The Playboy Interview With Seth Abramson
A candid conversation with America’s most dogged pursuer of the Trump-Russia story
Seth Abramson is a hard fellow to read. A Twitter-savvy commentator on the president’s alleged Russia ties and author of the 2018 book Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, he doesn’t look like a natty legal analyst, nor does he come across as an investigative reporter or a goggle-eyed conspiracy theorist living on rage, Adderall and likes. Instead, he could be a regional manager for a call-center chain, wearing roomy jeans, a suit jacket and extremely sensible shoes. Not long ago, he says, he wore nothing but athleisure pieces with sports logos. This suit jacket represents a recent, if only occasional, addition to his ensemble. With his book advance, he also bought a homely new Subaru sedan.
As with the best normcores, Abramson’s rejection of style reflects its own punk defiance. Roomy jeans notwithstanding, he knows how to calculate an aesthetic effect. On Twitter, Abramson helped pioneer the literary form of the “thread.” Both admired and reviled, the thread uses a string of tweets to create a kind of argument in epigrams. Threads are personality driven, and readers (including hate-readers) of Abramson’s tweets have gotten to know the eccentric New Hampshirite through his meticulous attention to the evidence of Trumpworld’s alleged collusion with the Kremlin. His threads demonstrate his almost robotic recall and gift for sequential thinking, his love of asterisks as italics and, above all, his sometimes tedious prolificacy. An Abramson thread can run to thousands upon thousands of words, which is no mean feat on a platform meant to inspire thoughts consisting of 280 characters or fewer.
Abramson was born on Halloween 1976, in Concord, Massachusetts. He’s a professor of communications art and science at the University of New Hampshire, as well as a published “conceptual poet” and a lawyer with five degrees—a B.A. from Dartmouth, an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. As a poet, he has produced adventurous (and often weird) stuff such as a mash-up of many of the cruel things he’s been called online. In 2018 he was named a columnist at Newsweek, but his position within the fourth estate is unfixed: Not only is he easily dismissed as a lefty Jerome Corsi or Alex Jones, but as a rule media gatekeepers don’t like random Twitter freestylers getting unlimited word counts and 600,000 followers. No wonder outlets from The Atlantic to Slate to The New Republic have called Abramson “delusional,” “hyperbolic” and stuck in a “conspiracy mind-set.”
And yet his case, launched on March 13, 2017 with a so-called “mega-thread” on the Trump-Russia connection, is compelling. If Proof of Collusion seems woolly, it’s because Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin is damned woolly. As of this writing, not one error has been found in the book, which offers what Abramson calls “a theory of the case” of Trump-Russia. The theory? That Trump and his aides conspired with the Kremlin and other hostile powers to exchange control over American foreign policy for money and election help.
In person, it’s Abramson’s extraordinary kindness, his sly brain and his no-frills charm that get you.
Playboy sent Virginia Heffernan—a columnist for Wired and the Los Angeles Times, host of the Trumpcast podcast and author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art—to interview Abramson at a Hilton hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire; he lives nearby with his wife and two dogs. Heffernan reports: “Shortly after we met, Abramson told me that two reporters had recently been dispatched to interview him for what he predicted would be ‘hit pieces.’ Square and provincial, far from the cliquey Beltway and Manhattan pundits, he’s plenty fun to drag. But a funny thing happened to the reporters: They didn’t write their hatchet jobs, because they started to…like him. More than that, they started to believe him. As the Department of Justice continues to churn out indictments of major Trumpworld players, slagging journalists who have tirelessly documented the Trump-Russia story has begun to lose its savor.
“In person, it’s Abramson’s extraordinary kindness, his sly brain and his no-frills charm that get you. The fact that few major media outlets have ever had his back—the late media reporter David Carr once said he’d have no authority if his last name weren’t ‘of The New York Times’—makes him more appealing, not less. He’s a midrange sedan amid the sleek BMWs of the cable-news set, and when I’m feeling vertigo in Trump times, it’s Seth Abramson I turn to for clarity. His analysis gives me confidence that someday this will end. And maybe there will even be justice.”
These are uncanny times. I walk through my days as an American thinking, simultaneously, We’re under Russian occupation and Another day at the office. It exerts such a cognitive burden that the relief of seeing you spell it out is a kind of comfort you might not have intended to give.
