The award-winning journalist and author shares her political opinion on the turmoil and toxicity inside the US government today – and advises how we can make our way out of it
Donald Trump is not an anomaly in any shape or form. His rise to power reveals the ugly truth about a nation that prides itself on whitewashing history and spouting disinformation in its place. His election sent those who clung to these illusions into a state of shock, unable to make sense of the inevitable culmination of neoliberal policy, celebrity/CEO worship, and dog-whistle politics aligned under the banner “Make America Great Again.”
Scandalised, they began to deflect, pointing fingers to avoid the facts. Shadowboxing with lies became the order of the day as mainstream media outlets debated false paradigms and fake news, keeping misinformation alive and well. Talking heads wouldn’t shut up, fomenting confusion, rage, and fear – all in a day’s work for the merchants of trauma and confusion.
After decades of reporting on large-scale political and corporate exploitation of society, award-winning journalist and author Naomi Klein saw through the deception and set to work penning No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (Penguin Press). Here, Klein charts Trump’s ascendancy as a product of our time and offers a bold plan of action to fight back against an administration entrenched in the brutal oppression and destruction of the people, democracy, economy, and environment.
What we need, Klein argues, is a paradigm shift that goes beyond policies and takes root in values that will protect life on the planet from the scourge of rampant corruption, hatred, and greed that the administration exhibits with pride and impunity. Klein shares her vision and her wisdom with us below, providing insight into the issues at hand and how we can resist, reorganise, and fight back.
“We need to be asking, ‘What is the most we can learn from Trump, from this crisis? How can he be the wake-up call?’” – Naomi Klein
You describe the Presidency as a superbrand. Why you think the idea of brands, more specifically people as brands, has captivated the public imagination to the point where they refuse to see blatant acts of manipulation?
Naomi Klein: I always felt that it was not a coincidence that the timing of rise of lifestyle brands took off in the 1990s and have been speeding along into uncharted territories ever since. This era coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, an economic project that waged war on the very idea of society. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
The truth is, that’s not the case. We are longing to be part of something larger than ourselves, whether we get that through religion or our social networks rooted in a real place. That longing is very deep but it has been under continual attack since the 80s. So along comes these companies and they speak to the desire to be part of something bigger. Brands are able to get away with such cognitive dissonance because if we aren’t having that need met then brands fill that vacuum.
I feel there are limits to how it can be addressed through consumption. After I wrote No Logo, I went on tour with it. I would give talks and at the end, the first question would be, “Can you recommend an ethical brand of running shoes?” (Laughs). They wanted me to be their shopping advisor. It’s the same when I talk about climate change. People immediate go to, “How can we fix this with shopping? What is a green product that I can buy? I don’t have time to be part of a movement. What can I do as a consumer?”
I’ve always thought that none of these are problems we can solve as consumers. What we are seeing is consumption filling the vacuum and the only way that we will address the root causes is if a society were able to respond to that deep human need to be part of something larger and rebuild the collective.
In the book, you describe Trump as the logical conclusion of the past half-century, but the real long view of history is: this started with Columbus. This started before the United States. This started with the imperialist impulse to consume. They took that Biblical verse of dominion over nature to the fullest extent, including dominion over people.
I look at the U.S. as this schism: there are the people who are voracious consumers and then there’s everyone else who are like, “Wait a minute. We need to stop this because if we don’t we’ll get trampled.”
Naomi Klein: You’re absolutely right. The reason why a figure like Trump rises in the United States is not by happenstance. The US, Canada, and Australia, these are countries that were corporations before they were countries. They seemed to be a bottomless pit of natural resources at a time when Europe was hitting all of these ecological boundaries.
But that’s not the only part of the US. There were always counter attempts to stand up and keep alive other ways of knowing and being. Many people were brought here against their will and were never part of that project. But the idea of creating a country out of this voracious desire to consume, that is the settler-colonial project.
“There has been a shocking level of terrible strategy on the part of the Democrats but I think it may be a blessing in disguise because those messianic figures who step into those vacuums can be very dangerous” – Naomi Klein
This is where I feel like I keep hitting a wall when I present the history of America. It’s very challenging to talk to people about this and they’re so defensive about this – and they’re the liberals. They need, “The slaves were freed 150 years ago. Don’t tell me about the 13th Amendment. Don’t talk about the prison-industrial complex,” which is such a corporate endeavour at this point. How can we reach people indoctrinated by this consumerist-corporate mentality?
Naomi Klein: I think you’re right in that the battles we need to be having are not just this broad Red America vs. Blue America kind of debate because that glosses over these huge differences. It’s almost like there’s this split on the Progressive side of the spectrum between those who are acting like, “What’s the least we can learn from Trump?”
We need to be asking, “What is the most we can learn from Trump, from this crisis? How can he be the wake-up call?”
What I take heart from is that it feels like there is a generational shift. It seems to me, looking at the demographics of who supported Bernie Sanders in the US and who supports Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, that there is a readiness to dig deeper about what this moment means among young people.
