‘It’s a shock-creation machine’: Activist Naomi Klein dispels theory Trump is just a ‘bumbling idiot’
Shocking, abnormal, unprecedented: These are just some of the words used to describe the Trump presidency since he took office. And with each new statement, tweet or piece of legislation from the Trump administration, many people feel that these antics are unlike anything we’ve seen before.
But author and journalist Naomi Klein disagrees: We have seen this before.
Speaking to a crowded hall June 12 at the Cooper Union in New York City, Klein, whose new book is titled No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, discussed the events contributing to Trump’s rise, the future of the progressive movement and the “shocks” left in the wake of Trump’s policies.
Much of Klein’s talk centered around the theory she presents in her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine, but she also differentiated Trump’s policies as a different form of shock. While most media coverage of the White House portrays his administration as a chaotic mess, Klein argued that the media ends up missing the more diabolical policy movements behind the curtain that are “shock-creation machines”—such as the removal of Dodd-Frank and Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.
“This narrative has emerged that he’s this bumbling idiot, that it’s all chaos,” she said. “And meanwhile, behind the scenes, getting very little media attention is a methodical, very organized redistribution of wealth from lower and middle incomes to the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”
The Rebranding of Trump—How We Got Here
In an analysis that has largely been missing in mainstream media, Klein connected much of Trump’s success to the way he brands himself. Drawing from common marketing practices, she discussed how Trump’s new business model involves the selling and leasing of his name to almost every product imaginable—a corporate model she calls the “hollow brand.” Klein’s analysis of hollow brand marketing builds upon the analysis in her 1999 book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.
Beginning in the late-1980s, Klein pointed out, companies began to shift away from their traditional model of creating products and establishing a brand around those products. The new trend in the marketing industry was to sell an idea.
“The product is the marketing tool. Branding is a very colonial process,” she said. “And essentially what they’re selling is group identity.”
Trump, Klein argued, capitalizes on this marketing technique as he built a brand centered on his name while quietly outsourcing the production of his products to developing countries. Klein took a moment to call out similar practices by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has branded himself a progressive climate leader despite his anti-environmental policies in supporting tar sands pipelines.
“I’m a dual Canadian and American citizen, so I feel it’s my responsibility to tell you that Justin Trudeau is a hollow brand,” she said, to loud cheers from the audience.
The danger in this practice lies in the facade that companies are actually fulfilling consumers’ needs.
“They’re not selling anything that meets the need,” Klein said. “They’re selling the promise of meeting the need, which is fantastic for capitalism.”
While hollow branding inevitably upholds the capitalist system, Klein said marketing practice does reveal a human desire to be part of a larger movement. She cited Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s success following the recent U.K. election as evidence of a political movement employing marketing to build a base and generate excitement.
“People really like the idea of revolution,” she said. “Let’s give them the real thing.”
Bringing Together Social Movements—Where We Go From Here
While Klein’s prescient analysis of Trump may create the picture of a bleak future, she rounded out her talk with a call to action for more people to recognize the intersectionality between social movements as well as a revival of the anti-war movement.
“We live in a time where we cannot separate climate activism from anti-war activism,” Klein said. “We live in a time which really encourages us to sort of see these as separate issues, and I think our task is to explode all that and try to tell coherent stories about how all of our movements are interconnected.”
She said this intersectionality can be accomplished in a way that still recognizes the autonomy of these social issues in a spirit of solidarity.
“We’re stronger when we do this,” Klein said, referencing the droves of people who attended the People’s Climate March this spring and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Neoliberalism is the primary obstacle to achieving this connectedness. She said there is need for institutions, such as universities, to provide an infrastructure for social movements.
“We don’t have a lot of spaces in which to come together,” Klein said.
Klein also emphasized the importance of not relying on “liberal billionaires” to save the people and provide all the solutions, and that people should not “wait to be led.” Instead, the rise of people’s platforms, such as that created by the Movement for Black Lives, places power in the hands of the people. Klein herself has participated in the formation of a people’s platform in Canada, where she helped create a platform through theleap.org in the midst of a federal election.
Klein said another component of advancing the cause of social movements is to engage in more self-criticism and not shy away from it.
“We’re in this moment where we’ve had these progressive almost-wins,” she said. “But almost isn’t good enough. And we can’t be complacent on the left and say, well, you know, we were sabotaged by the DNC, Bernie would’ve won.”
Despite the rampant escalation of shocks against people of color, Muslims and immigrants by the Trump administration, Klein said there is still hope. This hope can be found in the collective actions of communities that remember the previous shocks and atrocities and resist them in the present, as well as leaders in local communities choosing to stand up to the Trump administration.
“As they go rogue—as they go low—everybody has to step up.”