I can honestly say I never thought my writing would comfort anyone. I receive scores of messages every week saying that it has exactly that effect, but my assumption on the front end of writing what I’ve been writing was that it would irk a large number of people. Even when I’m not writing about the law, my brain has been wired to think like a lawyer and to break down arguments in a particular way that I thought would actually frustrate most people, particularly those who aren’t lawyers.
But this is the Playboy Interview—irk is allowed. Frustration is allowed. Fury is encouraged. You can even cop to impure thoughts, like Jimmy Carter. Think of all the gonzo people who have done this interview: Miles Davis, Vladimir Nabokov, Yoko Ono. You’re left-brained gonzo.
Or Pynchonesque, some people say.
Okay, Pynchonesque, meaning you’re in your head and excruciatingly detailed.
Normally, if you’re a writer and someone tells you you’re Pynchonesque, you would be thrilled. But when people describe me as Pynchonesque, they mean I might be seeing connections between signals that are, in fact, completely discrete.
And that maybe you’re writing fiction.
With that in mind, I want you to prove collusion to me.
As the left-brained gonzo that I am, the first thing we have to determine is what our frame of reference is. There’s a certain amount of information about collusion that would be found compelling in a movie called Proof of Collusion. There’s information that would hold water in court. There’s information that might make a corporate journalist say, “We now have proof of collusion.” Then there’s a certain amount of evidence that would cause a partisan to change their perspective on the collusion question and say, “Hey, I was wrong: I thought there was collusion, and there isn’t,” or “I said there was no collusion, and in fact there is.” If we put partisanship aside, I believe there are several dozen incidents in the Trump-Russia timeline that should be received as collusion across any of those paradigms. One example is Donald Trump sitting down with his National Security Advisory Committee on March 31, 2016. One of his advisors, George Papadopoulos, said to the assembled group, roughly, that he had secretly been in contact with agents of the Kremlin and that he had been tasked by these Kremlin agents to act as an intermediary in setting up a secret summit between Trump and the president of Russia that no one will know happened, and that the Kremlin had cleared him to do the scheduling and the logistics and the communication between the two parties to ensure that the two are able to discuss geopolitical complications in American foreign policy without anyone knowing about that conversation.
What gives you the confidence to say this is something that really happened?
When *The Washington Post *first reported what George Papadopoulos claimed to have communicated to Trump, they phrased it as Papadopoulos revealing himself “as an intermediary for the Russian government.” Adding to that, I believe there’s the legal language, which is that if you are acting as a Kremlin intermediary who has been specially tasked by the Kremlin to communicate a message and also to schedule a secret summit, you are, legally speaking, an agent of the Kremlin. So let’s apply that to the courtroom paradigm: George Papadopoulos, legally speaking, was acting as a special agent for the Kremlin in that situation. He informed an entire room of men working on Trump’s campaign that he was a Kremlin agent for that special purpose. Their response to that was not to contact the FBI, not to fire him, not to tell him, “Don’t do this,” but in fact to promote him to the speech-writing team for Donald Trump’s first foreign policy speech. At that point, that speech was four weeks away. Across any of the paradigms I mentioned—political partisanship, the courtroom, journalism, Hollywood—that’s collusion.
Especially the Hollywood one. Suave, bronzed Papadopoulos, with his instagrammability, his reality-TV aspirations, so eager to make himself useful——
I truly didn’t pick that example because I thought it was the best. It just came to mind.
But seriously, what makes Papadopoulos’s appearance at that national-security meeting and his self-identification as a Kremlin intermediary so important that you mentioned it first?
Papadopoulos’s role in the Trump-Russia story is primarily that of a canary in the coal mine. He is constantly saying things to people connected to Trump and, in some cases, to Trump himself that should immediately cause those people—if they are acting in accordance with the law, American values and our democratic processes—to tell him to stop or to amend their own behavior immediately. But they don’t.
