna run your ass over.” Offscreen, a man yells “1776.” Jones slurs: “1776, baby!”
Kelly’s lawyers try to get under his skin. They ask him if he smokes Marijuana. Yes, once a year, he says, to “monitor its strength.” It’s gotten too strong, he says, because of George Soros. He can’t help himself from making little asides, and every time he does he makes himself look a little weirder. But he doesn’t break. He’s asked if he had sex with an old girlfriend after he became engaged to his current wife—he denies it, but also says he’d “need to check the calendar.”
Kelly’s lawyers attempt to raise the issue of Jones’ scheme to pay people to wear InfoWars shirts—featuring Bill Clinton’s face with the word “RAPE” under it—on national television. The judge kicks the jury out to consider it.
Outside, Kim, a woman from Austin who’s here for fun, says she’s having to work pretty hard not to “get kicked out for laughing.” She heard the trial was going on from Twitter, and is planning on coming down every day. The marijuana stuff killed her. “He’s the test dummy,” she says, laughing. “I volunteer as tribute!”
Talk to enough people who’ve lived in Austin for a while, and you’ll eventually hear stories about Alex Jones, who’s been broadcasting in the city for more than 21 years. A lot of them go like this: A friend-of-a-friend used to work at this bar downtown, and Jones would come in a lot, and he’d sit around and shoot the shit with the bartenders about his shtick, and he was gregarious and self-effacing. Not like now. Or maybe somebody’s cousin used to work an office job at InfoWars HQ, and, having watched with fascination as the guy whose website argued last year that the United Nations was attempting to “open thousands of portals to ancient demons” did mundane office stuff, they feel fit to declare that while he’s definitely crazy, he’s also playing a character.
The thing is, it’s not very hard to figure out that Jones is performing. It is Jones’s job to perform, and his fans know this. He’s not in an RV traveling the country selling self-published tracts about lizard people. He’s built a media empire and a great fortune for himself out of his ability to entertain his once-niche audience, something that requires a lot of self-awareness. Jones is a brand, and he’s always been one, and he’s always been pretty open about that.
If that’s not convincing, consider his line of nutritional supplements. It’s one thing to believe that the U.N. is a “space cult” and that the rich eat children at Bohemian Grove. It’s another to sell male vitality aids packed with something called “Fulvic Acid,” which will clear “the brain fog that [people have] been put into by the social engineers,” and then to cash those checks, and then to buy a lake house. That requires a degree of cynicism.
The hype around the Jones trial was heavily dependent on two conceits: that either Jones is a performer, or that he is a genuinely deranged kook, when in obvious fact it’s possible to be both; and that his fans would feel betrayed if they knew Jones in his heart was not precisely the man he is on camera. Maybe some do feel betrayed, who knows? But the power of Jones is mainly that he’s a master storyteller, and the fun of the InfoWars brand—or at least, the enticing danger and excitement of it—lies in the pleasure of simultaneously suspending disbelief and exploring the seams where fact and fiction meet.
In the audience in Austin is the great British journalist Jon Ronson, who’s been following Jones for a long time. In 2000, when Alex Jones was an up-and-coming 26-year-old sending his show out over an ISDN line in his home, Ronson followed Alex and Kelly from Austin to northern California, where Alex and another compatriot, Mike Hanson, “infiltrated” Bohemian Grove, the rich men’s summer camp, with cameras, recording one of the groups fire-fueled rituals, and selling the subsequent tape. The TV special that resulted still makes for great viewing, both as a time capsule of the pre-9/11 conspiracy world and as a character study of a young Alex Jones.
Hanson takes the trip very seriously. He’s tense throughout, and what he sees at Bohemian Grove, or thinks he sees, clearly disturbs him. He goes to church the next morning. But Jones is electric and boyish at every moment, full of youth and strangely appealing. He jokes about falling victim to the human sacrifice taking place in the Grove, but he doesn’t seem worried. He’s having the time of his life, all neurons firing at once. And so is Kelly. The two give the impression of being very much in love. They banter and laugh and give each other gushing compliments.
It’s all strangely charming, like watching teenagers on a road trip. They’re at the start of something big—his career, and their lives together. Ronson asks Kelly if she’s worried about Alex tangling with the New World Order up close. She smiles. “Alex is not only a great activist and a great broadcaster, but he’s also a great actor,” she says. “As long as he’s able to think of what he’s doing as acting,” he can fool anybody.
In the courtroom, when Jones sits in the witness stand, Kelly is directly in front of him, her head lawyer to her left. Jones won’t look at her. But when Kelly’s lawyer asks him what Kelly’s “best qualities are as a mother,” Alex makes an exception. He quickly looks at her and spits: “The woman she was before, or now?” He’s asked again. He thinks for a few seconds. “I just can’t perjure myself. She doesn’t have any good qualities.”
