Naomi Klein on her "Doppelganger" — the "other Naomi" — and navigating the far-right mirror universe

In her new book, Naomi Klein follows her near-namesake down the right-wing rabbit hole — but not into Wonderland

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 14, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Naomi Klein (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Naomi Klein (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Naomi Klein's "Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World" is a difficult book to describe. I'll cut to the chase by saying that it stands alongside Klein's bestsellers "No Logo" and "The Shock Doctrine" as a crucial study of the ways that identity, image, ideology and economics become intertwined in the bewildering conditions of 21st-century consumer capitalism, and is in many ways a subtler and more challenging work than either of those. It's a book that could only have emerged from the pandemic era, but is only indirectly about the multiple crises of politics and public health caused by COVID. More fundamentally, it's an exploration of a cluster of disturbing and poorly understood phenomena that the pandemic revealed or accelerated, but were already there: The division of our politics and culture into incompatible realms of perceived reality, not unlike the mirror universes of "Star Trek," and the merciless commodification of the individual self, which in Klein's reading has undermined community, social movements and the possibility of collective action.

If you've picked up the idea somewhere that Klein has written a book about the experience of being repeatedly confused with someone she sometimes calls "the other Naomi" — meaning Naomi Wolf, onetime feminist crusader and now, bafflingly, an adjunct member of far-right conspiracy culture — that is both true and untrue. It's untrue at the most important level; no one could actually read "Doppelganger" and come away believing that its real subject is Klein's sense of narcissistic injury, or an attempt to defend her personal brand from the damage inflicted by a less desirable Naomi. But it is undeniably where the book starts, and also approximately where it ends: Klein writes with considerable humor and honesty about the contradictions and challenges created by the perceptual blur between her image and Wolf's. They are both outspoken Jewish women and bestselling authors. They are generically similar in appearance, especially when encountered as social media avatars. Over the course of their careers both have been associated, broadly speaking, with left-liberal-progressive politics. (Yes, Klein is familiar with the social media mnemonic used to differentiate them, which she traces back to 2019: "If the Naomi be Klein/ you're doing just fine/ If the Naomi be Wolf/ Oh, buddy. Ooooof.") 

As Klein observes, it didn't help matters that she and Wolf were both vocal critics of certain aspects of official policy early in the pandemic, and even had overlapping targets: Klein "was furious when Bill Gates sided with the drug companies" on vaccine patents, and argued "that this lobbying helped keep the shots out of the arms of millions of the poorest people on the planet." Wolf "was furious that people were being pushed to get vaccinated at all and boosted conspiracies about Bill Gates using vaccines to track people and to usher in a sinister world order." Klein confesses that it sometimes felt as if Wolf had fed Klein's ideas into a "bonkers blender" and then spoon-fed the resulting incoherent mishmash directly to Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon.

I would take the analysis one step further than Klein does: In our conversation, she describes Naomi Wolf as the White Rabbit who led her into the irrational, counterfactual "mirror world" that lies below the surface of normative cultural and political discourse, and mockingly reflects or magnifies all its failures, evasions and silences. The problem for Naomi Klein, however, is that to many people who yearn to return to some (largely imaginary) pre-Trump, pre-COVID state of normalcy and shared reality, she too resembles a denizen of the mirror world. Klein is an unrepentant leftist and anti-capitalist, a former Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate and frequent critic of the Democratic Party mainstream. She blames the corrosive spread of the Wolf-Bannon-Carlson mirror world — the "fascist clown-state" beneath our purported democracy — largely, if not entirely, on the failures of mainstream politics in general and liberalism in particular. 

