I have an embarrassing confession to make: I kind of like Seth Abramson.
Actually, no, not kind of. Fuck it. I like him.
I will no longer cower in shame. The college professor, former public defender (and Harvard Law ’01 alum), occasional HuffPost blogger, popularizer of a newish cultural philosophy known as “metamodernism,” published experimental poet, and self-described “horizontal journalist” or “curatorial journalist” counts me among his as-of-this-moment 548,264 Twitter followers.
For those who haven’t encountered his work, Abramson is what’s more commonly called a citizen journalist in that he writes about the Russia probe (which he would probably describe as a “Russia-Saudi Arabia-UAE-Qatar-Israel probe”) but is not connected with a major media institution.
Or he wasn’t, that is, until he landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster, to the deep annoyance of just about everyone I know in the business.
Not me. I’m fine with it. I got my hands on a review copy, and it turns out — contrary to early indications — not to be a collection of his tweets after all. Instead, Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America is a straightforward 400-plus page distillation of the available reporting on the subject to this point, culled almost entirely from published news articles and court filings, all boiling down to a simple if troubling contention: “Donald Trump and a core group of ten to twenty aides, associates and allies conspired with a hostile foreign power,” as Abramson put it, “to sell that power control over America’s foreign policy in exchange for financial reward and — eventually — covert election assistance.”
The evidence Abramson assembles is compelling, and we don’t know the half of it.
It is, as the author concedes, merely a “theory of the case” at this point. But it’s the only plausible theory, he adds, that “coordinates with all the existing evidence” and “explains decades of suspicious behavior by Donald Trump, his family, and his closest associates.”
Incredible as the story of Trump’s Russian entanglements always sounds when stated plainly, the evidence Abramson assembles is compelling, and we don’t know the half of it. Robert Mueller, presumably, knows more.
Proof of Collusion may surprise Abramson’s detractors. Written more in the style of a legal criminal complaint than a potboiler, the book is almost entirely devoid of speculative musing or all-caps melodrama. Readers will search in vain for the juicy West Wing backbiting that made airport best-sellers out of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. In fact, it’s not even all that entertaining — and that’s to its credit. It’s more like homework. Or more accurately, by pulling together the many strands of a dizzyingly complex story, it offers a meticulous cheat sheet to the homework we should all be doing, diligently prepared by the relentlessly ostracized dork in the front row.
I first encountered Abramson via his now infamous “MEGA-THREAD” from March 23, 2017. It boldly alleged: “The plot to sell America’s foreign policy for foreign oil _and_ steal an election in the bargain began at the Mayflower Hotel.” That first tweet out of an eventual 50 — declarative, nervy, unequivocal — went live at 8:45 p.m. that day and has since received over 21,000 likes and nearly as many retweets.
The sprawling analysis did seem a touch overblown at the time — with its feverish speculation about the Trump campaign’s last-minute decision to switch the setting for the candidate’s first foreign-policy speech from the National Press Club to a ballroom in the Mayflower Hotel, claiming they needed more space. Abramson maintained that the new venue was smaller, theorizing that the real goal was to find a venue with private VIP areas in which one might, if so inclined, host an exclusive 24-person cocktail reception that would include the ambassadors to three countries (Russia, Italy, and Singapore) that were involved in a massive sale of stock in Rosneft, the Russian oil giant.
Nineteen months ago, this seemed like a bit of a stretch. Even though Abramson had laid out his case in seemingly obsessive detail, relying as he does in the book on elements that had been reported in mainstream outlets, the thread did have the breathless tone of a conspiracy theory. And Abramson’s questionable decision to advertise it as a “MEGA-THREAD” was, in terms of Twitter etiquette, a little like wearing Vibram FiveFingers shoes to a Miss Universe after-party.
Deadspin pounced, declaring Abramson “the reigning king of diarrhea tweeting” and pointing out a fatal flaw in his reasoning: The Mayflower ballroom is bigger. Whoops.
But then, another twist! In short order, Abramson pointed out that actually, no, the speech had taken place not in the grand ballroom but in a different space that was, in fact, smaller, forcing Deadspin to begrudgingly update its post.
This stuff is homework, and the nerdy kid is on it.
The more critical issue with Abramson’s thread, from a journalistic point of view, was that line about “[selling] America’s foreign policy for foreign oil.” Because while it is alleged in the famous Steele dossier that the Trump team, via Carter Page, had been offered a massive brokerage fee on the Rosneft deal in exchange for loosening sanctions on Russia, it is not yet proven. In fact, Page denied that such a meeting even took place — until months later when he admitted under oath that it had.
