John McAfee and the Birth of Modern American Paranoia

John McAfee was a genius, a scoundrel-criminal, a gun fanatic, a possible murderer, and a man who liked to mix morning tequila sunrises with hands dirtied by throwing mattresses against his windows to ward off imaginary hit men. He also ran for president. Yesterday, he finally ran out of road.

It appears the 75-year-old McAfee died by suicide, just like his father, in a jail near Barcelona. His body was found shortly after a Spanish court approved his extradition to America, where he faced multiple fraud charges for pumping dubious cryptocurrency ventures. The specifics of his death were a surprise, but the ignominious ending was predictable for a man who did as much as any American to make the paranoid seem mainstream.

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I saw it from the moment I met McAfee outside his Lexington, Tennessee, home for a Men’s Journal story I wrote in 2015. He was on his hands and knees in the mud, searching for proof that the Sinaola cartel was following him. He triumphantly pulled up wires that turned out to be just for the hookup of his cable. He found rocks that he said could only have come from Mexico. He pointed out a few discarded cream-cheese packets on his property — hallmarks, he said, of the cartel spies. (“All they eat is cream cheese,” he told me then. “It must be for the protein.”)

I had what I call a flight-or-flight moment. But I stuck around.

McAfee had recently turned 70 and by that point had undergone a series of incarnations. There were stints as a computer programmer at Lockheed and NASA. Then, in the late Eighties, long before hackers were a thing, McAfee built his cybersecurity firm McAfee Associates out of his home, creating an antivirus program for corporations before any of them could even define “computer virus.”

He made millions, but also was displaying an apocalyptic level of paranoia that, while effective as a marketing tool, eventually overwhelmed his personality. McAfee bought an RV to use as an antivirus mobile unit, arriving like a tech EMT in the parking lots of threatened companies. He promoted doomsday theories about the Michelangelo and Y2K virus that never materialized.

It was in the 21st century that things began to get weird. He sold McAfee Properties and years later posted a lurid YouTube video complete with scantily dressed women mocking how impossible it was to uninstall his antivirus program. He bought property on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and took out newspaper ads identifying the homes of alleged drug dealers who opposed his rumored desire to turn his property into condos. He then moved to New Mexico, where he developed a light aircraft that could fly in and out of canyons. That venture ended tragically when his nephew and another passenger were killed in a crash. McAfee was found negligent to the tune of $5.2 million, but when we talked, he insisted it was a cartel hit.

His cartel obsession was one of McAfee’s core beliefs, and even after spending four days with him, it was hard to sort out. At that point, the most recent chapter in the ongoing saga had emerged when he was living in Belize a few years earlier, running a harem while, according to McAfee, he dimed out cartel activity in the country. In reality, he was living like a creep surrounded by vulnerable young women with problems. Then a neighbor turned up dead after a quarrel with McAfee.

The Belize government wanted to question him about the killing, but McAfee, ever the self-promoter, disappeared into Guatemala with a Vice crew who unfortunately posted their location on social media with some unscrubbed geo data. He eventually spent time in a Guatemala jail, but never returned to Belize.

And yet McAfee was something more than a malevolent, deluded man. When I saw him, he was working on a new company called Future Tense that protected your cell phone from being turned into an insidious spy tool against yourself. This was six years ago, and it seemed like more McAfee bullshit. How the hell could your cell phone be turned against you? Before a Vegas convention hall full of computer security nerds, McAfee gave a demonstration. 

He first described how he could spoof the phone numbers of anyone in the audience. He then, in the course of about 20 minutes, showed how malware disguised as a flashlight app could force open the camera on your phone. When an onstage assistant downloaded the app, McAfee almost immediately received a photo of the assistant. McAfee boasted that if he put his app on GooglePlay for free, he’d have photographic access to everyone who downloaded what they thought was a simple flashlight.

“Our mobile phones have become the greatest spy on the planet,” he’d said to dramatic effect.

Then, I rolled my eyes. Of course now this is common knowledge.

Back in Tennessee a few days later, McAfee answered his door three hours after our appointed meeting time, clad only in a skimpy robe and two of the reddest eyes I had ever seen. He said he had scared off four men in the night. McAfee had been reluctant to let me in on an earlier visit for security reasons, but he relented that day. There were locked rooms and mattresses blocking windows from the deadly fire of snipers. He excused himself to take a shower and left me at a table filled with pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and ammo set up formally as if they were cutlery for a dinner party.

McAfee re-emerged and called his wife to find out where the vodka was stashed and then made us tequila sunrises. I asked him, as I wrote back then, what he thought his U.S. Air Force veteran father would think of his life: 

“He would be proud,” says McAfee unsteadily. “But he was an alcoholic and abusive, it would have been better if he’d killed himself sooner.”

[…] Then I ask a simple question: Maybe he is too paranoid, while the rest of America needs to be more paranoid?

“Probably true, but you’d be paranoid if you’ve lived through what I lived through,” McAfee says. “America is in a state of somnolence. It’s an avoidance of paranoia through ignoring reality. Mine is an enhanced paranoia, but I may be enhancing reality.”

I left Tennessee the next day. I wrote the story still believing McAfee was more paranoid than prophet.

The last time I heard from McAfee was six months later. An unknown number popped up on my phone as I shopped for groceries. It was McAfee. “I’m thinking of running for president,” he told me. “Are there good reporters I should talk to who aren’t on the CIA payroll?” I said I’d get back to him, but I never did.

That was five years ago. McAfee twice ran for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party. He lost both times. He began promoting cryptocurrency as the only tamper-free money available in the modern world. He endorsed individual crypto ventures and was charged by American prosecutors with masterminding a series of pump-and-dump schemes.

He fled America in a yacht and proclaimed he was no longer paying U.S. taxes for ideological reasons. He was eventually picked up by Spanish authorities and spent the rest of his days in prison until he took his life yesterday, apparently not willing to return to America, where he was destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Shortly after his death, McAfee’s Instagram account posted the letter Q in honor of QAnon. The site promptly took it down. It was an on-brand message from the grave.

As for America? Now, it’s a given that your phone and laptop can be turned against you and ruin your life. Many of McAfee’s predictions have proven correct. Today, we live in a country where, based on zero evidence, a huge chunk of Republicans see our last election as fraudulent. McAfee’s vision of a Paranoid America has come true.

What I can’t answer is whether he was a visionary or an instigator.

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