Book Reviews

Wolf in Klein’s Clothing

What happens when you keep getting mistaken for someone who’s become Steve Bannon’s good buddy?

By Amanda Marcotte

Tagged Naomi KleinNaomi Wolf

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2023 • 416 pages • $30

Long before everyone else figured it out, feminists knew that Naomi Wolf had wandered into the woods of unreality. In 2012, I was at a party at the Brooklyn apartment of a popular feminist writer, and in the kitchen a small group had gathered to bitch about how much we loathed Wolf. The most recent provocation was her book Vagina: A New Biography. The book didn’t just attempt to torch decades of feminist work in demystifying sexual health. Despite the sex-positive marketing, it took a retrograde view of womanhood, reducing us to our sexual functions in a way not all that different from how anti-abortion forces treat women. Feminist reviews called the book “cringeworthy” and “offputting,” while Wolf herself was called a “dilettante.”

We weren’t surprised. Wolf’s writing about sex and bodies had been drifting toward the weird and reactionary for years. She kept giving interviews insisting “anal fissures” were “the number one health problem” for women on college campuses because of all the butt sex they were supposedly having. She insisted without evidence that pornography had led to a “growing epidemic” of “reduced libido.” Even her acclaimed 1990 book The Beauty Myth relied on bad statistics that exaggerated the incidence of eating disorders to make its shaky case that women in the 1980s and ’90s were under more pressure to meet beauty standards than their counterparts in, say, the 1950s.

She embarrassed us. Wolf was an egomaniac who seemed to view herself as too good for the restrictions of critical thinking, yet she was still being treated by the mainstream press as an avatar of feminism. We worried that her sloppy, baseless arguments reflected badly on the rest of us. We just badly wanted her to go away.

Since then, Wolf’s attachment to “alternative facts” has become common knowledge, as she fell headlong into the world of COVID denialism and anti-vaccine activism. Feminists no longer feel obliged to answer for her. Unfortunately for the leftist writer Naomi Klein, that burden has fallen on her shoulders. As she relates in her book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, it’s for the most unfair of reasons: They share a first name (and hair color and, technically, profession). As Klein entertainingly recounts, she’s been slowly driven to the brink by people continually confusing her with Wolf and accusing her of being the person behind Wolf’s bizarre fixations. Worse, there’s Wolf’s association with fascists, especially Steve Bannon, whose “War Room” podcast frequently has Wolf on as a guest. “Covid had canceled so many of the things that had, for years, told me who I was in the world,” Klein writes with frustration. Under a deluge of people on Twitter confusing her for Wolf, she felt as if the “world was disappearing, and so was I.”

Klein details how friends and family members tried to dissuade her from writing the book, understandably confused as to why Klein cared so much about strangers confusing her with an internet crank. We should all be grateful she ignored them. The Two Naomis situation is just weird enough to offer the perfect framework for exploring the uncanniness that pervades our political discourse in the face of the twin phenomena of rising authoritarianism and disinformation.

Klein came up as a leftist star nearly a decade after Wolf, starting with her hit book No Logo, a sweeping condemnation of the corporate stranglehold on culture. She writes about “big” ideas, such as the international failures of capitalism or the need for radical action on climate change.

Klein doesn’t initially seem like the person to write a book about how frustrating it is to have people mistake her for a Twitter troll. Yet, this incongruity is exactly why her book works. Klein is troubled by the conflict between her devotion to a collectivist ideology and her personal outrage at having her “brand” diluted by Wolf. Rather than wallow in shame over how much she cares, however, she uses the situation as a window into how capitalism has distorted the individual’s relationship to the larger community—and how the far right takes advantage to lure people into toxic ideologies.

Tracking her doppelganger gives Klein insights into what she calls, in her beguiling subtitle, the “mirror world”: the alternate universe of conspiracy theories and false histories that has become a breeding ground for what can only be called fascism. It’s the home of QAnon and COVID denialism. It’s a place where the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden, and the January 6 insurrectionists were tricked into rioting by the FBI. It’s where vaccines cause autism, and white people are the real victims of racism.

