The Man Who Knew Nothing at All
At first, the experiment didn’t have a name.
Right after the election, Bort Turgleman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics. Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Mr. Turgleman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.
He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.
“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”
And like any vampire, he needed a coffin.
For a reporter from one of America’s major cities, journeying to Mr. Turgleman’s compound in Clouster, Ohio, is a jarring and eye-opening experience. Start by flying into Columbus International Airport, serving a city that barely cracks the top fifteen in America by population. Then, rent a car and drive a full eighty minutes to the southeast.
The world you know begins to melt away. Tall buildings are replaced by trees. Trees are replaced by open fields, then by more trees, then by chain fast food restaurants off the highway, bigger and cleaner than the ones in major cities, then by more trees after that. This is the state that voted for Trumpian arch-conservatives like John Kasich and Sherrod Brown. [ed: double-check this?] This is a district where barely 130,000 people voted for the local Democratic congressional candidate.
This is Trump country. And, as your rental car rounds the last curve on the interstate, you can see, looming on the horizon, the logical last line of defense for the embattled liberal in this hostile climate: the Tomb.
It started simply enough. On election night, Mr. Turgleman deleted most of the political accounts he had followed on Twitter over the course of the campaign. Then, the next morning, he deleted the Twitter app from his phone all together.
But somehow, the news about the election and the emerging Trump administration kept coming. Friends, family, and even neighbors were talking about it on Facebook, with increasing urgency. He hid them all from his timeline. His beloved NPR, where he was accustomed to hearing wry stories about Brooklynites in love—or, lately, residents of Queens getting divorced—began to let him know who the new members of the cabinet would be and how they might be opposed. This just increased his frustration, since he lived in a state with no representation in the Senate, and certainly no Democratic representation [ed: I didn’t look this up, but this feels right].
Eventually, he switched the presets on his car radio to “less talk, more rock” stations, and when the “morning zoo crew” started making jokes about Trump, he changed to JACK-FM, a radio station programmed by robots with no human intervention whatsoever.
It was a mark of what was to come.
Mr. Turgleman used to begin each day by driving thirty minutes to get coffee. But after the election, this daily ritual began to feel like a hostile attack. He needed to find a way to protect himself from new and dangerous information about the world.
He tried various strategies, according to the pleasant counter worker (what New Yorkers would call a “barista”) who still remembers Mr. Turgleman’s daily visits. This college-town coffee shop might not seem like a place that would welcome a reporter from the coast, and yet, while it was impossible to tell how many of the customers voted for Trump—half? three-quarters?—everyone was studiously polite to an outsider.
“Well, at first he’d just, like, cough a lot to himself, or clear his throat real loud and dramatically, whenever anyone tried to make small talk about the election,” said the man behind the counter, who didn’t give his name because it didn’t seem relevant to ask. “Then he started coming in wearing earbuds. The next week it was those big noise-cancelling headphones, and he’d kind of yell his order at me.
“After that came the telepresence robot. I guess there was a limited range on that, because he’d still have to be in the car outside. But finally, they came in and installed this.” He pointed to the pneumatic tube that ran from behind the counter, across the ceiling and out the door.
“Triple-shot latte with whole milk,” the counter worker said, dropping the paper cup into the tube and listening to the satisfying whoosh as it headed north, toward the Tomb. After a pause, he asked me, “Do you think he knows you can make coffee at home?”
When you take the winding drive back from the coffee shop to the Tomb, you can see lawn signs for Trump. Multiple lawn signs. At least three.
Back in February, when Mr. Turgleton was putting the final touches on his still nameless plan, there were more. Maybe seven. He isn’t interested in hearing how many there are now, of course. The important part is that each one marked him out as a wholly isolated stranger in enemy territory.
