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Naomi Klein: Now let's fight back against the politics of fear
Political shocks, security shocks, climate shocks – however unstable the world seems now, things could get a lot worse. But we can unite for a better future
hock. It’s a word that has come up again and again since Donald Trump was elected in November 2016 – to describe the poll-defying election results, to describe the emotional state of many people watching his ascent to power, and to describe his blitzkrieg approach to policymaking. A “shock to the system” is precisely how his adviser Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly described the new era.
For almost two decades now, I’ve been studying large-scale shocks to societies: how they happen, how they are exploited by politicians and corporations, and how they are even deliberately deepened in order to gain advantage over a disoriented population. I have also reported on the flipside of this process: how societies that come together around an understanding of a shared crisis can change the world for the better.
Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I’ve had a strange feeling. It’s not just that he’s applying shock politics to the most powerful and heavily armed nation on earth; it’s more than that. In books, documentary films and investigative reporting, I have documented a range of trends: the rise of superbrands, the expanding power of private wealth over the political system, the global imposition of neoliberalism, often using racism and fear of the “other” as a potent tool, the damaging impacts of corporate free trade, and the deep hold that climate change denial has taken on the right side of the political spectrum. And as I began to research Trump, he started to seem to me like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out of the body parts of all of these and many other dangerous trends.
Ten years ago, I published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, an investigation that spanned four decades of history, from Chile after Augusto Pinochet’s coup to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from Baghdad under the US “Shock and Awe” attack to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The term “shock doctrine” describes the quite brutal tactic of systematically using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called “shock therapy”.
Though Trump breaks the mould in some ways, his shock tactics do follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis. During Trump’s first week in office, when he was signing that tsunami of executive orders and people were just reeling, madly trying to keep up, I found myself thinking about the human rights advocate Halina Bortnowska’s description of Poland’s experience when the US imposed economic shock therapy on her country in the midst of communism’s collapse. She described the velocity of change her country was going through as “the difference between dog years and human years” and she observed that “you start witnessing these semi-psychotic reactions. You can no longer expect people to act in their own best interests when they’re so disoriented they don’t know – or no longer care – what those interests are.”
From the evidence so far, it’s clear that Trump and his top advisers are hoping for the sort of response Bortnowska described, that they are trying to pull off a domestic shock doctrine. The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of antipollution regulations or programmes for the hungry. In their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations. It’s a programme so defiantly unjust and so manifestly corrupt that it can only be pulled off with the assistance of divide-and-conquer racial and sexual politics, as well as a nonstop spectacle of media distractions. And, of course, it is being backed up with a massive increase in war spending, a dramatic escalation of military conflicts on multiple fronts, from Syria to North Korea, alongside presidential musings about how “torture works”.
Trump’s cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires tells us a great deal about the administration’s underlying goals. ExxonMobil for secretary of state; General Dynamics and Boeing to head the department of defence; and the Goldman Sachs guys for pretty much everything that’s left. The handful of career politicians who have been put in charge of agencies seem to have been selected either because they do not believe in the agency’s core mission, or do not think the agency should exist at all. Steve Bannon, Trump’s allegedly sidelined chief strategist, was open about this when he addressed a conservative audience in February. The goal, he said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” (by which he meant the government regulations and agencies tasked with protecting people and their rights). “If you look at these cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.”
Much has been made of the conflict between Bannon’s Christian nationalism and the transnationalism of Trump’s more establishment aides, particularly his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And Bannon may well get voted off this gory reality show entirely before long (or maybe, given current legal troubles, it will be Kushner). Given these palace intrigues, it’s worth underlining that when it comes to deconstructing the state, and outsourcing as much as possible to for-profit corporations, Bannon and Kushner are not in conflict but in perfect alignment.
