This is a survey of contemporary American conspiracy theories and the extent to which some of them can be found in mouths of the powerful in America. It is well-written, engaging and sometimes quite funny. But if you’ve read anything about American conspiracy theories before, there isn’t much new here.
Merlan is a pretty engaging writer; her style is accessible and readable and she peppers it with the occasional sly comment that can be quite illuminating or funny. To her credit, unlike some of the people who cover conspiracy theories, she went and spent time with these people. And it’s these interviews that give the book a lot of its value. It’s easy to criticize these people, but it’s a lot harder to understand them. Merlan is perhaps the most empathetic journalist I’ve read who has covered this topic and I appreciate her desire to contextualize these beliefs and the people who have them, rather than to just expose them as frauds. Merlan also takes pains to show that it’s not just one side of the political spectrum that falls for this stuff, which is also appreciated.
But it can also feel as though Merlan is ticking off a checklist. If you’ve followed any of these conspiracies through books, articles or podcasts, you know about them already. And Merlan doesn’t add much to our knowledge about the conspiracies around Sandy Hook or Seth Rich or Pizzagate. As someone who spends perhaps too much time following this world, I could feel some of these coming: “Now it’s time to discuss Lenny Pozner!”
So I’m not sure it offers enough new stuff for anyone who is already following these stories. But if you haven’t been paying attention to the this stuff, it certainly is a good introduction. And the sections which feature original reporting by Merlan – particularly those focused on white nationalism and redemption theory – are very worth your time even if you already know about these groups.