I’ll give another example. On April 26, 2016, Joseph Mifsud tells Papadopoulos that the Kremlin has stolen Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. According to Trump aide John Mashburn, who testified before Congress, Papadopoulos did, in fact, communicate that information to the campaign. Well, great. The moment he communicates that information, it should have been clear to everyone in the Trump campaign, from Donald Trump all the way down, that if there’s one thing you now cannot legally do under any circumstances it’s take any action to try to acquire Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, because you’ve been told that they were stolen. So now you know that cybercrimes are being committed against the United States. You know that any such materials are stolen property. You know that they have value, which is why the Kremlin stole them. If you solicit them or take them, that’s an illegal campaign donation from a foreign national—a thing of in-kind value.
What happens is the moment Papadopoulos communicates that information to the Trump campaign, it sets off a firestorm of activity, from top to bottom, trying to get that stolen material. Papadopoulos didn’t steal any material, and while he perhaps should have registered as a foreign agent, his decision to communicate what someone had told him to someone else is not a crime. But it should have smacked the conscience and sense of legal responsibility of everyone on the Trump campaign. They should have changed their behavior from that moment onward. In fact, I believe it did nothing but excite their desire to act in a criminal fashion as much as possible throughout the entire summer of 2016.
We focus on Alexander Downer, which is the sort of “look at the monkey” trick someone might pull to keep you from focusing on what’s important.
It’s amazing when Trumpworld’s desire to go crime’ing gets excited. It’s like the jealous girlfriend meme: Paul Manafort walking hand in hand with crimes and ogling——
Okay, but the other thing about Papadopoulos that’s relevant for the Mueller probe is that his yapping likely is what set off the FBI. The right has tried to say that it was suspicions about Carter Page, or the appearance of the Steele dossier, that initiated the FBI investigation. And it has tried and failed to frame those things, and thus the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties itself, as unlawful and partisan. But as far as I know, the first cue to American intelligence services was the word from the Australian diplomat dude Papadopoulos spilled secrets to one night, reportedly when he’d had too much to drink. Is that right?
Okay. You’re damn good with the names.
I would say this: The question of how the counterintelligence investigation into five members of Trump’s campaign was initiated is entirely immaterial.
If I told you that, instead of a missive from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, it was a candygram from someone wearing a bunny suit who showed up at the FBI office, said “Look into George Papadopoulos” and then vanished in a puff of smoke, would I care if the FBI then started asking questions to see whether there was something they needed to investigate? I wouldn’t, unless they violated someone’s constitutional rights with, say, a warrant that had no reasonable suspicion or probable cause behind it or an investigative stop with no reasonable suspicion behind it. But what excites the suspicion of a federal agent in this situation is really only relevant to the right, because they have a Rube Goldberg–like theory of a federal conspiracy that works only if the feds had some other hidden motive for initiating this investigation. Since we have no evidence of that, the question of how the investigation began is, at best, a legal question that would be handled at some future trial through a motion in limine [a pre-trial motion to exclude testimony or evidence].
A much more important question is how, when Papadopoulos ends up on the speech-editing team for Trump’s first foreign policy address, the speech he’s editing has effectively, as I see it, been written by a lobbyist for the Kremlin-controlled gas company Gazprom and Dimitri Simes, president and chief executive officer of the Center for the National Interest, who has been described as friendly with Vladimir Putin. I believe that is another instance of, on its face, collusion. You do not have your foreign policy secretly written and edited by Kremlin agents and then represent your foreign policy as merely the product of your own American values and belief in the best interest of America when you know that what you expressed were the Kremlin’s values and the Kremlin’s agenda. That is prima facie collusion in the broad sense of that term. Yet we focus on Alexander Downer, which is the sort of “look at the monkey” trick someone might pull to keep you from focusing on what’s important. Even if Downer had never existed or Papadopoulos had never relayed any information to him—if, in fact, he had made up out of whole cloth this revelation from Papadopoulos—we already know that at least five allied intelligence agencies communicated to the U.S. around the same time that there were suspicious contacts between Trump aides and associates speaking to Kremlin agents.
Lately people call me a very old-timey word I never thought I’d hear this much: grifter.
But grant me that Papadopoulos supposedly blathering about collusion while drunk is cinematic—everyone’s favorite “coffee boy.” All right, give me another data point that you find persuasive in the case for collusion.
