The Chronicle Review

What Is Seth Abramson Trying to Tell Us?

A professor of English has won himself a big audience by building a case against President Trump on Twitter. But the real meaning of his online crusade is in the subtext.

May 15, 2017

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle Review
Seth Abramson sees his "curatorial journalism" on Twitter as a patriotic sacrifice, not a bid for attention. "Being misunderstood is my least favorite thing in the world," he says, "and I encourage it on a national level every single day."
Seth Abramson wants you to know that he is not a conspiracy theorist.

He also wants you to know that President Trump and his advisers may have hatched, then covered up, a plot to encourage Russia’s U.S. election meddling and to profit from the mysterious sale of a Russian oil company in exchange for a promise to ease U.S. sanctions against Russia.

He wants you to note the "may" in that sentence.

Since November, Abramson — professor, experimental poet, onetime lawyer — has been building a case against Trump’s administration in the court of public opinion. His weapon of choice: serialized tweets, billed as "mega threads," that purport to connect the dots on what he suspects is an illegal conspiracy that brought the administration to power, and which he hopes will be its downfall.

On any given day, Abramson, who teaches English at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, might be one of the most widely read scholars in the country. His broadsides against the president have earned him a larger audience than most academics or poets could ever hope for: 116,000 Twitter followers, most of them in the past five months.

It has also put him in the crosshairs of critics who object to his prosecutorial style. They say he’s a self-righteous amateur who is encouraging paranoia in the guise of patriotism.

Abramson says he is not like those "self-investigators" who thought Democrats were running a child-sex ring out of a Washington pizzeria, or the Obama birthers and 9/11 truthers, or even the contemporary Trump-haters who cite fringe websites and dismiss their critics as Kremlin operatives. He prefers the term "curatorial journalist" and relies on media that still traffic in real news. To fill in the blanks, he applies his training as a lawyer and his English professor’s penchant for reading between the lines.

Trump’s angry, paranoid presidency has made for an extraordinary political moment. When the president no longer acts like a president, how should scholars act? Some, Abramson included, are trying to negotiate a fine line between hysteria and civic responsibility. These days, nobody seems to know where that line is.

The public discourse is not hospitable to complexity and restraint, which makes it fraught territory for academics. The fruits of their labor often are demanding texts that few people wish to read or careful lectures that rely on the patience and good faith of a captive audience. Politics is a different game: Pick up a megaphone and your voice may carry. But the message can get distorted, and the feedback can be deafening. 

On a Thursday morning in April, Abramson stands next to the whiteboard in his classroom on the fifth floor of the old Pandora Mill, a huge brick building where sweaters were once made. The professor wears a beard, glasses, and a black T-shirt that hangs loosely from his stocky frame. He talks with his hands and emphasizes his thoughts by scribbling diagrams on the board. Beads of sweat appear on the tips of the hairs below his bald spot.

The class is called "Poetry & Performance." Five students are seated around a conference table. Abramson is telling them that by increasing or decreasing the white space between words in a poem, they can shape how it will be read. A dense avalanche of text will be read breathlessly. A text with gaps, he says, "gives space for the reader to insert their own imagination."

The author’s control is limited, warns the professor. Some readers respond badly to white space. It strikes them as distracting or pretentious, an empty gesture.

Abramson writes a term on the board: "negative capability."

"Negative capability," he says, "is your level of comfort with the unknown."

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(MEGA THREAD) This is what we know about Seth Abramson so far.

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In March 2015, the University of New Hampshire hired Abramson for a tenure-track job in its English program. In a press release, the university heralded not only his poetry but also his stature as a "public intellectual." Abramson had, by then, started to try to bridge the gap between his academic theories and his pop-culture interests. He wrote columns for Indiewire and Huffington Post in which he tried to explain metamodernism, hoping readers might learn to see the world as he did.