Why authoritarians are so married to conspiracy theory is a great mystery of our time. There’s the “economic anxiety” theory, which holds that well-meaning people with very real concerns are being tricked into buying false arguments. Klein occasionally falls into this trap, suggesting, for instance, that “alternative” medicine is driven by lack of access to health care. I don’t buy that. It’s mostly well-off people with gold-plated insurance who think of yoga as a substitute for vaccines. Plus, the “wellness” industry has grown as the uninsured rate fell in the decade-plus since the passage of Obamacare. It’s likelier that, as more low-income people get access to doctor’s offices, richer people seek out the high-priced “wellness” alternatives to signal their class superiority. Doctors are for the working classes now, so the wealthy must instead put their faith in Gwyneth Paltrow.

The book is more compelling when Klein looks directly at the uglier motives of disinformation enthusiasts, noting how “conspiracy theories detract attention from the billionaires who fund the networks of misinformation.” Darker still is why such disinformation finds a receptive audience. As Klein discovered, many ordinary Americans want to participate in weaponized psychological projection. It’s something most of us have witnessed watching people online or in our own lives: After Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, QAnon arose, giving its adherents a way to tell themselves that he was a hero fighting sexual abuse instead of the rampant sexual predator he is, or was. Republicans blame the FBI for January 6 to avoid discussing their own complicity. Trump accuses Biden of stealing an election as justification for his own coup. Klein is especially interested in the universe of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which became a conduit for the right’s hostility to the very concept of a common good.

Klein’s chapter on autism and vaccine denialism is especially effective at digging into the more unsavory impulses of conspiracists. Her own son is autistic, resulting in regular encounters with parents who blame vaccines for their own children’s autism. If children are “our appendages, our extensions, our spin-offs, our doubles,” then having a disabled child can feel like a personal affront. Some parents would rather blame it on a shot than examine their own shame about their child’s differences.

Similarly astute is her chapter on what she deems the “racial role-playing” of Wolf and her newfound MAGA brethren. As Klein writes, many white people, Wolf among them, “pronounced themselves to be part of a ‘new civil rights movement’” in their war on COVID restrictions. The result has been some truly cringeworthy stuff, such as Wolf playacting a civil rights-era sit-in by going to locations that allow only vaccinated people to enter and trying to get kicked out. Worse, she pulled this stunt on one Black-owned restaurant, where she filmed herself lecturing the owner that “people do have, you know, equal rights.” Liberals may be grossed out, but Wolf has an audience for this: people denying the realities of racism while also stealing valor from real civil rights activists.

All this is painfully familiar to feminists. The anti-feminist movement was the vanguard of the “I know you are, but what am I?” political strategy that has since consumed the right in the Trump era. Phyllis Schlafly didn’t just present as a doppelganger of a stereotypical feminist—educated, ambitious—while arguing against women’s rights. She offered a mirror world argument where it was feminists who were the “real” enemy of women, allegedly out to take away the “right” to be a happy homemaker. Similarly, anti-abortion activists were masters at reversing the roles of victim and oppressor. In their rhetoric, good doctors became butchers. The activists’ own sadistic impulse to punish women was rewritten as a chivalric crusade to “protect” mothers and babies.

Reading about Klein’s mental tangle with a reactionary nut she’s been unwillingly linked to, I thought often about the crop of anti-feminist doppelgangers I had tangled with myself in the past. In response to the rise during the 2010s of young, hip feminist bloggers at outlets like Feministing and Jezebel, right-wing media propped up a mirror image: their own pretty girl writers, who looked quite a bit like the feminists (with fewer tattoos) but who were there to defend the honor of the patriarchy. My friends and I often joked about how tempting it was to renounce feminism and become a well-paid baby Schlafly, writing lucrative 500-word columns arguing that “No means yes.”

Wolf forced Klein to examine her own investment in her “brand,” even as she loathes the idea of people being brands. Luckily, the exercise sharpened Klein’s eye for how ambition and ego can shape a writer’s purportedly heartfelt opinions. As she recounts, Wolf suffered a major public humiliation in 2019, when a BBC radio host exposed, live and on-air, that her upcoming book Outrages was centered around a serious factual error: Wolf claimed that dozens of men had been executed for “sodomy” in nineteenth-century England, when in fact they were found guilty but released alive. The book was pulled from publication, and the whole incident gave Wolf’s longtime critics an opportunity to finally expel her from respectable academic and progressive circles.

Klein suggests this defenestration was crucial to Wolf’s final journey to the dark side, i.e., Bannon’s podcast. She offers a formula for “leftists and liberals crossing over to the authoritarian right that goes something like: Narcissism(Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right-wing meltdown.” But, as Klein notes, it’s foolish to imagine that people who make this journey feel bad about themselves. Wolf fell right into a cushy land of right-wing adoration, which likely suits the self-centered personality better than anything the left can offer.

