Beware the blood in your eyes: Naomi Klein on resisting being part of ‘The Trump Show’

As Klein launches a new book, she speaks to OpenCanada about Trump’s brand, his influence on foreign affairs and the crucial stories we’re missing when distracted by his shock factor.

By: /
June 16, 2017
A man demonstrates against U.S. President Donald Trump outside of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein. Photo by Kourosh Keshiri.

Following her environmental tome This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), Canadian journalist Naomi Klein is back with a new call to action this week in No is Not Enough: Resisting the new shock politics and winning the world we need — a perhaps unsurprising move from one of the global left’s go-to critical voices, especially when politics and corporate interests intersect.

Not that Klein has been laying low in recent years. The launch of This Changes Everything coincided with her very vocal support for and advocacy around the People’s Climate March in September 2014, followed by the writing of The Leap Manifesto in the spring of 2015, just as Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair were hitting the federal campaign trail in Canada.

Now, just six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Klein’s latest book shifts gears to trace the history of the rise of Trump’s corporate brand, during a time long before her own focus became the fight against climate change.

But in this interview with OpenCanada’s Eva Salinas, on the eve of last week’s UK election and just days before No is Not Enough launched earlier this week, Klein says the forces that are destroying the planet are connected to those that have allowed Trump to succeed. She also explains how this latest shock is different from those she has documented in the past: it is not only continual, but partly our own doing — and its impact goes well beyond the United States.

I want to delve into the arguments in the book — first and foremost that Donald Trump is a brand and that he’s serving as president more as a boss or a brand than a publicly elected official, and second that he is taking advantage of a state of shock.

The overarching point that I was trying to make, particularly in the first part of the book, is as weird and extreme and bizarre as Trump is, his presidency doesn't come from outer space. There's this way in which he is being treated because he is unlike any American president before, he is being treated as something that is apart from the culture.

It’s important to understand that the culture and particularly rising corporate power in many different forms, including the rise of the identity-based lifestyle brand, produced Trump and his presidency. If we don’t understand those forces then we’re going to tell ourselves the dangerous story that everything would be fine if we just got rid of Trump. 

How much of this is a legacy that goes back to the context you describe in No Logo — for that younger generation who may not be familiar with that book — or the rise of neoliberalism you describe in The Shock Doctrine?

Neoliberalism is the backdrop for the shifts that I documented in No Logo 17 years ago — that economic project was very much about dismantling the public sphere and unleashing the forces of the so-called free market. It was against that backdrop that in the ’90s you saw a very dramatic shift in the corporate world, in the business model, of selling people group identity and belonging as opposed to products. As opposed to branding being marketing a product, the order sort of flipped. And the product was the idea and the identity and that circle of belonging and the products were extensions of that brand.

The reason why that was an effective business model was because where we used to get our sense of belonging as humans, many of those institutions were receding, so I have always seen those forces as interconnected.

Part of my wanting to put Trump in this kind of context is that I did think that, particularly for young people who have grown up as millennials, this history is pretty unknown and this business is just the air they breathe, right? So it kind of seems as if it’s always been the case but in fact it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

"Trump is not playing by the rules of politics but of branding. And by those rules he's acting with consistency."

And I don’t think we can understand Trump’s power, his cultural power, without understanding him as a lifestyle brand, [as someone] who used all of these techniques, who understood them early, who built his brand early in the 1980s — he called it the Trump show — when he was still primarily about building buildings. But once The Apprentice came along, he became one of these hollow brands where it was really just about licensing his name, his brand, his identity to other people who would make the products, build the buildings. His job was just to generate publicity and take care of the image that he was producing.

Understanding him that way helps explain why his voters, his constituents, don’t turn on him when he is found to be lying and cheating and screwing people over in various forms because that’s his brand and it always was. He built the brand around being the guy who gets away with anything because he is so rich and powerful. So when he does these things, it sort of baffles a lot of commentators — how can he get away with it, how can his base still stick with him — but that’s because Trump is not playing by the rules of politics, but by the rules of branding. And by those rules he's actually acting with consistency. 

It certainly feels like the story is Trump the individual but you are placing him in a much bigger picture and reminding us that we are all part of that picture. 

