American Madness by Tea Krulos
While I was checking the news this past Christmas, I saw that there had been a bombing in Nashville. Later that day it came out that the explosion occurred in front of an AT&T building. I knew pretty quickly that within the next couple of days, if not by the evening, it would come out that whoever had done this was a follower of conspiracy thought. During the pandemic David Icke, former footballer, self-appointed savior, and conspiracy theorist had put forth a narrative of how the pandemic happened. It included 5G cellular networks, adrenochrome, Luciferians, and, of course, reptilian aliens. I was not let down, unfortunately.
Then there was the insurrection at the Capitol in DC, fueled by America’s president and believers of conspiracy spin-off, QAnon. That Christmas morning and the day the Capitol was stormed, another thing that crossed my mind was the subject of Tea Krulos’ recent book, American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness. His name was Richard McCaslin and in 2002 he broke into the Bohemian Grove. The Grove, according to Wikipedia, is “a restricted 2,700-acre campground in Monte Rio, California, United States, belonging to a private San Francisco—based gentlemen’s club known as the Bohemian Club.” Some people believe this is where a group of men choose what will happen in the world (in the universe) over the next year. For instance, this is where it would have been decided to kill Kennedy or start a worldwide pandemic. According to some, they also sacrifice humans.
Richard McCaslin believed this and broke into the Grove to save these people from untimely death. Richard was part of a movement of real-life superheroes. He broke into the Grove dressed as his alter-ego, the Phantom Patriot, armed with a Samurai Sword, among other implements and weapons. Unsurprisingly, these recent events made author Tea Krulos think about Richard McCaslin as well. When we got on the phone to talk, I don’t think either of us thought we’d talk for two hours but there is a lot to unpack in these recent events and in his book.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
Maximum RocknRoll: Did your book end up coming out during the pandemic?
Tea Krulos: The official release date was late August. So pretty much right in the thick of stuff there. As I was wrapping [the writing] up I knew that it would be topical because Trump is always spouting off conspiracy theories. As it turned out, of course, we were just completely bombarded with conspiracies almost every day. It’s really shocking and disturbing to see this. I started working on the book almost 10 years ago, when I first met Richard. At that time, you know, he was seen as a very sort of fringe character, one of those guys who believes in conspiracy. It’s just evolved so much over the last 10 years where it’s really mainstream and definitely led up to a terrible scene, like we saw at the Capitol where you basically had an army of conspiracy theorists, who had all fed off of each other online and, you know, took Trump’s words very literally and inform the sort of conspiracy theory mob.
MRR: What led you to write this book?
TK: I would say, number one, it was an interest to me prior to this. I like “The X-Files,” I like reading about UFO cases. I really didn’t believe that all that was true, but I thought it was fun and interesting. To me, that’s what conspiracy theory was. I didn’t really know that there was sort of this deeper, darker side that was developing. So Richard contacted me because I was working on a book about real-life superheroes, which is a very interesting subculture. I was like, What the hell’s this guy talking about?’ Because he had mentioned that he had raided the Bohemian Grove. I never heard of it, you know, so I went over to Wikipedia. I was like, Wow, this is crazy. There’s like a 40-foot statue of an owl that’s voiced by a recording of Walter Cronkite and all these famous powerful men are part of this club.’ So I responded to Richard and I became very interested in his life story. There are all these little bizarre twists and turns in his story. He goes to stuntman school and he starts developing these superhero personas in his spare time. I just saw his life was interesting. What was also compelling for me to write about was his sort of downward path where he goes through this rough time he’s introduced to Alex Jones, and he starts plotting this mission to invade the Bohemian Grove. There was this incident in 2016, PizzaGate, where you had this guy, Edgar Welch, who raided this pizzeria in Washington, DC. That story really grabbed me too, because I was like, This is pretty similar to Richard’s story.’ He thought that there were people trapped and in danger in this secret location and he armed himself and went there and tried to save them and of course, nothing was there. So then the book started to develop into, you know, this is Richard’s story and it’s not a one-time story. It’s something that repeats itself, people falling under the spell of conspiracy, and then it kind of takes over their life.
MRR: There seems to be a real objectivity to the way you present both sides of the story, both Richard’s story and the way you look at the conspiracies.
TK: I think that’s been my style for a while, to get interested in groups that are kind of fringe. I don’t want to make fun of them. That’s not my style. Like, you know, I’ve always considered myself to be kind of a weird person. So who am I to judge other people. I just kind of want to present people in their own words and give the basic information, and people can come to their own conclusion.
MRR: It almost seems like the chickens have come home to roost in a way. [From] 2016 on it’s been kind of like Alex Jones was all over the news for a minute and then he got shut down but then he and Trump are buds. Conspiracy theories are mainstream now. It’s like everyone seems to believe either fluoride [in the water] or chemtrails or there’s some version of a conspiracy that everyone has some connection to. [In the book] you get to the humanity of what [conspiracy] is for someone.
