When you are a speechwriter and the speech that you have written is finished, you go from being the most indispensable member of the staff to being temporarily irrelevant. Afterward, I lingered at the site, and then followed the trail of humanity back to the hotel, people clutching signs and cameras as if they had been to a rock concert. Returning to my room was like going back in time. Everything was still in the same place—the open laptop; cups of coffee; a half-drunk glass of wine; printed-out copies of an almost finished draft—but the anxiety and adrenaline were gone. Taking in this scene, I realized that I was developing an addiction to this life—the moments I craved were not the grand crowd scenes when speeches are delivered, but rather the accumulating pressure that leads up to them; the moments when everyone is waiting to hear the words there on your laptop, as if you know a secret that has yet to be whispered to the world.
I was a writer in 1968. I was a hack. I’d write anything to make money, you know. And what the hell, I’d seen this thing, I’d been through it, and so I was going to write a hack book about Dresden. You know, the kind that would be made into a movie and where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and the others would play us. I tried to write, but I just couldn’t get it right. I kept writing crap. So I went to a friend’s house—Bernie O’Hare, who’d been my pal. And we were trying to remember funny stuff about our time as prisoners of war in Dresden, tough talk and all that, stuff that would make a nifty war movie. And his wife, Mary O’Hare, blew her stack. She said, “You were nothing but babies then.” And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies. They are not movie stars. They are not Duke Wayne. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth. We were children and the subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five became The Children’s Crusade. Why had it taken me twenty-three years to write about what I had experienced in Dresden? We all came home with stories, and we all wanted to cash in, one way or another. And what Mary O’Hare was saying, in effect, was, “Why don’t you tell the truth for a change?”
The news cycle is dead; long live the content monster. As with most things, the Internet is to blame for this. First, the news cycle is dead in the eyes of the consumers; they want news immediately on demand. They don’t want to wait for the 6:00 p.m. news or the next morning’s paper to be delivered to get the latest news; they want to look at the news on their phone at any hour of the day while killing time in line at the grocery store or sitting on a city bus. This means that reporters are basically working 24/7, updating stories posted earlier and writing new stories as soon as events dictate. Second, digital advertising—the revenue source for most media in the modern era—is a volume game. The more content you create, the more ads you can sell, and with declining print ad sales, you need to make up the difference somewhere.
Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag. The neocortex has ridges, valleys, and folds because the brain kept remodeling itself though space was tight. We take for granted the ridiculous-sounding yet undeniable fact that each person carries around atop the body a complete universe in which trillions of sensations, thoughts, and desires stream. They mix privately, silently, while agitating on many levels, some of which we’re not aware of, thank heavens. If we needed to remember how to work the bellows of the lungs or the writhing python of digestion, we’d be swamped by formed and forming memories, and there’d be no time left for buying cute socks. My brain likes cute socks. But it also likes kisses. And asparagus. And watching boat-tailed grackles. And biking. And drinking Japanese green tea in a rose garden. There’s the nub of it—the brain is personality’s whereabouts. It’s also a stern warden, and, at times, a self-tormentor. It’s where catchy tunes snag, and cravings keep tugging. Shaped a little like a loaf of French country bread, our brain is a crowded chemistry lab, bustling with nonstop neural conversations. It’s also an impersonal landscape where minute bolts of lightning prowl and strike. A hall of mirrors, it can contemplate existentialism, the delicate hooves of a goat, and its own birth and death in a matter of seconds. It’s blunt as a skunk, and a real gossip hound, but also voluptuous, clever, playful, and forgiving.
And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before. Some few people in every town, in their dreams, are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives, and they sense that their misjudgments and wrong deeds and bad luck have all taken place in the previous loop of time. In the dead of night these cursed citizens wrestle with their bedsheets, unable to rest, stricken with the knowledge that they cannot change a single action, a single gesture. Their mistakes will be repeated precisely in this life as in the life before. And it is these double unfortunates who give the only sign that time is a circle. For in each town, late at night, the vacant streets and balconies fill up with their moans.
By 2016, the media ecosystem of 2008 was impossible to recognize. It was the perfect petri dish for a fungus like Trumpism to grow. Trump understood that there were no rules and referees and that a good story was much more valuable than an accurate one. Trump’s main media experiences are the absurdity of reality television and the no-holds-barred world of Big Apple tabloid journalism. Sadly, these were the perfect experiences to compete for president in 2016. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Trump would thrive in this environment. The hints were there all along, going back way before he even ran. To grapple with these changes, I proposed going to Silicon Valley and New York to pick the brains of the smartest people in tech and media to better understand the current state of affairs and where things might be going. I went to Google, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and everywhere in between. I met with the venture capitalists who were looking for the next Google and Facebook. The gravity of the challenge before us came in a meeting in Silicon Valley when I explained the difficulty in getting our message out in the fragmented media environment, and one of the executives from a Silicon Valley giant responded: “We have been wondering the same thing and hoped you had some good ideas.”
As a kid I was the youngest member of my family, and the youngest child in any family is always a jokemaker, because a joke is the only way he can enter into an adult conversation.
Born fictioneers, all of us, we quest for causes and explanations, and if they don’t come readily to hand, we make them up, because a wrong answer is better than no answer. Also, a fast good-enough answer is better than a slow perfect answer. We’re devotees of the hunch, estimate, and best guess. I find it hard to watch, say, a David Lynch film like Mulholland Drive, which shards into free-associative imagery halfway through, and not try to figure it out. Critics plague Lynch with “But what does it mean?” It’s not enough to be startling, beautiful, artful, it has to mean, even if much of life simply is. Despite knowing that, my left hemisphere, not content to joyously perceive, insists on asking why. A word children use relentlessly and adults continue asking. And so we pass our lives, striving to make sense, even if it produces nonsense, which, of course, we never utter, only other people with less-exacting minds. Otherwise, we’d feel at sea, and painfully sure, as the philosopher William Gass says in an essay, that “life, though full of purposes, had none, and though everything in life was a sign, life managed, itself, to be meaningless.”
There was this incredible need for spy talk. Julian would often refer to the places where he lived as “safe houses” and say things such as “When you go to Queensland there’s a contact there you should speak to.” “You mean a friend?” I’d say. “No. It’s more complicated than that.” He appeared to like the notion that he was being pursued, and the tendency was only complicated by the fact that there were real pursuers. But the pursuit was never as grave as he wanted it to be. He stuck to his Cold War tropes, where one didn’t deliver a package but made a “drop-off.” One day, we were due to meet some of the WikiLeaks staff at a farmhouse out toward Lowestoft. We went in my car. Julian was especially edgy that afternoon, feeling perhaps that the walls were closing in, as we bumped down one of those flat roads covered in muck left by tractor tires. “Quick, quick,” he said, “go left. We’re being followed!” I looked in the rearview mirror and could see a white Mondeo with a wire sticking out the back. “Don’t be daft, Julian,” I said. “That’s a taxi.” “No. Listen to me. It’s surveillance. We’re being followed. Quickly go left.” Just by comical chance, as I was rocking a Starsky and Hutch–style handbrake turn, the car behind us suddenly stopped at a farmhouse gate and a little boy jumped out and ran up the path. I looked at the clock as we rolled off in a cloud of dust. It said 3:48. “That was a kid being delivered home from school,” I said. “You’re mental.” “You don’t understand,” he said.