The great cognitive flip that occurred in the hours after Donald Trump’s mugshot – by some accounts, as carefully stage-managed as any media photocall – was released into the world is symptomatic of everything that Naomi Klein explores in her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World.
The mugshot, taken in Fulton County, Georgia, the state where Trump is facing 13 charges including forgery and racketeering, among others, was meant to be an artefact of the law, a visible sign of his surrender to the legal process. More than that, mugshots have long carried a weight of shame, particularly for those in the public eye, and many on the political left had hoped that Trump’s would be irrefutable evidence of the shame he’s brought on himself and on the hallowed office he once held.
But of course, no such luck for the wokerati – the image was almost immediately co-opted by the Trump campaign, with Trump himself tweeting a meme-ified version with the words “NEVER SURRENDER!” emblazoned beneath his picture. The campaign released reams of merchandise - t-shirts, mugs, shot glasses – which raised some $4.18m in the 24 hours after his arrest alone.
The artefact of his surrender has become the symbol of his defiance. Exercising the power of his personal brand, he robbed the mugshot of its meaning and conferred on it a whole new meaning, one that is the diametric opposite of what it was meant to be. To inhabitants of what Klein calls “the Mirror World” (the shadowy double of our own world, where far right conspiracies turn every belief on its head), Trump’s arrest is a sign of his innocence.
It is phenomena like this that Klein attempts to explain in Doppelganger – how have we reached a point where the meaning of something can so easily be turned on its head? And what confluence of historical, political, technological and social factors have led us to this post-truth reality, where people are increasingly drawn away from fact and towards conspiratorial thinking; where seemingly easy-to-verify truths (the outcome of an election or the state of the world’s climate), are treated with suspicion, as evidence of “deep state” intervention or as outright falsehoods.
Ever since she published her first book, No Logo, in 1999, Klein has had a knack for skewering our current moment. No Logo became an era-defining work of journalism. It examined the rise of corporate superbrands, built on the back of sweatshop labour and predicted the coming of an age of personal branding (which in 1999 seemed an almost laughable concept). The book became a million-copy international bestseller, turning Klein, then aged 29, into an overnight celebrity. Less than a decade later and a year after the publication of her second book, The Shock Doctrine, the New Yorker called her “the most visible and influential figure on the American left”.
Doppelganger is an evolution for Klein, in terms of its style and content. Whereas her other books knitted together on-the-ground reporting with analysis and polemic, this new work takes an altogether more personal approach. She uses the metaphor of the doppelganger as a way to explore our post-truth political moment – while also focusing on a problem closer to home: Naomi Wolf, an academic and author that Klein herself is often confused with. Wolf, the author of feminist tome The Beauty Myth, was once a darling of the liberal left but has recently become one of the most outspoken proponents of unproven conspiracy theories. How did an academic, once so inured in the ideology of the left, fall so deep down the rabbit hole – and why, Klein asks herself throughout the text, does it bother Klein so much that people continually mistake them for one another, attributing Wolf’s anti-vaxx, deep-state, tin hat theories to her? In trying to answer these questions, she delves deeper into various instances of uncanny doubling in our world.
In Freud’s assessment, doppelgangers – strangers who appear to be doubles of ourselves – are frightening because they make the familiar strange. Confronted with our own double, we are forced to ask ourselves, which is the real version and what if it isn’t me? The metaphor serves as a neat way to explore everything from the strangeness of social media (where we create doubles of ourselves, avatars which espouse versions of our views and live versions of our lives), to the latent potential in each of us for violence.
The lucidity of Klein’s prose and the ease makes this a deeply compelling read
It is also a useful device for explaining the allure of some of the narratives being peddled by conspiracy theorists. As Klein points out, “conspiracy theorists get the facts wrong but often get the feelings right.” Take the “Great Replacement Theory”, for instance, a white supremacist ideology which contends that so-called ‘elites’ are working to replace white Americans and Europeans with non-white immigrants. It sounds both fantastical and fringe, and yet it has gotten increasing airtime in far-Right circles and has been a battle-cry for many far right "lone wolf" shooters over the past decade.
In Doppelganger, Klein makes the point that the theory bears more than a passing resemblance to the historical fact of what white European settlers, by a process of mass extermination and marginalisation, did to native populations. The “Great Replacement Theory” could then be read as an expression of horror at the crimes perpetrated on native populations, as well as of the fear that the same could be done to the settlers. By the end of the book, we begin to see that western civilisation is built on a number of dark truths – ones that even those of us who are horrified by the growth of the conspiracy-wielding Right are unwilling to confront.
Another such is the idea of “frictionlessness”, which Klein describes as “the great promise of our age. But friction doesn’t disappear just because we don’t see it – it is simply displaced onto lives of pure friction.” Basically, just because we don’t see the labour and resources that it takes to create the jeans we’re wearing, it doesn’t mean that that labour and those resources haven’t been extracted from somewhere, and from someone.
We all feel that something is amiss in the way that our world is constructed. From the denial of those historical genocides to the impunity of what she calls “our oligarch elites” (powerful people like Robert Rubin who she points out “personally helped inflate the derivatives bubble that melted down the global economy in 2008” but who faced no significant consequences and indeed now “gives advice about how we can’t move too fast to prevent catastrophic climate change”) and the extractive capitalism which is decimating our natural world. The far-Right, she argues, has a number of narratives to explain away our feelings of unease at living in such a world. For the left to fight back, they too need to create some narratives - ones based on confronting and integrating the truths, no matter how horrifying they might seem.
The lucidity of Klein’s prose and the ease with which she weaves together cultural analysis (looking at the theme doppelganger in art, film and literature), political commentary and personal reflection makes this a deeply compelling read, one which feels urgent and necessary as we enter yet another period of political strife.
Speaking of Trump’s mugshot on stage at a the recent FT Weekend festival the historian Simon Schama observed that Trump has cast himself as the last stand against an “American Apocalypse – doesn’t matter what the evidence is about the decline in inflation or low unemployment, the sense is that, in some fundamental way, America is about to be stolen by the woke, by the not white, by the un-Christian.” In Doppelganger, Klein gives shape and context to that apocalyptic mindset – and implores us to offer-up an alternative.