Photo: Sebastian Nevols
In ‘Doppelganger,’ Naomi Klein Investigates the “Mirror World” Created by the Far Right
In a Q&A, the public intellectual talks about how the world is balanced on a knife's edge, with democracy on one side and fascism on the other / BY Kim Hughes / October 13th, 2023
Naomi Klein might be the left’s most important voice right now. She is certainly its most cogent and urgent. With the release of her latest book, Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, the 53-year-old B.C.-based bestselling author and activist takes cultural criticism to new levels, articulating the discombobulation many of us feel in a politically volatile, post-COVID-19 world, and offering a clear path forward.
The public intellectual and eco-warrior – a professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia who has written nine books about the evils of capitalism and climate disaster – tackles how the far right insinuates itself into the public discourse by, among other things, playacting solidarity with the working class and disenfranchised people. While writing the book, Klein dove deep into the far-right milieu, spending what she describes as “a master’s degree worth of hours” following Steve Bannon’s War Room podcasts.
Doppelganger will resonate with readers, because Klein drapes her own stranger-than-fiction experience of being repeatedly confused with Naomi Wolf – a once-respected feminist author turned conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer – who is a stand-in for a larger, right-leaning cultural movement Klein dubs the “mirror world.” As Klein notes, all of us have created doppelgangers of ourselves with our social media avatars, for better or worse.
“I see this book as a very preliminary map of some of the ways we have changed,” Klein says during a recent promotional stop in Toronto. “Mapping is a collective effort and we have so many blanks to fill in to understand the map of now, because we are somewhere new.”
However, as she writes in the book’s introduction: “This is not a biography of Other Naomi, nor is it an attempt to use my own doppelganger experience – the havoc wreaked and the lessons learned about me, her, and us – as a guide into and through what I have come to understand as our doppelganger culture. Here is my attempt to decipher the chaos of doppelganger culture.”
Klein does exactly that in 300-plus intensely researched, deeply considered and eloquently crafted pages that defy snappy summarization. As New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “We should all be glad [Klein wrote this book] because I can’t think of another text that better captures the berserk period we’re living through.”
In the following Q&A, Klein talks about how right-wing pundits are dismissing the book and how society is on a knife edge, with democracy on one side and fascism on the other.
Kim Hughes: This is your most personal book by far. Were you feeling more fraught than usual before it came out, and how has the reaction squared with your expectations?
Naomi Klein: The reaction has been above and beyond my greatest hopes, in part because it is more personal. It seems that writing personally has created more space for people to see themselves than in my previous books. It’s my journey, but it’s within a moment of so many strange shifts and changes. I’ve been getting letters from readers telling me what happened in their small town or what happened with their sister. Some of the nicest reactions have been from people who decided to reach out to others they had severed ties with. They felt like they had some new ideas on how to find common ground. I’ve never been a self-help writer before (laughs). Plus, a lot of great writers have used the book as a jumping-off point for fascinating essays I am learning from. Writing is just so interesting, and we all add our little bits.
KH: Among so many smart observations in the book, you cite a disconnect between language and action. Is this something that can be repaired or does society need to find a new way of bringing about change?
NK: Obviously I believe in language, or I wouldn’t have written a book. In lots of ways the writing of the book has brought me out of that feeling of speechlessness that I was trying to name. And it’s why I wrote it the way I did. I had lost faith in a particular kind of writing that was just based on thesis, on fact. I didn’t know where it was going to take me when I started. I wrote myself into speech. I think language will regain its power when we do a better job of uniting words and actions. The speechlessness many of us feel is less because language is being co-opted and twisted than the fact that it’s being cheapened. There is this whole performance culture online, where everybody is positioning themselves to be the purest and most radical, but how does that change things materially in the real world? Does it reduce injustice? Does it redistribute wealth? The work of making words matter again is not just the work of words. It’s also the work of what we do in the real world to reattach words to action.