The story of Alex Jones’s family quickly becomes another mundane American tragedy. Alex has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, according to court documents, but Kelly has had seemingly more severe psychological problems, and it is not at all clear that she’d be a better caretaker of the children than Alex. It’s sad, until you remember misery he’s inflicted on others over the years—the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing in the 90s, the victims of Sandy Hook now. The tidbit that Jones once took his shirt off during a family therapy session got a lot of RTs, and is undoubtedly funny, but imagine being those kids.
The deterioration of Jones’s family happened in concert with his professional rise. In Austin during the mid-boom years, from the 1990s to mid-2000s, Jones was a kind of mascot for the city, along with Lance Armstrong and Richard Linklater and Leslie. He married Austin’s love for eccentrics and psychedelics with a peculiar strain of Texas hyper-libertarianism. The Bohemian Grove tape was a turning point in Jones’ career. So was 9/11. Like the city itself, he got rich, and he got a national profile, and things weren’t really the same after that.
The picture that emerges of Jones’ private life is the trial is quietly damning: He’s a far cry from the ISDN line. His kids are cared for by an army of nannies and assistants. He has an unfathomable amount of money—his ex-wife gets $43,000 a month in support. He has multiple homes and a comfortable life. The system he rails against made him rich, and it ruined his art. Now he’s sitting in the kiddie pool with every other alt-right dipshit choking up the internet. On Joe Rogan’s show recently, he talked up the political program of his good friend the president. Trump would cut taxes, Jones said, and just look at the financial markets. Doing great.
After Anja, or Ajna, came up, it seemed as if Kelly’s lawyers were gaining ground in their effort to irritate Jones. They started to ask him about his son’s reticence to visit his mother—leading questions that implied Jones was to blame. After being prodded a few times, he blew. The lawyer was minimizing his son’s pain, he said, and the rejection he felt from his mother. He started speaking faster and faster until he seemed to be on the verge of tears.
Finally: “You sit here and twist things, I’ve never seen anything like it in all of literature or movies,” Jones said, speeding up. “You have won the award sir. No decency, zero.” Again: “Have you no decency, sir?”
“Is that how you talk to your kids? To your wife?” asked Kelly’s lawyer, trying to get him to keep going. “To Anja?”
Jones didn’t take the bait. After a beat, the court reporter spoke up. “Could we have a break, please?”
The jury deliberates, and then returns. Jones has lost, sort of. Kelly and Alex will share custody, but she’ll choose where the children live. Anticlimactic? Perhaps. But the idea that Jones would be unmasked in court, that falsehood would meet truth in a final showdown, and that his career would be killed in the process, is Hollywood. It’s something from an Aaron Sorkin script. It’s also the kind of thing the country deeply desires. We believe communication is always a net good, that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that false things are eventually trumped by true things. Jones’ career is a counter-example to all of that, and, after the events of last year, it would have been cathartic to see him exposed and broken.
In his introduction on the stand, Alex Jones told the court that, contrary to what the media was saying, he wholeheartedly “believes in the general political program I’m promoting,” the core values of which are “Americana” and “Freedom.” Is he wrong?
Alex Jones is a mystic: He’s channeling something deep from within the essence of this weird country. Around the time of the actual Scopes Monkey Trial, there was another radio entrepreneur named John R. Brinkley, out of Kansas. Instead of male vitality supplements, he transplanted goat testicles into men to cure impotence. He got rich as hell doing it. He bought radio stations to spread his deranged medical and political views, and, when he was banned from doing that in the States, he set up enormous long-range radio transmitters on the Mexican side of the border. Jones isn’t the first, and after Jones, someone else will come along. (Mike Cernovich, one possible heir to the throne, guest-hosted for Jones last Monday.)
This week, in the unfortunate parlance of his friends, Jones, once fearsome and independent, a fighter of tyrants, got cucked by a jury of his peers in a county district court. He’ll arrange to meet his children with a woman whom he hates, and whom he is paying each month, with his hard-earned male vitality supplement money, what the average American makes in a year.
Still, while Jones’s personal life may be shambolic, his political project is not. The trial of Alex Jones didn’t end up revealing much beyond that—though a sequel is already in development in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Jones is being sued for defamation by Chobani, the yogurt company, whom his website accused of “importing migrant rapists.”
Will this be his comeuppance? I wouldn’t get your hopes up. On the fourth day of the custody trial, Jones breezed past the platoon of reporters in the hallway, calling them “famous fiction writers.” Like so much of what Alex Jones the character says, it wasn’t really true the way he meant it, but it still sort of was. We’ve all been drafted in the InfoWar. Support the troops.
Christopher Hooks is a journalist based in Austin.