I largely agree, for the record. But that isn't the kind of opinion that gets you on MSNBC or helps build broad pro-democracy coalitions, and I suspect that amid the societal attention-deficit disorder of the last several years, a vague sense emerged that both Naomis held troubling or uncomfortable or unpalatable views, which contributed to their chameleonic identity collapse. That points toward the real challenge Klein confronts in "Doppelganger," which is not about her and Naomi Wolf but something much bigger. When we come face to face with a double or doppelganger or mirror image — of ourselves, of our society, of our system of thought — and find it disturbing or repulsive, do we push it away and deny any kinship with the reflection? Or do we look straight at it and ask ourselves who we really are?

Watch Naomi Klein's "Salon Talks" episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the dark "mirror world" of right-wing influencers, capitalism and the "personal brand" and why Klein prefers the term "conspiracy culture" over "conspiracy theories."

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I had really interesting reactions from two people I like and respect when I told them I was reading your book. One of them basically said, "What a hilarious concept for a book. You go ahead and read that if you want to." The second person was like, "Well, that's the most New York thing I've ever heard." 

By New York, did they mean Jewish? 

Well, I hope not. I think they meant "media insider." But what struck me was the willingness to leap to the assumption that you had written some intensely narcissistic account of your possibly-obsessive relationship with this other person who shares your first name and certain other characteristics. Have you run into that before?

I don't think people necessarily share those reactions with me, per se. [Laughter.] But I was aware that this book would be misunderstood as a concept until it entered the world, which is part of the reason why we didn't tell anyone about it for a much longer time than is the usual case with publishing. Usually a book is announced as soon as it's signed by the publisher, and we kept it secret for at least a year. That was actually hard. There were a lot of NDAs that needed to be signed to do that!

The main reason we wanted to keep it under wraps was precisely because we knew that it would be misunderstood. There were a couple of months where the idea of the book preceded the book where people were like, "Oh my God, she wrote an entire book about ..." and she didn't.

I will testify to that. She didn't.

No, I mean, for me Naomi Wolf is like the White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland."

Yes, that's exactly right. 

"I was aware that this book would be misunderstood as a concept until it entered the world, which is the reason why we didn't tell anyone about it for a much longer time than is usual."

I think she is an interesting case study for a certain kind of political migration from left to right, or liberal to right. Her story is interesting and it's a thread, but the book is really not about her. It's much more about the phenomenon of doubling and doppelgangers as a lens through which to understand the hall of mirrors of digital culture and personal branding and AI, but also the doubling that I think we most fear, which is the way whole societies can flip into their evil twins. She's a literary technique, and now that the book is out there, I feel actually really gratified that people are getting it. But there had to be a period where — listen, even my parents were like, "What?"

Well, you go at this pretty directly in the book, the sense that maybe this was an ill-advised project. You certainly had people suggesting that to you.

Well, the first line is, "In my defense, it was never my intent to write this book. No one asked me to, and several people strongly cautioned against it. Some of them were in my own family."

To be clear, we are talking about Naomi Wolf, the author of "The Beauty Myth," who is not the same person as you. Naomi Wolf has become, and perhaps this is an oversimplification, something of a COVID denialist, a frequent guest on Steve Bannon's podcast, a spreader of all sorts of controversial and conspiratorial ideas and movements. You go from the idea that Naomi Wolf was a kind of doppelganger for you, a double or a distorted mirror image, to the entire sphere that she now inhabits as a dark mirror of normal politics and left-liberal politics. What was the process that led you there?

I think there's something very interesting about having a doppelganger in that we live in a society where insecurity is rampant, interpersonal insecurity, economic insecurity. One of the things that we have been sold collectively about how we can hold on with our fingernails in this culture is by building our own brand. There was one point where somebody online said, "Well, Naomi Klein should sue Naomi Wolf for trademark infringement." I thought that was really funny because my first book was called "No Logo" and it was about the rise of this idea of the lifestyle brand, but also the human brand. It was tracking the first stage of this idea that humans should fashion themselves as products.

I feel like the concept of the personal brand didn't quite exist when you wrote that book, at least not in the way it does now.