KH: You note that the far-right will rush to fill any information vacuum left open by the left. As you demonstrate in the book, Steve Bannon pays very close attention to what’s not being said on the left. So, does the left need its own, for lack of a better word, blowhard?
NK: (Laughs). Since [the late conservative political commentator] Rush Limbaugh, the left has always wondered why the right is so much better at talk radio. I don’t think the solution is someone who can talk as loud – that way of being is inextricable from not actually caring about facts. If you’re willing to make up facts and pivot people’s anger against the most vulnerable, then you’re going to do very well in the war of words. The work of countering that won’t be just in the realm of words. Here’s an example. The head of the United Auto Workers, Shawn Fain, is very popular. He’s talking about how much these executives are paying themselves while their workers can’t pay their bills. He’s going after the elites. It’s powerful, not because he’s on the air. He’s right there, they’re striking, and they have a plan. We don’t win this by being blowhards, like on the right. We win it by knitting together a simple, accessible, true message with strategy that is actually going to improve people’s lives.
KH: Naomi Wolf told The New York Times she hasn’t read your book. Do you believe that’s true?
NK: I really don’t know. She seems to be happy that she’s getting a lot of new followers. She posted about that a few days ago.
KH: Has anyone else on the far-right weighed in?
NK: It seems like it’s more oblique. Wolf is casting it as part of an international campaign to take her off the chess board because she’s telling the truth. I don’t know if she talks about that with Steve Bannon; I haven’t kept up with her appearances. There have been some prominent anti-vaxxers that have tried to claim the book is a flop. [American journalist] Alex Berenson posted, claiming no one was buying the book. I mean, it’s not true. It went straight to number one in Canada, it’s a New York Times bestseller… (laughs). It was an interesting case study in people who twist facts to make them seem the exact opposite. They were doing it to my book the way they do with medical information. Also, this is the first time I read the audio for my own book, and I have discovered a lot of people listened to it, possibly because we are a podcast culture.
KH: I deplore asking, but what happens if Donald Trump returns to the White House?
NK: I don’t think it will be a sequel to the original. The rage that animates this world is very animated by revenge – punishing enemies – and it’s openly and unapologetically violent. I struggle with people who minimize the threat of what that represents. People’s disappointments with Joe Biden lead some to conclude [all politicians] are the same. They really aren’t. And not only are Biden and Trump not the same, but Trump I and Trump II are also not the same. I hope people understand we are on a knife edge right now, in terms of the most consequential doppelganger flip, which is the flip of an open society to a closed one, a vaguely democratic society to a fascistic one.
That is the double we all should be paying the most attention to, and that, for me, is ultimately what this book is about. Any story that people are telling themselves to minimize that threat will not be looked on kindly by history. And it’s not just about the U.S. and Canada. This book has come out simultaneously in many countries, and I’ve had many conversations about this flip. It’s a global phenomenon that’s gaining ground in many countries and it’s racist, anti-migrant and casual about mass deaths at borders. I’m also noticing how trans kids are being weaponized for the cheapest political gain. It’s a serious moment.
KH: Any important points to end on?
NK: We’ve been through something big as a species, as a world, with COVID. We’ve lost millions of people, we haven’t properly grieved, we changed our lives at a speed and in ways that are unprecedented in modern history. We haven’t changed this much or this fast since the Second World War when entire economies were retooled for the war effort. Education has changed. It’s worth remembering those months when we didn’t see planes in the sky, and we barely saw cars in our streets. That’s a cataclysmic change and of course we are disoriented. I see this book as a very preliminary map of some of the ways we have changed. A lot of relationships were severed during the pandemic because people were so scared. People fell down the rabbit hole. Those severed connections, no matter how reasonable, are worth re-examining in the light of day, because things are dangerous down those rabbit holes. The stakes are high. Anyone who thinks they might have people down there that they can get out should try. All the social science research suggests people are most likely to change their minds or accept a bridge if it comes from someone they know. They won’t read my book. But a personal relationship might work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.