I have a theory.
Way back when, when I was in college, a distant cousin of mine earned the opprobrium of the rest of our large, extended family by joining the university’s Young Socialist organization and participating in protests that received significant negative media coverage and prompted politically motivated and ultimately dismissed criminal charges. Interestingly, at the time, and despite the fact that I was one of the clan’s most politically conservative members, I was a lonely voice defending his exercise of his constitutional rights…
Fast forward some thirty plus years, and that cousin had morphed into an equally enthusiastic–and dogmatic– right-winger. He’d become a rightwing caricature. (I haven’t seen him in years, so don’t know whether he went “all the way” and embraced Trump and MAGA.)
I thought about that cousin’s ideological transformation when I read Michelle Goldberg’s recent review of Naomi Klein’s book “Doppleganger.” Klein traced the similar political turn of Naomi Wolf, with whom Klein has often been confused. Wolf, for those who are unfamiliar with her, was a once-liberal feminist icon who turned into an anti-vax Steve Bannon sidekick.
Klein and Wolf, both brown-haired middle-aged Jewish women writers, are often mistaken for each other. That became a growing problem for Klein as her reputation was tainted by Wolf’s escalating lunacy. Trapped at home by the pandemic, Klein became increasingly obsessed by Wolf’s transformation into a heroine of Covid truthers.
That obsession, in turn, guides Klein into an examination of what she calls “the Mirror World,” the vertigo-inducing inversion of reality common to contemporary far-right movements. Think, for example, of Vladimir Putin claiming that he’s liberating Ukraine from fascism or Donald Trump howling that his multiple prosecutions are a racist plot to subvert a presidential election. When I spoke to Klein recently, she described how jarring it was to watch protests against Covid measures appropriating left-wing language — common slogans were “I can’t breathe” and “My body, my choice” — making them “this weird doppelganger of the movements that I had been a part of and supported.”
Klein’s book explores this “upside-down” world, attributing the exchange of beliefs largely held by those on the political left to an equally firm adherence to those on the right, to
a half-joking formula to explain onetime leftists or liberals who migrate to the authoritarian right: “Narcissism(Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right wing meltdown.”
I have a somewhat different take on these transitions, undoubtedly influenced by my observation of the U-turn taken by my cousin. If there are any psychiatrists or other mental health professionals reading this, I’d welcome your reaction to my theory.
Here’s my analysis.
We live–as we all recognize–in a time of rapid social change. Those changes challenge the various verities with which most of us were raised, and with which we have become comfortable. Every day, it seems, we encounter evidence questioning–or worse, disproving– things that we have believed to be fact. We are absolutely marinating in ambiguity–we live in a world that is increasingly painted in shades of gray, and in which we enounter proliferating evidence that what we knew wasn’t really so.
Some people can cope with that growing lack of certainty. Others cannot. It has nothing to do–again, in my humble opinion–with intellect or its lack.
Think about the number of highly intelligent, prominent people who began as Conservatives and now are Liberals–and those who have migrated in the other direction. (I’ll exclude politicians–like Ronald Reagan–whose transitions might be attributed to political advantage.) Lefties who, like my cousin, became right-wingers include people like Irving Kristol, Jean Kirkpatric and David Horowitz…
None of these people are dummies. But if I was a wagering woman, I would bet that all of them share a profound need for certainty and a corresponding terror of ambivalence and ambiguity– a deep need for a world that can be understood in shades of black and white, right and wrong, correct and erroneous.
When emerging realities fundamentally challenge beliefs held by people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, those peoople are much more likely to substitute a different, equally firm belief system than they are to accept the complications and confusions that accompany uncertainty. The content of the ideology is ultimately less important than its function, which is to provide a predictable, permanent foundation for encountering and interpreting the world around them.
Sometimes, as Klein notes, that “exchange” of belief systems is prompted by negative events. In Wolf’s case, it was evidently negative publicity over inaccuracies in a book.
Whatever the trigger, a deep-seated need for orthodoxy–for a firm belief system to cling to– explains a lot….