Yeah. This came out of hearing from a lot of people who were asking me to reissue The Shock Doctrine and add a new introduction about Trump. I thought about that but, well, it isn’t just about that — it’s a great many of these forces. And I know from having studied many societies in the midst of shock that just understanding how these mechanisms work isn't enough, there has to be a plan for what to do instead, which is what the rest of the book is about.

But Trump’s also a different kind of shock than I’ve documented before in the sense that it’s kind of like a rolling shock. What I’ve documented before are these cataclysmic moments like the 2008 financial crisis or Hurricane Katrina or the invasion of Iraq or the coup in Chile and how those moments completely change the DNA of a society or seem to rupture the story of a society and become opportunities to push through this radically anti-democratic, pro-corporate agenda.

With Trump, it’s different because his is the gift of the constant show, the constant distraction, the constant gasp, like, ‘did he really do that?’ And he's been doing that since the ’80s when he put on “The Trump Show,” as he called it, using his own philandering as the subject matter. He doesn't get embarrassed by this; he understands the value of drama and distraction. So he turned the fact that he was having an affair on Ivana [his former wife] with Marla Maples into this live-action soap opera, well before he actually was a full-fledged reality show star. That’s how he built his brand in New York City in the ’80s.

What he's doing is this sort of constant ‘look over there,' and some of this is by design and a lot of it is out of sheer incompetence and blunder and corruption. I don’t think he designed the Russia investigation, I think he wants it to stop, for sure, but what is happening is that while we are all focusing on [former FBI director James] Comey and the latest GIF of Melania slapping his hand away or him shaking [French President Emmanuel] Macron's hand for 45 minutes, there’s this sort of sense of chaos and disorder and incompetence. Meanwhile, there's this methodical economic agenda which is advancing with very little scrutiny considering how radical it is: his very radical tax plan; the healthcare plan that would deprive 23 million while handing out a whole bunch of tax breaks to the wealthy; the fact that he is breaking campaign promises right, left and centre about protecting healthcare and social security; the fact that it now turns out he is planning to renegotiate NAFTA to make it more like the TPP as opposed to being some great workers’ manifesto as he promised on the campaign trail.

"While we are all focusing on Comey and the latest GIF...there's this methodical economic agenda advancing."

It’s really unfortunate that so much of the media coverage is focused on what I would call ‘The Trump Show’ and not on this methodical transfer of wealth from the middle and working class to the one percent of the one percent. Because I think that his base would be a hell of a lot more interested in that than in a lot of coverage that to them just seems well, one team attacking the other team, that they can just dismiss as fake news. 

And not only is it the rolling shock that makes this different but also that we're part of its creation.

It's much more interactive. We're full participants. We are in the show. The Trump reality show has swallowed everything — so even when we're attacking it, we are in it.

Does that make it more obvious, then, that we can be part of the solution, if we are part of pulling the wool over our own eyes, so to speak?

Yeah and I think that this is one of the things I’ve learned in covering how the shock doctrine has worked in different countries: just how important it is not to be distracted by whatever it is that seems to be the extreme story, which is not to say you ignore it but that you have to always ask who is benefitting, who are the winners here, who are the losers? And while the chaos is unfolding, what methodical work is going on behind the scenes?

That’s a lesson I learned from living in Argentina and talking to a friend of mine named Claudia Acuña, a wonderful journalist and activist. She talks about how during the dictatorship, everybody was so focused on the human rights violations, as well they should have been, but she said it was so awful, it was so violent, that we didn’t see the interests it served. And what I wrote in The Shock Doctrine is blood gets in your eyes. And that’s what I tried to carry with me when I covered the invasion of Iraq, it’s sort of like OK, there are bombs going off everywhere but meanwhile Paul Bremer is auctioning Iraq's national assets from the green zone, and so I think we have to learn that lesson in the Trump era. 

How is that lesson different for those in the U.S. versus globally? Within the U.S., it might be eventually voting him out, but what about outside the country?

Yeah, I think it is different. And I would like Canadians to think about not just ‘tsk tsk those silly Americans voting for brands instead of politicians,’ but I think we should really question whether or not [Justin] Trudeau gets treated like a brand and a celebrity more than a politician who is accountable to the people who voted for him. And how he is using, constantly, the very best tools of corporate marketing and PR to communicate, and really interrogate that and what it means for democracy.

I would like one of the lessons of the Trump era to be a rejection of this celebrity-fan relationship between the public and politician, point blank, whatever their politics are.

