Credit Photograph by Hilary Swift / The New York Times / Redux
In the rank confusion of Donald Trump’s preparations to assume power, there are some decisions that look as if they should be easy. Last week, Erica Lafferty wrote the President-elect an open letter asking him to cut ties with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Lafferty is the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, who was the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. On December 14, 2012, Hochsprung was shot to death while trying to stop Adam Lanza, who murdered twenty children and six other adults that morning, before killing himself. Jones, who is based in Austin, Texas, and runs a radio show and Web site called Infowars, has repeatedly argued that the mass killing at Sandy Hook was a hoax, that it was staged by the government and performed by paid actors. Jones and many of his fans contend that the government has orchestrated a number of mass shootings and national tragedies, including the September 11th terror attacks and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, but their Sandy Hook denial has a particular cruelty. They actually seem to make special efforts to torment the bereaved.
“I invite him to my town,” Lafferty said, speaking of Jones, when I called her last week. “Invite him to my family dinners. Come sit in my mother’s empty seat. If they want to tell me that she’s still alive, show me. Nothing would make me happier. Show me where she’s sitting on some island sipping a drink.” This is one of the many canards pushed by the “hoaxers,” as they call themselves. Some of them believe that Hochsprung somehow took part in a family interview with CNN after her death, and that she was, or is, not a school principal but “an operative of the Zionist world cabal.” Lafferty, who is thirty-one, has recently expanded her standing invitation to Jones (“let’s have a chat”) to include Trump, who has praised Jones and been a guest on his show. “Trump has made some pretty obscene comments about guns,” Lafferty told me. “Terrifying, actually.” She mentioned Trump’s campaign boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without alienating his supporters. “He should come see my mother’s clothes with the bullet holes. They go in like a pencil eraser, out like a softball. I don’t think he realizes the extreme pain that guns inflict—on victims, on families.”
Since the Sandy Hook shooting, Lafferty has become a gun-safety activist. So has Abbey Clements, who was a second-grade teacher, hiding quietly with her students, during the attack. Like Lafferty, Clements prefers not to dramatize, or dignify, the threats and online assaults directed at her by hoaxers: the videos posted, with horror-movie editing, of interviews she has given; the screen-grabbed half-smiles of “the strangely happy Sandy Hook teachers.” But Clements acknowledges that the hoaxers have deterred many people from speaking publicly. “They’re such a force, it’s frightening,” she told me. “They’re bullying and tormenting families who’ve been torn apart by this tragedy.” Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old son, Noah, was killed at the school, was targeted after he posted photographs of his son on his Google Plus page. He tried to placate the hoaxers by posting Noah’s birth certificate and death certificate. They were derided as fakes. According to a piece from the Trace, a nonprofit news organization that was started with funding from the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, Pozner once tried to meet with a particularly aggressive hoaxer in Florida. He joined a private Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax, where he offered to take questions. “Fuck your fake family, you piece of shit,” he was told. Pozner has filed police reports and a legal complaint against his harassers. He told the Trace, “I’m going to have to protect Noah’s honor for the rest of my life.” Meanwhile, Pozner’s chief persecutor has been described by Alex Jones, on his radio show, as “the expert” on Sandy Hook.
How hard can it be for the incoming President of the United States to disavow this ugliness? Reince Priebus, who will soon be President Trump’s chief of staff, told CNN last week, “It’s really important that all Americans understand that he is a President for everyone.” Does Priebus understand where his new boss has positioned himself among the grieving, doubly victimized families of Newtown? Erica Lafferty has received no reply to her letter. (The Trump transition team did not return a request for comment.) The problem is—and Priebus probably does understand this—the outsized stature of Infowars and Jones in the bizarre information universe where Trump resides. Last December, as a guest on Jones’s radio show, Trump told his host, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” Trump has tweeted links to Infowars to back up his own outlandish claims, including the one about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey publicly celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Only three days after the election, Jones announced that Trump had called him. “I just talked to the kings and queens of the world, world leaders, you name it,” Trump said, according to Jones. “It doesn’t matter. I wanted to talk to you to thank your audience.” Jones also said that Trump had promised to appear on his radio show “in the next few weeks.” This call evidently took place before Trump’s transition team got around to calling the State Department or the Pentagon.
Trump is still winging it—no longer campaigning, living from rally to rally, but still operating as if facts are an inconvenience. He talks to foreign heads of state without bothering to prepare. He appointed as his chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who previously ran a Web site, Breitbart News, that publishes right-wing rants with titles like “Climate Expert: Marxist, Global Warming Extremists Control Vatican” and “Data: Young Muslims in the West Are Ticking Time Bomb, Increasingly Sympathizing with Radicals, Terror” and “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?” As his national-security adviser, Trump has tapped the retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who seems to be a conspiracy theorist of the first order. Flynn’s recent book, “The Field of Fight,” alleges an anti-American global alliance, ignored by the Obama Administration, between “Radical Islamists” and China, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. This fantasia defies satire. At his last job, running the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn had so much trouble distinguishing truth from fiction that, according to the Times, his subordinates created a category called “Flynn facts.” During the campaign, he once tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and he even fell for a fake news story that accused Hillary Clinton of involvement in child sex crimes. The national-security adviser’s job is to provide the President with the clearest possible account of strategic challenges and the policy options produced by different branches of government, starting with the State Department and the Pentagon. Flynn, from the evidence, might be happier at Infowars.
Fake news has many people up in arms these days. But much of the stuff that Trump and his allies are peddling and consuming is really just old-fashioned lying. Last week, Trump took credit for saving a Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Kentucky that was in no danger of closing; he tweeted that the Times was losing subscribers, when, in fact, the paper is gaining them; and he baldly denied having said what the whole world heard him say during the campaign about more countries (Japan, South Korea) acquiring nuclear weapons. But the campaign is over. Just because Trump lied his way to victory does not mean that lying is a great and bigly way to govern. Then there are those conspiracy theories, to which Trump and his inner circle are catastrophically prone. (The election was rigged, remember—until it wasn’t.) Trump could take a first step in the right direction by acknowledging the pain of the survivors of Sandy Hook, and by rejecting their tormentors.