The most confounding aspect of Mark Jacobson’s 2018 biography, Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy and the Fall of Trust in America, is also the most compelling. In tracing the elaborate obsessions and tormented life of his subject, the author often cites uncritically a collection of fringe claims and pseudohistory without stepping back to explain to the neutral reader why such beliefs are, in fact, erroneous. Yet the effect allows us to empathize – a little – with Cooper and his adherents, showing what contrived logic sustains their private mixtures of idealism, resentment, and neurosis in the face of internal demons and external reality.
William Cooper was an American Vietnam vet and a broadcast buff who, in the early 1990s, launched his own radio spot, The Hour of the Time, a self-produced show which promoted the opinions and assertions he’d already advanced in his 1991 book, Behold a Pale Horse, and which he’d been cultivating since his military service: messages of sweeping global cover-ups, UFOs, the US Constitution, citizens’ freedoms versus governments’ controls, and an eclectic range of hidden or contested knowledge. Behold a Pale Horse soon acquired an avid readership – even, strangely, within the rap community, with Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan referencing Cooper’s themes in their lyrics and interviews – and The Hour of the Time likewise drew a dedicated audience among survivalists and right-wing militia types. But Cooper was also a sometimes violent alcoholic, with failed marriages and abandoned children, who died in a police shootout at his home in November 2001. He’d been living alone in a remote area of Arizona after his last wife, fed up with the abuse and the isolation, left with the couple’s two young daughters. Lots of people gripe about the state infringing on their rights as autonomous individuals answerable to no outside force, but Cooper literally lived and died by his principles.
How is it that conspiracy theorists like William Cooper continue to attract loyal disciples? What is it about The Hour of the Time (archived episodes of which are popular on Youtube) and Behold a Pale Horse (still a steady Amazon seller) that draw people in? One reason is that Cooper and his ilk are reactive rather than predictive, offering ex post facto interpretations of events covered elsewhere – however strenuously they contradict the mainstream media, the mainstream media breaks the original stories. Cooper insisted that the deadly 1993 siege of David Koresh’s compound in Waco Texas was a murderous FBI crackdown rather than a mass cult suicide, for example, but in any case the tragedy had to be widely reported before Cooper could reject the narrative. Even the wildest paranoid fantasists tend to have oddly pedestrian frames of reference, with their aliens or secret cabals apparently allowing themselves to be detected through routine entertainment and news items; somehow every grand cosmic plot can be exposed in terms which just happen to be most compatible with the tastes of middle-class Americans.
The other appeal of figures like Cooper, perhaps, is that the conspiracies they posit are so broad and so deep they explain almost everything while directly affecting almost nothing. In other words, whether it’s the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, or the Wise Men of Zion (all of which Cooper invoked) who are really running the world, we can nevertheless function more or less independently in our little corners of it. A hardcore few might violently rise up against the alleged conspiratorial powers – Jacobson reports that TImothy McVeigh approached Cooper before perpetrating the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – but most people only talk about them, or share and debate their suspicions through specialized media channels, and in the meantime don’t live much differently than they would if the conspiracy didn’t exist at all. Pale Horse Rider notes how Cooper once crossed paths with Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the semi-satirical Illuminatus! Trilogy, and wasn’t amused that the writer treated as a big joke the same twisted global and interplanetary connections he was dead serious about. Even under the all-seeing Eye in the Triangle, after all, you still have to walk the dog and do the dishes.
William Cooper’s undoing was the irreconcilable disconnect between, on the one hand, living in a gun-filled house off the grid of federal taxation and public schooling as he aired his angry and strangely consistent jeremiads about power and truth, and on the other, trying to live like an ordinary family man, recording home videos of Thanksgiving dinner while his household appliances fell apart. Balancing the two concepts in a single outlook – rigid distrust of authority and sentimental reverence for tradition – is impossible without an emotional breakdown, or a civil war. “Even at the end,” Jacobson writes of Cooper, “a madman holed up in his hilltop home, he clung to the America he treasured but never really knew, the world of white picket fences and cherry pies cooling on windowsills, flags flying on the Fourth of July.” In our era of QAnon and Pizzagate, plenty of people still inhabit the same paradox, and God help us when they try to realize their dreams.