When Your ‘Doppelganger’ Becomes a Conspiracy Theorist

In June, the Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein was sitting in the dark gray booth of a recording studio in Lower Manhattan. Dressed simply for the New York City heat — white linen top, light cropped pants, white sneakers — she was reading from a script, and there was a line that was giving her a bit of trouble.

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“I think those people should die,” Klein said, her voice rising on the “should,” affecting a tone that might be called breezy high dudgeon — think wellness influencer issuing a death sentence. The director, whose voice was being piped into Klein’s headphones from the control booth, told her to do it again, this time keeping her intonation steady and even. Klein repeated the line as instructed, which made what she was saying sound more ominous: “I think those people should die.”

Although Klein had technically written the line, the grisly words weren’t hers; they were uttered by a woman who lives in Klein’s “hippy-dippy West Coast community” in British Columbia, in response to the suggestion that Covid-19 could be lethal to people with compromised immune systems. It’s a scene that appears about halfway through Klein’s ninth book, “Doppelganger,” which will be published this month, and Klein had been recording the audiobook version over the course of the week.

“Oh, that chapter,” Klein had said when we arrived at the studio that morning and were told that the day’s reading would start with “The Far Right Meets the Far-Out.” She sounded ready but not especially enthusiastic. Later, after narrating her own trenchant account of how a woo-woo fixation on individual wellness had combined with a cruel fixation on natural selection to make for a weird “fascist/New Age alliance,” Klein stopped for a break. “Jennifer,” she called out to me, “you came for such a cheery part!”

From the time Klein published her first book, “No Logo,” in 1999 — a critical look at corporate branding that was fortuitously released just days after protests roiled a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle — she has been one of the most influential figures on the English-speaking left. Her 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine,” argued that a ruthless neoliberal agenda has historically been foisted on traumatized populations during crises; it was a radical critique that, with the global financial crisis the following year, moved from the margins toward the mainstream. Whether writing best-selling books, speaking at Occupy Wall Street, being arrested at an anti-pipeline protest or campaigning for Bernie Sanders, Klein has remained indefatigable and on message. Capitalism generates wealth for the few by exploiting the many. It is wrecking the planet. Only solidarity will get us through.

“Doppelganger” is a different kind of book for Klein: more intimate and personal, shot through with a type of ambiguity that isn’t much of a presence in her earlier work. Where her previous targets have been familiar villains — greedy corporations, merciless capitalists, fossil-fuel companies, the economist Milton Friedman — her adversaries in “Doppelganger” reflect the ideological chaos of the last few years: billionaire tech tycoons, Darwinist yoga moms, xenophobic propagandists and … Naomi Wolf?

Wolf is the doppelgänger of the book’s title — the feminist intellectual who wrote the classic text “The Beauty Myth,” which argued that beauty standards serve as a form of social control, and a person whom people have been confusing with Klein for at least a dozen years. “Doppelganger” opens with a scene in a public bathroom near the Occupy protests in 2011, when Klein overhears some women misattributing to her something Wolf had said. But it was during the isolation of the Covid pandemic that being chronically mixed up with Wolf, or “Other Naomi,” went from amusing to utterly bewildering. In the spring of 2021, Other Naomi started floating the conspiratorial fiction that vaccinated people might somehow endanger the unvaccinated. Wolf was suspended from Twitter in June 2021; despite self-identifying as a “liberal democrat,” she was becoming a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.

But it would be a mistake to say that “Doppelganger” is “about” Wolf, who serves as Klein’s entry into what she calls the “mirror world” — a realm both familiar and strange, where the anti-establishment critiques of the far left become co-opted by the far right, and where what once seemed like a yawning gulf between ostensible opposites has narrowed into a tenuous line. She meets neighbors in solar-paneled homes who switched allegiances from the left-wing party in Canada to the insurgent far-right party, “without so much as a pit stop” at anything in the middle. She encounters a bizarre blend of immigrant-hating, conspiracy-mongering, electric-car-driving and supplement-hawking. The inhabitants of the mirror world are so intensely dubious of anything the establishment says that their reaction to restrictions during a deadly pandemic is to want to burn everything down.