Trump was president by then, and he was having a harder and harder time avoiding the news. The people at the supermarket didn’t care for him doing his shopping encased in a Victorian-era diving suit, for instance. “I looked unusual,” he admitted, “and as Trump voters they feared difference.” (The food he knocked off shelves as he blundered his way up the aisle was a “necessary byproduct of my quest to maintain personal information integrity.”)
Meanwhile, even his home base—a sprawling three-bedroom estate that cost less than a typical 750-square-foot condominium in Brooklyn or Jersey City—was beginning to feel unsafe. His mother, or literally any of the neighbors he had made friends with could roll up at any time to see how he was doing: a well-intentioned visit that could go horribly south if the conversation went beyond mere pleasantries. The mail brought statements from the investment accounts he had filled with his substantial earnings from his former life as an executive for large companies. The cash allowed him to retire as a relatively young man, but reading the details of how his stocks were performing might give him unwanted insight into current economic policy.
Ultimately, his project’s final form was determined by the newspaper that kept landing in his driveway. (He was afraid if he called to cancel, the CSR would give him a hard sell on “staying informed” that would give him more information than he wanted.) At first, he just built a tall fence around his house. The newspaper kept getting over it. So he made an even taller fence, but the newspaper delivery person—presumably a corn-fed, middle American conservative with a strong arm from playing ball with his dad—managed to land it in the driveway every morning.
Knowing the fence couldn’t keep going up indefinitely, Mr. Turgleman sketched out a version with a barrier that narrowed to an apex above his house. That’s when the idea hit him. “Khufu—Cheops, to the Greeks—built his pyramid to show his power, yes, but also for protection,” he said. “Protection from outside knowledge. Did he ever learn that his dynasty fell, that Egypt was conquered by the Persians, or the Romans?”
“We can’t know how he felt, after the goddess Maat weighed his heart and welcomed him to the Land of Two Fields,” Mr. Turgleman said. “But the ignorance must’ve been blissful beyond compare.”
He quickly drew up blueprints, and faxed them to a local engineering firm, along with detailed instructions on communications protocols. The Tomb began construction the next week.
“Look at this guy,” said the landscape ecologist, pointing at the salamander scurrying underfoot. (While the ecologist did tell us his name, we have withheld it from publication so as not to anger his neighbors, whom we assume voted for Trump and so would despise his profession.) “This whole exclusion zone is going to become a real wildlife sanctuary, for tax purposes.”
Indeed, the area inside the thirty-foot-tall fence surrounding the Turgleman property is almost entirely undisturbed, save for occasional visits from the ecologist or a reporter. Nearby, on what used to be the driveway, a mounting pile of moldering newspapers serves as a testament to Central Ohio’s proud legacy of ball-throwing and other athletics.
If the animals are disturbed by the eerie silence, or the seemingly endless curving expanse of the Tomb, a half-sphere of pure gleaming obsidian, they don’t show it. The Tomb’s outer surface is meant to repel radio light and radio waves, but it also offers an austere, sophisticated beauty that’s lacking in this land of ranch houses and big-box stores.
It’s a pleasant half-mile walk to the Portal, the only break in the otherwise featureless exterior. The pneumatic tubes from the coffee shop and grocery store terminate here; there’s also a twenty-foot-tall mechanical door, and beside that an intercom system, through which all the interviews for this article were conducted.
Talking through the intercom is a cumbersome process, as it doesn’t directly transmit incoming messages to the structure’s lone inhabitant. Instead, a sophisticated AI system filters out any information deemed intrusive or current. The resulting elliptical conversations can be disorienting—but no more so, one imagines, than living with the knowledge that you live among actual Trump supporters. And for certain, our interview had to wrap up by mid-afternoon: the last plane back to the coast left at 8 p.m., and the risks of staying overnight weren’t worth it.
“The door is on a mechanical timer that even I can’t override,” Mr. Turgleman said through the intercom as our conversation drew to an end. “It opens on November 3, 2020, so I can come out and vote.” A question about the 2018 midterms went unanswered. Apparently the AI deemed it inappropriate.