How did you come to May of 2020 as your unifying theme?
Well, the first season of “Things Fell Apart” was my lockdown project. First time I’ve ever done any journalism where I didn’t travel—I just did all the interviews remotely from my laundry room upstate. It was fantastic. It was also a bit of an experiment. Like, I’m not as young as I was. Can I still do journalism without taking a hundred flights?
One of my favorite little moments from your audiobook about Alex Jones and the pro-Trump right [“The Elephant in the Room”] is when you’re at the R.N.C., it’s summertime, it’s hot, and you follow him into his air-conditioned Winnebago, and you both let out these middle-aged sighs as you sit down. That’s a very human moment.
[Laughs.] They wanted Season 2 of “Things Fell Apart,” and I wanted parameters. My first thought was that lockdown might be interesting. And then what I discovered through research was that pretty much every culture-war story in recent memory blew up within twenty days of each other. Which makes sense, of course. But I’m not sure if anybody had really noticed that.
You’re both an expert in cancellation and a person with a long-standing interest in third rails. Do you have a generalized theory for why you’ve spent your life touching third rails and not getting cancelled?
I’m delighted that that’s the case. Sometimes I’m a little mystified.
There’s an Australian journalist, John Safran. He’s very good. He’s in the same sort of mold as me and Louis Theroux and so on. And he brought this up to me. I was having lunch with him in Central Park, and he said, “Have you noticed that we never get in trouble?” His theory was that we’ve been grandfathered in.
But I think the main reason, hopefully, is that I’m not an ideological person. And often, if my stories are critical of anyone, they’re critical of, you know, both sides.
This gets us back to that question of: When do you actually have to be a little more judgmental than you might be inclined to be? In theory, it sounds great not to render judgment, and yet—
I don’t think I let people off too easy. I just don’t do it in a way that is performative or hierarchical or, you know, gotcha-y.
I remember when Trump said, “There’s very fine people on both sides.” I just put my head in my hands, because I’m, like, You’ve just ruined it for all of us both-siders.
A few years ago, when people used to say “The Internet is mad about this” or “Here’s what people are talking about today,” what they tended to mean was Twitter. Even though it was, by definition, never close to a majority of people.
And yet Twitter did have outsized influence.
And now, with this more desiccated version of—I find it hard to call it X . . .
It’s a bit like ordering a venti latte at Starbucks.
Or referring to Snoop Dogg as Snoop Lion, or whatever. Anyway, I try to stay off of it, for all the familiar reasons, but the other week, when the Chabad guys were in the tunnel, I did go to Twitter, because I thought, O.K., social media, this is your time to shine. And there was some funny stuff on there, but for one thing it felt instantly oversaturated—like, the same dozen memes, maki.