A few hours into Monday’s big “America First” rally for Donald Trump in Cleveland, the Alex Jones entourage arrived in an old beige tour bus. Jones’s security detail, expanded for the convention, emerged from the bus first, scanning for threats to their stocky Texan boss, who’d just scored the week’s first viral media hit with a recorded waylay of Karl Rove at the Dallas airport. The Rove clip was a classic Jones ambush, the kind he’s been staging and sharing since the days of VHS tapes and padded-envelopes.

Most of the Jones fans packed into the rally were in diapers during Jones’s long, lonely pre-Internet career. It’s the YouTube-era celebrity Jones they know and love; not a few drove hundreds of miles to hear him speak, and only incidentally to cheer for Trump. The king of conspiracy—equal parts comic performance artist and right-populist provocateur—did not disappoint. Bounding onstage in sunglasses and a dark blazer, he greeted the crowd with thunderbolts from throat muscles forged over years of screaming into bullhorns until his spittle turned red. (The result is a vocal instrument unique to the annals of broadcasting, as if the recombinant seed of Sam Kenison and Lemmy had fertilized and given power of speech to a junkyard cement truck.) Set to burst-fire mode, Jones began to rant and preach, a hybrid oratory for which The Alex Jones Show, the massively popular radio program that anchors Infowars, his swelling media empire, serves as a running master class.

“These people are not liberals,” he yelled, referencing the officials who’d rescinded his permit to fly a “Hillary for Prison” banner over Cleveland throughout the convention. Rather:

They are anti-freedom SCUM who need to get their ASS to North KOREA! We’re identifying the globalists, their program of control, their operations. Once the public understands the paradigm: IT’S! GAME! OVER! Globalism and the New World Order are in trouble. Foreign, multinational, anti-free market corporations funding gun control and open borders—these are the people conquering us. YOU are the resistance! The American IDEA is the answer to the globalist program of enslavement and worldwide tyranny. The answer to 1984 is SE-VEN-TEEN SE-VEN-TY SIX!

All of this is greatest-hits familiar to anyone who knows Jones from 1996 or 2006. Like the morning’s guerilla-video attack on Karl Rove, the language and delivery was so familiar you could forget this was the Twilight Zone Cleveland of 2016. Birds chirp, the mailman walks his route, Cleveland’s city fathers hang welcome signs touting the location of the world’s first electric traffic signal. But then, without adjusting your picture, Karl Rove arrives a scorned and neutered dissident from a gone world, while Alex Jones, the father of 9/11 Truth and the punk jester-theorist of a New World Order master conspiracy involving DMT clockwork elves, receives a hero’s welcome at the kick-off rally for the Republican nominee. A nominee that, Jones believes, is one of his own.

“There’s no way the Trump people would have reached out to me a year and a half ago, if he wasn’t aware of the work,” Jones would tell me later in the week. “He’s been what you call a ‘closet conspiracy theorist’ for 50 years. I think he’s been a chameleon in the system, and now he sees the time to strike.” 

When I pressed for details about the Trump outreach, Jones clammed up. (Trump guested on his radio show last December, but hasn’t been a regular.) But aside from the kinship of their conspiratorial world views, the human conduit between he and Trump is clear enough: Roger Stone, Jones’s friend and frequent Infowars guest, is the former Nixon dirty-trickster-turned-Trump confidant and unofficial campaign adviser. 

Over the past several months, Jones and his company have emerged as key wingmen in Trump’s strike formation, amplifying the campaign’s themes and weaponizing Trump’s attacks on “Crooked Hillary.” Jones’s team hatched and promoted the “Hillary for Prison” design meme that went wildfire and now dominates Trump campaign culture, from parking-lot merch to convention-floor chants. (In 2009, Infowars’s meme division also released the “Obama Joker” into the Tea Party scene, adding a haunting modern image to what had been a sea of Gadsden flags.) 

A pioneer in the use of targeted searches to manipulate Google algorithms, Jones has enlisted his audience to send “Hillary for Prison” to the top of Google’s U.S. search list, sometimes beating out competition like “Brexit” and “Pokemon Go.” For the general election, Jones is planning to fly the phrase over cities from coast to coast. But based on the number of T-shirts on view this week in Cleveland, who needs airplanes? At Monday’s rally, Stone noted with amused awe the sea of “Hillary for Prison” apparel stretched out before him. “Just look at them all,” he marveled. 

