When Joan Didion came out to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ‘60s, she saw decline and decadence, a center no longer holding. In her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she chronicled the moral drift that had seized America, a country where “we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job,” a nation that had lost its way and its purpose.
When Milton William Cooper, nine years her junior, came to the Bay Area a few years later in 1975, fresh from military service, little had improved. He, too, saw moral decline, depravity, and decay taking hold. But for Cooper, this did not present evidence of entropy. Things weren’t falling apart. On the contrary, everything was working according to a secret scheme, engineered by a shadowy cabal of figures gathered under names like The Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, and the Illuminati. The center was holding just fine; this was all part of its plan for the subjugation of humanity.
Cooper’s past allowed him to claim a kind of credibility for these theories. At the tail end of the Vietnam War, he had worked in Naval Intelligence, as part of the briefing team under Admiral Bernard A. Clarey. He would later claim that at one point while on the Admiral’s staff, he’d gotten a glimpse of a cache of top-secret documents revealing a vast government conspiracy against America’s citizens. Among the files Cooper said he found in Clarey’s cabinet was evidence that JFK had been assassinated not by Lee Harvey Oswald, or a shadowy figure from the grassy knoll, but by his driver, using “a gas pressure device developed by aliens from the Trilateral Commission.” Admiral Clarey’s Cabinet became Cooper’s own Joanna Southcott’s Box, a repository of secrets known only to Cooper, whose contents seemed to change and evolve over the years, fitting whatever need Cooper’s current conspiracies had.
From the late 1980s until his death in 2001, Cooper became one of the best-known and most influential conspiracy theorists, beloved by figures ranging from Timothy McVeigh (who visited Cooper shortly before the Oklahoma City Bombing) to Alex Jones (whom Cooper despised) to members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Through his radio broadcast, The Hour of the Time, he popularized the phrase “Wake up, sheeple” and injected a host of now-common conspiracy theories into the mainstream: not just his JFK theory, but also postulations that AIDS was one of many secret weapons devised by the US government for use against its own people.
Mark Jacobson’s Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America traces Cooper’s life and the unlikely spread of his book Behold a Pale Horse, released in 1991 by Melody O’Ryin Swanson, a New Age publisher who claims she’s never read it, despite its perennially strong sales. It’s a story of the incubation of the politics of conspiracy, a kind of prologue to our era of Birthers, Pizzagate, and QAnon. Framing his book around Donald Trump’s win on November 8, 2016 (when, Jacobson writes, the presence of Cooper’s ghost became “palpable”), Behold a Pale Horse attempts to connect this story to the world we now inhabit, one where belief has eclipsed truth, and paranoia has eclipsed trust.
Cooper first came to prominence in the late 1980s, through an early Internet message board devoted to UFOs called Paranet. John Lear, the disinherited son of the Learjet magnate, had been posting wild conspiracies about secret government relations with aliens. They were the kind of thing no one took very seriously, until Cooper appeared from nowhere, corroborating them. With his background in Naval Intelligence, his supposedly independent verification of Lear’s bizarre story gave it instant credibility. (When Paranet’s mod Jim Speiser first introduced Cooper to the board, he described Paranet as being “deeply indebted to, and a little honored by” Cooper’s presence.)
Soon, Lear and Cooper had teamed up, relaying an increasingly manic and terrifying story of alien collusion with secret governmental forces while drinking each other under the table. In 1989 they released an “indictment” against the US government, demanding it “cease aiding and abetting and concealing this Alien Nation which exists in our borders.” They went on to demand that it must “cease all operations, projects, treaties, and any other involvement with this Alien Nation,” and ordered “this Alien Nation and all of its members to leave the United States and this Earth immediately, now and for all time, by June 1, 1990,” calling finally for a full disclosure of all Alien-Government interactions.
Their accusations were ludicrous, of course, but had an important and still largely underappreciated effect. As conspiracy theorist Michael Barkun has explained in his 2003 book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, the convergence of UFO beliefs and general conspiracy theories “brought conspiracism to a large new audience. UFO writers have long been suspicious of the U.S. government, which they believe has suppressed crucial evidence of an alien presence on earth, but in the early years they did not, by and large, embrace strong political positions.” Cooper and Lear helped change all that; they were the tip of a spear asserting that the number one thing we had to fear was not little green men, but the government that colluded with them, appropriating their technology against us. In the X-Files-esque decade that followed, Cooper’s ideas, Barkun notes, “brought right-wing conspiracism to people who otherwise would not have been aware of it.”
