A Preview of Trump-era Conspiracy Culture

Most political observers would agree that the relationship between American presidents and the truth is often a tenuous bond. Now ex-president Trump carried on that inglorious tradition, but remains remarkable in that his lies were obvious, habitual and frequently tied with discredited conspiracy theories. Now that his term as chief-executive against facts has concluded, the conditions which made it possible— still only faint scribbles against the zeitgeist bathroom wall, deserves deeper scrutiny. A more substantive research effort would surely uncover deeper roots, yet in my own life, one particular happening stuck out.

As someone who came of age politically during the mid ‘90s anti-globalization movement, political divisions seemed fairly clear cut. Leftists demanded corporate accountability and called for regulations on international business alignments. Conservatives advocated free trade and less oversight of companies, plus strongly supported government crackdowns against protesters. This continued through the early 2000s as pro vs. anti-war factions split predictably as well. 

It wasn’t until early 2010 that I noticed a shift. The first glimpse took place around mid February that year when a fellow named Phil Schrader in New York contacted me regarding my old ‘zine American Gun Culture Report. We talked on the phone for almost an hour and he described having recently inherited some money and subsequently founded a newspaper called The Sovereign. Phil described it broadly as influenced by anti-authoritarian subculture, yet his political analysis wasn’t the most sophisticated. He came across like a lot of older punk rockers who loved Dead Kennedys and Black Flag back in the day but now get cranky if a friend’s gender pronoun changes.

Still, Phil talked excitedly about using his paper to rally Americans against neo-conservatism and foreign wars and I came away from our conversation feeling like his heart was in the right place. I agreed to write an article for The Sovereign plus trade him ad space. Nothing particularly unusual, as I often made similar exchanges between others in the ‘zine community.

I promptly composed a piece called “The Good News About Self Defense” and sent it off. Some time later, my first copy arrived in the mail. It took several moments to fully grasp the absurdity. Instead of pithy, punk inspired political rants, The Sovereign presented Trump-era conspiracy culture six years early. The cover bore an illustration of then-President Obama transforming into a reptilian creature and every article warned against military-nanobots, chemtrails or sinister plans to devalue the dollar. They nearly all bore bylines from sci-fi movie characters, clearly dashed off by a single author, perhaps Phil himself. Randomly interspersed between paragraphs were underground record album covers. I came away from the whole experience alternately cringing and chortling.

Over the next several months, more issues showed up, all containing the same peculiar blend of articles and cartoons juxtaposing sexual imagery and profanity against appeals for Christian values. Warnings about “Liberalism” meshed with condemnations of the banking industry. Advertisements pitched natural health remedies or resources toward becoming a sovereign citizen. One recurring blurb promoted an openly fascist group seeking members. My PO box soon filled up with letters from prisoners, who apparently formed a significant readership, requesting free copies of AGCR after noticing my article and ads.

I soon lost track of this odd project but now, looking back via internet trails, it went out of business in 2017, then under a new publisher named Donald Meserlian who died later that same year. The Sovereign’s official Facebook page claimed he owed people thousands of dollars and had violated contributors copyright agreements. It’s unclear if Phil Schrader was even involved by that point. Appropriately enough, Meserlian came from the 9/11 truther movement and once made news after being taken to court for threatening New Jersey police officers who wouldn’t launch an investigation into the World Trade Towers collapsing.

Donald Meserlian doing his best Lord Kitchener/Uncle Sam

Back in 2010, characters like Schrader and Meserlian who sold fringe conspiracy theories seemed laughable, even harmless entertainers. But in retrospect, The Sovereign represented a warning of things to come. Seven years later, Q-anon hysterics, anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers have accumulated a body count and people who profited off such delusions are more complicit than the rest. Trump may be out of power, but injecting presidential endorsement into an industry spreading toxic delusions bore a cost we will all be paying back for a long time.

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