Since Donald Trump rode the escalator at his eponymous New York tower to announce his presidential bid, much of the last eight years in the United States has felt like a nightmare. Disoriented upon awakening, one asks: Did the political party that nominated Mitt Romney for president in 2012 actually form a personality cult around a bigoted, narcissistic, and oft-indicted reality television host? Did rabid reactionaries brandishing Confederate flags and constructing mock gallows storm the Capitol? Did my friend, once reasonable, start blathering about the “deep state?”
Under President Joe Biden, there’s been something resembling a return to normalcy, a culture echoing saner times. Still, it is distorted and askew—like a childhood home after renovation and remodeling. The bed isn’t level, the oven is gone, and the toilet is in the living room.
Naomi Klein, the far left-leaning author and speaker-polemicist, attempts to survey the current tableau in Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World. Her work of cultural criticism came out earlier this year and received the treatment of holy writ from critics. Time, Slate, and the New Republic, among many others, have included Doppelganger on their “best of” year-end literary lists. In her review, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg claims that there is “not another text that better captures the berserk period we’re living through.”
Klein is Canadian by birth and recently returned to her native country, but she has spent her 30-year career exploring politics and economics in the United States. Her geographic center and subject matter are typically irrelevant because her conspiratorial views never change. Writing about Klein’s 2007 breakout hit, The Shock Doctrine, the liberal Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said, “There are no accidents in the world as seen by Naomi Klein.”
The same perspective informs Klein’s every utterance. Doppelganger is no exception, but it is ironic since she takes on the writer Naomi Wolf whom she is so often mistaken that it becomes a creepy burden. Klein rips into the delusions of Wolf, who was once a mainstream writing machine with a best-seller, The Beauty Myth, a Rhodes Scholarship, and Oprah appearances. Today’s Wolf checks all the conspiratorial boxes with rants against Anthony Fauci and the COVID-19 vaccine to alleged “chemtrails” that are secretly being dumped on us by jets. Klein rightly denounces this quackery but is blithely unaware of her contribution to our age of paranoia. Reading Doppelganger is almost enough to cause motion sickness: Moments after gently guiding you toward a profound insight, Klein hits the gas and takes you down a bizarre, hallucinatory highway.
The irony is that Klein’s chief concern is the proliferation of dangerous conspiracy theories and how they bolster fascist politics. Doppelganger does not “capture” this troubling development as much as it mirrors it.
The book begins with a fascinating, timely, and even amusing premise. For many years, admirers and detractors have confused Klein with the “Other Naomi.” In addition to sharing the same given name and profession, they are both Jewish, prolific, polemical, and skeptical, if not outright hostile, toward mainstream institutions and media.
Wolf’s feminist rebuke against chauvinistic beauty standards and how they inflict psychological damage on young women almost instantly transformed her from an obscure author to a public intellectual. For many years, she was a standard-bearer on the liberal left. Then, a professional humiliation led to her adoption of delusions we associate with the far right, especially at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, although they have left adherents, too. (See Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) Wolf compared public health protocols to the oppressive policies of the Third Reich, predicted that vaccine passports would introduce an omniscient, omnipresent surveillance state connected to a one-world government, and claimed that Donald Trump was its victim. It isn’t difficult to empathize with Klein as she recalls feeling nauseous when hundreds of thousands of Twitter users associate her with Wolf’s crackpot delusions.
Klein becomes obsessed with Wolf—tracking her every move, essay, and tweet. Wolf’s collaboration with Steve Bannon transfixes her. Wolf, who had a brief stint advising Al Gore during his 2000 presidential bid, appears on Bannon’s MAGA podcast regularly, where the two unlikely allies sell merchandise together. How could a liberal feminist who once checked every box on the left-of-center political platform, Klein wondered, become friends and colleagues with the former Trump “chief strategist”—a man who bolsters authoritarianism, denigrates immigrants, and flirts with antisemitic tropes regarding The Great Replacement theory?