Let’s stick with that four-week period. We don’t just have the March 31 meeting and the fact that Papadopoulos contributed to the first foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel on April 27, 2016. Let’s stick with the same sort of fact pattern and find a third instance of collusion. According to J.D. Gordon, who was the number two man on Trump’s National Security Advisory Committee, the Republican National Committee platform on the subject of Ukraine was changed in a way that would benefit the Kremlin when the convention came around in July 2016. Gordon told the Republican delegates with whom he was arguing about the platform that he was on the phone with Trump Tower, speaking with Donald Trump directly.
They then changed the platform in a way that would benefit the Kremlin. Gordon immediately begins lying and saying that he had no role whatsoever. Paul Manafort says the same. Donald Trump says, “I had no role in that. I was not involved,” even as alleged Kremlin spy Konstantin Kilimnik is running around Europe—and we know he’s a former associate of Paul Manafort’s—saying he made this change happen through his secret contacts with the Trump campaign.
And more recently it has come out that Manafort seems to have shared campaign data with Kilimnik, who was known as Manafort’s “Russian brain.”
Exactly. So we now know that there was an ongoing exchange of information and even negotiations between Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik about how much value monetarily Manafort was producing for Kilimnik and—through Kilimnik—to Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum magnate who has said, “I don’t separate myself from the state.” Deripaska does not see any daylight between himself and Vladimir Putin, so why should we?
Okay, we already have plenty of grassy knolls and book depositories to talk about, but I’d say the Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others, in June 2016, is maybe chief among them. Have I missed anything between April and——
Oh yes. Because by the time we even get to March 31, 2016, I count the number of acts of collusion for which Trump and the Trump campaign are responsible as in the double digits.
Let’s be very clear that throughout the presidential campaign, from the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, he was negotiating two multibillion-dollar Trump Tower Moscow deals—not just with Kremlin agents but directly with the Kremlin itself. That would be the Trump-Agalarov deal and the Trump-Rozov deal. Multi*billion *dollar. Trump was hiding this deal even from top executives in the Trump Organization. He lied about it to American voters by saying he had no association at all with the Kremlin or with Russian nationals. In so doing, in lying to Trump Organization executives, in lying to the voters, he was, every single time he lied—which was virtually daily—creating blackmail material for the Kremlin.
This also creates the possibility of Trump’s being charged with bribery if he was considering his businesses first when creating Russia policy. Those are not just acts of collusion as to each of those Trump Tower deals—the 2013 Trump-Agalarov deal [which Trump was in Moscow negotiating during the period described in the Steele dossier] and the 2015 Trump-Rozov deal; those are entire courses of conduct that take months to unfold and have numerous sub-events within them that are collusion.
In polite society the presumption of innocence is an option, not a mandate.
All this reporting and your analysis are both alarming and cut-and-dried. If you’re just synthesizing known material, why do people keep saying you’re rushing to judgment, running roughshod over due process?
Well, a few things. First, a lot of people misunderstand that the presumption of innocence is, in the law, what’s called a “trial presumption,” meaning it applies only for the jurors sitting in an actual criminal case. In polite society the presumption of innocence is an option, not a mandate. Number two, our standard for when and whether we apply the presumption of innocence doesn’t have to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Let me give you an example: Donald Trump, according to *The Washington Post, *lies on average 11 times a day. That means he would never be treated as a credible witness in any courtroom. It means he can’t be used as a source by reporters under basic journalistic principles. It also means that in our conventional politics, no one, as a partisan, should support any politician who lies 11 times every day. I would even say that if you take another paradigm I was talking about, the Hollywood paradigm, anyone who lies 11 times a day would be a terribly written character in a movie.
I’ve decided I’m not going to credit any of Donald Trump’s words whatsoever unless they are “a statement against interest,” which in the law is considered to have a special quality of reliability because the statement doesn’t serve the speaker’s interests. I never quoted a defense attorney for the truth of a matter unless it was—and, frankly, Trump’s attorneys do this with stunning regularity—a statement against interest that never should have been made and therefore has indicia of reliability because it is a deviation from professional responsibility, something made as an excited utterance.
Reading you and talking to you, I come away with the conclusion that, yes, you’re left-brained gonzo, but you’re also exceptionally earnest and prudent. It’s hard to reconcile this image of you with the one your detractors have—that you’re a crazy conspiracy theorist, an Alex Jones of the left.