His assertions might not have met the standards at the New York Times — but this was Twitter.
Was Abramson making a few leaps? Sure. And he’d kind of bared his ass with that “MEGA-THREAD” stuff. It’s not hard to see why Deadspin took the approach it did: Exposing an international criminal conspiracy is really hard. Why bother trying to run it down, and probably failing, when you can scoff at it instead and sound just as smart?
The derision was unseemly, though. Abramson’s assertions might not have met the standards of the New York Times or another prestigious outlet — but this was Twitter. A grain of salt is standard equipment. And compared with most of what pours through my feed, this struck me as solid content.
In the year and a half since, I pored over quite a few “MEGA-THREADS.” I absorbed Abramson’s analysis of the 2013 Miss Universe pageant and especially the allegations made by Kata Sarka, the former Miss Hungary. I scrolled, spellbound, through these mostly well-reasoned speculations about the private walkway linking Trump Tower and Carter Page’s offices at 590 Madison; about the decisive pressure campaign against Jim Comey by rogue agents in the FBI’s New York field office; about the curious travels of George Papadopoulos; and about the Trump-Kennedy deal to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
Were they airtight in every detail? I have no fucking clue. But they were good threads, pulling together the reporting of credentialed journalists — reporting that those same journalists were often failing to place in context. While I never went so far as to retweet them (brushing off Abramson’s many cringey entreaties to do so), I did find them insightful.
That makes me a dupe, according to my colleagues in the media, who made a crusade of trying to shame me and Abramson’s other followers for our innocent habit. A pile-on ensued, in which it seemed just about everyone got in at least one good sucker punch. The New Republic took a shot (“conspiracy mind-set”), followed by the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins (“delusional”), the Atlantic’s David Graham (“bizarre”), Slate (“hyperbolic sleight of hand”), and the Washington Post, which helpfully pointed out that “The New Republic and Atlantic have both dismissed the professor as a conspiracy theorist.”
They all warned me off, deploying the deadliest snark in their respective arsenals. I read each one, and then I kept reading Abramson. Sure, he got a little over his skis sometimes — like when he speculated about the identity of the dossier’s “Source E.” But the speculation was labeled as such, and thoughtfully reasoned; you could follow the logic, even dig up the source material if you were so inclined, and decide whether it made sense. Plus, as I said, it was just Twitter, and speculating on Twitter about the biggest and most mind-bogglingly Pynchonesque news story any of us have ever encountered seemed like a perfectly worthy endeavor. And anyway, even themainstreammediamakesanoccasionalmistake.
But wow, the shade. Taken together, the mini-genre of Abramson hit-pieces constitute a master class in journalistic smarm. Rather than engaging with the content of his feed, they sought to handcuff him to a brigade of left-leaning conspiracy tweeters with whom he has little in common. They taunted him for being a poet, for being a creative writing professor, and for calling himself an attorney when his membership in the New Hampshire bar was, in fact, classified as “inactive.” And of course, for being thirsty online.
Curiously, though, what almost none of them bothered to do, with all the homilies about proper journalistic practice, was reach out to him for comment.
“I totally would talk to them, and they wouldn’t be able to write their piece, by the way,” Abramson insisted, sitting on the patio of his tidy home on a suburban street in southern New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife, a bunch of bird plushies, and a Lego collection. This was in the spring of 2017. The Trump administration was still fresh, and Abramson’s follower count numbered in the lowish six figures. I happened to be on vacation nearby, and I’d arranged a meeting thinking he might make an interesting subject for a profile. We wound up talking for four hours.
“I mean you can see from this conversation,” he went on, “that they probably would have just said, ‘Fuck this, I want don’t want to write about it because it’s too stupid and complicated.’”
It occurred to me that he might have a point. Nothing about Abramson is stupid, but he is complicated. He’s a Twitter celebrity, granted, and a Harvard-trained lawyer, but he’s also a scholar with a penchant for esoteric ideas and philosophical musings. And yes, he’s a poet (and poets, as he helpfully pointed out, are accustomed to being misunderstood).