The first section of Doppelganger, in which Klein describes Wolf’s transformation and her reaction to people’s confusion about her with Bannon’s best bud, is actually brilliant. Using Wolf as an avatar for the spreading contagions of right-wing psychosis, Klein gives a rollicking and enlightening tour of what she calls “the mirror world,” arguing that right-wing populism advances through the cooptation of social justice terminology and concern. The anti-vaccination movement, for example, appropriates legitimate worry and criticism surrounding the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, Bannon, Tucker Carlson (who also fawns over Wolf), and other far-right hucksters morph justifiable agitation over the secondary social and economic effects of surveillance technology into weird and hateful hypotheses about “globalists,” “new world order” and the end of all liberty.
To assist with her explanation of doubling, Klein demonstrates literary acuity—referencing Robert Louis Stevenson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and Philip Roth. With the latter, she goes through the fashionable exercise of philistinism—torturing herself as to whether it is appropriate to praise Roth, given the accusations of sexism against the late author. Klein thinks this is thoughtful, but these “art vs. artist” moralistic panic attacks are familiar and dull.
Despite missteps, the first section is replete with penetrative understanding. Klein even develops what should function as the standard formula for predicting and diagnosing the condition that motivates liberals or leftists to become right-wing shills. (Consider Russell Brand, Dave Rubin, and various other bores of the podcast sphere): “Narcissism (Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right wing meltdown.”
From there, Klein could have written about what enabled the mirror world to grow into a populous digital universe, perhaps examining the decline of public education and civic knowledge, the demolition of social trust and communal bonds, the emergence of Fox News and right-wing media, and the pervasive influence of social media and Big Tech.
Instead, she subjects readers to a ponderous struggle—an inartful attempt to jam nearly every contemporary issue into her doubling framework, from climate change to criminal justice. There are times when the approach is effective. Her chapter on raising a neurodivergent son is profoundly moving and enlightening as she sorts through the history of treating people with disabilities as doppelgangers to so-called “normal” people. Other issue-oriented chapters fall flat, reading like Klein merely recycled old columns she has written for The Guardian and added the words “doppelganger,” “doubling,” or “mirror world,” no matter how convenient or awkward.
The closing third of the book, “Shadowlands,” is the most instructive, but not in the way that Klein intends. In a fascinating twist, Klein unwittingly exposes herself, not as a soap opera-style “good sister” to Wolf, but as her fraternal twin. Of course, they have different features and quirks, but they derive from the same source, having more in common than either would like to admit.
As Klein stumbles toward her conclusion, she titles a subsection, “The Conspiracy is…Capitalism,” which is the idea she’s dined out on for years. She proceeds to tell readers that “The system is rigged (emphasis hers),” But she doesn’t mean it in an Elizabeth Warren way. The Massachusetts Democrat uses the exact phrase to criticize lax banking regulations and antitrust enforcement—in order to make capitalism and markets more fair, free, and rule-bound. For Klein, capitalism, regulated or not, is a plot: “We live under a system structurally designed to protect the propertied classes against any and all challenges from below, sometimes through violent repression, sometimes through symbolic appropriation, often through a combination of the two.”
Klein then explains that of her “various disagreements with Wolf, this is the one that matters most. I am leftist focused on capital’s ravaging of our bodies, our democratic structures, and the living systems that support our collective existence. Wolf is a liberal who never had a critique of capital.”
Keep in mind that Klein’s confession comes after she has cataloged Wolf’s support of authoritarian movements, comparisons of public health mandates to Gestapo tactics, and belief in an eventual one-world dictatorship. For Klein, none of Wolf’s most crazed and lethal delusions rate next to her support of the free market. Klein’s most significant departure from Wolf, by her admission, is not over the existence of a global conspiracy to restrict freedom, impose poverty, and “ravage bodies.” On that, they agree. They merely disagree on the plot’s source and the conspirators’ identity and competence. While Wolf posits that the culprits are governmental elites who develop sinister plans with the “medical-industrial complex,” Klein asserts that the real conspirators are wealthy bankers and financiers who use governmental elites to their liking and manipulate the medical-industrial complex to their advantage.
Klein imagines that the distinctions between her and Wolf flash across the screen in bold colors when, in reality, they are like the side-by-side illustrations in “Spot the Hidden Differences” games for children.