On June 11, 2015, shortly before Trump announced he would run for president, the professor included him in a column titled "The Month in Metamodernism." Abramson had not been writing much about politics, but the reality-TV star was an irresistible muse. Abramson declared Trump a "metamodern human" — a mash-up of the naïve and the knowing, the plebeian and the elite, the absurd and the dead-serious.

"He runs a Twitter feed simultaneously so outrageous and in keeping with his personality that the nation is split on whether he’s a narcissist, a performer, a performative narcissist, or a narcissistic performer," wrote Abramson. "It seems like he wants us to not understand his existence."

A presidential run would be horrifying, he said. But it would also be "a banner moment for metamodern critics and scholars worldwide."

Abramson backed Bernie Sanders and eventually began using his columns to promote the Vermont senator’s insurgent run against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. He wrote lengthy columns arguing that Sanders was, in fact, ahead in ways the mainstream political analysts were failing to see: "Bernie Sanders Is Currently Winning the Democratic Primary Race, and I’ll Prove It to You"; "Hard Proof That Hillary Clinton Has Been Losing to Bernie Sanders for a Month Now"; "Clinton Delegate Lead Down to 194, Even as Dramatic Miscounting of Delegates by Media Continues."

When the Sanders campaign petered out, Abramson reckoned with the loss in a heady, emotional essay framing the battle between Clinton and Sanders as a proxy war for postmodernism and metamodernism. The essay, which clocked in at 3,700 words (including "praxis," "palimpsestic," and "perceptual entropy"), was roundly mocked.

"It’s kind of interesting in an I-took-Critical-Theory-and-survived way," snarked a writer for Wonkette, a D.C. blog.

"This is the longest euphemism for lying I have ever seen," wrote a Washington Post reporter.

"┓┏┓┏┓┃
  ┛┗┛┗┛┃\○/
  ┓┏┓┏┓┃   /
  ┛┗┛┗┛┃ノ)
  ┓┏┓┏┓┃
  ┛┗┛┗┛┃
  ┓┏┓┏┓┃
  ┃┃┃┃┃┃
  ┻┻┻┻┻┻," wrote a reporter at Politico.

Once again Abramson felt misunderstood.

Those essays were meant to highlight the "enthusiasm gap" between the Democratic candidates, he says. "Unfortunately, people assumed I was just lying to them and claiming that Sanders had more delegates than Clinton — something I never said, except in a single satirical article that announced itself as being that in the first paragraph."

Perhaps the English professor had been too subtle. This was politics, where the simplest message is the strongest. And nobody had a simpler message than Clinton’s next opponent, a "metamodern human" who seemed at once inscrutable and easy to figure out.

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(MEGA THREAD) This is how @SethAbramson was reborn as a #Russiagate blogger in the Trump era.

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Abramson no longer had to beg for attention, but that didn’t stop him from casting for retweets. When he wasn’t writing mega threads, he would occasionally post simple statements against Trump — the kind you might find scrawled on poster board at a roadside protest — and nudge his followers to honk their approval.

In one such post, Abramson scoffed at Trump for playing golf while North Korea was flexing its nuclear arsenal ("Retweet if that’s not cool with you"). In another, he asked his followers if they would prefer if a giant tub of Russian salad dressing were president instead of Trump.

In a recent thread, he gave Trump, the Russian president Vladimir Putin, and four other international politicians the comic-book treatment:

"Once you realize that the world is now ruled by THE LEAGUE OF VILLAINS, geopolitics suddenly makes sense again," he wrote. "These six are a NETWORK." (Six tweets later, he added: "Lest anyone be confused, I’m *not* alleging an *actual* global conspiracy.")

Abramson does not claim any inside sources. He still relies on journalists to supply the mortar for his "Russiagate" theories, and he often harangues the "mainstream media" for focusing on the wrong details and failing to deliver the goods. (Like Trump, he has a love-hate relationship with CNN.) He also feuds with anti-Trump conspiracy theorists whom he sees linking to dubious sources and making claims without evidence. Occasionally he scuffles with trolls.