With a chorus of birds in the background — bluejays, cardinals, robins, goldfinches, and “obviously a lot of sparrows,” he said — we talked less about Trump than about other aspects of his career, about his work as a criminal defense attorney and subsequent shift to academia; his battles with the literary establishment over the proper evaluation of MFA programs; his failed attempt to publish Shia LaBeouf’s tweets in the Best American Experimental Writing anthology, which he edits; his brazen incitement of the Star Wars fandom; his targeting by neo-Nazi hacker Andrew “weev” Auernheimer; and most of all, his embrace of a new philosophical paradigm known as metamodernism.
Abramson, who grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, was a shy kid, a “nonclinical agoraphobic,” as he puts it. Aside from going to school, he told me, “I stayed in my room with the doors locked almost every day for years. That was my life.”
When he finally resolved to make a change, it was a big one. At 19, he began working as a criminal investigator for a legal clinic in Washington, D.C., a move he thinks of as “a sort of violent overreaction to having done a certain amount of damage to myself as a young person by shutting myself off from the world. I went from sitting in my room to working the streets of Anacostia searching for witnesses and doing witness interviews.”
After graduating from Dartmouth, he entered Harvard Law with the goal of becoming a defense attorney. Abramson began working cases while still in school under Rule 33, which allows law students to represent indigent defendants. Court authorities gave him just 60 seconds to make his case to clients that they should let a student-attorney represent them, crouching to offer his services through a narrow “Judas slit” in the prison door.
“You feel like a fraud,” he said. “You worry that you’re going to let them down. And you see a lot of suffering.”
He turned to writing as a sort of therapeutic intervention, knocking out 400 poems in one year. After spending seven years as a public defender, he burned out and decided to go back to school. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “You’re seeing the car crash of our socioeconomics in the U.S. every single day. Emotionally I was breaking down. It was natural to reach for creative writing as a lifeline because it had always been that for me.”
Abramson wound up getting an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop, followed by a doctorate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he became convinced that MFA programs were too insular. Many of the top programs offered little or no funding, which meant that only well-off students could afford to pursue the discipline. Abramson decided to create a new ranking system that took the views of applicants into account. Naturally, their responses favored programs that didn’t demand they go into crippling debt, and the results instantly upended the traditional hierarchy.
Abramson says his goal was to force schools to offer MFA candidates more financial aid or risk their exalted status; meanwhile, he also pissed off a lot of people at elite programs. “They called me a charlatan,” he said of the backlash.
Abramson describes his MFA ranking battle as his first attempt of many to redefine the role of poetry in American life.
Another happened in May 2014: just two days after Elliot Rodger killed six people near the University of California at Santa Barbara, Abramson “remixed” Rodger’s final screed into an experimental poem and published it on the Huffington Post. The idea, he wrote, was to “to rescue language from a perversion of language,” to address the killer directly using his own words.
The poem doesn’t really work, as even Abramson admits now. And he’d “crossed an uncrossable line,” he said. His detractors in academia denounced him, and a mass-condemnation on Twitter followed. “It causes me a lot of pain to think about,” he told me. “I was wrecked for six or eight months.”
By December of that year, Abramson had soured on Twitter and deleted his feed, at least for awhile.
If modernism, which flourished in the early 20th century, was animated by a belief in reason, science, and universal truths, postmodernists offered a powerful counterargument: Everything was relative. The grand master narratives were simply myths. Truth was in the eye of the beholder.
Postmodernism turned out to be as depressing as it was persuasive, bringing on an epidemic of irony, self-consciousness, and passivity for which metamodernism proposes a cure. While it acknowledges that there is no objective truth, it nonetheless chooses to highlight the power of the stories, or “metanarratives,” that we tell about the world. And rather than getting hung up on longstanding dualities — cynicism versus optimism, reality versus fantasy, irony versus sincerity — it dances between the poles instead.
It’s a heady concept, but those who stumble on it often begin to see examples of metamodernism throughout the culture. It certainly helps explain how Abramson managed to identify the tectonic significance of Donald Trump’s presidential bid when nearly everyone else in the media was laughing it off.
The day after Trump announced his campaign in the summer of 2015, when the developer and TV star was just one of a dozen aspirants for the Republican nomination, Abramson posted an essay in which he argued that Trump’s was “a serious candidacy that will have serious repercussions for both Democrats and Republicans alike.” Rather than viewing the campaign as either a cynical branding ploy or a sincere attempt to lead the country, Abramson insisted it was both.
“Trump is smart enough to know when he — or his speeches; or his haircut; or his political ambitions — are being mocked,” he wrote, “but in the Metamodern Age we can develop metanarratives that animate us even as we fully recognize that they’re farcical to everyone else.”
