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"Is this the way we want to live?" Andrew Sullivan on our distraction sickness — and Trump

"This is a mass addiction."

Amanda Northrop

So there we were, Andrew Sullivan and I, sitting at a wobbly table on my poorly manicured patio. We were supposed to meet at Andrew’s apartment, but the cleaning crew showed up unexpectedly and took the place over.

We considered a coffee shop, one of those hipsterish joints in a nearby DC neighborhood. But it was the middle of the week, and the crowds are hit or miss. If there were too many talking heads in there, the noise would drown out the recording. So that was no good either.

The plan was to meet at 2 pm.

It was around 1 pm when Andrew finally called. “Can’t do the coffee shop,” I told him. “How about your place?” he asked. An hour later, I was introducing him to my ill-mannered terrier.

This was my first time meeting Andrew Sullivan, the author and trailblazing conservative blogger. I knew him through his work, which I’ve always enjoyed, even when I hated it. In person, he’s what I expected him to be: smart, chatty, engaging, excitable. Before I started recording, he was already laying out the doomsday scenario: “Trump will win in a landslide,” he told me, “and that’ll be the end of liberal democracy in America.” I’m not sure the fascist hellscape Sullivan fears is nigh, but he makes an interesting case (more on that later).

Once the Trump demons were exorcised, I pressed record and we were off to the races. It was a broad, meandering conversation. We talked politics, of course, but also about his new essay in New York magazine, “I Used to be a Human Being.”

Sullivan’s latest piece is a probing meditation on modern “distraction sickness.” There’s nothing particularly novel about his observations, but the essay as a whole is worth reading. Most obviously, it’s a critical examination of internet culture — how it’s consumed our lives and attention. “You are where your attention is,” Sullivan told me.

He’s right, too. Anyone possessed by a smartphone knows what it’s like to pantomime the act of presence, to be with someone but not really be with them. Sullivan touches upon some uncomfortable truths here, and his essay is an admirable attempt to wrestle with them.

We cover a lot of terrain in this exchange. I asked him about his controversial critique of democracy, whether he still thinks the left is as responsible as the right for Trump, and how the internet almost killed him.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

How closely are you following this election?

Andrew Sullivan

Much more closely than I was intending to. My goal was to get out of the day-to-day craze, and that's why I wanted to do long-form essays that weren't necessarily political. The book I'm working on now is really a book about religion. I wanted to focus on that dimension of my own life because I do actually think the collapse of Christianity in America is a factor in all of this.

Sean Illing

A factor in what, this election?

Andrew Sullivan

Of course.

Sean Illing

I take it you’re as panicked as the rest of us?

Andrew Sullivan

Given the circumstances, given the fact that we're in a national emergency at this point, I'm a nervous wreck. I don't think I've ever felt this distressed about political life in my lifetime.

Sean Illing

In the piece that you wrote for New York magazine a few months ago, you called Trump an extinction-level threat. Do you still feel that way?

Andrew Sullivan

Well, yes. It's a good question and it's kind of important to spell it out. Because he has openly expressed contempt for the values of liberal democracy, such as dissent. Those people who are against him must be destroyed, not engaged. That is a very profound difference between him and every other nominee for either party in my lifetime and probably in American history.

He also has contempt for the notion of sharing power with others, which is essential in a constitutional republic. This is someone who, frankly, has contempt for the entire American system of government, someone who is hostile to a free press and has openly said he wants to pass laws constraining it, and has declared openly that he will use the powers of the presidency to punish organizations that challenge him.

Sean Illing

You seem to suggest in your piece that too much democracy is a bad thing.

Andrew Sullivan

It's always been a bad thing. Democracy is only as good as the people who are in it. And people in general are shitty and we are prone to all sorts of ugliness. That's why we have a system designed to make sure that that shittiness is actually constrained by elite institutions, by the rule of law, by separations of powers and federalism, and all the other aspects.

Sean Illing

That’s a classically conservative view of human nature and government.

Andrew Sullivan

Yes, and in this country conservatism hasn’t really been conservative for quite a while. Conservatism is about the restraint of government, not the empowerment of government, and Trump has no interest in restraint.

Again, this is a person who has never conceded an error, never admitted a mistake, never taken responsibility for something he's done wrong — even though the examples have been simply extraordinary.

Trump (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sean Illing

And yet here we are, six weeks before the election, and Trump is virtually tied with Clinton.

Andrew Sullivan

Yes, and we put this man on the ballot, and the Republican Party, which has become one of the more dangerous political entities in the world, has put this madman at the top of their tree and we will all reap the whirlwind.

Sean Illing

I’m glad you mentioned the Republican Party, because one of the common criticisms of your Trump article was that it implied that the left was as responsible as the right for Trump.

Personally, I don't see that symmetry. I see one side as clearly more responsible than the other. The Republicans have muddied the waters, not the Democrats. The Republicans have fomented cultural resentment and white angst for decades, not the Democrats.

