Trump and the 'Power of Distraction': Naomi Klein Speaks With ATTN:

June 19th 2017

Naomi Klein is an author and activist, and she's ready to take on Trump. In her new book, "No Is Not Enough," Klein looks at how Trump came to power, how he might take advantage of a crisis to accomplish his most extreme goals, and how regular people can resist. 

In 2008, Klein published a book, "The Shock Doctrine," which explained how politicians throughout history have used "shocks" to the system—a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or an economic crisis—to push through extreme policies, noting how politicians helped corporations take over large parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and how the Patriot Act got passed after 9/11, among other things. Klein told ATTN: that Trump has his own way of shocking the system, so she felt she needed to write a book specifically about him and the people surrounding him.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

naomi kleinKourosh Keshiri

ATTN: What do you think are the main reasons Trump ended up becoming president?

NK: I think it's a huge combination of factors. My main goal of the book was to try to put Trump into economic and political perspective. What's happening in the U.S. is a global phenomenon. We are seeing a rise of far-right political parties and figures that come out of this intersection of persistent hyper-nationalist, white supremacist world views that never went away intersecting with economic precariousness and insecurity that is being harnessed by various forms of demagoguery, in part because the terrain of economic populism has been ceded to the right by centrist, neoliberal parties. These are the main factors that I see. 

You talk in your book about how Trump is constantly causing little shocks to the system. What do you see there?

He doesn't fit the pattern of what I wrote about in "The Shock Doctrine," where there's some big external shock like a war or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster that gets harnessed to push through these policies. With Trump, he's the one generating the shocks. His election itself came as a shock, in the sense that it defied what the polls were saying, so it came as a surprise to a lot of people. Then it's the atmosphere of unending chaos that surrounds the Trump administration. He's a deliberate provocateur, in the way he uses social media and outrageous statements. He's always understood the power of distraction and, in addition to that, there are shocks that are being imposed upon him by the Comey investigation and the investigation into his inner circle.

This is high political drama, and it makes it very hard for journalists who are addicted to the Trump ratings, as they always have been, to spare even five minutes to talk about the Senate pushing through a healthcare bill that looks likely to push millions off of their health insurance, even if that may be at the top of people's political minds. It's not going to get the same ratings as "the Trump show." Same goes for his dismantling of Dodd-Frank or his tax policy or his attacks on Social Security. I think it's very worrying. This is the dynamic that produced Trump—cable news' addiction to Trump.... I think it's disastrous, politically, because Trump's economic betrayals of his base are a much greater area of vulnerability than the various Russia scandals.

You talk in your book about how things like Hurricane Katrina and other crises have been used by presidents to push radical agendas. Can you talk about how Trump might use a major crisis to push an extreme agenda?

What he's already doing is very radical, but the truth is there are things people around Trump would like to do that they haven't even attempted yet. If you look at what Betsy DeVos' agenda is for education, it's really wholesale privatization. There's the fact Trump has outsourced his budgeting to the Heritage Foundation, which has wanted to dismantle Social Security for a very long time. I'm arguing if that is what we've seen from Trump, we haven't seen the worst of what we could see from this administration, and we won't see it until there is a major external shock to exploit.

That could be an economic crisis that becomes a rationale for attacking Social Security or further privatizing the school system, or a security shock like a Manchester-like attack in the United States, which would become the pretext for declaring some kind of state of emergency which suppresses the kind of protests we have seen in response to his more radical policies, like the Muslim travel ban.... What we know from other countries that have suffered extreme attacks is they can often become excuses to ban protest, particularly protests you could say are a threat to national security, and you can pretty much say anything is a threat to national security in a context like that.

What do you think about how Trump has responded to foreign attacks and what that may indicate?

He's shown his hand to some extent, in the way he's responded to the London bridge attack, immediately seizing on that attack to say this is why we need the Muslim travel ban. After the Manchester attack, he gave a speech and said this is about immigrants flooding across our borders, even though the bomber in that case had been born in the U.K. So he has made it very clear that he will very opportunistically seize attacks that involve non-white, non-Christian people to push through his agenda. At the same time, he basically ignores white supremacist attacks, and I don't know if there's been any change, but last I checked he still had not responded to the attack in London outside the Finsbury Park Mosque, where he was so quick to take advantage of the London bridge attack, because he felt it could advance his agenda. Anything that challenges his agenda or shows that there are consequences for riling up hatred, he goes silent.

trumpGage Skidmore/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

How do you think people can prepare for Trump possibly exploiting a crisis?

Just being prepared for what they might do to attack civil liberties is really important. The only examples I know of of these types of tactics being defeated are when there's really an instant rejection from huge numbers of people. I give some examples in the book, like of Spain after a major terrorist attack in Madrid. People were just flooding the streets and rejecting the political opportunism of their governing political party. They happened to be on the verge of elections, and they ended up voting out that party—really punishing them for that kind of opportunism. I gave other examples, like Argentina, where as the president was declaring a state of siege in 2001, people flooded the streets, banging pots and pans and saying "No."

They had a historical memory of that being the way that dictatorship began in Argentina in the 1970s. I think a lot of this is about historical memory and really brushing up on U.S. history and the many ways in which times of crisis have been used to erode rights and attack the most vulnerable, whether it's Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor or mass deportation of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression or the Patriot Act after 9/11. We need to understand that in U.S. history, this has happened again and again. 

Following the money is also important. Really understanding that when everybody is focused on the emergency, that's the moment when often some of the most regressive economic policies get pushed through, precisely because they escaped scrutiny. 

You also talk about "jamming the Trump brand," meaning going after his business interests. What does that entail?

In terms of pressuring Trump and getting under his skin, this is a guy who's made it very clear he intends to profit at every turn off of the presidency. Personally, I would like governments to be imposing economic sanctions on the U.S. for breaking its commitments under the Paris accord and other acts of international lawlessness, but short of that, regular people can band together and impose their own economic sanctions, because Trump has left himself vulnerable by refusing to divest from his global branded empire, so there are lots of points of vulnerability. There are moves to take the Trump name off of various Trump buildings around the world, and of course the Grab Your Wallet campaign. 

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  • Correction:June 21, 2017Social HL change.
This story was first published June 19th 2017.