This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
In the last week of January 2016, journalists Anna Merlan and Bronwen Dickey boarded the Ruby Princess cruise ship for the first-ever Conspira-Sea cruise, which promised seminars and lectures, plus long nights of socializing with like-minded individuals interested in “alternative sciences” like UFOs, chemtrails, cryptozoology, government mind control, and the Illuminati.
It was the first month of the election year, when nothing quite made sense anymore. In the same week that Donald Trump was zigzagging across Iowa before the caucuses, leading the Republican field by 17 points, a limited-run series put The X-Files back on TV for the first time in 13 years. The month before, the Washington Post shut down its regular column What Was Fake on the Internet This Week? The series was supposed to cover lighthearted “urban legends and internet pranks.” Things had gotten too dark.
The cruise seemed like it would be fun. In an election year, it was all supposed to be fun — the political circus, the horserace, the kooks and the crazies. But the people Dickey and Merlan met on the cruise weren’t simply entertaining conspiracy theories—they were consumed by them. When each of the writers turned in their dispatches — Merlan for Jezebel and Dickey for Popular Mechanics — they knew they could no longer cover conspiracy theorists as a fringe group; these beliefs were now front and center and would be endorsed by the president in the years to come. In April 2019, Merlan published Republic of Lies: Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. “Americans see millions of snares, laid by a menacing group of enemies,” she writes in the prologue. “I saw a disturbing thirst for vengeance.”
For our end-of-decade series exploring the whiplash experience of the 2010s, GEN asked Merlan and Dickey to discuss that fateful voyage and what they know now about where that ship was headed.