Lately people call me a very old-timey word I never thought I’d hear this much: grifter. That is the ultimate way of saying I’m a deductive thinker—and as an academic, that upsets me more than anything else. I’ve made my life about building an inductive communication practice.
Once your critics can’t prove a writer like you is a paid operative for George Soros or the Kremlin——
I guess that is confusing. Why would anyone want to tell the truth about our times on Twitter? The cynical view is there can be no motivation for truth-telling and repping “resistance” unless it’s to pick up some DNC swag or some speaking gigs.
That’s exactly it. There are so many easier ways for someone with my educational and professional background to make money—many of which I was pursuing well before Donald Trump—than to go online and tweet 45,000 times for free. The idea that anyone gets on Twitter thinking, Well, this will lead to a book deal, is just—no one’s that crazy. But even separate from that, I think there’s a reason #resistance is used as a slur. If you google my name and “resistance,” almost every single article that comes up is a hit piece. The reason is that “resistance” also presumes a sort of deductive thinking, that you knew what the end result was going to be and then you figured out how to get there. You decided, “I am part of the #resistance; now how do I find my niche within that?” In fact, what the people writing those hit pieces don’t want to acknowledge is that someone like me or like Walter Shaub—former director of the Office of Government Ethics—got into this because of our values, which are something you build inductively, not because Donald Trump is president and not because there’s some movement you want to be part of. Donald Trump doesn’t determine my persona or my values.
I can tell you I afflicted the comfortable so much as a poet that I got myself thrown out of the American poetry community.
You and I, though we share a suspicion of Trump, are not naturally fellow travelers. If this were the summer of 2016, we might not have seen eye to eye, because I supported Hillary Clinton and you supported Bernie Sanders. We’ve even mixed it up online about Tad Devine, Bernie’s chief strategist and a running buddy of Paul Manafort. Things sometimes get testy on that score, but mostly we—and I think most Americans—are aligned in wanting some explanation of why, after the election, most of us felt, This isn’t America. And the truth is it wasn’t America. You have pointed out it was likely Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey putting torque on the people who hold power. Some might say we have a Russian asset in the White House.
Well, as you indicate, all it took to be a critic of Donald Trump was to have some sense of America’s core values as ingrained in our rule of law and in our democratic processes.
And maybe a passing interest in the Constitution.
Right. And therefore you can have people with incredibly heterogeneous backgrounds who find themselves in a position of offering a type of small-r “resistance” through their writing.
Now let’s talk about your work before all this. As a conceptual poet, your work seems to have been to afflict the comfortable, even destabilize our ideas of what counts as fiction and what counts as fact. But your purpose as a journalist seems to be the opposite: to lay down the facts, to comfort the afflicted.
Well, I can tell you I afflicted the comfortable so much as a poet that I got myself thrown out of the American poetry community. I have a background of being, maybe inadvertently, an affliction—in a way that is distressing to many.
Do poets think your writing is paranoid or “Russophobic” or whatever?
Oh no. Their objection was to my poetry, not to my journalism.
That’s kind of hilarious. I have to hear the story of you as a poetry-world affliction—like that Ultimate Fighting Championship logo. I mean, it’s obvious something is going on with your work on Twitter that excites all kinds of violent reactions. A magazine I respect once told readers not to read or retweet you. What? Nobody has ever told me not to read Tucker Carlson or Mein Kampf. Can I tell you the truth? For a while, before you had a Simon & Schuster contract, I worried that you wouldn’t be able to publish a word in the mainstream media because you had been tagged as a conspiracy nutter. So let’s talk about being hated, both in the poetry world and as a journalist.
I think I tend to involve myself—and have for many years, well before Donald Trump—in projects that create pretty spectacular threat matrices for a lot of people. That’s not why I do what I do, at all. I wish it were otherwise.
If the worst-case scenario is that I’m wrong, that isn’t going to concern me.
You make trouble.
Yes, and my wife and friends have noticed that trend. So when people react to me in that way—partly for that reason and partly because they almost never actually dissect anything I’ve said in any detail, and if they do, not in a way that’s at all serious—I tend to think that the threat I’m posing is not a threat to truth or knowledge or responsible discourse but one of these other data points in the matrix of threats that any highly fraught situation can create.