Stone and several other speakers on Monday tipped their hats to Jones, sometimes effusively. But it was the offhand comment of a man from Veterans for Trump that stopped me. “Alex Jones,” he said, “is the voice of this whole thing.” 

By “whole thing,” he meant the Trump insurgency. Nobody challenged the veteran when he said it, because he was right, or more right than wrong.

Donald Trump may be the candidate—older, richer, and more famous than Jones, a self-made impresario who never considered leaving his home base of Austin. But many in Cleveland would see Jones as the senior partner in his relationship with Trump—not just the full-throttle “voice” of Trump’s America First conservatism, but also its father and most savvy marketer. Trump may have concocted his current persona only after trial-ballooning lines on the Tea Party circuit. But there is abundant recorded evidence that Alex Jones has been screaming about globalist goblins and Bush family treason since he was a teenager reading John Birch Society literature in the hallways of Austin Public Access Television. 

In Cleveland, Jones and his multi-platform media company have emerged as a national political and cultural force. Infowars, the consummate outsider media company, has converged with an outsider presidential campaign running historically low on tech-savvy and media friends. This convergence, underway for months, has been obscured by the smoke and flash of Trump’s skirmishes with institutions like the Washington Post. But it’s possible the scolding of editors and columnists at our oldest newspapers matter less for Trump’s chances in November than an online conspiracy news-and-entertainment juggernaut with a staff of 60 and an Alexandrian YouTube archive of America First seminars that is fast approaching one billion views.

I first met Jones six years ago in his native Austin, where he is broadly appreciated as a link to the lost world of “Austin Weird,” whose institutions included the Public Access TV channel where Jones cut his broadcasting teeth. Until this week, I never expected to see Jones draw Austin levels of celebrity on the streets of any other city. But he could barely take a step in Cleveland without being recognized and stopped. If he sat down at a bar, the first fan would appear in seconds with a pen. His security team dissuaded those who might’ve liked to approach him with something sharper and more knife-shaped.

On Wednesday, two days after the rally by the river, I visited Jones at his downtown hotel, across from the tall security fence stretching for blocks around the Quicken Loans Arena. The prior afternoon, Jones scored his second viral hit of the week when he led his crew, bullhorn in hand, into the center of a park dense with anti-Trump protestors. When Jones tried to climb atop a statue to address the crowd, a few nearby protestors screamed “Nazi Scum” and grabbed him, initiating a confusing tussle quickly ended by nearby police. Within an hour the video went up on Infowars: “Epic Alex Jones Attack Caught On Camera!”

Jones (in dark sunglasses) is escorted away from a Cleveland rally on Tuesday, where he said he was attacked by protesters yelling “Nazi scum!”John Minchillo/AP

When the elevator opened in the lobby, a dour Dinesh D’souza brushed passed me, just off his Alex Jones Show interview promoting his first foray into conspiracy film. I arrived in Jones’s suite as he was wrapping up the day’s broadcast in the radio studio he’d set up in the main room facing the security fence across the street. A wall-length black Infowars banner hung behind him; the table was covered by two flags, a Gadsden and the City of Austin.

I tell Jones it’s hard to imagine him sitting on radio row with a lanyard around his neck, but if Trump gets elected, his fans may expect him to realize the until-recently unimaginable spectacle of Alex Jones delivering a rant in the White House Briefing Room. It seemed the thought hadn’t yet occurred to him, and considering it now, it didn’t please him.

“If Trump gets in and starts going sideways, if he doesn’t start doing better trade deals, then yes, I’d want that pass, because I’m coming out against him,” said Jones. “But I don’t care about going to the White House and getting patted on the head by Donald Trump. I always want to be on the outside. That’s where freedom is. It’s boring being around neurotic guys in suits trying to one up each other. Those aren’t fun people.”

A feeling of kinship with Trump’s outsider success is a major part of what initially drew Jones to the campaign. “I’ve never seen the whole establishment lined up against somebody,” Jones said. “That’s not fake.” Indeed, there are loose parallels in the way both men have been scorned and dismissed for decades by educated upper-middle class gatekeepers, and earned fierce, cult-like followings from working class men and women who see an absence of edifice and condescension in them. Trump fans and Jones fans often sound identical when describing their heroes: they talk straight; they’re real; they don’t care what anybody thinks; they’re a fuckin’ riot. It’s no surprise that being a fan of Jones leads to Trump—and vice-versa. 