People were losing their political bearings, and none of it made sense. Klein had spent a lifetime analyzing the dominant power as oligarchic: relentless, resolute, delivered from on high. She was used to connecting dots, to mapping out cause and effect in the capitalist system — from Hurricane Katrina to proliferating charter schools; from Sept. 11 to the “homeland security industry.” But it was becoming increasingly hard for her to map out what she was seeing, let alone plot it on the old left-right axis. Here was a grass-roots movement that was demanding not egalitarianism, but nativism; not solidarity, but discord. Klein was trapped inside a hall of mirrors, and she was trying to find a way out.

Before writing about her doppelgänger, Klein felt stuck. “For me, it’s very hard to disentangle writer’s block from depression,” she told me, remembering the “sense of pointlessness” she felt as the pandemic continued to grind on. “I think my crash was in the early months of the Biden administration and realizing that there was going to be an attempt to return to the same old same old.” Social media also seemed to be getting ever more poisonous. Her friend V, the playwright formerly known as Eve Ensler, recommended that Klein talk to the fiction writer Harriet Clark, who also teaches creative writing. Klein told her what she was going through: “I used to fill notebooks, you know, everywhere I went. Now I just feel unsurprised.”

Clark assigned readings, like Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” to encourage Klein to consider new ways of writing and noticing. At the time, Klein was arranging a move from New Jersey, where she had been teaching at Rutgers University, to British Columbia, where she had been staying since the early days of the pandemic and where her parents and brother live. Covid was still raging, and all the planning had to be done remotely. As an exercise, she wrote a personal essay about choosing what to keep and what to leave behind. Klein, who is 53, laughed as she recalled the artifacts of her former life. “Who was that person who had that many pairs of high heels and tights? Like, tights?” she joked. The germ of the book was there, she realized now, even though she hadn’t recognized it at the time. “It was about how many selves we have in our lives, and just how mutable it is.”

Compared with the single-mindedness of her previous work, in “Doppelganger,” Klein has allowed some of these selves to come through. Much of the book is funny and playful, laced with references to fiction and films, including an extended (and attentive) reading of the novel “Operation Shylock,” in which Philip Roth meets a double who calls himself Philip Roth. Some unintentional comedy comes from Wolf’s baffling tweets about “vaccines w nanopatticles that let you travel back in time” and the need to protect “general sewage supplies/waterways” from “vaccinated people’s urine/feces.”

And then there’s the rank absurdity of the Klein/Wolf mix-up. Yes, the two women are Jewish; both have brownish-blondish hair; both have written big-idea books; both have been outspoken about abuses of political power during times of crisis. But their bodies of work are distinctive, and the association between them became ever more troubling to Klein as Wolf began tweeting “pulpy theories” about 5G, about weird clouds. The confusion was widespread enough to be commemorated in a viral poem:

As much as Klein recoiled at what Wolf was saying, she also felt the sting of recognition. Klein recalls the uncanny spectacle of seeing a version of her systems-level thesis in “The Shock Doctrine” — that elites will take advantage of a crisis to impose their will — twisted by the likes of Wolf, who has described Covid as “a much-hyped medical crisis” that “has taken on the role of being used as a pretext to strip us all of core freedoms.” Klein became both obsessed and repulsed, fascinated and appalled: “I felt like she had taken my ideas, fed them into a bonkers blender and then shared the thought-purée with Tucker Carlson, who nodded vehemently.” She always knew when Other Naomi had said something truly mind-boggling because her — Klein’s — Twitter mentions would fill up. (In an email, Wolf declined to comment on “Doppelganger,” explaining that she hadn’t yet read the book, but said that some of her tweets “were poorly worded and were deleted.”)