In these times in particular, your professional failings can suddenly have existential consequences and could get you labeled “Vichy,” or a collaborationist. That can be terrifying.
One of the things that give a certain sort of existential as well as intellectual and emotional comfort about being process-oriented is that if you execute the process to the best of your ability, it doesn’t guarantee the right result, but it can guarantee peace of mind. So I never go to bed in a cold sweat about whether I might be wrong—not because I don’t think it’s possible that I could be wrong, but because I know that when I write on Twitter I’m bringing to bear my expertise as an attorney, as someone who has worked as a criminal investigator, to the best of my ability. If the worst-case scenario is that I’m wrong, that isn’t going to concern me, because I’m invested mostly in process. But also because what great news it would be for the country if I’m wrong.
Now, how does that play into people who are full-time journalists working at corporate media institutions who are unhappy with what I’m doing? They see me engaging in a different type of process and in a different venue than they’re accustomed to, and therefore they see it as a threat to their process. But if you’ve worked in the criminal justice system as I have for a number of years, that is the perfect locus for many different, and in many respects contradictory, processes to be performed at once: The processes that law enforcement brings to bear are very different from those of a prosecutor, which are very different again from those of a probation officer, a judge, a defense attorney—and yet they are all in the same room, and they all believe that ultimately a just result will, more often than not, be reached. Granted, it’s often not reached, but it is reached enough that we can remain hopeful that the process, as we continue to perfect it, will lead to more and more justice over time.
The conventional journalistic process says no one can watch me at work. But I don’t mind having people see me at work.
It’s impressive that you don’t get brittle and defensive on Twitter. You hardly go a day without sticking to your subject, and you’ve carved out a lane for yourself: the Seth Abramson lane. A few times I’ve felt that you were trying for other Twitter styles, like quips, but I could almost see your discomfort. You want to go back to your patented long-thread process, which builds on itself and corrects itself as it goes. You usually acknowledge when you’ve made so much as a spelling mistake.
I see you’re having a little trouble with “Kilimnik,” by the way.
Yes, but did you see that I issued a correction and noted that I had misspelled it as “Kilimnick”? All that happens in the open. One of the things I’m doing is letting readers see my process. One of the few positive effects of the digital age is that we’re better able to handle contradictory and ephemeral information that we know might be fixed down the line. We’re able to better deal with temporary cognitive dissonance and say, “Look, these two things are in conflict and I know one of them has to be wrong. I’ll just remember each of them and hold them in my head, knowing that one is ultimately not going to be true.” The conventional journalistic process says no one can watch me at work. But I don’t mind having people see me at work, and I don’t mind being wrong, because I think my readers understand I’m doing the best I can. I will admit when I’m wrong.
That sounds pretty normal and sane, but what’s this about being a “curatorial journalist” or, worse yet, a “metajournalist”? I’m going to tell you right now: The old newspapermen who still get the scoops don’t like that fancy academic jive.
Yes, I know what they say: “Someone who’s a curatorial journalist or a metajournalist gets the benefit of a hard-news reporter’s work without doing the work.” That sort of intraprofessional tension is very common. Prosecutors don’t fully understand the work that defense attorneys do and vice versa. Still, I think it’s easy for a conventional, hard-news reporter to presume that what I do is easy. But if it were so easy for reporters to fully immerse themselves in all the reporting that has been done on a subject before they write, they’d all be, like me, reading Greek media, Lebanese media, Qatari media, British media. They’re not doing that, because they also have things I don’t have: deadlines and pressure to get stories out at a certain clip. I have to read much, much more than your average reporter because I have to survey the whole field. I will never say that a hard-news reporter’s job is easy, and I wish they wouldn’t say what I do is easy.
But many people understand how to do this curatorial work. It’s about disposition. We live in a time when video gamers are being used to solve medical mysteries, and the reason a large number of them are so good at solving mysteries that even experts can’t solve is because they’re comfortable with failure. The very definition of being a video gamer is to take a risk, find out it’s a mistake, fail, die and then try again. Increasingly with services like Twitch, you’re doing all those things in public, and you’re willing to have people see you fail. We’ve gotten to the point where there’s even considered to be a certain beauty in failing spectacularly. In the digital age we must handle an excess of information, and we better learn how to handle it and allow for failure and false leads. That’s how we’re going to figure out how to survive.