TK: I think people, you know, their first instinct is to really kind of shun that person and dismiss them when they run into these ideas. When Richard first contacted me, I mean, I’ll admit that I thought his story was really bizarre. I started reading about the Bohemian Grove, and I was like, wow, this is a really weird story. I thought he was kind of crazy, but as I interviewed him slowly I kind of realized that he had this really terrible point in his life in the late 90s, early 2000s, and he was really searching for something to fill this void in him and unfortunately, you know, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the thing that filled that void was Alex Jones. Then, of course, the end of the book is sad to me. I thought Richard was creative and had an interesting imagination. I was sad to see him go down that sort of hopeless path of dragging this conspiracy with him. Because I think, you know, he could have done something else with his life, he could have found something.
MRR: Oh, certainly. That’s definitely not lost in your book. He was so incredibly creative in so many other ways, you know, as well as being problematic, but there’s something you capture about this person, that in the end, it’s still incredibly heartbreaking.
TK: Yeah, I still think about him a lot, of course, not just because the book came out, but because of all of this conspiracy exploding all the time. I wonder what he would think of all this craziness. He had gone so far down this rabbit hole that like the conspiracies had conspiracies. So, I was thinking about him when this capital insurrection happened, and was wondering if he was alive, if we would have seen him sort of walking through the halls of the Capitol in his Phantom Patriot costume. I kind of think that he would have been attracted to that idea of a people’s revolution storming the Capitol. At the same time in his last document that he wrote before he died he had mentioned that he didn’t like Trump. He thought Trump was a reptilian alien. He didn’t like QAnon. He thought they were a government psy-op program. He might have bought into that ridiculous narrative that it was antifa in disguise or something like that.
MRR: As I started reading your book I realized that you had this direct connection to this person. He was writing you letters. I wonder how you felt about using that material without being able to ask this person permission? Did you ever feel any sort of Maybe I shouldn’t do this?’ Or Maybe I should present this in a different way?’
TK: Most of the book was written by the time he died. I don’t think I changed much. I thought it was gonna be published and he’s gonna be super mad at me for a while, because you know there’s some parts of the book that just aren’t flattering, but I had to write it that way because it was true. One of the hardest parts for me was writing about his infatuation with Chely Wright because I liked Richard, I got along with him, but this was something that was not at all cool, that he did. And no one thinks so, you know no one who knew him, thought that he had the right idea there. So it was a little painful to write about that, although I think it was important to tell that story because I think that was part of his motivation for a couple of things that happened in his life. More than anything he wanted someone to listen and hear his story. So, I think that he would have been glad that, you know, his story is out there and different people are talking about it. There were some difficult decisions to make in that, because it wasn’t like I could run certain things by him anymore. I really blame this conspiracy stuff that had been building in his brain for almost 20 years. It was dragging him down and he couldn’t shake it. He saw symbols in everything. He had a lot of trouble developing friendships because he had this sort of paranoid eye that would be suspicious of them. I think it just really dragged him down.
MRR: I think you mentioned it when I emailed you about how the Christmas bombing in Nashville made you think of Richard. As soon as I heard that it was in front of the AT&T building I was like, ’I don’t want this to be what I think it is.’ You know, because of my own research into conspiracy theory or whatever, being interested in it. It was hard not to think about Richard McCaslin and your book as well. Do you think it’s important that we humanize people that do these troubling things and maybe that’ll help us do something better in the future?
TK: When I was working on the book, I had a friend who was like, This book is gonna inspire more people to do this.’ I was like, I think if someone reads my book, and thinks that it’s a positive story at all, then they have issues that are deeper than this book.’ I think that it is a fine line and something to be careful of, but I thought it was really valuable to really explore Richard’s life. So people could get an idea of why he thought some of the things that he did, who he was learning some of these ideas from, you know, especially people like Alex Jones, and David Icke, who I think both really benefit from peddling conspiracy theories. You know, Alex Jones, he’s become a millionaire by acting outrageous and making outrageous claims. When I was wrapping up the book I was telling people about one of the last chapters on Q[anon], which a couple years ago a lot of people didn’t know what that was. Now, it is such a big problem in our society, as evidenced by what happened at the Capitol, and the fact that we have an elected official in the House of Representatives, who is a QAnon believer.
MRR: Do you think these people are dangerous and what can we do?