There is no reason not to trust that Klein is sincere when she writes with concern about the vulnerable state of democracy, the exploitation of the poor, and environmental catastrophe—all of which are real concerns. After all, all Democrats believe unfettered capitalism is a bad idea. All the more, it is astonishing that Klein’s socialist myopia prevents her from realizing how she contributes to the exact problems that she aims to diagnose. Throughout most of her career, including Doppelganger, Klein claims that there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats. They both serve the same “corporate masters” per the global conspiracy of imperialistic capital. To make her argument, she must ignore–to name one example–that the Inflation Reduction Act, which Congressional Democrats passed with almost no Republican support and President Joe Biden signed into law, is the most significant investment in the effort to fight climate change in the history of the world. While a “green new deal” does not exist on the national level, the Sierra Club reports that a “green new deal is already underway in states and cities,” where Democratic mayors, city councils, governors, and state legislatures are adopting aggressive measures of conservation, clean energy, and sustainability.
Meanwhile, most Republicans refuse even to acknowledge that climate change is real.
On the issue of poverty, the differences between the two major parties are equally noticeable unless, like Klein and Wolf, one has a faith-based commitment to arguing that the “billionaire class” has corrupted everything in sight, leaving no hope for progress. The Affordable Care Act—President Barack Obama’s signature achievement—not only enabled millions of Americans to access medicine but doubled as a poverty relief mechanism, reducing income inequality by more than 10 percent. President Biden expanded the child tax credit–the most significant poverty reduction act on the federal level in decades. The expansion expired due to Republican opposition in Congress and the maddening obstinance of Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema.
If one takes Klein at her word on climate change and poverty, there is no point in voting. Apathy is the rational response to a choice between two evils.
It is possible to run through every domestic issue, drawing the same distinctions, but Klein, like Wolf, never acknowledges societal progress. Her analysis of international relations is not only uninformed and lopsided but also dark and dangerous.
As difficult as it is to comprehend, given the book’s “mirror world” and conspiracy theory focus, Klein’s “last stop” in the book is, according to her, the ultimate “Shadowland”==”the place where so many forces [fascism, violence, exploitation] we have encountered on this winding journey converge and collide.” She is referring to Israel. For Klein, the Jewish State is the central headquarters of colonialism and racism. Oblivious to the implications of her own pre-October 7 analysis, Klein congratulates Wolf for promulgating the same historically illiterate view of Israel.
Turning to her childhood in a Hebrew day school, Klein is blind to how her chastisement of Jewish education encourages antisemitic conspiracy theories. “Though there were certainly exceptions, for the most part, the goal of this teaching,” she writes, referring to the instruction she received in the history of antisemitic violence, “was not to turn us into people who would fight the next genocide wherever it occurred. The goal was to turn us into Zionists.”
Lurking in the shadows of her schoolhouse was a devilish agenda connected to war, ethnic cleansing, and “settler colonialism.” It is hard to imagine Wolf not nodding along in approval.
Michelle Goldberg praised Doppelganger as the best book to explain the surreal political present. The book that is explanatory and even accurately describes Klein is the late historian Richard Hofstadter’s oft-cited The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Writing in 1965, after the defeat of Barry Goldwater, it’s mainly about the nationalistic and evangelical wing of the American right. Hofstadter defined the book’s eponymous term as “the feeling of persecution is central, and…is systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy.” He then explains a vital difference between the “paranoid spokesman in politics” and the “clinical paranoic.” They are both “overheated, oversuspicious, and apocalyptic in expression.” Still, the clinical paranoic feels the hostile world is working against her on a personal level, whereas the paranoid spokesperson does not view herself as an individual victim. Instead, she dispassionately speaks about how a sadistic conspiracy is at work against “a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects…millions of others.”
Naomi Klein writes about how the (“Other”) Naomi consistently tweets and speaks about how she is under assault. Silicon Valley giants are trying to shut her up, law enforcement is tracking her, and eventually, she will face trumped-up criminal charges. Klein never goes that far. While Wolf can sound like a clinical paranoic, Klein fits the description of Hofstadter’s paranoid spokesperson.
There is a proud left-liberal tradition of encouraging healthy skepticism of institutions and expertise. Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Reuther, the (first) Robert F. Kennedy, and Rachel Carson are among its most admirable and noteworthy champions. Instead of joining their ranks, both Naomis alienate their readers from society while contributing to movements that threaten to transform democracy into chaos.
Author: David Masciotra