Andrew Sullivan

I never said there was equal symmetry in terms of culpability, but the left has contributed to this. The social justice left, which is essentially a Marxist construct, has not just advanced an idea of the way the world is but has decided to instantly stigmatize and demonize anyone who dissents from it as a bigot and a racist or a homophobe and all the other litany of bullshit they throw around.

And there's only so long that struggling, poor white people can bear being told by what they think is an entire political party, an entire elite, that they are privileged before they lash back.

Sean Illing

The antecedent causes of Trump stretch back decades, long before Black Lives Matter or the “social justice left” were ascendant, so I’m not sure you can draw a straight line between the two. But I do think you’re right that elements of the left are blind to the struggles of the white working class.

I want to pin you down on this idea that what’s happening on the left is equivalent to what’s happening on the right. In your piece, you say Trump and Sanders are essentially the same. You even called Sanders the “demagogue of the left.”

I don’t think that’s true at all. Unlike Trump, Sanders can be seen as a healthy expression of political discontent. At the very least, he's offering is a positive agenda, one that pretty much mirrors what you see in most of Europe and a lot of the industrialized world, whereas Trump or Trumpism is just pure negation.

Andrew Sullivan

Certainly, if you look in Europe today, there are plenty of ethno-nationalist movements that mirror Trump. They’re as much like Trump as anything else, and Trump's complete ease with the welfare state and with entitlements is completely of a kind with the European right.

Sanders is completely legitimate and not a demagogue insofar as he has outlined what are traditional progressive goals. But his description of our entire system as inherently corrupt, his successful branding of Clinton as essentially a crony of corruption as opposed to an imperfect liberal politician, has helped Trump — there’s no doubt about that.

Sean Illing

You think Sanders has painted her as hopelessly corrupt in that way?

Andrew Sullivan

Absolutely. Look, I can’t stand the Clintons. I didn't want her to be the nominee and I'm a broken record on how she's just an incredible mediocrity all round, but she's not corrupt in the way that most people understand her to be corrupt.

Sean Illing

Which is to say she just plays the game as it is?

Andrew Sullivan

Yes, and she plays the game in a way that also tries to advance certain practical policy goals to make the country a little better. And she's not doing it for her own personal gain. That's different than someone who's basically bought and paid for by Goldman Sachs, which is what he's saying.

And if she loses, and I think she probably will, one reason will be that millennials don't show up for her the way they did for Obama. And part of the reason for that is the left has effectively branded her as corrupt and uninspiring.

Look, I think she is uninspiring. I think she’s a terrible candidate. I don't think she's given a speech I can remember. But she’s not a corrupt menace, and I do think the populism on the left has empowered populism as a whole and that has helped Trump.

But I don’t want to overlook the substantive policy reasons for the populism right now. Elites have failed and they have not taken responsibility for their failures and the widening of inequality which seems to be driven by a globalized economy that has branded the system less and less legitimate in the eyes of the people.

Sean Illing

Part of your thesis is that we have too much democracy, and that the cure, as it were, is handing more influence and power to political elites. Given what you just said about the failure of elites, why the hell would we want to do that?

Andrew Sullivan

What I’m arguing for is constraints on the popular will, which, as you know, was one of the founders’ core concerns about democracy. They feared democracy for precisely these reasons. The United States is a constitutional republic, and it can’t work without constraints on the tyranny of the majority and on the institutions of government.

My fear about Trump is that he would remove all those restraints because he will have the House and the Senate and the Court and the military and the police … There will be no restraint, and that's what people are voting for.

They want a strong man to fix it for them, which is the antithesis of America, a nation founded upon the resistance to a strong man and the dispersal of power and self-government. So in that sense, the election of Trump is sort of the abolition of America in many ways.

T.J. Kirkpatrick (Getty Images)

Sean Illing

On that happy note, let’s pivot awkwardly to your new piece on distraction in the age of the internet. If my Twitter feed is any indication, you seem to have struck a nerve with this one. Are you surprised by that?

Andrew Sullivan

The reaction I've paid attention to has been just personal and anecdotal. But I think people relate to it. What I've written is not a particularly original thought, obviously, but I think people feel that the way they live has been completely altered by information addiction. And I just wanted to say out loud that this is kind of nuts and perhaps we need to take stock of our lives and ask, “Is this the way we want to live?”

I became truly sick from all of this mania. I did it crazily for a long time, and it devoured my life. People aren't even getting paid to do this and they’re still being consumed by it. It’s a completely compulsive behavior and the amount of time it’s taking from our lives is staggering. One-on-one human interactions are being replaced by this matrix that is robbing us of the most meaningful parts of life.

Sean Illing

You write that “modernity slowly weakened spirituality by design and accident in favor of commerce. It downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action.”

That's a big statement, and it seems aimed more at capitalism than the internet. Is your essay really a critique of the socio-cultural consequences of capitalism?

Andrew Sullivan

That would be weird coming from me, wouldn’t it?

Sean Illing

Yeah, that’s why I’m asking.

