Novelist Jarett Kobek on Trump, Matt Drudge, and Politics in the Hyperreal

Politics Features Jarett Kobek
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Novelist Jarett Kobek on Trump, Matt Drudge, and Politics in the Hyperreal

Jarett Kobek hates the internet. So much so, in fact, that he wrote a whole book about it. In 2016, I Hate the Internet became a viral literary sensation, taking the mainstream publishing houses by surprise and distilling for many readers the moral degeneracies and political traps of the extremely online era.

His new novel, Only Americans Burn In Hell, is a spiritual successor of sorts. It tells the story of a group of immortal misandrist Fairies on a quest through time and space, forming a loose adventure narrative that, intentionally, makes about as much sense as your typical spandex blockbuster. Along the way, Kobek opines on the ideology of superhero entertainment, the depravity of the publishing industry, the brutalities of economic inequality, the moral invisibility of war, the failings of pop-culture politics, the paradoxical status of online movements like #MeToo, and above all, Donald Trump’s role in loosening our collective grip on reality.

I spoke with Kobek about the new book, and got his thoughts on the deeply strange political context we now find ourselves in.

Tom Syverson: Let’s start with the new book, Only Americans Burn in Hell. It’s a fascinating work in so many ways. It’s funny, it’s got all of this caustic commentary. It’s smart, it’s even touching at times. What’s unique in terms of its style is that it’s kind of an amalgam of all these different components. It’s part fantastical fable, part memoir, and it’s all kind of tied together with this fierce through-line of cultural criticism.

There’s also a lot in there that you can’t miss, really just kind of savagely indicting the publishing industry, and remarking on the waning significance of writing in general. So the first thing I’d ask you about is: what is it about the novel as a form that keeps you coming back to it?

Jarett Kobek: I like fiction, you know? I like the conceit of fiction. I like the idea that there is a kind of psychological insight to things that you can get through fiction that, unless you were dealing with a very extraordinary writer, you just cannot get from nonfiction. And it allows for a kind of inventiveness, if you’re willing to go there that, again, is really, really difficult to do in nonfiction.

That being said, I’m not sure how many novels I have left in me. In fact, I think I have none. It seems to me that fiction is kind of dead. I think, generally, when people talk about this, they talk about it being a failure of the readership. I don’t think that’s actually true. I think it’s a failure of publishing and the readership has been really aware of that failure and has sort of moved on.

I don’t think it holds any water, this argument that what has killed the preeminent place of writing in American culture has something to do with television. That was the argument decades ago. Or the internet now. I actually think it’s that publishing is sort of a catastrophic industry that seems to just pile one catastrophe atop another.

So, I don’t know. I have faith in the novel. I don’t have faith in my ability to do it anymore. I think I’ve probably hit the end point. I don’t know where you can really go after Only Americans. It’s a book that, if nothing else, takes the form and does a million things with it that usually don’t get done with it. But I think, as a writer, it’s also this funny thing where to a certain extent you can see me writing myself into a corner. Because there’s really nowhere that I can imagine going after that. That’s like burning the house down and then realizing you have nowhere to live.

Tom Syverson: I could see how the trajectory of your work might lead there. One thing that really struck me about Only Americans in particular, is it seems to be super concerned with this relationship today between reality and fiction. In fact, you argue early on in the book that especially with the election of Donald Trump, this relationship has become increasingly complex and problematic, and his election was like a switch being flipped in social reality. You’re drawing on this idea of hyperreality from Jean Baudrillard. So, I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that, about how that might be impacting us politically, creatively, and socially?

Jarett Kobek: Creatively, I’m not sure. Because there are days when you can look at it and just feel ultimate despair, and then the next day you’ll see something and be like, well, that’s actually astonishing. Socially and politically, it seems to have been a complete disaster, right? Let me put it this way. I recognize that I have a position within a sort of cultural elite. And it’s a weird position, it’s an uncomfortable position that I’m not sure a lot of other people have to occupy. It seems to me that whenever I get around people who are not part of that cultural elite and watch how they interact with media, if you watch normal people watch television for two hours, you can understand how Donald Trump happened.

I was at someone’s house and their grandmother was on her tablet, and she doesn’t actually know how to use the tablet except through Google Voice. So I was watching this woman say, “hey Google, tell me about” whatever her interests were. And then Google would return results on YouTube, and then she’d go to YouTube, and the videos that were playing were fucking fascinating because they were completely synthetic. And I mean, all media is synthetic, but if you’re watching a YouTube video where it’s a synthesized voice reading a Wikipedia entry over a montage of images that had been created with a script pulling out of a Google Image search. And my impression was that this was a person who does this all day. That’s a level of abstraction and weirdness that I don’t think anyone is really thinking about or talking about. But the impact of it is just incredible.