Part of what distressed Klein about the Naomi confusion was that, as the author of “No Logo,” she recognized that this identity crisis resembled a branding crisis. Klein started to ask herself uncomfortable questions about which parts of the mirror world might count as hers. After all, she had long argued that some conspiracies are real — not the florid fantasies of pedophilia rings in pizzeria basements, but the banality of capitalists and their allies in government doing their thing. In Chile, the C.I.A. did help bring down the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende; in the Gulf of Mexico, BP did pursue profits by cutting corners, which led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Whether or not you agree with the conclusions Klein draws, she is assiduous when it comes to her reporting and research. Yet now she was seeing how bedrock approaches of hers — a belief in the power of the “shock doctrine” and the importance of “pattern recognition” — could be deployed in a way that she found not only annoying but also abhorrent.

Klein was picking up on a phenomenon that goes well beyond her own thought — there is a tradition on the radical left when it comes to mistrusting the system, and a tradition on the radical right for seizing on that mistrust when they can. Insurgents on the far right have taken inspiration from the left-wing activist Saul Alinsky. Trump supporters have chalked up his legal woes to machinations by federal law enforcement and the “deep state.” In mid-August, conspiracy theorists falsely asserted that the wildfires tearing through Maui were caused by space lasers in order to give the government the pretext it needed to impose climate-friendly policies.

But for Klein, her doppelgänger trouble brought this ideological free-for-all uneasily close. In literature and art, doubles have long been cultural signifiers of the parts of ourselves that we would prefer to ignore or repress — reminders that something crucial is being denied. As Other Naomi seemed to grow ever more emboldened, Klein started to doubt herself: “Were the ways I have asked people to be suspicious of power during moments of shock feeding into this mushrooming of conspiracies?”

Klein’s trip through the looking glass was especially disorienting for someone whose political education started so early. She was born in Montreal in 1970 and describes herself as a “third-generation leftist.” Her paternal grandfather, an animator (“in charge of Donald Duck continuity,” she says), was blacklisted after he helped organize a strike at Disney in 1941; her parents left the United States for Canada in the late 1960s, because her father had been drafted into the Vietnam War.

She was initially turned off by her parents’ self-righteousness. “I think she probably felt propagandized by us,” says her mother, Bonnie Sherr Klein, a feminist filmmaker and disability activist. “We were very committed to the things that we were committed to. And we were probably judgmental of people who didn’t share our beliefs.” Naomi also bridled at “the kumbaya,” as Bonnie puts it. “She hated the way I dressed and the way my friends dressed. My friends were hippie feminists, you know. And she was embarrassed by that.”

When Naomi was 17, her mother had the first of two severe strokes, and any feelings of teenage estrangement yielded to the need for the family to come together. In 1989, when Naomi was in her first year at the University of Toronto, a gunman killed 14 women at what was then the École Polytechnique in Montreal. She hadn’t called herself a feminist before; the massacre turned her into an activist like her older brother, Seth. “From that moment on,” Seth Klein says, “we ended up as colleagues.” They did some organizing together, though he says that her “politics was always as a writer.” At one point when I was with her, someone was praising the range of her work, and Klein laughed. “A little something for everyone to hate,” she said.

Haters are an inevitability, perhaps, for someone who writes about politically charged subjects while declaring her ideology and how radical it is. “I’d say I’m a democratic feminist eco-socialist,” she says, conceding it’s a mouthful. “I’m waiting for someone to come up with a better brand.”

Conservative critics point to lines she wrote more than a decade ago as evidence that Klein must never be trusted. In “The Shock Doctrine,” she included some hedged but hopeful remarks about Hugo Chávez’s decentralizing power in Venezuela — easily mockable in light of the rampant corruption, economic collapse and humanitarian disaster that followed. (She has since condemned the country’s autocratic “petro-populism.”) But the wrath of the right is one thing — a predictable battle if you’re a democratic feminist eco-socialist. The widening ideological gyre means that fault lines have opened up on the left too.