Klein’s analysis suggests Wolf’s own psychology may not be anything much deeper than “Selling out pays.” “Wolf is very far from banished,” Klein writes. “[T]hanks to Bannon and [Tucker] Carlson, she has a brighter spotlight and a larger platform now than at any other point since her glory days in the 1990s.” Feminists saw decades ago that Wolf loved herself more than she ever loved feminism. It’s almost a shock it took her this long to go to the right, where they will accept any loony thing someone says as long as their own prejudices are being validated.

Cribbing lefty rhetoric and styles only to distort them into justifications for right-wing politics serves another purpose: devaluing rhetoric altogether. After torturing herself by listening to Bannon’s podcast, Klein notes that the “figure of the buffoon” is problematic not merely because “they say foolish things” but because they make a mockery of “the powerful language we need to talk about them.” Trump’s “You’re the puppet” rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he served Vladimir Putin comes to mind. He was laughed at, of course, but the sheer silliness of it defanged concerns that his ties to Russia presented a serious threat. Trump’s more current sneering invocations of Mein Kampf on the campaign trail (which he, of course, denies) serve the same function, meant to titillate his audience while simultaneously making his critics sound hyperbolic for noting his overt use of Hitler’s favorite tropes.

Wolf’s ease in shifting hard right helps unlock a phenomenon called “diagonalism,” which Klein cheekily describes as taking place when “the far right meets the far out.” In recent years, especially spurred by the COVID pandemic, a stampede of hippies, vegans, yoga fanatics, and other “New Age” types bolted straight into the arms of the fascist movement. It initially seemed like a poor match, as the macrobiotic crowd had long been assumed to be politically progressive. Klein persuasively argues, however, that the cult of “wellness” has a strong reactionary streak, because it frames “health” in individualistic, moralistic terms. This “subset of the ultra-fit,” Klein writes, believed their “own detoxed and buffed bodies” would keep them safe from COVID. Worse, they started to see people who died as deserving of their fate. The overlap with fascist rhetoric, such as Trump claiming that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the nation, is not hard to see.

There’s another reason the alliance between some New Agers and fascists makes sense: Both groups are very white. Even before the pandemic, the world of “wellness” blogs was aesthetically hard to distinguish from the far-right influencers who peddle “traditional” marriage and conservative Christianity. Both showcase a sea of skinny white women dressed in earth tones and filming themselves in beige-and-white domestic interiors. Adult women’s hair color ranges from blond to light brown, always blown out with highlights. Children are fair-haired and cherubic. Wellness blogs have long looked like sales pamphlets for the Aryan race. The far right just knows how to push on an open door.

As Klein recounts throughout the book, the isolation of the pandemic accelerated the rise of both fascist sympathy and conspiracy theories. It wasn’t just that people lost their minds from the stress and loneliness. It’s that narcissism and selfishness give emotional fuel to the authoritarian fire, as demonstrated by everyone from Trump down to the random MAGA-head filming herself throwing a mask tantrum in a grocery store. Face-to-face contact can temper some of those attitudes. During the pandemic, however, people spent inordinate amounts of time on social media, where self-aggrandizement is the coin of the realm.

Despite my skepticism of some too-pat leftist solutions for our disinformation problem—universal health care is not going to make anti-vaxxers go away, I fear—I did find Klein’s final chapters persuasively uplifting. She argues that by leaning more into old-fashioned socialist ideals of collectivism, we can relearn the “connections and solidarities and kinships” that are “available to all of us should we choose to guard the boundaries of our selves less jealously.” She found that in reinvesting in others, she worried less about the ego injury done to her by being mistaken for Naomi Wolf.

I think back to that party more than a decade ago. Yes, we were angry at Wolf, but it didn’t unmoor us. After all, we had one another. Together, we could laugh it off and draw confidence that we had the collective strength to drown out the nonsense of this one woman, as famous as she was. Eventually, we were proved correct: The reactionary conspiracist lost her credibility. Now we just need to apply that lesson to the entire country.

Read more about Naomi KleinNaomi Wolf

Amanda Marcotte is the author of Troll Nation and a senior politics writer at Salon. Her online doppelganger is a mommy blogger known for corny jokes about raising kids.

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