What is particularly heartening is that young people are the ones who have been fully immersed in this culture of personal branding, reality television, hyper-mediation of the self that Trump is the ultimate expression of. If enough young people can see through it to want to support a candidate like Bernie over Hillary or to have created the momentum for Jeremy Corbyn to take over the Labour Party… that shows that simply being immersed in the culture does not make you unreachable.
“The reason why (Jeremy Corbyn) did so much better than expected is that he engaged traditional non-voters... It proves that it is possible that if you do politics differently there is this incredibly rich terrain. 40 per cent of the country, 90 million people didn’t vote. I find that totally exciting!” – Naomi Klein
Maybe people who were raised in the culture and have never known it any other way can resist it better than people who have one foot in and one foot out.
Naomi Klein: For the young people who supported the Sanders campaign and the Corbyn campaign, BLM, the Fight for 15 – they grew up into adulthood in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. They never got the hard ideological sell in the way Generation X did.
Neoliberalism was marketed as a utopian project: “We’re going to privatise everything. It’s going to run more efficiently. It’s going to be less expensive. Technology is going to be this huge liberating tool. There is no alternative to any of this. This is the best possible scenario for humanity. The only possible alternative is authoritarian Communism!”
Now (Millennials) get the policies but they don’t get the hard sell so they see in their own lives what this has meant in terms of debt, joblessness, precariousness, violence – and they’re daring to dream because their minds have not been as policed as ours were.
You’ve just summed up the second half of the 20th century. When I look at Trump I see a regroup, like “We’re going to end that Voting Rights Act. We’re going to get that Jim Crow back.” In his rise, there’s been no leadership on the other side. Isn’t the whole thing in politics that when there’s a vacuum, someone would be opportunistic enough to fill the void?
Naomi Klein: There has been a shocking level of terrible strategy on the part of the Democrats but I think it may be a blessing in disguise because those messianic figures who step into those vacuums can be very dangerous.
I end the book with this chapter on people’s platform and provide a few examples of these grassroots initiatives that bring together dozens of organisations and movement leaders and organisers to develop the plan and the vision through a collective intelligence rather than that messianic figure that steps into that vacuum saying, “Here’s the plan, guys,” like Moses with the tablets. I think we’re very programmed to wait for that.
“We have this celebrity relationship with politicians... I see the way people treat Justin Trudeau and it’s absurd. He’s not a rock star. He’s a head of state. It’s really an epidemic” – Naomi Klein
It would be a much sturdier movement and process of the organisations that we’ve seen already organise with tremendous effectiveness and courage, from the Women’s March to the response to the Muslim Ban to the Day Without Immigrants and BLM and the Fight for 15. This is really a shift in values – not just policies – of how we turn the tide against this culture of rampant greed and corruption that Trump is the ultimate expression of.
And impunity. Here we are talking about the very real possibility that Trump could fire Robert Mueller and pardon members of his family and maybe even himself. We can either choose to see that as an isolated event and define the problem as “This is just Trump, an out-of-control autocrat who needs to be overthrown,” or diagnose the problem as, “This is the cancer of impunity that has now spread to the highest office, from the police stations and the courts that exonerated police officers caught on video murdering black people to CEOs of the banks that got away with massive fraud before and after the 2008 financial crisis to companies like Exxon who have lied and lied and lied so that they can keep destroying the planet. We have impunity at every level of the culture and Trump’s actions are the ultimate expression of that and now we just get rid of Trump and return to the ‘good ol’ days.’”
It matters how we frame the problem and how we diagnose it.
It’s a paradigm shift. If they play the game of “Pin it on Donald Trump,” they maintain the paradigm. When you talk about creating a collective approach, capitalism gets nervous.
Naomi Klein: That doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders. It means the leaders have to follow, they have to be lead, they have to earn people’s support instead of this passive state where we have this celebrity relationship with politicians – and that’s not just a problem on the right. I see the way people treat Justin Trudeau and it’s absurd. He’s not a rock star. He’s a head of state. It’s really an epidemic.
Last question, to wrap things up, because this really hit me: half the United States didn’t vote. People say what they want to say but I’m thinking, “What you’re not doing is listening. They are all telling you exactly: I see no paradigm shift. I don’t see myself participating.” And I’m thinking people really are clueless because that is a target population if you want to talk about a market that’s waiting to be tapped.
Naomi Klein: Yes, that’s something we can learn from Corbyn. The reason why he did so much better than expected is that he engaged traditional non-voters, which are constituencies that are just written off by traditional politicians. It proves that it is possible that if you do politics differently there is this incredibly rich terrain – 40 per cent of the country, 90 million people didn’t vote. I find that totally exciting! It may be a protest, it may be a shrug of indifference, but give people something to vote for instead of to vote against.
No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics is available now. Follow Naomi Klein here