There’s also the overlap in style, which is angry, and the central message, which is elites have been systematically screwing you and your family for a long time. In the case of Jones, this broad populist starting point can morph into a baroque comic fantasy of demonic philanthropic foundations, 100-year eugenics ops, and the occasional unseen dimension. Off the air, Jones is a lot less manic, and you get the sense that his conspiracies are not served for literal consumption, but rather to be taken the way Jones understands most of Trump’s extreme proposals. “The border wall is just a metaphor,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” (Jones, who has spent a life railing against a coming police state, has a harder time squaring Trump’s support for torture. “They never stopped doing it,” he said. “But I don’t support it.”) 

One aspect of Trump’s neo-isolationist foreign policy sends Jones’s reasoning away from complexity and toward the most basic thing imaginable: a desire to not die in a nuclear war. In our interview, Jones returned repeatedly to the subject of Hillary Clinton’s itchy button-finger.

“Donald Trump doesn’t want war with the Russians,” Jones said. “Donald Trump wants to be on his big golden yachts and airplanes. He’s not crazy. He wants his hot wife and his golf courses. And that’s great. Me, I’m gonna be hanging out by the pool with my kids, and taking them to plays, and seeing my grandma, and we can all not die together in a nuclear war. I don’t know how anybody could not support Trump, if only because he doesn’t want nuclear war.”

Jones has bet the house that Trump will do more than just walk us back from WWIII with Russia. Jones now lists Trump as among the members of an exclusive truth-telling pantheon, including Matt Drudge, Ron Paul, and himself. His enthusiasm is matched by a rotating bevy of other pro-Trump voices in the Infowars galaxy, notably frequent guest Roger Stone. On air, Jones is usually guarded about his doubts. But he admits the possibility that Trump could turn out to be a bust in the fight against the New World Order tyranny.   

“Donald Trump is either George Washington Part II, or he’s The Joker,” said Jones. “I think he’s for real. The danger is Trump can discredit the movement if he doesn’t try to deliver. He doesn’t have to deliver. He has to die trying.” 

He went on: “Whether he’s a real-deal populist or not, people are going for him because he says he is. True populism is rising and it’s only going to get bigger. Look at Brexit. Look at Europe. There’s anger at a globalism where big banks make secret rules. It’s going to be a long fight, but once the shadow government of the ultra rich is identified, and people see how they sow up the game and use socialism to control us and keep us poor, then it’s over. The New Royalty falls.” 

He’s rolling now. “We should get rid of NATO. Let’s use the money to build stuff. The globalists always promised us this loving world government, but all they’re doing is selling weapons and trying to blow the planet up. They’ve had their time. They’re done. It’s time to have Lord Monckton, Nigel Farage, and Donald Trump set up a democratic system where countries can openly vote on agreements. And then we can build space stations and shit. Behind the scenes, that’s what Donald Trump wants to do.” 

I’m trying to imagine how one American and two Brits could set up a new global system when one of Jones’s producers mentions he spotted Nigel Farage, the Brexit-monger, on the street that morning in Cleveland with Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson. “He must be keeping his trip quiet on purpose, or he’d be doing interviews,” Jones mused. I tell Jones that a cameo by Tucker Carlson’s college-aged son at the Monday rally surprised me, and that I thought Tucker Carlson wouldn’t be caught within a mile of an Infowars event. “Tucker’s come a long way,” said Jones. “He’s been getting more hardcore.” 

If more media figures who once shunned Jones start getting “hardcore,” it could be a genuine change of heart, or it could be them trying to catch up with and imitate Jones’s success. At a time when many talk radio hosts are losing audience, Jones is gaining. Infowars.com gets around 40 million unique visitors a month, with a video stream drawing around a quarter of that number. Many come to Infowars after spotting a random video from Jones’s vast archive of search-optimized YouTube clips. Of the more than 800 million views this archive has racked up over the last decade, 300 million have occurred at a quickening pace in the last year-and-a-half. The rise of Trump has been a boon, just as the rise of Jones has boosted Trump. Jones has gone big-time, if not exactly mainstream. And it’s a queasy place for him to be. When asked about the traffic numbers provided by Jones’s staff, he seems embarrassed by the success. 