It existed for celebrities. I have a whole chapter about Michael Jordan's agent saying that he was the first superbrand, and there was Richard Branson and Oprah. But the idea that everyday people who don't have marketing firms behind them could be brands was a silly idea that we understood in our '90s brains to be essentially a sop offered to us instead of job security. Like, "Don't worry, you all got laid off. You can be your own brands. It all will be well." 

"We should be paying very, very close attention to what issues are being warped in the mirror world ahead of 2024."

It wasn't until "No Logo" came out just on the cusp of 1999 and 2000 and a few years later, the iPhone happens, Facebook, later Twitter. Then this idea that we thought was absurd becomes actually feasible. You've got a marketing agency in your back pocket with your iPhone. Social media takes very little overhead to create that glowing, perfected, idealized version of yourself, whatever that may be. I had always wanted to go back to that material because it has changed so much. 

I had this weird experience after "No Logo" was published of having a lot of journalists accuse me of being a brand, because the book did turn me into a brand. There was a line of "No Logo" olive oil that somebody launched as well as a "No Logo" restaurant in Geneva that was pretty seedy, a good craft beer in England. To be honest with you, I just ran screaming in the other direction. This was not what I had intended. 

My later books, "The Shock Doctrine" and "This Changes Everything," really had nothing to do with marketing or branding. That was me being a bad brand and just trying to get back to basics of why I wanted to be a journalist and do this work. But it was nagging away at me that there was something very important going on with the way the logics of branding had entered our very souls and our interpersonal relationships and our channels of communication and our social movements. This is a really critical piece that preoccupies me: what that does to our ability to organize and be in solidarity. It occurred to me that I had been given a kind of gift, which was my own branding crisis, to come back to it, but not at a distance, to come back to it from the inside to wrestle with, I have a branding crisis and also I don't believe in brands, so what do we do with that?

That essential conflict is at the heart of this book. Even thinking back to those people who made assumptions about what your book is about, they were leaping to the somewhat logical conclusion that it was essentially a defense of your personal brand against somebody who had infringed on it. That's right smack in the universe of this book, which to me is about a certain crisis of the self in whatever we want to call this society, liberal capitalism or something, and how that crisis interferes with solidarity, with community, things like that.

What it comes down to is this is hard work. This is labor. The labor of constructing a perfected self in the form of the brand that must be maintained through repetition, through discipline, through other forms of doubling that I look at in the book, like the perfected body, because of course the idealized well, fit, immuno-strong body became very political during COVID. That was one of the diagonal lines between the far right and the "far out," a particular stream in the wellness world that had sold this idea that you can deal with all of your fears and insecurities by perfecting your own body. It's a kind of body prepper-ism. And then there's the way we perfect our kids and think of our kids as almost brand extensions. We think about the Trumps, like a family of brand extensions. That's an extreme example.

What it comes down to for me is this: What aren't we building when we're building our brands? Because all of this is a lot of work. It is not a small undertaking to do that much performing and polishing and perfecting and optimizing, and we are only on this Earth for a finite number of hours. We can tell ourselves, "Oh, this isn't really me. I'm just doing this because I have to do it." But ultimately we do happen to be living at a time where we are confronting these intersecting and interlocking emergencies of surging authoritarianism, the climate crisis banging down our doors and just gaping inequalities and injustices. As all of those crises fuel one another, we have a lot of work to do, and it isn't work that we can do as atomized individuals. These are global forces. If we stand a chance in hell, it's because we get out of our own way and out of our own heads and act in true solidarity and camaraderie with one another. So that's what interests me about the labor of the self and the way that it's theft from the labor of building those networks and structures.

That whole universe that you call the "mirror world, that Naomi Wolf now inhabits, is a fairly recent invention, obviously fueled by Donald Trump, by QAnon, by Jan. 6 and definitely by the COVID pandemic. It's an entire universe of right-wing influencers and conspiracy theorists. People like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones are the stars, but there are countless others. You point out that those people are providing a sense of community, even if it's a fake or dangerous form of community, and also that it's a mistake for those of us who think that we're the normal people with rational views to dismiss them entirely, not to take them seriously. 