Under the cover of this administration’s constant cloud of chaos – some deliberately generated by Trump, much of it foisted upon him by his incompetence and avarice – this shared agenda is being pursued with methodical and unblinking focus. Trump and his cabinet of former corporate executives are remaking government at a startling pace to serve the interests of their own businesses, their former businesses and their tax bracket as a whole. For instance, within hours of taking office, Trump called for a massive tax cut, which would see corporations pay just 15% (down from 35%), and pledged to slash regulations by 75%. His tax plan includes a range of other breaks and loopholes for very wealthy people like the ones inhabiting his cabinet (not to mention himself). The healthcare plan he has backed will cause approximately 23 million people to lose coverage, while handing out yet more tax breaks to the rich.
He has appointed Kushner to head up a “Swat team” stacked with corporate executives who have been tasked with finding new regulations to eliminate, new programmes to privatise and new ways to make the US government “run like a great American company”. (According to an analysis by Public Citizen, Trump met with at least 190 corporate executives in less than three months in office – before announcing that visitor logs would no longer be made public). Pushed on what the administration had accomplished of substance in its first months, budget director Mick Mulvaney cited Trump’s hail of executive orders and stressed this: “Most of these are laws and regulations getting rid of other laws. Regulations getting rid of other regulations.”
That they are. Trump and his team are set to detonate programmes that protect children from environmental toxins, they have told gas companies they no longer need to report all of the powerful greenhouse gases they are spewing, and are pushing dozens and dozens of measures along the same lines. This is, in short, a great unmaking.
What Donald Trump’s cabinet represents is a simple fact: the people who already possess an absolutely obscene share of the planet’s wealth, and whose share grows greater year after year – the latest statistic from Oxfam shows eight men are worth as much as half the world – are determined to grab still more. According to NBC News in December 2016, Trump’s picks for cabinet appointments had a staggering combined net worth of $14.5bn (not including “special adviser” Carl Icahn, who’s worth more than $15bn on his own).
So let’s be honest about what is happening in Washington. This is not the usual passing of the baton between parties. It’s a naked corporate takeover, one many decades in the making. It seems that the economic interests that have long since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they’re tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of elected officials, all that cajoling and legalised bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement. So now they’re cutting out the middlemen – those needy politicians who are supposed to protect the public interest – and doing what all top dogs do when they want something done right: they are doing it themselves.
Which is why serious questions about conflicts of interest and breaches of ethics barely receive a response. Just as Trump stonewalled on releasing his tax returns, so he has completely refused to sell, or to stop benefiting from, his business empire. That decision, given the Trump Organisation’s reliance on foreign governments to grant valuable trademark licences and permits, may in fact contravene the United States constitution’s prohibition on presidents receiving gifts or any “emolument” from foreign governments. Indeed, a lawsuit making this allegation has already been launched.
But the Trumps seem unconcerned. A near impenetrable sense of impunity – of being above the usual rules and laws – is a defining feature of this administration. Anyone who presents a threat to that impunity is summarily fired – just ask former FBI director James Comey. Up until now, in US politics there’s been a mask on the corporate state’s White House proxies: the smiling actor’s face of Ronald Reagan or the faux-cowboy persona of George W Bush (with Dick Cheney/Halliburton scowling in the background). Now the mask is gone. And no one is even bothering to pretend otherwise.
This situation is made all the more squalid by the fact that Trump was never the head of a traditional company but has, rather, long been the figurehead of an empire built around his personal brand – one that has, along with his daughter Ivanka’s brand, already benefited from its merger with the US presidency in countless ways (membership rates at Mar-a-Lago have doubled; Ivanka’s product sales, we are told, are through the roof). The Trump family’s business model is part of a broader shift in corporate structure that has taken place within many brand-based multinationals, one with transformative impacts on culture and the job market, trends that I wrote about in my first book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. What this model tells us is that the very idea that there could be – or should be – any distinction between the Trump brand and the Trump presidency is a concept the current occupant of the White House cannot begin to comprehend. The presidency is the crowning extension of the Trump brand.
The fact that such defiant levels of profiteering from public office can unfold in full view is disturbing enough. As are so many of Trump’s actions in his first months in office. But history shows us that, however destabilised things are now, the shock doctrine means they could get a lot worse.