But there’s also a certain intolerance of mistakes.
Okay, so this is why I’m no longer a working poet. I wrote a poem that was perceived to be a mistake. It’s actually a broader conversation in poetry right now, about the openness of contemporary poetry to mistakes, failure and recovery.
Was it seen as racist, like you wrote in Ebonics or you——
I’m dying to know.
I’m a literary remixer. I had a theory that there is certain language in the public sphere that’s incredibly destructive. A young man who had killed some people had written a manifesto, and I decided to take all the words—and only the words—in his manifesto and remix them into a statement of love and peace directed against his act of hatred.
Was this the incel figure in California, Elliot Rodger?
This was the incel figure in California, yes. And a couple of things happened. Number one, a lot of people mistakenly thought the poem was written in his voice. It was not. It was actually an address to him. But a lot of people also said, understandably, that this language is so dangerous and so charged that even using it as material to create something completely different—even something intended to combat the hatred of his words—invests each of those words with a sort of power and utility when, in fact, we want to turn away from them altogether.
I’m a metamodernist. I believe either we can find a way to use language to empower ourselves to fight what we hate in that language or we can say that we’re going to turn away. But we can’t turn away; that’s just letting the language continue to damage us. But I’m no longer a poet, because I wrote that poem.
Hold on: “metamodernist”?
Yes. Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, a University of Oregon professor, coined that term in 1975. He believed that the public sphere needed a way of thinking that was more pragmatically useful than postmodernism for actual activist ends. Postmodernism is a useful sort of private paradigm through which to emotionally and intellectually react to phenomena. But in the public sphere you need something more “between and beyond”—more meta—to achieve your very specific real-world ends.
A good example of metamodernism is the early stand-up comedy of Sarah Silverman: this sort of “I’m just a little girl” routine, but using it to undercut misogyny in a really smart way. That would be considered sort of metamodernist. Oh, and do you remember the Saturday Night Live sketch of Kate McKinnon singing “Hallelujah” right after Hillary Clinton lost and Leonard Cohen died? That was a very metamodern moment because you don’t know how to process it. What was the tone behind that? What was the intention? Her position was very hard to pin down, but that made it impossible to look away from, and it was carrying such an emotional freight that even if you didn’t understand why it moved you or whether you should be laughing or if it was in bad taste—at least for me, it made me feel better.
So my poem was literally written with all this in mind, but many people felt it was a game in my head and that publishing it was destructive: You’re being insensitive to the feelings of others. If someone says, “This is really harmful,” you can’t say, “No, it’s not.” I mean, it is or it isn’t, and that’s something someone else gets to decide. Quite fairly so.
The Washington Post is counting up his lies. They should be doing the opposite.
Back to Kate McKinnon. When she performed “Hallelujah” that night, Breitbart jumped on it and tweeted, “We did it, fam. We broke them.” And that seemed so sadistic to me that now I tweet that line and tag Breitbart whenever the right is having its time in the barrel, to use a Roger Stone meme.
Ah—meme drift! When the language becomes severed from the image in the first few stages, but eventually the language and the image change. You know, I wonder sometimes whether I have become a meme, because I will see people on Twitter say to someone writing too much on any subject, “Don’t go all Seth Abramson on this.” But the funniest part for me is that there will always be one or two people who say, “Who the fuck is Seth Abramson?” So it’s a meme fail, right?
The other meme around you is when people put “1/3,218” at the end of a tweet, to suggest they’re going to be threading for days.
That drives me up a wall, because you can’t thread that way. You thread not knowing how long the thread is going to be; that’s the whole point. People will say, “Seth Abramson, one out of 2 million,” and I wish it were that easy. I wish I knew that this was going to end at 2 million.
Okay, so you’re accused of writing too long and of being a grifter. But people also say you’re a fraud—and fraud is such a watchword of our time. We have a conspiracy to defraud the United States, in the words of Robert Mueller. Trump has been called a fraud with Trump University and the Trump Foundation.