Jesse Damiani, who edits a series of experimental-writing anthologies with Abramson, says he had been trying to get his friend to turn the other cheek more often, especially now that he has attained a degree of power. "He has a pretty thick skin for people calling him names," says Damiani, "but what I think really upsets him is when people don’t even read before they respond."

Abramson rejects the theory that he enjoys the attention of thousands of strangers. "Being misunderstood is my least favorite thing in the world," says the professor, "and I encourage it on a national level every single day."

He sees it as a patriotic sacrifice. He does not have children, but he imagines someday having to answer the question made famous by a World War I-era British military-recruitment campaign: "Daddy, what did you do during the Great War?"

"I want the answer to be, ‘I did everything I could,’" he says. "Does that mean Daddy won the war? No. It means Daddy was a soldier. And soldiering is not fun."

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In person, Abramson, who is 40, seems like a milder version of the online persona that has tweeted more than 4,600 times since New Year’s Day. He is cordial but intense. Sometimes he talks for a long time without taking a breath; other times he pauses for a long time to consider a question. He is almost suspiciously candid. His shelves are filled with dead poets and immortal superheroes.

The geography of his day-to-day life is relatively modest. Manchester, a city one hour north of Boston with a burgeoning high-tech industry and several colleges, has weathered the end of manufacturing better than many former mill towns have, but in nonelection years it does not occupy much space in the national imagination. Though it is the largest city in New Hampshire, its population of 110,000 is smaller than Abramson’s Twitter following.

The professor spent the early months of Trump’s presidency shuttling between his apartment — where he tried to piece together the "Russiagate" puzzle from a workspace he shared with $7,000 worth of painstakingly assembled Lego models — and his office in the old mill building, half a mile away. (He and his wife have since moved to a house nearby.)

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle Review
On Thursday afternoon after class, Abramson sits behind his desk and scrolls through his notifications on Twitter. Elijah Wood, aka Frodo Baggins, has liked one of his tweets. So has Richard Schiff, who played a White House official on The West Wing. More actors: John Leguizamo, Alyssa Milano, and stars from The Wire, Family Ties, Will & Grace.

"What does it mean that Rosie O’Donnell regularly retweets me?" says the professor. "What does it mean that Judd Apatow is fond of me?"

He pauses.

"No, I’m asking you," he says. "What does it mean?"

It’s not just celebrities, of course. Each time the professor fires off a tweet, he can count on hundreds, often thousands, of random citizens of the internet to click the "like" button.

That is, except for his tweets about music, poetry, and metamodernism. His followers mostly ignore those. On the political posts, though, they provide a steady gusher of backtalk.

I know it’s 4/20, but you must be smoking something that’s laced with hallucinogenics.

Thank you for your hard work, you’re my go-to source for info.

There’s no scandal, snowflake.

"I get called ‘snowflake’ a lot," he says. (That’s trollspeak for "sensitive"— which Abramson is, according to the back cover of Data.) Lately the professor has been throwing it back in their faces. "That’s when I’m angry," he says. "I don’t know what it means to say it back to them, but I think it probably bothers them."

Abramson has a theory about persuasion: To change a mind you need a person’s trust, or you have to encounter them in a place where trust can grow; and Twitter is no such place.

He has tested that theory many times, and he’s pretty sure it’s true.

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Some of the hardest people to persuade have been those who call the professor a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theorists either make up facts or distort them, says Abramson, but he reads the news carefully and makes reasonable connections. If he suspects that Trump or his campaign staffers conspired with a foreign power to meddle in the election, he says, it’s because there is supporting evidence in the mainstream press.

And yet his work, and his reasoning, is motivated by fear of and disdain for the president, whom he has called "Orange Julius" and likened to a "tinpot dictator." Abramson believes Trump will prove to be the country’s worst leader of the next 500 years. Of that he has no doubt.