As the campaign heated up, Abramson found himself doing the much same thing — developing metanarratives that, despite having a factual basis, were often seen as patently absurd. A supporter of Bernie Sanders, he wrote a series of pieces on HuffPo arguing that the Vermont senator had a real shot — essays that would later become Exhibit A in the media’s effort to paint Abramson as a peddler of false hopes for delusional liberals.
But the pieces are more subtle than critics acknowledged. The first made an interesting and original observation: If you ignored early balloting (which often took place before Sanders was well-known to voters) and looked only at election day votes in states that Sanders contested, he often tied or beat Clinton. The second piece explores an unlikely but plausible scenario where Sanders’ habit of doubling Clinton’s lead in head-to-head matchups against Trump might just spook her superdelegates into a mass defection.
What journalists don’t always seem to grasp is that we are also writing metanarratives — assembling the available facts to tell stories.
Gaming out such unlikely scenarios was risky, and Abramson was roundly mocked for it. But that doesn’t make play-it-safe punditry a more valuable service to readers.
Abramson’s metanarratives, by contrast, served to remind us that that there are no foregone conclusions in politics — a view that, had it been adopted by the mainstream press, might have insulated them from their own eventual mass delusion: that our 45th president would wear a pantsuit.
What journalists don’t always seem to grasp is that we are also writing metanarratives — assembling the available facts to tell stories. Where Abramson views metamodernism as an antidote to postmodernism’s despair, the metanarratives proffered by the mainstream media tend to be cynical, in the familiar postmodern style. Despite a widespread desire to “make a difference,” we’re a jaded group by nature, hovering over the news cycle like streetwise Law & Order detectives called to one more homicide. “Looks like we got another one,” we say, with a world-weary shake of the head.
But the Trump campaign’s interactions with foreign powers, and Russia’s active measures, and everything that’s happened since do not actually constitute just another run-of-the-mill political scandal. Not even close. And while individual reporters have done impressive work illuminating various aspects of the story (and Abramson dutifully thanks them, and their employers, in his book’s acknowledgements), as a whole, the media hasn’t quite risen to the occasion. Day after day, they reach for an obsolete playbook: chasing scooplets then failing to contextualize them; amplifying the administration’s most farcical assertions and then sanctimoniously fact-checking them; examining the optics of each fresh outrage without illuminating the damage; and regularly failing to process the ramifications of their own reporting. (Note, for example, the recent uproar over Axios’ would-be scoop involving the supposed elimination of birthright citizenship.)
It’s easier to moralize about conspiracy theories than to seriously consider the implications of what we already know.
One of the appeals of Abramson’s Trump threads is that the one-time criminal defense attorney has somehow retained the ability to recognize the apparent criminality behind Trump’s endless spectacles — the appointment of Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general being one recent example — when most of us have long since gone numb.
All available evidence indicates that the chief executive of the world’s only current superpower has a history of criminal behavior going back decades, that his election owes in part to criminal acts and is therefore fundamentally illegitimate, that he may be compromised by a hostile power, and that he is now bargaining away the nation’s foreign policy and attacking its most deeply held values to save his own skin or fatten his wallet or both.
Sounds like a hell of a story. It also sounds… kind of overwhelming.
Weaponized eye-rolling is an understandable response to Trump’s manufactured chaos. It’s easier to moralize about the dangerous allure of conspiracy theories than to seriously consider the implications of what we already know. Then again, in much the way the entire media except two reporters ignored the implications of the Watergate break-in for a solid year, there was also a time, not long ago, when the Trump-Russia scandal might well have been buried amid the president’s endless barrage of distractions were it not for a bunch of annoying people — credentialed journalists as well as civilians — who wouldn’t stop harping on it.
Under the circumstances, Abramson has performed a valuable service. While the rest of the media is feverishly chasing and then dissecting the latest unconscionable but somehow weightless revelation, he’s taken on the more complicated task of actually looking at what’s come to light, putting the pieces together and seeing what the fuck they add up to.
Which isn’t to say he hasn’t made himself a pretty tempting target while doing so. Abramson is a weird dude. He’s reallyintoLego. He’s socially awkward and a little compulsive, and he may have a slight martyr complex. He takes himself extremely seriously. On occasion, he might overshoot the mark a bit. His book proposal sounds insane (although it did land him a book deal). He shamelessly solicits retweets and yet he has more followers than most of us put together.
He’s also probably right. And until Mueller files his report — if he files his report — Abramson’s metanarrative may be the best we have.