Illing: In 2009, you wrote a book called The Great Derangement in which you talked about various fringe political movements around the country. A big theme was the loss of trust in national institutions, like Congress and the media. You even described a possible future in which politics “stopped being about ideology and … instead turned into a problem of information.”The interview closes with some thoughts about the future:
That reads like prophecy now. What did you see in 2009?
Matt Taibbi: The main thing was that I saw people tuning out the media. A lot of us have this idea that the truth has a kind of magical power, that if the truth is out there it will convince the country to unite behind it. But this isn't so. People can simply decide to not believe a version of events now. They can shop for information the same way they'd shop for everything else, and they pick the reality they find most pleasing.
Back when I was thinking about the rapture movement or the 9/11 truther movement, what struck me was that there are bubbles now that you can stay in and you don't have to engage with reality if you don't want to. So it occurred to me that in the future, people might decide en masse to completely tune out. Even the idea of having a debate with people about a commonly accepted body of facts seemed to be slipping away at the time.
And that's kind of what happened in this election. It was one group of people believing one thing and another group of people seeing something completely different.
Illing: Speaking of the next four years, your book ends on a pessimistic note. You basically declare the dream of unified country dead. Is it that dark?I am with Taibbi in this: the really disturbing thing about out time is the collapse of any shared notion of truth. If Americans divide into two groups with two completely different narratives about the world, I don't see how we can live in the same democracy.
Taibbi: Yeah, I think it is.
Illing: Are you encouraged at all by the massive protests or the fact that Trump is historically unpopular?
Taibbi: Not enough to feel especially hopeful about the future. I lived in Russia for several years and one of the things that struck me is how naive I had been growing up in the United States. If you grew up in America, you have no idea how bad it can get. The possibilities for awfulness in human experience are far beyond what we're used to.
I think we're just beginning to see how bad things can get. We have an illusion of stability thanks to our wealth and geography and the fact that we're still a young country. We take so much for granted. As Yeats said, things can fall apart. The center doesn't hold forever.
I see things starting to fray here and it's unsettling.
Illing: Political order is perilously contingent, and that’s a lesson America hasn’t learned in a long time.
Taibbi: That's exactly right. I’m not sure how this will play out, but it feels like we’re at the beginning of … something.