Books

Donald Trump is just the tip of the iceberg

Naomi Klein, the renowned author of No Logo, insists there’s every reason to worry about an Obama-to-Trump trajectory in Canada

Portrait of Naomi Klein (Kourosh Keshiri)

Portrait of Naomi Klein (Kourosh Keshiri)

In the Trump era, yesterday’s news can feel like last year’s, so Naomi Klein was making changes to her new book right down to the wire. “I could obviously be updating it still,” she says of No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. In fact, hoping people will read a full-length book about current events could itself be viewed as wishful thinking. “Many of us weren’t so pleased with the state of our attention spans before there started to be a Twitterer-in-Chief,” she says, “but the problem with having this velocity of change and of news is that it’s not terribly compatible with context and history.”

Klein wants No Is Not Enough to offer context: she aims to make some sense of Donald Trump’s ascendance, and of today’s right-wing populism in general, reading it through the lens of her previous writing about branding (in No Logo), “disaster capitalism” (in The Shock Doctrine) and climate change (in This Changes Everything). Where these earlier works were the result of long, intensive periods of research, she cranked out her new book in a matter of months—although she insists it’s less of a hot take than “a mixtape.” Klein sees Trump’s administration as the extension of trends that have eaten away at citizens’ sense of community, for which Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible, as well as the “billionaire class” emerging from deregulated capitalism.

READ MORE: For a troubled Trump, Canada is easy pickings

Canada is no safe haven from these forces, Klein insists, and her strategy for opposition rests largely on the Leap Manifesto she and her husband, Avi Lewis, spearheaded in September 2015 after consultation with various Canadian groups (among them Indigenous leaders, climate activists, feminists and unions). Its aim has been to spark what she calls “a truly progressive populist response to the crises we face,” in the hope that a coalition of united activists will have a significant impact. At the offices of her publisher, Penguin Random House, in Toronto, the left-wing firebrand spoke with Maclean’s about seeing through politicians’ brands, putting pressure on Justin Trudeau and killing her inner Trump.

Q: Why was it important to you to write this book now?

A: Precisely because I was seeing so much of the response to Trump was shock-based, like, “We’ve never seen anything like this,” treating him like a Martian invader into this otherwise functioning system. The problem with that is if it’s all personalized, the solution is just get rid of Trump, and then you don’t deal with any of the conditions that created Trump. What is to stop an even more insidious amalgamation of these same trends? I think somebody could be even more willing to rile up racist and xenophobic undercurrents, that are increasingly over-currents, in the U.S.

Looking at him as a brand, as opposed to a politician, helps explain why it’s so hard to hold him accountable. He sees his voters as consumers. The other reason why I wanted to rush the book out is because I really am very concerned about how Trump will exploit an external shock. All of the shocks in the Trump administration so far have been shocks they have generated themselves, whether on purpose or out of their ineptness or corruption. There’s Trump the showman, who understands that it is better to have everybody focused on the drama than on what’s behind the curtain—he’s managed to build a business on such shaky foundations by constantly putting on what he called The Trump Show. He’s been doing this since the ’80s. He understands the dynamic. It’s why he won’t fire Sean Spicer—because his ratings are good. On the other hand, the Russian investigation, Comey—I don’t think they’re doing that on purpose so we don’t look at their tax plan too closely. The combination of these forces is making it pretty hard to look at some underlying, very clear trends in this administration. They are systematically distributing wealth upwards.

My concern is, what do they do when they have a major shock to exploit that is not generated by them—a market shock or a coastal natural disaster or a terrorist attack, like what just happened in London and Manchester? We’ve already seen how willing Trump is to exploit an attack in another country to ram through the more anti-democratic pieces of his agenda. Immediately after the London attack, he said, “This is why we need the travel ban.” If this happened on U.S. soil, I think there’s a really good chance they’d declare a state of emergency, try to ban protests and put serious restrictions on the press. Better safe than sorry with these guys.

The whole strategy behind shock politics is to take advantage of the fact that people are disoriented, and a state of shock is something big and bad that you are not prepared for, that you don’t have a narrative for—it’s a rupture in your story. That’s when you are very vulnerable to strong-man figures coming in and going, “Stay in your home. Be afraid of everybody. I’m in charge. Go limp.”