I had a journalist with The Chronicle of Higher Education ask me, more than once, “Do you think you’re like Donald Trump in any way?” And while I understood him asking the question because the context of the article was about me developing a following on Twitter, what I really wanted to say was I think Donald Trump got elected because our fraud sensors are really bad right now. If you’re reading my discourse on who I am and how I came to write what I write as some sort of elaborate fraud while, in this country, just enough people were completely blind to the obvious career-long and lifelong fraud that Donald Trump is, that suggests there’s a problem.
As an attorney, can you tell me if there has ever been anyone else so consistent in lying and who says so often the diametric opposite of the truth—like “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet”?
Trump is revealing the truth through the lies, effectively. I’ve represented thousands of criminal defendants but never a single person who lies even 10 percent as much as Trump does—and I’m including people charged with financial crimes, armed robbery, you name it—which says to me that he is pathological as a liar. But it is systemic, like any pathology, and therefore it gives you an opportunity to recognize the system and either work around it or somehow repurpose it in a way that is generative. What I’ve said to people is that they should understand any Donald Trump sentiment as being fundamentally a lie, and their goal should be to figure out if there’s any truth anywhere in what he says, rather than looking for the lies. The Washington Post is counting up his lies. They should be doing the opposite: “How many truths can we find?”
Donald Trump is the living embodiment of the internet. As a result, if he commits a criminal conspiracy, it’s like the internet: Everything is too public and too available.
And in addition to the lies, he has boasted of things that are at the core of the potential crimes Mueller is investigating, like “Russia, if you’re listening” and “I love WikiLeaks.” I’m convinced we can get a confession out of him, but the way to do it would be to say, “You’re right; there’s no collusion. It’s much bigger than collusion. It’s much more interesting than collusion. You’ve done something no American president has ever done——”
My wife has made the point a million times that what reporters should do is simply use what they know happened and turn it into praise. They should say to Trump, “You were smart enough to see that our interests are aligned with Russia’s interests more than any previous president ever had—in fact, none of them realized it at all. You realized it and so you said, ‘Hey, if I can put us in a place where we’re going to have peace with Russia, where we’re both going to benefit, why shouldn’t I?’ Moreover, you’re a businessman who became a politician. You shouldn’t have to give up making money. That’s why we end up with so many terrible politicians: No one who has been successful wants to become a politician. You made a decision that you weren’t going to give up your success and your ability to make money just because you were going to be a politician, and you realized in the bargain that it would benefit everybody. Why in the world would you ever apologize for that?”
“That’s right. I’m amazing and that’s tremendous.”
And then he would have just confessed to something as close to treason as you’re going to get without actually committing it. From a certain standpoint—and I realize now I’m going to take a dive into the theoretical—this administration is the first metamodern criminal scandal. All prior public corruption scandals had to include a conversation about how information was hidden and what we were able to access. That was where the drama was: “Can we get that 18 minutes of tape? Does it prove the case?” Donald Trump is the living embodiment of the internet. As a result, if he commits a criminal conspiracy, it’s like the internet: Everything is too public and too available. It’s so present to us—the criminal conspiracy—that the challenge is “Do we have the correct frame of mind and discourse about how evidence works to recognize what is already public?” It’s a new type of criminal scandal the likes of which investigators have never seen before, lawyers have never seen before, journalists have never seen before, the public’s never seen before. The test for us is not “Can we get to the information?” but “Do we understand what we’re seeing?”
All this news-cycle poisoning has been an affront. We’re already traumatized by digitization. Concerned citizens have had to put every bit of energy into reading, investigating and keeping sane and wise in a political discourse that feels like chaos, vertigo and danger.
That’s true. But at the same time I hear a lot of people rising to that challenge: “I am going to educate myself on topics I never would have been interested in if we weren’t in a civic emergency right now.” That is a story that, oddly, I think we don’t hear very often in either left-wing, centrist or right-wing journalism. We have the conversation about fake news versus real news, whereas if we had a more complex post-internet conversation about information generally, we’d see that this whole thing has actually been a success story for people’s willingness to engage with information in complex ways.
And how exciting and ennobling is it for us, as a country, that so many of us are actually willing to learn new information and skills in order to make our country slowly, with many steps back along the way, a better place?