While on a recent overseas trip, President Donald Trump was pictured gripping a glowing orb in a shadowy room with Middle Eastern heads of state—for some the photo suggested the Legion of Doom summoning some dark force in a plot to destroy the world. The image spread quickly on social media in part because it served as a perfect visual metaphor for those who consider themselves part of the resistance to Trump: He’s not just a billionaire reality-TV host with bad ideas, he’s a supervillain whom they must defeat to save democracy.
But for all of Trump’s many offenses and transgressions, he’s no real-life Lex Luthor single-handedly creating a dystopia—he’s the orange-faced apotheosis of long-standing terrible trends in American culture and politics. Many of these have been documented by Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein for the past two decades, in manifestos like No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: politics as theater, the consolidation of vast wealth and resources into the hands of a few, the privatization of the public sphere, the emergence of brands, and the destruction of the environment, which lines the pockets of fossil-fuel companies.
In other words, the toxic cloud of white male entitlement, naked corruption, and corporate domination popularly deemed “Trumpism” is deeply ingrained in our institutions. That’s why Klein believes we need more than sheer resistance to his presidency and policies. We need a bold new alternative. a vision of the future to say yes to, not just a nightmare to say no to.
And most importantly, we need this plan immediately. That’s why Klein has spent the few months since Inauguration Day on overdrive. She furiously wrote No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Haymarket), a timely book that was released on Tuesday, June 13. I spoke with Klein over the phone about Trump, the infighting among leftists and Democrats, and why progressives need to build a new movement.
Sometimes this book felt like a 300-page op-ed that could appear in today’s paper. I had this vision of you frantically writing it up until the last minute.
That vision is accurate. It was a very different kind of writing process for me than in previous books, which generally I’ve had years to write and months to edit. This one felt like a race against time because one of my main motivations for it is that I’m quite concerned about what [Trump] would do if there was a major crisis.
There was even a section where you mentioned the possibility of Trump breaking the Paris agreement. The day I read that, the news came out that he was actually going to do it. Does America’s withdrawal from it represent the worst-case scenario for the environment?
It depends on how the rest of the world reacts. There’s enough understanding of the urgency of this issue by the majority of large economies now. And the people can put pressure on governments, which could very well lead to tougher commitments. In Canada our government is perfectly happy to coast because everyone looks good compared to Trump. He’s lowered the bar so much that everybody looks like a progressive next to him. But regular people understand that this is all the more reason why our government can’t build new tar sands pipelines. It’s not good news. But it’s not necessarily the end of the world.
In many ways, this book feels like the final chapter of books you’ve already written. Trump or Trumpism embodies the problems of neoliberalism, the vacuousness of reality TV and personal branding, climate change denial, etc.
He does feel like the Frankenstein monster of all these trends. My main goal in writing this book was to say that we are at our least effective and least intelligent when we feel like we’re in new territory without any kind of political, economic, and cultural context. We’ve never seen a figure exactly like Trump before, but he doesn’t come from outer space—he’s very much a made-in-America phenomenon. I think tracing the various roots of Trumpism helps remind people that we know quite a bit of what produced him and helps us go beyond the idea that we can just impeach the bastard and everything will be fine. We need to see the conditions that produced this disaster and then ask how we change those underlying conditions?
In The Shock Doctrine, you laid out the case about how the right effectively exploits disasters to install extreme procorporate and neoliberal policies. Is Trump too clumsy of an instrument of so-called shock therapy to pull this off? He’s got this tendency to provoke so much reaction and resistance.
We have to remember that we’re seeing Trump without a real crisis to exploit. The only crisis he’s able to exploit is the crisis of himself; the shock that he is the president and the daily shock of his insane behavior and the various scandals surrounding his administration. That endless show is eating up something like 90 percent of U.S. media coverage, and then there’s not much time left over to talk about what the Goldman [Sachs] guys are doing. In a very methodical way, they’re advancing an extremely procorporate agenda that’s systematically redistributing wealth upwards, and that kind of thing is getting a fraction of the coverage because it’s not as sensational. In lots of ways he’s clumsy and incompetent, but if his administration pulls off what they say they want to do economically it would represent the biggest advance for the corporatist project in the United States since Reagan.
And then there’s a city like Chicago. In the last few decades, we’ve been run by Democratic mayors like Daley and Rahm who’ve turned to neoliberal projects of privatization, charter schools, redistribution to the wealthy, while turning a blind eye to police problems.
Exactly, and that’s a big thing in this book—why the colonization of the Democratic Party by the neoliberal project made them unable to defeat Trump. That has to be the biggest lesson of this election. That’s part of the problem with the relentless obsession over Russia and Comey—it lets Democrats off the hook. They say they didn’t lose the election, it was stolen. Any real self-examination or internal revolt in the Democratic Party is put on hold in the name of unifying against this terrible aberration that is Donald Trump.
Or they’re too busy looking for the next Superman. Obama, Trudeau in Canada, Macron in France—a lot of liberals just want to elect these charismatic, handsome, well-spoken politicians to save us from Trumpism.
Yeah, Trudeau is very much a brand who uses tools of corporate branding very deftly, just as Obama did. Liberals are just as willing to look the other way and not examine the actual policies behind the imagery—just as Trump voters are. One thing Trump has really clarified for me is how incredibly toxic the colonization of branding logic is to political life. I’m trying to extend that beyond Trump. The use of tools of branding by Obama or George W. Bush helped till the ground for an actual commercial brand to run for president.
It’s been off-putting to see Obama do Wall Street speeches for $400,000 and focus on his foundation and chill with Richard Branson . . .