Q: In your book, you describe hearing about Trump’s election victory in Australia, at a meeting of progressives, and that you collectively felt as though you were “about to be blasted backward by a gale-force wind.” That sounds like a rupture.

A: The election results were a rupture because a lot of people weren’t prepared for it: the polls were not predicting it, and some people were insufficiently in touch with the forces that propelled Trump forward. One of the things I really wanted to mess with in the book was the idea that it was as shocking as we claim it was. There’s a way in which claiming to be shocked by Trump absolves people from any kind of complicity in the forces that created Trump. I think Trump is best understood as living dystopian fiction—he is all of these existing trends that we knew and understood were out there, pushed to their logical conclusion. Dystopian fiction is disturbing because it holds up a mirror and says, “This is where it’s all going.” I’m not sure people are as shocked as they claim to be, and I think a better word would be horror: the horror of recognition, like, “Whoa! There are consequences to all these things that we’ve been doing.” It’s useful to let go of that deniability that the narrative of shock allows. We need to get at those underlying systems that created Trump, because if not, there’s just going to be a search for a better-branded billionaire. We already see this: “Maybe it’ll be Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe it’ll be Oprah.” Liberals are looking for their brand to fix everything.

Q: Let’s talk about the long-standing trends you identify in Donald Trump’s rise to power. In the book, you chart their course from Reagan’s declaration, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” through Bill Clinton’s program of financial deregulation, to Obama…

A: Well, it also runs through Clinton’s setting up the Global Initiative, and the Clinton Foundation being ground zero for getting the billionaire class, who we created, pushing deregulated capitalism on countries like Russia and Mexico in the midst of crisis. That’s who goes to the Clinton Global Initiative, and then voluntarily, out of the supposed goodness of their hearts, fix all of the problems created by the fact that there’s no public sphere: “Bloomberg will handle climate change, and Bill Gates will deal with malaria and education.” That idea created a context in which Donald Trump could step forward and say, “Trust me because I’m rich. Wealth equals wisdom.” This is a culture that equates the ability to amass great wealth with ridiculous superhero-like powers, and then Trump further bestows that onto Jared [Kushner], who’s going to solve Middle East peace, and fix the government, deal with China, go to Iraq—why? Because he’s a scion of wealth, like Trump himself.

Q: Yeah, but where does Obama fit in? Especially in the context of the explicit narrative of hope that he offered. Do you see that as a meaningful divergence from what had been happening? In the book, you contend that politics abhors a vacuum, which is filled either with hope or fear. It seemed that we had hope for a while …

A: I’m not arguing for the brand “hope.” I’m arguing for tangible reasons for hope [laughs]. Obama was really good at marketing progressive values, just as Trudeau is. These are politicians who get the power of imagery and know how to communicate as well as some of the best brands in the world. They’re not brands in the way Trump is, because they were not fully commercialized before they became politicians, but they’re using those same tools. I would argue that their bases have the same willingness as Trump’s to overlook what the brand is not delivering on. Obama’s supporters were in love with the images he was projecting to the world and disinclined to look at how he was deporting millions of people, that he was escalating drone warfare, that he didn’t close Guantanamo, that he let the banks off the hook, etc. The vacuum is that we got marketing instead of deep political change, and I try to hold Obama accountable for that. The book is not just going after Trump; it’s looking at what the Democrats did to lay the groundwork, to create a vacuum. I’m not interested in a narrative that just blames this on conservatives.

Q: Speaking of which, in your book you discuss Hillary Clinton as a compromised candidate. What significance might there have been to Trump’s public appearance with women who claimed to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton, and said Hillary had helped to silence them? This was reported in the “mainstream media” as being essentially a stunt pulled by Trump, who himself was being accused of assault, but might these claims further have compromised Clinton as a candidate?

