Naomi Klein: Don’t Get Distracted by the Trump Show’s ‘Rolling Shock’


Naomi Klein has a lot of experience mapping the tensions between capitalism and popular democracy, from her 1999 book No Logo to 2007’s The Shock Doctrine to her current work as senior correspondent for the Intercept. In her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Klein asks how we came to find ourselves living in the Age of Trump, how bad things could get, and what we can do about it.

The Voice sat down with Klein in Bryant Park last week to discuss her new book and the current political moment. What follows is part of that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

In the last year people have talked about which artist or thinker may have “predicted Trump.” But reading your book — as you revisit your work from ten years ago on the tactic of using disorienting “shocks” to stun the populace while corporations jam through unpopular and retrogressive “reforms” — it seems like you have a pretty good claim yourself.

A few people have described this book as an “I told you so,” but it’s really not; I was wrong when I wrote The Shock Doctrine in that I actually thought that saying no was enough. I thought that, if you understood that shock tactic and organized against it, you could stop it. But the 2008 financial crisis was eye-opening for me, because people really did say no — they really did know what was happening.

And it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough in Greece; it wasn’t enough in Italy; it wasn’t enough here. So I thought it was important to share that lesson in this moment, that we have to have more than the “no,” we need to be building what we do want.

But I also wanted to put Trump in context, because the thing about shocking moments is they cause people to doubt what they already know. There’s something inherently dangerous in this idea that “we’ve never seen anything like this before.” You think about the 9/11 moment and this idea of “pre-9/11 thinking” — the idea that everything you thought you knew no longer applies. And that’s when people are at their weakest. We’re all strongest when we have some context in which to put what’s happening.

You talk in The Shock Doctrine about the evolution of shock tactics as first an opportunistic thing, in which advocates of neoliberal reform are waiting for a shocking event to occur so they can ram through their agenda, and then how the tactic evolved in some instances to actually precipitating a shock in order to capitalize on it. And now we’ve got Trump, who is the shock made flesh.

A rolling shock.

So is that just a difference of degree or a difference in kind? What does it mean for how we react when the shock is the president?

Trump has always understood the value of distraction, since the Eighties, when he turned this city into a tableau for his live-action soap opera and called it The Trump Show. Now the whole world’s watching The Trump Show. But the rolling shock of the chaos and spectacle, the series of gasps that the last six months have been have created this context in which it is possible to advance an extraordinarily radical economic agenda and have it barely register as a footnote. I don’t think that the Republicans had any idea how good Trump was going to be for them. They were panicked at first, but this has turned out to be a whole new model for getting what they want.

The scary thing is that Trump’s own rolling shock isn’t going to be the end of the story. There will be external shocks that these guys will try to exploit, because their policies are going to produce them. The Muslim travel ban, which is intensely provocative, ending Dodd-Frank regulations, gutting environmental regulations — these are all things that tend to produce crises. We have to be ready for how they’re going to try to exploit those crises when they come.

How can the media avoid allowing itself to be used in the ways Trump uses it?

Maybe everybody needs to introduce a daily feature called “While We Weren’t Watching.” I’ve been struck by this narrative that Trump is completely incompetent, totally incapable of executing any kind of strategy. [Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross recently told a business audience that they were going to renegotiate NAFTA to make it more like the TPP ­— which is to say, worse for workers and better for businesses. That received no coverage!

This is why it’s reckless and unstrategic for Trump’s opponents to go all in on the Russia scandal. It certainly needs to be investigated, but the Republicans are not going to impeach Trump until he is no longer useful to them. The only thing that would make him less useful to them is if substantial portions of his base turned on him. And the only thing that is going to make that happen is a relentless focus on his economic betrayals — connecting the dots between what he’s doing on health care, social security, bank regulation, tax policy, infrastructure. The whole thing is this massive corporate giveaway, and we need to be hammering away at it at least as enthusiastically as they’re hammering away at the Russia connection.

In your book you talk about Trump as being like dystopian fiction, in the sense that he holds a mirror up and shows us where we’ve been heading all along. Do you think the fixation on Trump’s Russia connection has to do with a desire to refuse that recognition?

It has the benefit of deferring the discussion of why the Democrats lost the election. They’re happy to look at Trump as the ultimate expression of the Republican project, but it’s not just the Republicans that set the table for Trump. It’s the media; it’s Democrats.

Part of what worries me is that when you remember the Bush years, there was this similar sense of “Bush is so stupid, and they’re so awful, and we just have to get rid of them, and then we can relax.” But that’s not enough.

We need a grassroots process of coming up with the political vision. I’d like to see political manifestos springing up all over the place, people’s manifestos. And let politicians be responsive to that, rather than people waiting to be rescued by politicians. There’s maybe too much “we need to be the Tea Party” talk on the left, but one thing the Tea Party did do is get clear on what they wanted, and tell politicians that if they wanted their support, they were going to have to follow.