Andrew Sullivan

Well, thank you for pointing that out because it hadn’t occurred to me before. Look, I believe in the market as the least worst way of distributing goods and services in a society, and in general I'm suspicious of big entities like government dictating how people interact with one another. And I think that capitalism, in the last 20 years or so, has raised a lot of people out of poverty in the world. But there are trade-offs.

I'm not a socialist or a communist, but I am a Catholic and a conservative. I've never believed that the person who dies with the most wealth wins. I don’t believe the person who lives with the most wealth wins. I believe that the people with the least wealth can win.

I mean that is what Christianity says. That is the radical claim of Christianity — that indifference to worldly gain and material well-being is actually critical to human happiness.

Sean Illing

You used the word “being” in an interesting way, I think. I thought of Heidegger, the famous German philosopher, who believed that the West had essentially forgotten the question of being, that we too easily throw ourselves into popular culture in order to avoid staring our own existence in the face.

Do you think that the web and social media have made that temptation irresistible?

Andrew Sullivan

That's sort of the underlying argument of the piece. It's also quite Buddhist in some respects, and authentically Catholic in others. We're asked to think of the last things all the time, the most important things. We're asked to live consciously everyday with the knowledge that we will die. The internet certainly makes it easier to avoid such thoughts.

Sean Illing

Right, but it’s not so easy to escape the matrix, as you put it. It’s hard to live in the world without being of the world, and for better or worse, this is the world we've built. So I wonder how can someone break free of these digital chains without retreating from life altogether?

Andrew Sullivan

You're obviously not retreating from life because you're alive in a body. You're retreating from a certain way of being. It's always been possible to say I'm not living like this, as, for example, Thoreau and the transcendentalists did or the way religious people and monks often do.

It’s a daily challenge and I'm wrestling with it right now. But it’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

Sean Illing

Technology is outpacing our politics and our morality in ways most of us fail to recognize. Technology and science are very good at giving us more of what we want, but they’re silent on the question of what we ought to want in the first place. So we’ve erected this massive thing called the internet, and it’s completely enveloped our lives. No one had time to consider how it would change … everything.

I’m glad the internet exists, but we’ve rushed headlong into a new world and I’m not sure how well we’ve adapted.

Andrew Sullivan

Well, look, we had no idea. I jumped into this feeling that it was an incredible and exciting medium. And as a writer, it gave me the power to truly write independently and to not be bowing and scraping the various proprietors, editors, or the rest of it. It was incredibly liberating.

The early days of the web and the blogosphere were fascinating, and there really was a diversity of viewpoints out there and people could actually begin to communicate with one another and argue with one another. Eventually, though, it became what it is today: a kind of algorithmic wave washing over us all.

But I’ve been genuinely struck by how so many of us have been consumed by it, and of course it’s not just bloggers or writers — it’s everyone.

Sean Illing

Oh, it’s bad. Reading your piece, I realized just how pathetic I really am. I can barely brush my teeth or go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. It’s embarrassing.

Andrew Sullivan

I’m no better. It’s a constant dopamine drip, and we’re all hostage to it.

Sean Illing

You talk about social media as a kind of performative medium, and that it gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Andrew Sullivan

No, I don't think any of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. I think it's the cumulative impact of them becoming pervasive among everyone that inevitably shifts the way we spend our time. They just keep us agitated in the way that addictions always do, and in many ways this is a mass addiction.

Sean Illing

It’s pathological.

Andrew Sullivan

Yes. It's not something we're fully in control of. It's something that has triggered a dopamine response which takes us out of ourselves in a way that makes us happy temporarily.

But if you keep going back to it, it begins to crowd everything else out. Five hours a day on your phone is a lot. You are where your attention is, and if your attention is on something abstract, alien, different, new, somewhere out there, and not here and now, you miss what matters most.

Sean Illing

Attention is a central theme in your piece. You talk about your trip to a meditation treat, and how it helped you. What has meditation taught you about your own consciousness?

Andrew Sullivan

I think I've been blessed in many ways in my life. In the piece, I talk about the time I spent by myself in nature every summer for 22 summers and how essential that was. I spent a lot of time in the dunes and the wildernesses of Cape Cod, and at the very end of it it was about being with God.

Sean Illing

The problem with consciousness, or human consciousness at least, is that it’s always consciousness of something. We’re intentional creatures and so our attention is always directed at something. It’s hard to redirect it at will. I’ve tried meditating, and it turns out I’m terrible at it.

Andrew Sullivan

One of the really interesting dimensions of psychotropic experiences is that, by altering your consciousness in some respect, they give you a tiny bit of perspective on your regular consciousness, and they awaken you to what’s possible if you’re present.

Deep prayer, which has always been a part of my life, gives me a space of being that is not analytic and helps me connect with the universe in a way that's proto-rational.

Sean Illing

I have to say, your piece didn’t leave me feeling very optimistic. I’m not sure you end on a pessimistic note, but there's no sense from you that we're going to awake from our collective stupor anytime soon.

Andrew Sullivan

Well, I don’t feel particularly great at the moment, and probably that has a lot to do with what’s happening politically. On the other hand, I've read enough history to know that we don't know what will happen.

So there’s that.