Politics rewards certainty and awards bonus points for fearful melodrama. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter, a history professor at Columbia University, described the "paranoid style" in U.S. politics: suspicious, aggressive, grandiose.

The paranoid style, explained Hofstadter, "begins with certain defensible judgments," which are then expanded to encompass vast, apocalyptic visions. Often these visions come with impressive bibliographies, noted the historian, pointing to McCarthyism, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s booklet-as-manifesto, and its 313 footnotes.

"His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic," wrote Hofstadter of the paranoid stylist, "goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation."

He left aside the harder question of judging when political paranoia is justified. The FBI has seen enough evidence to have opened an investigation into whether people connected to Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russian agents an effort to influence the election that carried him to power. The bureau has treated seriously the dossier of unverified claims compiled by the former British spy that form the basis of Abramson’s "Mayflower" theory. Its investigation continues.

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle Review
For now, there remains white space in the story. Abramson’s mega threads are punctuated by the silence that follows each question he cannot answer. What really happened in the Mayflower Hotel? What is the president’s endgame with Russia?

His readers have to insert their imaginations, or else get comfortable with the unknown.

Sitting in his office, the professor scrolls through the comments that strangers have left on one of his recent tweets. A day earlier he had tweeted a story from The Intercept, a news website, about a key official in the Justice Department who was leaving her post.

"STUNNING," Abramson had written. "Who leaves _the most important criminal investigation_ of their (or any of our) lifetime(s) in mid-stream?"

His followers tweeted back, filling in the blanks.

Someone in fear of her life!

Someone TrumpOrg wants to replace.

Can’t see the connections yet, but in #TrumpRussia there are no coincidences.

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Last winter, around the time Abramson was pitching his early theories to journalists and celebrity activists, Brendan Nyhan sat in his office elsewhere in New Hampshire and considered another theory: The election had sent some liberals off the deep end.

Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, had noticed that Democrats were falling into a trap that for years had ensnared those on the right: a willingness to believe sinister theories about their political enemies.

That includes liberals who should know better, he says. In February, Robert B. Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and former U.S. labor secretary, suggested that the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos might have been in cahoots with both the White House and the violent protesters who shut down his Berkeley speech. The plot? Giving the president a reason to strip public universities of federal funding. ("Given the actions Trump has taken during his presidency so far," Reich wrote in an email, his theory was not paranoid but "a legitimate concern.")

More recently, Nyhan noticed that Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard University, posted a link on Twitter to an item on The Palmer Report, a left-wing blog. The post claimed that Trump had paid Jason Chaffetz, a Republican congressman, $10 million to leak a letter from FBI Director James Comey that reignited the controversy over Clinton’s private email server and tipped the election for Trump. (Trump did make a $10 million payment at that time — but to his own campaign fund, not to Chaffetz. "I can’t and don’t vouch for everything I retweet," Tribe told The Chronicle, adding that he makes sure everything he writes on his own is accurate.)

The Dartmouth professor was taken aback by Tribe’s decision to retweet a specious claim from an unreliable source. He wondered aloud whether his Harvard colleague might have had his account hacked. "Is this a joke?" Nyhan wrote on Twitter. "This is tinfoil hat conspiracy stuff."

Reich and Tribe have become popular figures on social media for their willingness to adopt the paranoid style in rebuking the president. Tribe has 122,000 followers on Twitter; Reich has 440,000. They, along with Abramson, represent the academic wing of a larger group of prolific bloggers who appeal to the many angry citizens who see Trump and his allies as an existential threat to the country.

History might prove some of their suspicions correct. Still, Nyhan says, the sweep of history tells us that the world is both more complex and more mundane than everyone tends to assume it is.

Everyone, perhaps, except professors. The academic literature is a catalog of the complex and the mundane. Researchers often study their subjects up close for years. They present their findings alongside a detailed accounting of all the unknowns that might have confounded them. Theories are provisional. Understanding is elusive, incremental, incomplete.