“What I do is not hard,” he said. “Anybody with an education in history could do it. Infowars is exploding because of the climate we’re in.”

Whatever the cause of the mushrooming traffic, Jones’s ongoing expansion toward a self-contained, around-the-clock media universe can only be good news for the Trump campaign. The more baited lines Infowars has floating around the Internet, the more voters it will produce for the Republican nominees. Just ask the hundreds of (mostly) young men who answered Alex Jones’s call to converge on Cleveland.

An unscientific survey conducted near the convention center this week indicated that Jones is producing Trump voters on a conveyer belt. One of them is a 30-something home-repair specialist from Cleveland named Jason Bravo (his real name). He discovered Infowars through a YouTube clip of Jones ambushing David Gergen on a street corner and demanding answers about the creepy summer rites performed every summer by rich old men at Bohemian Grove. 

“That video caught my eye,” said Bravo, a former Democrat and the son of a Mexican immigrant who’s now, thanks to Jones, a Trump enthusiast. “I was like, ‘Wow, he’s really calling these guys out, making them nervous.’ At first, I thought Alex was losing his mind. But he shows the documentation. He wasn’t just a talking head. He puts you on track to do your own research. He opened my eyes to a lot of things. He’s the top of the media list.”

Another Ohio vote for Trump delivered by Jones belongs to a bespectacled 27-year old black man from East Cleveland, who would only identify himself as Eric. A machine operator at an airplane-parts factory, he was lured to Infowars the typical way, by a YouTube clip he saw last summer. “I started watching his videos about Hillary, about bringing companies back to the country, about the Second Amendment,” he said. “He’s entertaining. Man, some of those rants!” 

More seasoned Jones fans described recent waves of Trump converts among their once-skeptical friends. “So many people watch him now, he’s almost the mainstream,” said Preston Kamler, the young founder of a St. Louis-based vaping company called Founding Fathers Liquid. “People who called me crazy six years ago, now they act like they knew all along. Look at the 28 pages [originally redacted from the 9/11 Commission Report]. Well, Alex was right. Saudi Arabia was involved. At the least, our government stood down to have a pretext for Iraq. Cheney and these companies got no-bid contracts and made billions.” 

Kamler credits his quarter-life intellectual awakening to a chance viewing of one of Jones’s oldest Bohemian Grove clips. “I’ve learned almost everything I know through the Infowars feed. When I started watching Alex, he was still in a little black studio wearing headphones. People say he’s just fearmongering to make money, but look at his studios. He’s reinvesting in his business and message and empowering more people. Alex has brought a lot of people to Trump, and Trump has brought a lot of people to Alex. They complement each other well.”

Nobody distilled the truth of the Jones-Trump connection better than a 44-year- old landscaper from Asheville, North Carolina, named David Beavis (another real name). I approached Beavis at the Monday rally because he was standing alone and smiling like he was the happiest man in the world, an exaggerated counterpoint to the stereotype of the red-faced Trump supporter. As I neared, he pointed at the source of his bliss. Near the center of his cream-colored TRUMP T-shirt was the florid signature of Alex Jones scrawled in jumbo marker. 

It had taken a while for Beavis to come around to Trump, but he’s been an Alex Jones fan since way back. He’d taken two days of unpaid leave to drive up from Asheville and see Jones speak on Monday. He said he switched from Cruz to Trump after seeing Roger Stone on The Alex Jones Show. “Alex talks better than O’Reilly or anybody, just shoves it in your face, and that’s how I want it,” said Beavis. “When Alex started supporting Trump, it convinced me. Alex and Roger. Alex got me to do 9/11 research. Changed my mind about Iraq. I don’t think we should have been there. Now I’m pretty damn excited about Trump. He doesn’t say a bunch of fucked-up words where you’re trying to understand half a sentence. He just talks to me like you are.”

Later, I told Jones about beaming Beavis and the people I’d met who traveled to Cleveland in a kind of pilgrimage, often more for him than for Trump. He repeated his confidence in the man who could conceivably approve an Infowars reporter for the pool on Trump Force One. But if Trump’s promises prove mere paper populism, Jones won’t blame anyone, including himself, for enjoying it while it lasted.

“Everything has been plastic for so long, it’s just so refreshing to hear somebody that’s real,” he said. “But we’re gonna find out how real he is. ‘Justice be done, or the heavens fall’.” 

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and the author of The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America.