There’s that passage in Only Americans where it’s talking about the impact of fantasy literature. And obviously the superhero film is a huge theme throughout the book. But it’s the way that people think about those products versus what those products actually are, which reflects a strange narrowness of the American psyche and the American imagination. And it’s interesting because something like HBO’s Watchmen, that’s a corporate product by AT&T that in theory is a work of incredible imagination, but the limitations of what’s happening in that, and the limitations of dialogue that it inherently creates, I think that’s the explanation of the current moment. It’s how you end up with a president who is largely fictitious, both in a metaphorical and in an actual way. And I think it’s how we’ve to all, to some degree or another, come to swallow it.

Tom Syverson: That’s something your work gets at, and something that strikes me as a fundamental condition that we’re all now grappling with, this constant confusion between what’s real and what’s fictitious, and the fictions taking over the real. In Only Americans there’s this really interesting part where you explain what’s maybe the thesis of the book, which is that entertainment and pop culture are not politics, and you shouldn’t confuse them on the scale that our political culture seems to confuse them. But then you also drop a footnote, and you say, listen, I might be wrong about this. If the future really is Donald Trump, and figures like Donald Trump, then it’s a whole—

Jarett Kobek: Then the whole book is wrong. The whole book is completely full of shit. One of the things about Trump which has not made itself clear is whether or not Trump is a one-off, or is Trump a harbinger of the future. And if he’s a harbinger of the future, then I’m completely wrong, right? Then that novel becomes essentially a chamber piece, or a relic of a moment that has already passed. And that’s entirely possible. It may not be Trump’s immediate successor, but by 2024, 2028, it’s entirely possible that this is just what we’re going to have forever. And if that’s the case, then I don’t know. It’s a really grim future. It’s a really complicated problem, and I don’t know how that even gets talked about, or thought about, or wrestled with in any meaningful sense.

I mean, it’s beyond me. Like I was saying before you started taping, one of the reasons why I’m really fascinated by Marianne Williamson is because she seems to me like the Trumpiest of, I think self-consciously on her part, the Trumpiest of the Democratic candidates by far. Ultimately I think she probably is the wrong person for a variety of reasons, but I think the message, this idea of trying to simplify it down to, okay, well this is the politics of love. Where if Trump is the candidate of hate, I’m the candidate of love. That, to me, seems like a potential future.

Tom Syverson: I quite agree. I had never heard of her before she started running for president, and before she appeared in that first debate. And then I joined others in saying, “Oh, she’s by far the strangest candidate up there.” But then as I started listening to her in interviews and digging deeper into who she was, her career and things like that, she does propose a novel and possibly effective way forward for the left, which seems to continue to be stuck in either old historical debates about class and materialism that don’t fit this hyper-aestheticized, hyper-cultural form of capitalism and democracy that we have. Or they’re just bland, centrist cowards who’re doing nothing at all.

So, as we’re talking about the election now, and some of the stranger political figures to emerge, I was curious about some of your thoughts about what’s going on with the right, and parts of the far-right as well. You’ve got this chapter on Matt Drudge. You draw a line from Drudge to Andrew Breitbart to Steve Bannon and then to Trump, and that’s a convincing narrative. I also detected there, and correct me if I’m wrong, but something like a reluctant admiration or respect for some of these guys’ ability to play the long game, channel culture, and—

Jarett Kobek: I wouldn’t even say it’s reluctant when it comes to Drudge. I find Drudge to be the only authentic genius of the 21st century. This idea of a guy in Hollywood at a time when Hollywood was hell on Earth. Where he lived, which was at the corner of Whitley and Yucca, that was, in that moment when he was there, it was about the worst neighborhood in central L.A. It was so bad that on his street they still have dividers put in to try and stop the flow of drug traffic. And there’s not really drug dealing there now, so the streets are kind of a nightmare because of this relic of how bad it was when Drudge started.

And the idea of a guy who could intuit before everyone else that the way the internet really worked was not about generating content, it was about aggregating other people’s content, and to have had the aesthetic genius to make a website look the way his website does and never change it in 20 years, and somehow do this enough that he now is arguably the most important figure in driving narratives in American journalism. I mean, it’s unreal how strange that story is, and I think it really does come down to the fact that that was a guy who saw the future in a way that I don’t think anyone else did. I would argue that no one really has caught up with whatever it is that he saw.

The lamentable thing is that I don’t think his politics are actually as horrible as people say they are, but they’re still pretty bad. Drudge is clearly on the right. He’s weird on the right because you can see obsessions coming through that no one who is on the right really would have. I don’t think Ben Shapiro is going to do a lot of pieces on the Pet Shop Boys, and Drudge will. But, the other place where he is incredibly interesting is that he set a template. In the case of a guy like Breitbart, it’s not even a template. Breitbart was Drudge’s assistant. But Drudge set this template of conservative guys in liberal L.A. who, for whatever reason, could not fit into the mainstream of film and television culture, which is why they all came out here. And then they somehow managed to transition into doing online right to far-right media, and they’ve been so much more successful at it than the left.