Yeah, I think that's all right. Another reaction I got to the book was, "Why would you give them attention? Why would you give them a platform?" I find that one the most interesting because, frankly, it's so arrogant to imagine that we are the ones in control of all the attention, and if we don't give them our attention, they basically don't exist.

That was one of the things that interested me most about Naomi Wolf. When she spread a lot of medical misinformation, particularly around "vaccine shedding" and its supposed impact on fertility, that was part of the reason why she was de-platformed from Twitter for a while. She is back now, of course. I think there was something else about bioweapons that may have been the trigger, but whatever it was, when she was kicked off Twitter, she had been one of left and liberal Twitter's favorite punching bags for a long time. I should know 'cause I often took the blows. 

"If we stand a chance in hell, it's because we get out of our own way and out of our own heads and act in true solidarity and camaraderie with one another."

There was literally a tweet that was like, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." There was much rejoicing, mean little video montages of all of her worst takes. The feeling was that she had been deleted from Planet Earth. Because I had already started this research, I knew that in fact she had a much larger platform. She was on Bannon's show, during some periods every single day. He has millions of listeners, and every single day for two weeks she was on that show. She's more like a co-host than a regular guest. At one point, they published a book together, they've put out T-shirts together. It's the oddest buddy movie you could really imagine.

She was also on Tucker Carlson's show before he got yanked. She's been on Jordan Peterson. But the point is, we do not have the power to make these people disappear. This idea that just by denying them attention, we are going to somehow minimize their power — no, we should give them attention and understand what is happening. That's what I tried to do. It's obviously not uncritical attention, but I'm trying to understand what the appeal is. I want to understand less what Wolf is getting out of Bannon, which is obvious: She's getting a platform after she lost one, but what is he getting out of her? What does it mean for him to make an alliance with this prominent feminist Democrat who on some level stands for everything that he opposes? 

I'm interested in how, when something becomes an issue in the mirror world, it then becomes untouchable in our world. Once they say it, then we have to just do the opposite. Considering that Bannon's skill as a strategist is looking at the people and issues that the Democratic Party has abandoned and mixing them in with his pre-existing xenophobic, racist agenda and authoritarian agenda, the worst thing we can do is just to be reactive and say, "Oh, well, if they're talking about surveillance, we're not. If they're talking about Big Pharma, we're not." It is almost like reverse marionettes.

Yeah, I think this should be obvious to people, but you don't have to agree with anything that is said in the mirror world to understand that the anxieties that drive people there are real. Anxieties about technology and surveillance are real.

Big Pharma, also real.

As you point out, it was really dumb that the question of how and where COVID actually started became politicized in the way that it did. I mean, I don't know. You don't know. We probably will never know. But to decide that it had to be one answer, basically for tribal or political reasons, was another example of giving those people on the far right a gift.

Oh, absolutely. I've been watching Bannon do this move for a while, because I came up in the counter-globalization movement and we had a strong critique of these corporate free trade deals. That was a centerpiece of the movements I was a part of. Those issues were really abandoned by the Democratic Party and by center-left parties around the world. And we saw them turn into this warped mirror in the hands of Bannon, in the hands of Giorgia Meloni in Italy. That worked for them in 2016. We should be paying very, very close attention to what issues are being warped in the mirror world ahead of 2024.

Yeah, and when the Democrats finally figured out that these "free trade" deals were massively unpopular they just dropped the whole issue and don't talk about it anymore. I feel like that silence, that erasure is really weird. They've just forgotten that for 30 years or more, they supported a reorganization of the global economy that was a huge failure. That's just bizarre. 