TK: I was working on the book kind of on and off for years and years, you know, I would work on it for a while, and then I would get busy with a different project, but shortly after Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, he was a guest on the Alex Jones show. I was like, Here’s this guy, who so heavily influenced Richard. And now, you know, a presidential candidate is a guest on his show.’ But Jones and Trump, I think, hit off so well because they’re very similar in their nature, and how they convey misinformation. They think that if they feel something in their guts then it’s a fact. So if someone tells Trump, Hey, I heard this theory that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fake.’ And that registers as true with Trump, then it’s a fact. I think both of them also understand the value of misinformation. And how riled up people can get by it. They see that as really beneficial and it’s obviously worked very well for both of them. You know, for the most part, I mean, Jones has been sued over and over again and Trump just got impeached for a second time…so. But that was their tactic: knowing that a good conspiracy can go a long way, as far as trying to smear their enemies or to gather followers who are afraid and angry and looking for something. As far as what can be done to combat that, I don’t know, that’s something I’ve been struggling with a lot. It’s so hard to try to speak to a conspiracy theorist and try to present anything to them. Let’s say you’re talking to a flat earther, for example, you can show them videos, you can show them pictures, you can show them a stack of reports from not only NASA, but space agencies around the world and they’re just going to tell you that it’s fake. So, that’s very frustrating because how can you argue with a person like that? A lot of social media platforms have banned Alex Jones and, and I think that maybe it’s like putting a bandaid on a severed arm. These people went to different Flat Earth conferences, and they found that 99.9% of flat earthers had become that way because they’d fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole. So, eventually YouTube starts banning Flat Earth videos but by that time there was a whole subculture that’s formed. They have their own conferences, and their own media and everything. The only thing that I am hopeful for is that a lot more schools and other institutions start implementing mandatory media literacy classes where people can be taught how to separate actual good news and reporting and scientific papers from stuff that’s bullshit or misinformation or comes from a Russian troll farm or Infowars.
MRR: It seems like we’ve been building up to it for a couple of decades now and it’s just like this volcano that exploded all over the entire country with Trump being elected. I think it was getting to that point. We were starting to see it creep in [with] Alex Jones.
TK: 2020 was kind of his [Jones] year. He was in the news a lot. He was leading these anti-stay-at-home order protests in Austin. He was at the Capitol insurrection. He was riling people up in the crowd with a bullhorn. He didn’t go into the Capitol. He saw that the shit was hitting the fan, he got out of there, you know. I don’t understand why Trump supporters think that Trump is in their corner. They’re willing to kill for him. Some of them did die for him. Some of them said that they were there to hang Mike Pence and assassinate Nancy Pelosi. It’s just so sad that there are that many people. It is not like a group of 10 people or something; there were 1000s of people there. They’re trying to overthrow the government, I guess, but they’re trying to overthrow the government for Donald Trump? It’s just, it’s hard to wrap your head around.
MRR: This is a subject that could go on and on honestly. I don’t know what things have been like in Wisconsin, but I imagine they’ve been similar to what they’ve been everywhere else. I imagine you’ve had a lot of time to work on whatever your next project is going to be.
TK: I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on. One is gonna be a small book that’s gonna be out next year. This actually sounds pretty normal compared to the other stuff I’ve done, but when I was younger I worked at this independent greasy spoon cafe slash pharmacy slash convenience store. This really old-school type of place. So I wrote this collection of short stories. It’s about some of the weird regulars that hung out there and my co-workers, and stuff like that. It’s a nice change of pace. I’m working on another nonfiction, that’s pretty much in line with the other books I’ve written, but I’m not going to say more than that right now.
MRR: Do you have anything that you’d like to add anything I didn’t cover?
TK: Oh, yeah, let’s see, I think 2020 and the beginning of 2021, now, it was just, nightmarish for me because look at how out of control all this conspiracy stuff has become. I took a good look at a lot of these people who were in the news last year. Alex Jones, Roger Stone, who was such an influence on Trump, and a total conspiracy theorist. He’s spread so many lies and conspiracy theories over the last four years, and really normalized conspiracy theory, like even in his everyday language. When he talks about witch hunts and fake news it’s all saturated in conspiracy. David Icke was in the news talking about 5G conspiracies last year. It was just kind of like a run-through of all these people that I had written about in the book. It’s something that affects all of us now. Conspiracy is a public health crisis. I would say it’s dangerous. It’s very sad. Like I said earlier it’s easy to kind of dismiss people like this, and even at the scene of the Capitol, I think I felt anger, but you know I was reading a report and one of the people who is in this crowd was a QAnon believer, and she had been suffering from drug addiction, and was trying to get over that and had hopes that she would be a drug counselor herself one day but she’d also slipped into this QAnon rabbit hole. She was there as part of this mob and she ended up getting trampled to death by her own people. It’s just so sad to me that someone like that. Their life is over you know? Even if people don’t literally lose their life there are many stories of people who are no longer friends with their friends or even their parents or they separate from their spouses because this conspiracy has consumed their life and driven people away from them. So, you know, I think it’s a very dangerous sad time and I hope that people might read this book and just understand what they’re facing and where some of this comes from.
There’s more information about Tea and this book and others at TeaKrulos.com. He also writes a weekly column. American Madness was published on Feral House in 2020 and is 281 pages long.