The paranoid style is much more satisfying, especially as a balm for grief. In a 2014 book chapter, "Conspiracy Theories Are for Losers," Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, a pair of psychologists at the University of Miami, wrote that conspiratorial notions "tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness, or disunity."

These days, says Uscinski, otherwise staid academics might be vulnerable to making paranoid assumptions about the federal government.

"College professors are 90 percent on the left and are devastated right now," he says. "The side who loses turns to conspiracy theories to salve wounds, recoup from losses, close ranks in the face of a terrifying enemy, and seek redemption."

And why not? The paranoid style might be a salve for losers, but recent evidence suggests it can turn them into winners. Trump amassed a huge following when, beginning in 2011, he capitalized on conservative grief by pushing a theory that President Obama was foreign-born and possibly Muslim. He parlayed that following into a presidential run, during which he eschewed empirical truths in favor of emotional ones and promised to remake U.S. politics in his image. Trump now tweets paranoid theories from the White House.

"The question," says Nyhan, "is whether this style of reasoning becomes customary in elite circles."

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Chronicle Photo by Steve Kolowich
A diagram from Seth Abramson's "Digital Age Culture & Theory" course: dense, dizzying, and heavily theoretical.
Back in the classroom, the three students in Abramson’s upper-level course, "Digital Age Culture & Theory," stare at the 10-foot-long whiteboard, which the professor has filled end-to-end with a dizzying tide of words and arrows.

Lines bloom out from "modernism" ("enthusiasm," "wealthy white male self-realization," "belief in the transformative power of technology") and eventually reconverge on "postmodernism" ("deconstruction," "dialectics," "end of history," "despair," "crisis," "info saturation") before blooming out again toward a constellation of terms related to metamodernism ("performatism," "new sincerity"). Beyond that, more words: "metaxis vs. balance," "utopia (no place)," "both/neither vs. both/and," "oscillation vs. juxtaposition/superimposition." Nearby sits a blot where he has written the numbers 1 through 6 on top of one another. A pair of three-dimensional graphs, labeled "blackMuslimwoman" and "whiteJewishmale," are circumscribed by a lasso-like border and surrounded by numbered phrases: (1) Points of connection, (2) Know that you don’t know, (3) Live as if you can inhabit both maps simultaneously, (4) Remixing, curation, appropriation, (5) Create a new (fictional/imaginative) proxy that all can empathize with.

His students betray no skepticism as they dutifully copy the diagram into their notebooks. The classroom is not Twitter; it is a room with four walls occupied by people who are responsible to one another. Here there is trust.

Abramson grew up in classrooms. His mom was an art teacher, and as a kid he would help her hang student artworks on her wall. As an adult he kept returning to the classroom — a place where theories can breathe and misunderstandings can be gently suffocated. He says his foray into national politics is about being able to look himself in the mirror. But in the classroom Abramson knows who he is.

Lately, the professor says, he’s been trying to shed his more conspiracy-minded followers on Twitter. He’s considered scrapping his online persona — abandoning his obsession with the "League of Villains" and tweeting more about things he loves, like metamodernism, movies, graphic novels, Legos, and Manchester. He worries about losing himself.

"I don’t think I’d trust any Twitter account whose owner wasn’t willing to lose 100,000 followers to keep themselves whole and real," he wrote recently in a late-night email.

"I mean, what would it say about me, and how could I ever justify it to myself, if my attraction to being a certain brand of D-list Twitter micro-celebrity exceeded my commitment to being a good friend, husband, son, teacher, &c?"

Six hours later, the sun rose on Donald Trump’s America. Hundreds of millions of Americans woke up, silenced their alarms, and turned on their screens to find out what they would need to know to make it through the day.

That afternoon, in an old mill building in New Hampshire, Abramson reached for his megaphone.

"America must NEVER forget," the professor tweeted, "that an ACTUAL SOCIOPATH has his tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny finger on America’s nuclear button."

Steve Kolowich writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people in ordinary times. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.