Those were the first pictures after his presidency. But at the same time, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States. It’s really interesting to see what’s going on in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn. He’s very much an antipolitician, with none of the charisma of Sanders, yet he’s surged in the polls. There’s something about the lack of packaging that’s appealing to millennials. They don’t want to be sold politicians like they’re iPhones. They want authenticity.
Your book is called No Is Not Enough. What do we say “yes” to? What are the alternatives?
A huge piece of it has to be an accelerated transition off of fossil fuels. We’re on a deadline—we have to transform our economy because it’s just completely unsustainable ecologically. We’ve wasted 25 years negotiating if we were going to do anything about climate change while we allowed emissions to increase by more than 60 percent. Now we’re out of time and have to do this very, very quickly.
It’s an incredible opportunity to build a fairer economy. If you’re going to have change your energy grid anyway, if you’re going to have to rebuild your transportation system, why not also seize this opportunity? To build a more fair economy at this time of unprecedented inequality with so many people systematically excluded from the formal economy, facing mass incarceration and militarized police. We have multiple crises and don’t have time to solve them in sequence. We need integrated solutions that simultaneously bring down emissions and bring down inequality and win racial justice.
There are challenges, many of which you talk about in the book. We’ve seen this division among the left and liberals, often embodied in Hillary versus Bernie, phrased as identity politics versus a focus on economics or class. How do people get past that and build a coalition that incorporates all of the above?
I feel hopeful about it because what we saw with the Sanders campaign was a tremendous appetite for transformative change. We’ve been told for so long that only the most incremental changes are sellable to the American public. That turns out not to be true. What Bernie’s weaknesses were: race and gender. I think there needs to be a much more integrated story told about how extreme capitalism has advanced since the beginning of the United States on the backs of racial politics.
It’s completely inseparable. Even if you think about the horrific killings in Portland [recently], the attacker was saying to those young women “Go back to where you come from. Get off the bus. You don’t pay taxes.”
It’s so important to understand exactly what he said and how it’s the integration of racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy used to justify attacks on the public sphere. You’re exploiting the system! That is always how neoliberalism has been sold in the United States. That’s what Reagan did when he said welfare queens were exploiting the system—they’ve got their Cadillacs waiting outside while they collect their welfare checks. But that doesn’t mean I believe in trickle-down diversity either; you change the faces on the top and everybody wins. That’s not true. But I think it’s a complete cop-out to accept the premise that they are in competition.
What we don’t have is enough political leaders that can make the connection. If those connections could be made in a way that would resonate with people, the progressive majority is out there.
Then there’s the question of power—that if the left wants to make a real difference in the world they’ll have to seek it. Conservatives aren’t afraid of power—they thirst for it. Liberals have all sorts of cultural power, but they often distrust political power.
Yes, but I see a shift in this generation. When we were in the streets in Seattle with the free-trade wars and antiglobalization movement, there was absolutely an allergy to engaging in electoral politics. Looking at the young people engaged with the Sanders campaign and the Corbyn campaign in the UK and now running candidates on every level, I think there’s a healthy understanding that it takes both—it takes protests in the streets and social movements and engagement in the electoral system. But there’s no doubt that if you have an authoritarian worldview, which people on the right tend to have, it’s easier to organize—you just follow orders. Whereas if your politics are about questioning power at every level, you’re also going to question it in your own organizations, which can slow you down. I’m not sure that’s all bad.
You mention Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter and other social movements that give you hope.
Absolutely. The fact that [Black Lives Matter] wrote an incredible political platform last year and launched it in the middle of the campaign, that is a huge shift from the social movement organizing with Occupy. I think people are learning from mistakes. Movements evolve.
I watched Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary Hypernormalization recently and he talks about how, when the conservatives started winning in the 70s and 80s, many liberals abandoned politics and community and retreated into cyberspace or themselves. Do you think we’re seeing a change from that?
I am. It’s not complete. But there’s more willingness to look at systems as opposed to symptoms. Things can change very quickly. Winning elections is really possible, the real question is what is the common agenda going to be? My concern is we’re not spending enough time on that.
Your Leap Manifesto was an attempt at that. It’s bold, and quite possibly a very difficult project for a lot of people to get onboard with, because it’s asking for an end to the extreme consumption and extraction that’s become a normal part of our lifestyle in the West.
But it’s interesting because I end the book with this idea of seeing Trump as living dystopian fiction. I really do believe that he is the mirror being held up to us, in the way dystopian art does—it holds up a mirror and says all these roads lead here. It’s really ugly to look at. This endless consumption, profit over everything, life at the most surface and most superficial—that is the Trump family, is it not? I do think there’s a potential for this to be a profound wake-up call for all of these issues because it’s ugly when it’s reflected back. We are seeing this exact effect Trump is having on the world. We kind of assumed that Trump was going to create a lurch to the far right in Europe, but it seems Europeans are looking at the U.S. and saying “no thanks.”
You briefly mention the role of art, and it’s interesting because so many people are watching The Handmaid’s Tale or The Man in the High Castle. You say we need more than dystopian fiction, we need utopian art to actually have a vision of what to aspire to.
My worry about dystopian and “cli-fi” lit is that if you read a variation of the same story over and over, it starts to feel inevitable. Our biggest problem is not that we can’t imagine where our society will lead. Our biggest problem is that we think it’s inevitable that it will lead to The Road or The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale. We have a completely atrophied imagination when it comes to endings that do not lead to a far more stratified and brutal society. We need to get some utopian books and films out there; it’s so much harder to do well, I suppose. [Ursula K. Le Guin] had a beautiful speech about how in this time that writers dismissed, fantasists have the most to give right now because we need people who can imagine a world beyond capitalism. v