Yeah, it is. We're talking about Steve Bannon, but look at somebody like RFK Jr., whose whole campaign is like a weird doppelganger of Bernie's campaign, in the sense that he's actually quite good at naming the corporate capture of regulatory agencies, taking on the military industrial complex. Sometimes when he talks about Big Pharma, I agree with him. A lot of the time I don't, especially when he is peddling vaccine autism myths, but the real issue is that he doesn't have an offer. He's not talking about universal health care like Bernie was. He's not talking about raising the minimum wage like Bernie was. He's just using the juice in these issues that are no longer really front of the discourse among Democrats. Ceding that ground is very dangerous. You can't blame strategists for being strategic, and it's very strategic to pick up the issues and the people that your opponents have carelessly left unattended.

Is it a mistake to always default to the view that the people in the mirror universe are driven by the coarsest possible factors, by racism and greed, for example? Those things certainly play a role, but is it a mistake not to attribute genuine beliefs or genuine ideology to those people?

I think it's a mistake to generalize about those people generally, because we're talking about a huge sector of the population. It's absolutely the case that there are people driven primarily by white supremacy, and it's absolutely the case that for some people, their No. 1 issue is transphobia. But it's a pretty motley crew that we're talking about here. 

"It's so arrogant to imagine that we are the ones in control of all the attention, and if we don't give them our attention, they basically don't exist."

One of the things that interests me is that there's very little economic education in our culture. There's very little political education, but in terms of actually understanding how the economy works, how capitalism, the system we're all inside works, how it functions, I don't know. I did not learn it in school. If you do learn about it, you're going to learn that it's freedom and French fries and rainbows and the best possible system. I think a lot of this happens because of that lack of economic literacy, in terms of what the system was built to do, that it is a system that is pretty much an enclosure and profit-making machine. I mean, the history of neoliberal capitalism that I tell in "The Shock Doctrine" has some conspiracies in it. I'm talking to you on the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and there's some pretty conspiratorial behavior that led to that event. We have the documents. 

What interests me about conspiracy culture — I call it culture as opposed to theory, because there's often not a real coherent theory. It's throwing stuff at the wall. It's more like climate change denialism where you just say, "Hey, it's sunspots, it's not happening. It's happening, but we'll be fine." I mean, the point is to spread doubt. But I think that a lot of what is motivating people is that they were told that this system was fair, and their experience is that it's not fair. They know they're getting screwed, but when you don't have anybody who's actually explaining to you how this economy was built and giving you any systemic analysis, if somebody says, "Oh, it's actually a room full of Jews."

This is why antisemitism was called the "socialism of fools." It's why the Trotskyists and the rest of them took political education so seriously. In a sense you could see all of those pamphlets explaining the system as a way of saying, it's not just the moneylender who's responsible for all your woes. This is a system that was built to have an underclass. It has to have an underclass in order to function. I think we should try to understand that and we should try to do that work. It's not going to get everybody, and there's definitely lots of people who are never coming back from those worlds. But I don't think we should be writing everyone off.

You discuss this in the book and you discussed it in an interview with the New Yorker this week: There's the painful difficulty of writing from the perspective of a leftist or progressive, when you feel like you're saying the same things over and over again and it's not necessarily working. I have felt that personally and professionally for the last several years. It felt like this book was your way of writing yourself out of that. Did it work?

It did work, yeah. Thanks for asking. I think I was feeling depleted from a content perspective of just like, "OK, am I just going to say the exact same thing again? We really are out of time. We really need to do this." I had lost faith in that register for my voice. I thought, "Well, maybe if I can get interested in form, then I'll remember why I wanted to be a writer in the first place." That was originally what drew me to this project: It was interesting formally to take having a doppelganger as a narrow aperture to look at all of these different areas that interested me. But in the end I got interested in the content too. I do feel that it's had a steadying effect on me personally, out of where I started in a very vertiginous state.

So there really is a therapeutic aspect to this book, in addition to the political and cultural heavy lifting.

It will make you feel better.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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Authors Books Conspiracy Theory Covid Doppelganger Naomi Klein Naomi Wolf Salon Talks