In “Doppelganger,” she points out how eager the hard right has been to welcome self-identified leftists on board who depict themselves as “politically homeless” truth tellers, kicked out by a movement that betrayed its ideals. “These exiles from progressivism package themselves not as defectors, but as loyalists — it’s their former comrades and colleagues, they claim, who are the impostors, the fakes.” She puts Wolf into this category. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who announced his presidential run in April, is another example. Klein, whose 11-year-old son is neurodivergent, finds Kennedy’s anti-vax views odious (Kennedy has long promoted the discredited belief that vaccines cause autism), yet in a column for The Guardian, she also warned that part of what makes his candidacy so dangerous is his appeal to some disaffected leftists. By railing against pandemic profiteering and endless wars, “he is speaking my language, and it’s hard not to nod along.”

Still, Klein is reluctant to give credence to the so-called horseshoe theory, which states that the extremes of the far left and the far right have enough in common that they almost touch. In “Doppelganger,” she cites the work of Quinn Slobodian and William Callison on what they call “diagonalism,” a loose movement made up of people who combine hippie notions of wellness and spirituality and far-right beliefs about individual control. Unlike a horseshoe, a diagonal passes through the middle. Slobodian told me that what unites the diagonalists isn’t just their suspicion of power; it’s also that their demands fit within the well-worn grooves of individualism, entrepreneurship and self-promotion — the capitalist virtues, that is.

This is where things started to click for Klein. Was her disaster-capitalism critique really implicated in this new form of raging against the machine? “Or — and this possibility worried me more — was the trouble that I, and many others on the left, had been too timid and obedient during the Covid era? Had we gone along too readily with pandemic measures that offloaded so much onto individuals? And had we failed to forcefully take on the corporate greed that has run rampant in this period?” Klein recalls how in 2020 she reported an article about pandemic profiteering by tech companies, only to start seeing mirror-world fantasies declaring that Big Tech not only exploited the pandemic but also manufactured it. And so, worried about “feeding into the whirring conspiracy mill,” Klein backed off. “Not completely, but too much.”

In other words, as she sees it, the trouble wasn’t that her warnings about disaster capitalism were ripe material for Wolf and other conspiracy theorists to ape, however clumsily; it was that Klein and other leftists had, during Covid, not gone far enough in pushing against that system, allowing the far right to fill in the anti-establishment vacuum. Among the many differences between her and Wolf, she underscores one as fundamental: Unlike the anticapitalist, leftist Klein, “Wolf is a liberal who never had a critique of capital.” And so disillusionment with the system left Other Naomi unmoored. “The system is rigged,” Klein maintains — “but without a firm understanding of capitalism’s drive to find new profit sources to enclose and extract, many will imagine there is a cabal of uniquely nefarious individuals pulling the strings.”

And with that, Klein emerged from the mirror world and landed in her comfort zone. It was the kind of tidy turn that put me in mind of another mirror image: her brand is in crisis/her brand is strong. The parts of “Doppelganger” that fascinated me the most were the ones that were exploratory and full of ambivalence. I wanted her to continue with her inquiry instead of short-circuiting it. But as much of an outlier as this new book is for her, Klein is still writing to mobilize. “I’ve always called my writing ammo for activists,” she told me.

Her doppelgänger was a signal that there was a problem, and she decided it must be this: Instead of being so cautious and apprehensive, she needed to double down.

For the last two years, Klein has been a professor in the University of British Columbia’s geography department, where she also helps lead a new Center for Climate Justice — an appointment that was announced the same summer that a deadly “heat dome” descended on the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, turning forests into kindling and killing more than 600 people in British Columbia, many of them elderly residents in their homes. In early July, I traveled to see Klein, who lives with her husband, the journalist and filmmaker Avi Lewis, and their son on the Sunshine Coast, which is about three hours from Vancouver by car and ferry.

“It just stank of the worst —” Klein started saying.