Now, that may be because there’s no shadowy network of structural billionaires who are willing to throw $20 million at the left’s equivalent of the Daily Wire. So that may be part of the disconnect. But I also think they’re just better at it than the left. Whatever else you want to say about Ben Shapiro, and there’s a lot you can say, Shapiro is really, really good at what he does in terms of just television, or whatever the word would be for the YouTube equivalent. There’s a kind of energy there that sadly I just don’t think is on the left. What’s the nearest equivalent to Ben Shapiro, the Young Turks? That shit sucks. And they’ve been doing it for 20 years, and it’s never gotten better.

I find myself more or less in agreement with the basic political stance of something like the Young Turks, but in terms of television, in terms of entertainment value, which as this conversation has touched on, may now be completely indistinguishable from politics and from the fabric of the life of the republic. Those other guys are much better at it.

I should say, I don’t think it’s a bunch of people who didn’t have political opinions who then decided they would become conservatives because they saw the money opening. Probably they were dudes who really did feel some kind of discomfort, with what has to be admitted is a kind of liberal groupthink in film and television, and then saw an opening. And I think it’s all Drudge. I mean, Drudge hired Breitbart. Breitbart hired Ben Shapiro. Breitbart, when he died, then Steve Bannon took it over. Steve Bannon got Trump into the White House. It all goes back to Drudge. Which is really weird, because he’s famously private, he’s famously reluctant to talk about himself in any way. My suspicion is that it was completely accidental, or completely a byproduct of what he wanted to do, which was run a kind of gossipy, Walter Winchell-esque website about Hollywood and political power.

Tom Syverson: I agree, he was successful beyond all expectation and measure, and it’s still forming the basis of our online, mass media-driven political culture today.

Relatedly, there’s one other current that I did want to ask you about, in this context that we’ve been speaking in regarding mass media, and the increasing difficulty in telling what’s fictional and what’s real. It’s something I’ve noticed, and some writers on the left like Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson predicted or had already noticed in the 1980s, and that is the increasing dominance of conspiracy theory and conspiratorial type thinking.

It’s really interesting because in the lead-up to the 2016 election, it was kind of thought of as a right-wing thing: Pizzagate, QAnon, Alex Jones. Since then, with Russiagate, all of this Ukraine stuff, center liberalism has become very conspiratorial in its thinking, and now finally, in the final move, the entire Jeffrey Epstein saga has really captured the imaginations of many on the socialist left. So, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that, if you’ve noticed this as well.

Jarett Kobek: I think it’s inescapable. I have two thoughts about it. The first is more of a broad thought, which is there clearly is an influence of mass media on this stuff. At the same time, I do wonder if the relative, and you’ll have to pardon the term, “democratization” of opinion isn’t just showing us something that maybe has been there all along. Maybe when you have a mass media that’s essentially in agreement with itself, isn’t in an existential crisis, maybe that mass media doesn’t really reflect the variety of opinion that’s actually circulating out in the world anyway.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true, and like I said there’s obviously some impact of mass media on that. Pizzagate’s a good example. It’s not like 10,000 people just sat around and came up with that on their own. Maybe there has to be some kind of catalyst.

The second thing is the most interesting thing, and it’s something that you completely hit on in the question. I’m not so sure that conspiracy theory from the fringes really means anything, but I think Russiagate was incredibly fascinating because it showed that the most consequential conspiracies come from the center. And that’s really fascinating. That to me is, of all the conspiracy stuff, the most fascinating. That you had a moment where pretty much everyone who is part of the good and the great really believed in something that, if you had been paying attention, you could tell really early on wasn’t going to turn into anything. And that it had been foisted upon the American people. I found it to be a really monumental moment in American culture and much more significant than QAnon or the Epstein stuff. I’m not sure that stuff has that much of an impact outside of really wild one-offs where, I don’t know, the Gambino crime boss gets shot down.

This stuff from the center seems to me to be really damaging and really, really problematic. The whole country was held hostage for two years on something that, if you had ever looked at Trump for a minute, or any of the people around him, you could just sort of tell yes, were there possibly communications with Russians? Maybe. But those guys can’t even conspire with themselves, they’re most incompetent people who have ever really occupied positions of power.

It’s a really interesting moment. One of the things that’s fascinating about it too, is it’s almost completely forgotten. Up until very recently where people have been discussing including the obstruction of justice stuff in the articles of impeachment, it’s like that [Mueller] report, which the entire country was waiting for, and was supposed to be the savior of democracy came out, and then within a month it was as if no one had ever talked about it or ever really thought about it except for certain diehards.

It’s weird. It’s incredibly weird.

Jarett Kobek is an internationally bestselling Turkish-American writer who lives in California. His books include Only Americans Burn in Hell, ATTA, I Hate the Internet, and Do Everything Wrong!: XXXTentacion Against the World.

Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. His forthcoming book on reality television, Reality Squared, will be published next year. He can be contacted and harassed on Twitter.