A: I deeply believe that the story of this election is not just how Trump won; it is also how the Democrats lost. He did not win with a landslide by any stretch, and there is also a lot of evidence that the parts of his base that are passionate are quite small. Even thinking about the inauguration and the fact that there weren’t throngs of people who wanted to mark this moment, or even how infrequent it is to see Trump supporters confront the anti-Trump supporters—his base seems soft in a weird way. Hillary Clinton lost this election with the depressed voter turnout: she was not able to energize her base. And in so many ways, she was not the right foil for his weaknesses. You’ve named one of them, but also, in terms of calling out the absurdity of this silver spoon-raised billionaire literally sitting on a golden throne: the first images the Trump family put into the world are themselves lined up on golden thrones, and saying they’re going to be the saviours of the working class. I think Bernie Sanders would have been a hell of a better foil for that. Hillary Clinton spends her life, as Trump pointed out, hobnobbing with the billionaire class, at Davos or at the Clinton Global Initiative, or Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of voters saw that there was going to be an alleged sexual predator in the White House one way or another. The messaging that [the Trump camp] were putting out in the right-wing bubble was very convincing. Clinton was not able to really speak in a full-throated way to how threatening it is to have somebody who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment running for the highest office in the land.

In the book, I go through all the people around Trump who have also faced these accusations, and there are a lot of them. And the message, again and again, is, “Women are not to be believed.” This message is being blared from the most powerful office in the world, but Hillary Clinton wasn’t really able to articulate that because of her vulnerability. The other problem with the Russia obsession is that for power brokers in the Democratic Party, it’s a much more convenient narrative for the lesson of 2016 to be, “Don’t let the Russians hack your emails,” or, “We were robbed!” That absolves them from responsibility for the fact they lost the election because they were not able to galvanize their base.

Q: You mention how Trump wants to keep what’s behind the curtain hidden away. At the same time, the administration is often portrayed as though it were a soap opera, and we’re captivated, for instance, by the drama of Bannon versus Jared-and-Ivanka. How much does that apparent power struggle matter?

A: I think we’re way too focused on it. There’s no doubt there are genuine conflicts within his administration, but at the same time, we’re talking about a figure whose major success was a reality show, which systematically pitted people against each other. This newer trend has set in within the last six weeks of just not giving Trump any credit for having any strategy—like he’s this big dummy who’s blundering around. I don’t think he’s a genius, but I do think he knows his craft, and his craft is showmanship.

Many of these [political] stories may well be part of a strategy that he understands—it’s great for us to be talking about relatively minor conflicts within his administration. Around climate change, so much of the coverage was “Ivanka vs. Pruitt,” or “Tillerson vs. Bannon.” To me, the big picture is none of them are worried about climate change. Some of them thought that it would be better to leave the Paris Agreement. Some of them thought it would be better to stay in the agreement and completely ignore it and break all of the U.S.’s commitments that Obama made, because everyone agreed in trashing the Clean Power Plan. Whether they stay or leave Paris is essentially a marketing question. It doesn’t affect how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere.

Q: Where does Russia fit into his image, if Trump’s seen to have someone else pulling his strings? What are we to make of how he’s seen to be dealing with Russia, including his attack on a Syrian government air base?

A: [Trump’s camp] may well have thought that that [attack] was going to be enough to put a lot of the Russia narratives to bed. I think they thought themselves quite clever, where it was going to be this big messy break-up [laughs]. Tillerson going to Russia and supposedly being stood up by Putin—I think all of that was theatre. They underestimated the extent to which the press was going to hold onto this story. The investigations weren’t going to magically disappear.

Q: How much of a threat does Russia pose to Trump, not only in terms of his administration, but also the brand?

A: We may see more public disagreements in situations that are low-stakes for both countries. Having a proxy war that doesn’t cause any casualties for your side is perfect theatre on which to play out a supposed breakup or assert your independence. None of us know what his relationship to Russia is. It should be fully investigated, but I do question the amount of oxygen that this particular story is sucking up. His economic policies are a conspiracy in plain sight, and in the liberal press, there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the way he’s systematically breaking his economic promises to his base. It’s politically stupid that so many liberals are just so focused in such a blinkered way on the Russia story, because his base is fully psychologically protected from it. They see it as a witch hunt. But this is a guy who promised to protect their health care, to protect their social security, to be the voice of the little guy, and get trade agreements that are going to protect their jobs—and here he is, going after the social safety net on every level. His commerce secretary is out there saying they’re going to renegotiate NAFTA to make it more like the TPP, and Trump [had] campaigned saying, “I’m going to free you from the TPP.” I really do believe that there are portions of Trump’s base that are movable, but where they’re going to move is on the economic side.