“Sort of like rancid seafood.”

Klein and her sister-in-law, Christine Boyle, a Vancouver city councilor, were recalling the putrid smell of decaying marine animals, which the heat dome had cooked to death. “People couldn’t go into the water,” Klein said. “Dogs got sick.” We were sitting in Christine and Seth’s backyard in East Vancouver; it’s a neighborhood where the main commercial drag has an anarchist bookstore (“explosive titles … since 1973”) right next door to a community policing center, which are both cater-corner from a sushi restaurant. They talked about how even the country’s progressive governments were too timid, too hemmed in by carbon pricing and tax credits. Seth is the author of “A Good War,” a book calling for a World War II-level mobilization in the face of global warming. “Part of this comes back to Naomi’s writing over the years,” he told me, “the legacy of neoliberalism. And that legacy is like an intellectual straitjacket around how governments of all political stripes think about their choices.”

In “Doppelganger,” Klein draws links between climate denialism and the conspiracy theories of the mirror world, where panic about “pandemic lockdowns” mutated into panic about “climate lockdowns.” Even before Covid, Wolf was tweeting out warnings that a Green New Deal would amount to a power grab by elites — “a sort of green shock doctrine,” as Klein puts it, which left Klein speechless. Similar to what she hoped at the start of the pandemic — that by showing us how connected we all are, it could lead to “something better, greener and fairer” — she was initially drawn to the subject of global warming because of its redistributive potential. The more complex the crisis, the harder it is to solve through technocratic fixes that allow the system to continue to operate as usual. As she put it in “This Changes Everything,” which was published in 2014, the climate crisis could serve as a “people’s shock” and a “galvanizing force for humanity.”

Yet galvanizing forces can have a way of being surprisingly divisive. In “Doppelganger,” Klein describes how the narrative of climate justice — that this emergency is survivable only if everyone works together — is at risk of being superseded by its mirror opposite: Some of us can get through the end times by hunkering down with our solar panels and canned food while other people, the most vulnerable among us, figure it out for themselves. It’s a view that has a pandemic equivalent: “I think those people should die.” This is survival of the fittest taken to its chilling extreme. Klein calls it a “comfort with culling.”

But this kind of extravagant cruelty is only part of the problem, as Klein found in 2015, when she and Lewis helped organize the Leap Manifesto, which addressed fossil-fuel production in Canada. The manifesto argued that gradual reforms weren’t enough in the face of a cataclysm. It was an intervention that didn’t go over well with everyone. In Alberta, where the ecologically calamitous tar sands have brought in enormous amounts of revenue, the premier at the time, Rachel Notley, dismissed the manifesto as “naïve,” “ill informed” and “tone-deaf.” Notley also happened to be — and still is — a member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, in which Lewis’s father and grandfather played key leadership roles. (Lewis himself ran for Parliament as an N.D.P. candidate in 2021, increasing the party’s vote share in his district but coming in third.) Notley is now the leader of the opposition in Alberta; in a mirror-world flip, the province’s current premier, Danielle Smith, is a far-right former radio talk-show host who likened being vaccinated against Covid to supporting Hitler. (Smith has since apologized.)

For all of Klein’s blistering critiques of right-wing conservatives, it’s the liberal moderates who elicit in her a particular frustration. Last year, she wrote that the Biden administration had to be “dragged kicking and screaming into passing the Inflation Reduction Act — flawed as it is.” The I.R.A. is the biggest climate legislation in American history, garnering comparisons to the Green New Deal, but in an email to me, Klein maintained it isn’t enough: “We can’t afford to celebrate half measures in an emergency.” This has been a consistent talking point in her work: that incrementalism is not just insufficient but often damaging. In “Doppelganger,” she declares that the political chaos of the last several years is partly the fault of centrists who sound the alarm about problems like climate change but then fail to act accordingly. “One form of denialism feeds the other,” she writes. “The outright denialism in the Mirror World is made thinkable by the baseline war on words and meaning in more liberal parts of our culture.”