Cooper’s dalliance with the UFO community only lasted a few years. In part this was because he kept turning on his friends. Ever-paranoid, he and Lear had an acrimonious falling out, and soon Cooper was accusing Lear of being a CIA plant. But aliens were never more than a gateway drug for Cooper; they helped prime the pump for a conspiratorial paranoia towards the government, murmurings that the government was keeping important secrets from its citizens—and this was what really mattered. Cooper soon began arguing that he’d been purposefully misled by the government about aliens, that they’d fed him the story to trick him into ignoring the bigger conspiracy: The One World Government, which, run by the Illuminati, presided over everything.
UFOlogy appears in Cooper’s 1991 opus, Behold a Pale Horse, but then again, so does everything else. Behold A Pale Horse is a singular book not just because it acts as a clearing house for so many varieties of paranoia and conspiracy, but for its form. From its primal, cosmic cover to the variety of fonts and page layouts, it is less a book than a heap of zines and secret dispatches hurriedly patched together. With the tentacles of the conspiracy reaching everywhere, the book can’t hope to make sense of it all; instead its lens zooms in and out of focus, erratic and hyperactive, drawing lines and connecting threads. It is both compulsively readable and intolerably incoherent—a perfect transcription of a charismatic paranoid ranting at you on a street corner.
“For Cooper,” Jacobson notes, “truth and falsehood began with the document. Be it Dead Sea Scrolls, the Revelation of St. John, the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith, or a stack of papers found in a cabinet at Naval Intelligence, the secret document contained the seed to be worked into the ever-expanding concept, or what people came to call a meme.” Behold a Pale Horse, like so much of conspiracism, is a hermeneutics gone feral; it is a love letter to the text itself, the sacred and secret document. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with William Cooper.
The most troubling element of Behold a Pale Horse is that it contains, in its entirety, the debunked hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cooper insisted, bizarrely, that such a move was not anti-Semitic, that the Jews in the pamphlet were supposed to be read as “the Illuminati,” since it was they—not Jews, or Catholics, or African-Americans—who were the true villains. Nonetheless his book provided a way for a notoriously vile piece of libel to find its way back into an increasingly anti-Semitic fringe community (one that, increasingly, is no longer all that fringe). The preponderance of YouTube videos asserting that the Protocols are real and that Jews are the cause of all modern life’s ills, no doubt owes a great deal to Cooper’s book.
As with the Protocols, much of the rest of Behold a Pale Horse’s contents is not new. A chapter on FEMA Camps is, for instance just one of many that borrows from other conspiracists, regurgitated slightly or plagiarized wholesale; it reproduces the story that the government has set up various sites around the country (usually identified as prisons, disused train yards or warehouses, and former Walmarts) to be used at the dawn of the New World Order for the internment of patriots. The success of Cooper’s book lay not in its originality but in its encyclopedic synergy of American paranoia, threaded through a thousand different nodes of conspiracy, a bound and printed Crazy Wall kept behind the counter at your local Barnes & Noble.
The cult status of Cooper’s book was only bolstered by the manner of his death in 2001. By the late 1990s, Cooper had stopped paying taxes, fortressing himself atop a mesa in Arizona. Warrants were issued for his arrest, but the FBI wanted to do anything to avoid another Ruby Ridge, so they watched him for years, hoping to catch him off his property. Meanwhile, Cooper began to predict his own death: “They’re going to kill me, ladies and gentlemen,” he told his radio audience. “They’re going to come up here in the middle of the night, and shoot me dead, right on my doorstep.” Two months after 9/11 his prophecy came true: a botched attempt by the FBI to draw him out of his compound backfired, leading to a firefight between Cooper and almost a dozen federal agents, in which one FBI agent and Cooper were both killed.
Like a Cooper monologue, Pale Horse Rider veers off on a variety of tangents, some superfluous, some fascinating, some both at once. Among the most interesting tangents is the recurrent digression into Cooper’s prominence among Black communities, and the preponderance of his ideas in hip-hop. Cooper has been name-checked by everyone from Tupac to Public Enemy and Gangstarr, to say nothing of MC Pale Horse and Black Militia member Arthur Kissel, who performs under the name William Cooper. Indeed, Pale Horse Rider is as much a biography of a book—Behold a Pale Horse—as it is of its author. Behold a Pale Horse, in many ways, has lived a more fascinating life anyway, particularly in its ability to resonate with a disparate collection of communities and voices.
In Harlem, Cooper’s book became a regular feature of the sidewalk booksellers in the early ‘90s, alongside James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “Most people, anyone who once thought of themselves as radical in any way back in the 1990s, knows William Cooper,” one Harlem resident tells Jacobson. But it was in the U.S. prison system that the book truly flourished, copies passed from hand to hand until they disintegrated. “One in four black men winds up in jail one time or another,” a bookseller explains to Jacobson. “The incarcerated African American is the most legitimately paranoid man in the world. When you get to William Cooper, he is one paranoid white man, he speaks the same language.”
As Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard put it, summing up much of Behold a Pale Horse’s allure: “Everybody gets fucked. William Cooper tells you who’s fucking you.” Except, of course, Cooper doesn’t tell you who’s fucking you; Cooper tells you an increasingly elaborate but ultimately reassuring story that you got fucked because of some omnipotent conspiracy, which takes the messiness out of life and the burden off yourself.
Take for example Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the South Africa’s former health minister who, while still in office and at the height of that country’s AIDS crisis, distributed copies of the chapter that argued that AIDS was introduced into the African population by a global conspiracy with the goal of reducing the continent’s population. Like ODB and the booksellers of Harlem, Manto used Cooper’s writing to make a point about colonial racism—but what South Africa needed from its government was not conspiracies but retroviral medicine and comprehensive sex education. In the United States, systemic racism is real and omnipresent, but it works through voter suppression and local private prisons, jaywalking fines and asset forfeiture, housing covenants and employment discrimination and a million other diffused tactics. Black Americans and their allies need political organizing and activism, not fantasies involving Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars.
The fundamental flaw with Cooper’s logic—and one that is consistently being made on both the right and the left—is the confusion of corruption with conspiracy. Corruption, a constant in capitalism (and, for that matter, human nature generally) is opportunistic as often as it is planned, the work of lone grifters and complicated organizations. It often involves conspiracy (in the legal sense of the word), of course, but it is not the same as the conspiracy that Cooper envisioned. Cooper, in effect, saw all of American (and global) capitalism as part of the same tightly controlled, well-oiled machine working in perfect and absolute concert to achieve a set of predetermined ends. He refused to see America’s shortcomings and hypocrisies as the result of a hundred grifts and petty cons, a chaotic mish-mash whose effects were essentially random and almost always uncoordinated.
Frustratingly, Jacobson too often repeats Cooper’s theories without providing much context, allowing them to sit on the page unchallenged. Cooper’s theory of why “Income Taxes Are Voluntary,” or how the World Trade Center collapse began with a controlled explosion before the planes hit the towers, are not even given the most cursory of fact-checks. When Jacobson writes that “9/11 deserved Truth, or at least the semblance of an effort. Instead it got Osama bin Laden with his nineteen men with Exacto-knives, along with a president too engrossed with My Pet Goat to call in the SWAT teams,” it’s hard to know if he’s ventriloquizing Cooper or speaking for himself.
The biographical details are even more difficult to parse; Jacobson often makes little attempt to distinguish between life events that might have actually occurred versus those invented by a deeply paranoid fabulist, leaving the reader with no real means to judge the book’s contents. Pale Horse Rider, for example, credulously recounts the circumstances in which Cooper lost his right leg: According to his own accounts, Cooper tried to tell a journalist about what he’d seen in Admiral Clarey’s Cabinet, and shortly after that, while bicycling down a mountain road, a black car tried to run him off the road. Two men stood over him, discussing whether or not he was dead. A second accident a month later, supposedly by the same car, would cost him his leg; he would later add that he was visited one night in his bedroom by two men further warning that if he opened his mouth again about what he’d seen they would finish the job. “I told them that I would be a very good little boy and they needn’t worry about me anymore,” so they left him alone.
What, of any of this, has any basis in reality? It’s impossible to know for sure, since Jacobson makes little effort to bolster any of Cooper’s story with independent verification (or, when he does, he rarely makes that explicit to the reader). All of it strains credulity and makes reading the biography, at times, as vertiginous as listening to a Cooper broadcast.
One supposes that Jacobson is giving Cooper enough rope to hang himself, and letting the reader infer that these theories are ludicrous. But this rhetorical strategy has serious flaws. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that giving a white supremacist, for example, free rein to rant and rave is no guarantee that audiences will be repulsed. Similarly, recounting even Cooper’s most wild conspiracy theories with a straight face is by no means any guarantee that the reader will reject them. Indeed, Pale Horse Rider seems designed to be enjoyed both by the skeptic and the believer; die-hard fans of Cooper will not find any of their own core beliefs challenged here.
By the book’s end, Jacobson has seemed to embrace the relativism that allows conspiracies to flourish: The Cooper in his book, he confesses, “might not be the version of those who lionized the man, or who hated his guts, but it was where my own research took me, the particular truth I found. As a member of the audience, I was entitled to it.” Pale Horse Rider ends up offering a picture of the current moment, albeit not in the way Jacobson may intend. It is, in the end, less an explanation of a phenomenon than a symptom of it: Any charismatic voice in the wilderness, listened to ad nauseum, can start to sound lucid.