Q: Justin Trudeau, darling of social media, has positioned himself as an anti-Trump. You take him to task for his policies in the book, but given what he represents, can those who take the Leap Manifesto on board work with him, instead of against him?

A: There is a very deep problem with electorates having relationships of fandom with their political leaders, as opposed to relationships of accountability, and I think Trudeau very much fosters that relationship. People around him are incredibly good at messaging in social media. I think Trudeau is going against the spirit of his campaign and of his messaging: we still have the Safe Third Country Agreement in place, preventing anybody who tries to seek asylum in the U.S. from going to Canada, despite the fact that Trudeau is out there positioning Canada as, “We’ll welcome you when Trump shuts the door.” Or positioning himself as a climate leader, and pushing pipelines through, against the express wishes of Indigenous people and the electorate of B.C. I think he is vulnerable on that, but to me, the question is, why are people not holding him accountable?

I think it is less an issue of getting the Liberals out; to me, the deeper issue is what kind of pressure they’re going to be under. During Obama’s first term, liberals in the U.S. were so relieved to be rid of Bush, and to have a rebranded country and not have the rest of the world hate them, that they just coasted for the most part. There was a long give-the-guy-a-chance period, and it wasn’t until the second term when social movements really started rising in the U.S., with the climate justice movement and Keystone movement, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter—the dreamers were out in the streets in huge numbers, organizing in communities. We started to see better policies from Obama in his second term under that kind of pressure. I think Trudeau’s got a pretty thin skin; he gets offended fairly easily when he gets pushback from what he sees as his progressive base. He feels entitled to their support—we’ve seen him get very uncomfortable when he’s been confronted by Indigenous people [or] young people. We need way more of it! And whether or not they win another term, I’m more concerned about, if people just get hollow branding for long enough, it eventually wears off, and there will be a backlash and a vacuum, and it will go right. There’s every reason to be worried about the trajectory of Obama-to-Trump in Canada.

Q: As far as Trump’s branding goes, he did attempt many of the things he said he would do, by signing executive orders or backing legislation, whereas Trudeau has pulled back from election promises in important respects.

A: The things Trudeau did at the start were more in the realm of symbolism. They could have been really meaningful if they had been followed up with policies that made good on the promise of that symbolism. It’s great to have half your cabinet be women, but what are we doing on pay equity? And it’s great to go to the airport and welcome refugees, but what are we doing on the Safe Third Country Agreement, and what are we really doing for Syrian refugees now, and [about] indefinite detention of refugees in Canadian prisons? To me, the problem is when symbolism isn’t matched by policy. Yes, fabulous, go to Paris and say Canada’s back, but don’t come home and ram through three tar sands pipelines. Where is the big nation-building project that is about renewable energy? Why is all of our energy debate still focused on fossil fuels if we’re supposedly in the middle of a transition?

Q: Trudeau has highlighted environmental assessments and consultation with Indigenous groups in his support for pipelines, and also even said that he was looking to eventually phase out the oil sands, which didn’t play too well in Alberta

A: That was the one true thing he’s ever said when it comes to climate! We do need to phase it out. We need to do it in a managed way that takes care of workers. We need a massive retraining program. We need workers to be democratically involved in that retraining, but we need a careful, thoughtful, managed decline of our reliance on fossil fuels. That is what the climate science says; that is the implication of the Paris climate accord that Liberals are so proud to have helped negotiate. That agreement says we need to keep temperatures between 1.5-2 degrees of warming. It was Canada that fought to get the 1.5 target in there. If we want to have a decent shot of keeping warming below 2 degrees, we cannot expand the fossil fuel frontier. That means we have to take what’s in production now and begin that slow, managed decline. Alberta’s climate plan allows for a 50-per-cent increase in production. That is not compatible with the Paris Agreement. And when you confront Rachel Notley’s government or the Trudeau government with that tension, they don’t have an answer for it, because there isn’t an answer for it.