The main pillars of Trump’s political and economic project are: the deconstruction of the regulatory state; a full‑bore attack on the welfare state and social services (rationalised, in part, through bellicose racial fearmongering and attacks on women for exercising their rights); the unleashing of a domestic fossil-fuel frenzy (which requires the sweeping aside of climate science and the gagging of large parts of the government bureaucracy); and a civilisational war against immigrants and “radical Islamic terrorism” (with ever expanding domestic and foreign theatres).
In addition to the obvious threats this entire project poses to those who are already most vulnerable, it’s a vision that can be counted on to generate wave after wave of crises and shocks. Economic shocks, as market bubbles – inflated thanks to deregulation – burst; security shocks, as blowback from anti-Islamic policies and foreign aggression comes home; weather shocks, as our climate is further destabilised; and industrial shocks, as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, which they tend to do when the safety and environmental regulations that prevent chaos are slashed.
All this is extremely dangerous. Even more so is the way the Trump administration can be relied upon to exploit these shocks to push through the more radical planks of its agenda.
A large-scale crisis – whether a terrorist attack or a financial crash – would likely provide the pretext to declare some sort of state of exception or emergency, where the usual rules no longer apply. This, in turn, would provide the cover to push through aspects of the Trump agenda that require a further suspension of core democratic norms – such as his pledge to deny entry to all Muslims (not only those from selected countries), his Twitter threat to bring in “the feds” to quell street violence in Chicago, or his obvious desire to place restrictions on the press. A large enough economic crisis would offer an excuse to dismantle programmes such as social security, which Trump pledged to protect but which many around him have wanted gone for decades.
Trump may have other reasons for upping the crisis level. As the Argentinian novelist César Aira wrote in 2001: “Any change is a change in the topic.” Trump has already proven head-spinningly adept at changing the subject, using everything from mad tweets to Tomahawk missiles. Indeed, his air assault on Syria, in response to a gruesome chemical weapons attack, won him the most laudatory press coverage of his presidency (in some quarters, it sparked an ongoing shift to a more respectful tone). Whether in response to further revelations about Russian connections or scandals related to his labyrinthine international business dealings, we can expect much more of this topic changing – and nothing has the ability to change the topic quite like a large-scale shock.
We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens; it has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand. A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them. When we find ourselves in that position, without a story, without our moorings, a great many people become vulnerable to authority figures telling us to fear one another and relinquish our rights for the greater good.
This is, today, a global phenomenon, not one restricted to the United States. After the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the French government declared a state of emergency that banned political gatherings of more than five people – and then extended that status, and the ability to restrict public demonstrations, until July 2017. In Britain, after the shock of the Brexit vote, many said they felt as though they’d woken up in a new, unrecognisable country. It was in that context that the UK’s Conservative government began floating a range of regressive reforms, including the suggestion that the only way for Britain to regain its competitiveness is by slashing regulations and taxes on the wealthy so much that it would effectively become a tax haven for all of Europe. Theresa May attempted to further exploit fear of the unknown to justify her decision to call a snap election; voters were told that the only way to not get bullied by the EU was to hand her an overwhelming mandate for “strong and stable leadership”.
The use of fear did not sit well with many voters, and that’s instructive. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned from reporting from dozens of locations in the midst of crisis, whether it was Athens rocked by Greece’s debt debacle, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Baghdad during the US occupation: these tactics can be resisted. To do so, two crucial things have to happen. First, we need a firm grasp on how shock politics work and whose interests they serve. That understanding is how we get out of shock quickly and start fighting back. Second, and equally important, we have to tell a different story from the one the shock doctors are peddling, a vision of the world compelling enough to compete head to head with theirs. This values-based vision must offer a different path, away from serial shocks – one based on coming together across racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divides, rather than being wrenched further apart, and one based on healing the planet rather than unleashing further destabilising wars and pollution. Most of all, that vision needs to offer those who are hurting – for lack of jobs, lack of healthcare, lack of peace, lack of hope – a tangibly better life.