If there’s one thing she admires about the diagonalists in the mirror world, it’s that they don’t feel constrained by the status quo. “We should stop treating a great many human-made systems — like monarchies and supreme courts and borders and billionaires — as immutable and unchangeable,” she writes toward the end of “Doppelganger,” in hortatory mode. “Because everything some humans created can be changed by other humans. And if our present systems threaten life to its very core, and they do, then they must be changed.”

You don’t have to be a complacent liberal to think that the implications of this can be simultaneously inspiring and troubling. Replace “monarchies and supreme courts” with “the 2020 election and civil rights laws,” and you might end up with a guest spot on Bannon’s podcast. It’s not as if Klein refuses to recognize how entangled our political moment is. Her book raises some profoundly thorny questions, and she will talk at length about all the considerations and complications that can come into play on a given political issue. Klein the writer might be willing to live in that ambiguous space for a time; Klein the activist will not stay there. The most rousing parts of “Doppelganger” may be very much on-brand, but they can also blunt the complexity of her insights. As she herself says in the book, “Brands are not built to contain our multitudes.”

“I made a pledge to myself a long time ago that I would not spread despair,” Klein told me. It’s not as if despairing about the state of the world is unfathomable to her. “But if and when I do, I will stay home,” she said. “I will not spread it around. I will not go on a speaking tour to tell everybody that there’s no hope. Because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despair is contagious.”

We were hiking on a forest trail near her son’s school on the Sunshine Coast. Walking with us was Klein’s friend Kara Stanley, while Klein’s cockapoo was scampering nearby with Stanley’s brown lab mix. During the pandemic, Klein and Stanley, who had been working on a book, too, took weekly hikes together. There were also recent bear sightings on the trails, and as Klein put it reassuringly to me, a bear-phobic city person, Stanley “has a more intimidating dog than I do.”

If despair is contagious, then the psychological turn in Klein’s work might be seen as her attempt to stop the spread. She teaches a course at the University of British Columbia called “Ecological Affect,” about what she calls “climate feelings,” and coursing under the dark comedy and buoyant calls to action of her new book there are currents of grief. Loss that isn’t acknowledged can curdle into something else — cynicism, for instance, or the kind of resentment that festers into a hateful rage. For all the conservative dismissals of snowflakes and liberal tears, in “Doppelganger” Klein shows how the far right has carved out a space for negative emotions, seizing on people’s grievances and telling them whom to blame: “Conspiracy theorists get the facts wrong, but often get the feelings right.”

There is a paradox to how much attention her new book pays toward the self. Klein’s work has long been explicitly oriented around structures and systems, and here she was, making space for the varieties of individual experience. Yet the varieties of individual experience ended up reaffirming what she already knew about those structures and systems. “There is a really radical change in how we speak and what our assumptions are,” she granted. “But sometimes I feel like that’s only allowable because the chances of changing it are less. So it’s, ‘OK, you can all have your anticapitalist talk.’ But then, you know, if you try to organize your Starbucks, you’re going to get fired.”

On our hike, we arrived at a clearing, where we could see the remains of a pickup truck’s bed, its red metal carcass overgrown with weeds. As we got closer, I could see a couple of graffiti tags and a smear of red paint on the tailgate, nearly covering up what had been written underneath.

Klein told me that someone scrawled “NO VAX” on the truck a couple of years ago, but then one day she saw that the words had been covered over. She later learned that her husband was the one to cover up the message. The anti-vaxxer was probably still in their community, presumably unbowed and unvaccinated. Painting over the problem was a tiny improvement that didn’t get to the root of anything. But it did make things more bearable, at least for a while.

Grant Harder is a Canadian photographer whose work has a strong connection to nature and travel. He is currently working on his ongoing series, “It Looks Like Jam but It’s Actually Blood,” an exploration of life at a cabin in rural British Columbia.

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