Q: When Trudeau says he’s done the right thing for our economy, making sure that until we’re able to be entirely green, we’re staying afloat financially, does that make any good sense?

A: I think they are in the process of blowing a very important moment for this transition, not just because the climate clock is ticking, but also because with the price of oil, investors are fleeing the tar sands. It is not good for the economy to have a bet on this very high-cost fossil fuel, and the price crash should be seen as a wake-up call. This is a moment when contraction is happening because of market forces. Huge numbers of workers can be put to work cleaning up abandoned wells, doing land remediation, and getting trained up to work in wind and solar and geothermal, where we know they create eight to 10 times more jobs than when that dollar is invested in fossil fuels. To not use this moment is really a crime.

Q: What is the import of the NDP’s having endorsed the Leap Manifesto, and could it be problematic that it should become associated with one political party?

A: We never wanted the Leap to be a partisan document. The federal NDP did vote at the convention to endorse the spirit of the manifesto and debate it at the riding level—they didn’t just endorse it wholesale. It was signed by Elizabeth May; it has been endorsed by the Green Party as well, which got no attention [laughs], and we would like these policies to be government policies. Leap groups have formed across the country that are going to be running their own slates: Thunder Bay is running a slate of Leap candidates in a local election. In recent months, local Leap groups are taking it and running with it, and applying it locally where it isn’t attached to any party.

The document says we want all politicians to adopt these principles. We don’t think that they should be partisan, but it is interesting that in the B.C. election, Christy Clark’s campaign and her financial backers tried to attack [provincial NDP leader] John Horgan through this idea that the NDP is the party of the Leap Manifesto. Clark once said that [adhering to its principles] would wipe hundreds of towns off the map overnight. Despite the scare tactics and this attempt to tar the NDP with the Leap brush, 57 per cent of B.C. voters voted for parties that have voluntarily associated themselves with the Leap, so clearly voters aren’t as scared as some people would like them to be.

Q: You have a great line in the book saying celebrities such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, “and always for some reason Bono … are treated less like normal people who are gifted in their fields … and more like demigods.” On that note, why should we care that Michael Stipe has blurbed your book, or that Neil Young has signed on to the Leap Manifesto, or Leonard Cohen …

A: Leonard Cohen? You’re even going to go there on Leonard Cohen? C’mon! That was one of our happiest days, when he signed the Leap [laughs].

Q: Only on that note.

A: When we launched the Leap, it had already been endorsed by dozens of organizations, from Oxfam to Greenpeace to the Canadian Union of Public Employees to Black Lives Matter Toronto, and yeah, artists signed it as well, many of whom are socially engaged. Are we saying that Neil Young, because he is a musician, has no status to be part of a debate about the future of the planet? He’s got quite a track record of engagement on this.

Q: But you could say that about Bono, too.

A: Oh [laughs]. Well, these artists lent their platform to support a very grassroots process that produced the Leap, which I think is quite different from the role that Bono has played in being like, “Me and my pals are going to fix Africa for you.”

Q: You write in the book that you had to kill your “inner Trump.” What was in your inner Trump?

A: In the sense that Trump reflects our worst selves back to us, the inner Trump that I’m trying to kill is the way social media has eroded my attention span. I’m focusing on that, and in doing the Leap work, we’re trying as much as possible to de-brand it and not be possessive about this project as something that we own and want to control. We want to be in service to a broader project of transformation, and that means that you can’t let the logic of corporate branding infect the logic of organizing, which it unfortunately has, to far too great an extent.

Q: To what extent do you yourself need to be a brand in order to get your message across? No Is Not Enough could be seen as a sequel to No Logo, and your books are readily identifiable from their covers.

Thankfully there’s no memory in our culture, so people don’t realize that. [laughs] There’s no doubt that everybody in our culture now is marketed more than previously, using the tools of branding, but I’m lucky that my publisher doesn’t try to make me write books I don’t want to write. “Sure, I’m a brand in that sense that everybody is these days, but in terms of the rules of branding, which are just, “Repeat the same message over and over again,” I think a pretty bad brand.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.