The US has a president who embodies many of the things Naomi Klein has been warning about for years. She says her new book had to be written before things got worse
The fact that Naomi Klein predicted the forces that explain the rise to power of Donald Trump gives her no pleasure at all. It is 17 years since Klein, then aged 30, published her first book, No Logo a seductive rage against the branding of public life by globalising corporations and made herself, in the words of the New Yorker, the most visible and influential figure on the American left almost overnight. She ended the book with what sounded then like this crazy idea that you could become your own personal global brand.
Speaking about that idea now, she can only laugh at her former innocence. No Logo was written before social media made personal branding second nature. Trump, she suggests in her new book, No Is Not Enough, exploited that phenomenon to become the first incarnation of president as a brand, doing to the US nation and to the planet what he had first practised on his big gold towers: plastering his name and everything it stands for all over them.
Klein has also charted the other force at work behind the victory of the 45th president. Her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, argued that neoliberal capitalism, the ideological love affair with free markets espoused by disciples of the late economist Milton Friedman, was so destructive of social bonds, and so beneficial to the 1% at the expense of the 99%, that a population would only countenance it when in a state of shock, following a crisis a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war.
Klein developed this theory first in 2004 when reporting from Baghdad and watching a brutally deregulated market state being imagined by agents of the Bush administration in the rubble of war and the fall of Saddam Hussein. She documented it too in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, when the inundated coastline of former fishing villages was parcelled up and sold off to global hotel chains in the name of regeneration. And she saw it most of all in the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when, she argued, disaster was first ignored and exacerbated by government and then exploited for the gain of consultants and developers.
Friedmanites understood that in extreme circumstances bewildered populations longed above all for a sense of control. They would willingly grant exceptional powers to anyone who promised certainty. They understood too that the combination of social media and 24-hour cable news allowed them to manufacture such scenarios almost at will. The libertarian right of the Republican party, in Kleins words, became a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain.
In 2008, the year after The Shock Doctrine was published, Klein believed that the financial crash would prove a reckoning for this cynical philosophy. That the ways in which the Wall Street elite had enriched itself through manipulation and deregulation would finally be exposed in plain sight. In retrospect, it seems, the monumental frailties of the system, its patent vulnerability, allied with concerns over terrorism and a global refugee crisis, only made populations more desperate and fearful. They appeared to crave anyone who could suggest simple solutions to apparently intractable problems. Anyone who said that they could turn back the clock to make America great again and who had the branded cap to prove it.
For those of us who cant help looking at those events without turning lines from WB Yeatss The Second Coming over in our heads (what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?), Kleins new book which examines in detail both the phenomenon of Trump and how liberal and progressive forces might counter his reality is a brilliant articulation of restless anxiety.
Speaking at her home in Toronto last week, Klein suggested to me that Trumps novelty was to take the shock doctrine and make it a personal superpower. He keeps everyone all the time in a reactive state, she said. It is not like he is taking advantage of an external shock, he is the shock. And every 10 minutes he creates a new one. It is like he has these lasers coming out of his belt.
She wrote the book very fast, much faster than is her usual habit, because she feared that the further into a Trump administration America travels, the less scope there might be for resistance, for building an alternative. In this she believes that there are important precedents for people to understand.
She points hopefully to the example of Spain in 2004, when after the Madrid train bombings the prime minister, Jos Maria Aznar, announced that a state of emergency and special state powers were necessary. The people, remembering Franco, took to the streets to reject that analysis and kicked the government out, voting in a party that would pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. She is fully aware, too, of the alternative in Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoans successful plea for dictatorial powers following the chaos of the failed coup in 2016. Kleins book sets out those examples in advance of any comparable shock in America, and makes the case for collective resistance in the event of crisis. I hope none of it happens [in the States] and none of it is useful, she says, but just in case, I wanted to have it out there as soon as possible.
The daughter of American parents, Klein lives in Toronto with dual citizenship. When she thought about putting her book together, her original plan was for an anthology of articles threaded together with interviews, but once she started analysing the presidency she kept writing in a kind of frenzy. One of the benefits of having a deadline and an all-consuming project was that it meant she was forced to use the blocking app Freedom to protect her from the distraction of the internet. I think if I hadnt written this book I just would have stared at Twitter like many others for months on end, watching it unfold, and writing snippy things at people.
That tendency among Trumps critics, she says, is a symptom of his banal influence. She devotes one section of her book to the notion that through Twitter Trump is making the political sphere in his own image and that we all have to kill our inner Trump. Among other things, she says, the president is the embodiment of our splintered attention spans. One essential ingredient of resistance, she suggests, is to retain a belief in telling and understanding complex stories, keeping faith with narrative.
One of the questions that Kleins book does not reach a conclusion about is how conscious Trump is of his shock doctrine tactics. Is he a demagogue in the scheming manner of Putin and Erdoan, or just a useful idiot for the forces around him?
I think he is a showman and that he is aware of the way that shows can distract people, she says. That is the story of his business. He has always understood that he could distract his investors and bankers, his tenants, his clients from the underlying unsoundness of his business, just by putting on the Trump show. That is the core of Trump. He is undoubtedly an idiot, but do not underestimate how good he is at that.