The Trumpian moment has provoked celebrated Canadian activist Naomi Klein (www.naomiklein.org) to release this breezy “conversational” tome (for sources see www.noisnotenough.org) seeking to inspire positive popular resistance. Klein acknowledges Trump’s victory was a “shock to the system,” in the words of his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway. But Klein also explains this as an outgrowth of the system of destructive capitalism she has been decrying for years, pointing to the scourge of free-market “neoliberalism” and the “shock doctrines” whereby societal shocks are “exploited by politicians and corporations . . . even deepened in order to gain advantage over a disoriented population.” The front jacket cover succinctly summarizes her central argument that “Trump is not an aberration but a logical extension of the worst, most dangerous trends of the past half-century — the very conditions that have unleashed a rising tide of white nationalism the world over.”
With seizing the presidency “the crowning extension of the Trump brand,” Klein sees the Trump regime as “trying to pull off a domestic shock doctrine” through a pro-corporate “deconstruction of the regulatory state” and a war on the environment, immigrants, minorities, etc. “It’s a program 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 non-stop spectacle of media distractions.”
Klein offers many such sweeping assessments. It’s unfortunate that she does not dig very deeply into the motivations of the tens of millions of Trump voters who stick with him, or into the polarized media environment. (The book makes no reference to Breitbart or other “alt-right” echo chambers.) And can Trump really be the “logical conclusion” of the worst of free-market fundamentalism when he is so often illogical, lacking in any coherent ideology, and a promoter of protectionist, mercantilist, border-closing policies? I’m quite sure Milton Friedman would be appalled by Trumpian anti-free trade economics. Klein, who supported Bernie Sanders over the Democratic establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, strongly dissociates Trump’s intemperate trade attacks from her left-populist “anti-globalization” opposition to bad “pro-corporate” trade deals. However, she skates over Trump’s blatant contradictions and the opposition to him from principled conservatives, liberal internationalists and some business elites (notably in Silicon Valley).
The book’s four parts revisit some familiar Klein themes. Part I, recalling the rise of marketing vacuous “superbrands,” observes how Trump began selling his name brand for huge sums, then as a fake-reality TV star (also associated with the mass entertainment of pro-wrestling) portrayed himself as a winner, becoming an “ultimate brand” impervious to scandal. So even though the dynastic Trump family business empire outsources many of its branded products, Trump can rail against China and claim to union backers that he will bring back jobs to America. Klein describes the Trump administration as a reactionary corporate elite with the “Trump show” at its centre. She suggests “jamming” his brand through boycotts and other forms of protest. She does not mention the power of ridicule (e.g., the revived stinging satire of TV shows like Saturday Night Live and late-night hosts).
Klein begins Part II, “A Climate of Inequality,” by reflecting on being in Australia near the threatened Great Barrier Reef during the 2016 U.S. election night, and her worries about the planet her four-year-old son Toma will inherit in the wake of runaway climate change and mass extinctions. She repeats the alarms of a previous book linking climate change denial and the imminent prospect of irreversible damage to fossil-fuel corporate interests, neoliberal ideology, and global capitalism more generally. The Trump administration will make matters worse across the board. Klein does take some solace in action still going forward at the state level (no mention of cities) and internationally. She does mention price factors limiting the feasibility of more fossil-fuel megaprojects, and briefly sketches a transition to renewable clean energy sources, later enthusing about the potential for “green” jobs. She is dismayed that there was some union support for Trump as an anti-free trader. They’ve been fooled, since he will only make bad trade deals worse, more anti-worker and anti-environment.
In targeting a broad range of deplorables that have enabled Trumpism — loss of economic security and mobility, “race hatred,” “misogyny” — Klein insists on an “intersectional” approach to progressive movement politics: “If we cannot become just a little bit curious about how all these elements — race, gender, class, economics, history, culture — have intersected with one another to produce the current crisis, we will, at best, be stuck where we were before Trump won.”
In Part III Klein raises the likelihood of shocks to come under the Trump-Pence regime, given Trump’s authoritarian streak and history as a ruthless predatory capitalist, and Pence’s as an insensitive hard-right conservative. These dystopian warnings were penned before the impacts of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the Las Vegas massacre, and California’s raging wildfires. Things are getting worse. And what if there were a major terrorist attack blamed on foreign elements? Trump has already shown his militarism and disregard for civil rights, press freedoms and other rights.
Fortunately in Part IV Klein turns from this scary scenario to some positive thoughts on “How Things Could Get Better.” She welcomes an upsurge in civic activism and grassroots initiatives of “shock resistance,” observing that since “Trump’s election, countless people have participated in political actions and gatherings for the first time in their lives, and have rushed to show solidarity with people who have been cast as the ‘other.’ ” It is in this context that Klein promotes the “Leap Manifesto” (www.leapmanifesto.org) spearheaded by her, husband Avi Lewis, and a network of social and environmental activists. (The full title is “A Call for a Canada based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.”) Reprinted in a postscript, it forms the basis of her conclusion, “The Caring Majority within Reach.”
Klein tells how she was inspired by the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which unfortunately Trump has rammed through as well as reviving the Keystone XL pipeline.
Given such setbacks she is less convincing on how alternative policies can be implemented politically. She wants us to “dare to dream,” even if that sounds utopian. The Leap Manifesto is nothing if not ambitious. Calling for an all-embracing great green collective transformation, she says it “raises a defiant middle finger to centrist incrementalism.” She muses about personal and cultural transformations. (One hopes there is no echo of Maoist China’s cultural revolution and disastrous “Great Leap Forward.”)
This rhetorically stirring appeal to a “people’s shock” based on a “people’s platform without a party” is obviously problematic beyond the ranks of the converted. Some in the NDP are willing to debate the Leap’s radical democratic-socialist solutions. But it is a non-starter for the Alberta NDP government which needs a petroleum pipeline to tidewater. I can see the value of Leap in stimulating conversations about policy alternatives. But, to have any chance of succeeding, these cannot remain detached from a serious analysis of party and electoral politics which Klein largely ignores.