It’s one of the things I really like about the kind of campaign that Jeremy Corbyn is running right now in the UK. It is perhaps by necessity — because Jeremy Corbyn is not a charismatic politician — but he has crafted a campaign that has a genuinely collective voice and it’s really interesting when you look at the communication that he is putting out, these little films directly by Ken Loach and it’s an attempt to really embody a rejection of a sort of heroic-saviour politician narrative which I think is really exciting and bold. I think it has proven that there is a different way of doing politics because he has done so much better than the conventional wisdom would have predicted just a month ago. 

Speaking of international examples, how has Trump affected international relations? Has he shifted the barometer for what the norm is around politics and money?

He has this incredibly transactional relationship with everyone and certainly people see that and are engaging in transitions which they think will get him onside and they are being proven right. With the Trump family's refusal to divest from their web of business holdings, there are so many opportunities that are much harder to establish causality around for governments to pay off this family, essentially, in the hopes that it will translate into policies.

There's a detail in the book, one of the many details that sort of flies by in these fast-forward times, that the Chinese government approved some very lucrative trademarks for Ivanka's brand on the very same day that the president of China was seated next to Ivanka at Mar-a-Lago. Not saying that this was the only factor but obviously any leader would look at this transactional, profit-driven family, and go, ‘Well, we know how to appeal to this guy.’ Or Saudi Arabia spending $270,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel as part of the lobbying campaign to try to block a piece of legislation that might leave Saudi Arabia open to being sued by U.S. victims of terror.

"Any leader would look at this transactional, profit-driven family, and go, ‘We know how to appeal to this guy.’"

So everyone's doing it and frankly I would argue that Canada's doing it with this announcement of a massive increase in military spending. I mean, the way I see Trump's first foreign tour was he was essentially a travelling arms salesman — he went to Saudi Arabia, celebrating them because they just spent huge amounts of money on U.S. weapons, then he goes to Europe and lectures NATO for not pulling their weight, i.e., not buying enough weapons. And how does Canada respond? Well, we know. And I think it's shameful. 

I thought it was interesting how much of the immediate analysis of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s speech last week was framed as a stand against Trump. 

Which is a complete joke. It was an absolutely cave-in to Trump. 

And had we known what the defence announcement would be the next day, it might have been a different picture.  

We are following orders, make no mistake. 

I would be amiss not to leave it on a more positive note, just like your book does. Let's talk about The Leap — the leap that you say needs to be made in general but also the manifesto and the new organization. When The Leap Manifesto first came out, it was during the 2015 election campaign. How have things changed since? Do your interests now feel divided or do you see them as united?

It just reinforces the need for intersectional responses. For Trump, burning the planet and making his friends rich and building his brand, they are part of a coherent world-view, a coherent project.

Unfortunately on the progressive side of the spectrum, we tend to be much more inclined to segment these issues. What we tried to do with The Leap is lay out a vision for integrated, intersectional response to the multiple overlapping crises of inequality, of racial injustice, of violations of indigenous rights and the pressing need for us to transform our energy and transportation and housing systems so that we get to 100 percent renewable energy very, very quickly.

And if you are going to change the building blocks of your society, i.e. how you produce energy and how you draw your cities, what your transit systems look like, you may as well try to make them fairer at the same time. That’s what The Leap is about. And I think there is actually more and more of an appetite for that kind of change. I think the more Canadians are fed PR and memes from their politicians, the more interest we're finding in a deeper kind of change.

So The Leap has changed; we're seeing people really own it, take it, change it, apply it to where they live. We just launched a new website — the leap.org — that has some great examples of the living leap. To me, it’s really exciting.

And one of the things that was really interesting to watch was how The Leap was used and misused in the B.C. election because [B.C. Liberal leader] Christy Clark and her financial backers tried to use The Leap as a cudgel to beat [B.C. NDP leader] John Horgan. They took out full page ads in The Vancouver Sun and The Province saying the NDP supports The Leap, John Horgan supports The Leap, it’s going to destroy the province… And used all these scare tactics. They thought The Leap was so toxic, just by associating John Horgan with it they would be able to hurt him. But it didn’t work because 57 percent of British Columbians voted for either the Greens or the NDP… so it’s clear that at least in British Columbia people are not afraid of this kind of change, in fact they are excited by it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.