I don’t claim to know exactly what that vision looks like. I am figuring it out with everyone else, and I am convinced it can only be birthed out of a genuinely collaborative process, with leadership coming from those most brutalised by our current system. In the United States, led by networks such as Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 (who are demanding a raise in the minimum wage) and National Nurses United, we are starting to see some very hopeful grassroots collaborations between dozens of organisations and thinkers who are beginning to come together to lay out that kind of agenda, one capable of competing with rising militarism, nationalism and corporatism. Though still in its early stages, it is becoming possible to see the outlines of a progressive majority, one grounded in a bold plan for the safe and caring world we all want and need.
All this work is born of the knowledge that saying no to bad ideas and bad actors is simply not enough. If we accept the premise that, from here on in, the battles are all defence, all about holding our ground against Trump-style regressive attacks, then we will end up in a very dangerous place indeed. Because the ground we were on before Trump was elected is the ground that produced Trump; ground many of us understood to constitute a social and ecological emergency, even without this latest round of setbacks.
Of course, the attacks coming from Trump and his kindred demagogues around the world need resisting fiercely. But we cannot spend the next four years only playing defence. The crises are all so urgent, they won’t allow us that lost time. On one issue I know a fair amount about, climate change, humanity has a finite window in which to act, after which protecting anything like a stable climate becomes impossible. And that window is closing fast.
So we need, somehow, to fight defence and offence simultaneously – to resist the attacks of the present day and to still find space to build the future we need. In other words, the firmest of nos has to be accompanied by a bold and forward-looking yes – a plan for the future that is credible and captivating enough that a great many people will fight to see it realised, no matter the shocks and scare tactics thrown their way. No – to Trump, to France’s Marine Le Pen, to any number of xenophobic and hypernationalist parties on the rise the world over – may be what initially brings millions into the streets. But it is yes that will keep us in the fight.
Yes is the beacon in the coming storms that will prevent us from losing our way.
Here is what we need to remember: Trump, extreme as he is, is less an aberration than a logical conclusion – a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half-century. Trump is the product of powerful systems of thought that rank human life based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, physical appearance and physical ability – and that have systematically used race as a weapon to advance brutal economic policies since the earliest days of North American colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade. He is also the personification of the merger of humans and corporations – a one-man megabrand, whose wife and children are spinoff brands, with all the pathologies and conflicts of interest inherent in that. He is the embodiment of the belief that money and power provide a licence to impose one’s will on others, whether that entitlement is expressed by grabbing women or grabbing the finite resources from a planet on the verge of catastrophic warming. He is also the product of a business culture that fetishises “disruptors” who make their fortunes by flagrantly ignoring both laws and regulatory standards.
Most of all, he is the incarnation of a still-powerful free-market ideological project – one embraced by centrist parties as well as conservative ones – that wages war on everything public and commonly held, and imagines corporate CEOs as superheroes who will save humanity. In 2002, George W Bush threw a 90th birthday party at the White House for the man who was the intellectual architect of that war on the public sphere, the radical free-market economist Milton Friedman. At the celebration, then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld declared: “Milton is the embodiment of the truth that ideas have consequences.” He was right – and Donald Trump is a direct consequence of those ideas.
In this sense, there is an important way in which Trump is not shocking. He is the entirely predictable, indeed cliched outcome of ubiquitous ideas and trends that should have been stopped long ago. Which is why, even if this nightmarish presidency were to end tomorrow, the political conditions that produced it, and which are producing replicas around the world, will remain to be confronted. With US vice president Mike Pence or speaker of the House Paul Ryan waiting in the wings, and a Democratic party establishment also enmeshed with the billionaire class, the world we need won’t be won just by replacing the current occupant of the Oval Office.
So, we first need to be very clear on what we’re saying no to – not just to an individual or even a group of individuals (though it is that too). We’re also saying no to the system that has elevated them to such heights. And then let’s move to a yes – a yes that will bring about change so fundamental that today’s corporate takeover will be relegated to a historical footnote, a warning to our kids. And Donald Trump and his fellow travellers will be seen for what they are: a symptom of a deep sickness, one that we decided, collectively, to come together and heal.