Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has prompted an outpouring of protest and activism from millions of people, including many who had not been politically engaged before. But what will it take for “the resistance” to not only defeat Trump but push forward a transformative agenda to address the multiple crises of our time?
In her best-selling new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics And Winning The World We Need, Naomi Klein draws from her previous books on corporate branding, the politics of climate change and the history of neoliberal elites around the world using moments of profound crisis to advance unpopular policies. With hindsight, her work over the past two decades anticipates in many ways the rise of a right-wing reality television star who wants to dismantle democratic institutions and burn as much fossil fuels as possible.
“It’s like bad fiction it’s so obvious,” Klein told The Indypendent.
In No Is Not Enough, she doesn’t shy away from showing how Trump emerged from a decaying political culture to seize power, or warning that the worst is yet to come. But she refuses to wallow in despair, arguing instead that the oppositional forces conjured up by Trump have a unique opportunity to build a much more just and humane world than anything we have seen before — provided we fight not only what we’re against but what we’re for. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.
JOHN TARLETON: This book begins with a scene from the night of Trump’s election in which you are meeting with a group of prominent activists in Australia. The meeting gradually runs out of steam as people in the room watch the election results come in over their phones. Can you describe how you got from that moment of shock and horror to producing this book, which is ultimately quite hopeful?
NAOMI KLEIN: (Laughs) Slowly, I would say. I think that day the only emotion I could compare Trump’s election to was a feeling that many of us involved in the anti-corporate globalization movement had after 9/11. We had been part of this movement where there was a lot of forward momentum and a deepening of analysis and an opening of new political spaces, and then just this kind of instant feeling that all of those spaces were going to be shut down. A lot of us projected that political moment into Trump’s election. But, I think we gave him more power than he actually has.
There are a lot of political spaces where it is possible for progress to happen whether at the sub-national level in the United States, internationally or just in movement spaces. I think there was a slow process of realizing that this did not necessarily have to be a repeat of a closing off political progress. There are ways in which the assumption that from now on we’re only playing defense is true and unavoidable, but there are also ways in which it is not necessarily the case.
You assert that Trump’s election is not an aberration but the fulfillment of 50 years of historical events.
What could be a more obvious outcome of a culture that has turned consumption into a way of life and fetishizes the rich and dominance-based logic — power over other people, over the planet, over nature at every level — than to have Donald Trump become president of the United States? It’s like bad fiction it’s so obvious, which is why I wanted to question this language of shock being used about Trump’s election.
There’s a way in which accepting the idea that he comes as a shock absolves the broader culture of a shared responsibility in creating a context where Trump could succeed politically. And that goes from philanthro-capitalism to commercial news turning itself into reality television before Trump showed up to play so successfully in that domain because this is his world. But he’s not the one who turned news into reality TV. Cable news did that. So that’s why I don’t spend a lot of time in the book psychologizing Trump. I want to look at the trends that produced him because an even more dangerous version of Trump could rise to the fore. There are folks who are more racist than him out there who might decide to occupy that space.
Have you been surprised by the size and scope of the resistance to Trump?
“This is the moment of deeply intersectional politics and organizing. The only solutions that are viable are ones that tackle multiple problems.”
The grassroots resistance has been really inspiring and is the result of very powerful organizing around immigrant rights, against anti-black violence and racism and for climate justice and a living wage that was going on in the years before the election. There were the beginnings of a sturdy movement infrastructure that, in turn, became the infrastructure responding to the first wave of attacks from the Trump administration, whether it was the Muslim travel ban, attacks on climate scientists and so on.
What do you make of the emphasis that some Trump critics are placing on Russia, Comey, impeachment, etc? Is this a fruitful path to go down?
While there’s certainly a lot of people in the resistance who are very concerned about this, I think that’s been more of a top-down focus coming from the Democratic Party establishment and coming from cable news for whom Trump is crack. Absolutely nothing has been learned, either by cable news or the Democratic Party establishment. They are all still following the same losing, dangerous, toxic formula. The Democrats seem to be planning to run a “vote for us so we can impeach Trump” campaign in 2018, which is just doubling down on the “vote for us because we’re not Trump” strategy that lost them the election in 2016. It doesn’t propose anything inspiring to energize the millions and millions of Americans who don’t vote and didn’t vote.
How do you think people who want to see change through the electoral process should engage with the Democrats?
The Democratic Party establishment is entirely enmeshed with the interests and culture of the billionaire class, as Bernie Sanders calls them. I think there are very powerful people in the Democratic Party who would rather lose elections than stand with the masses of people for whom they’ve shown they have complete contempt. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that the Democratic Party cannot be taken over.
It’s certainly hard. I’m not sure it can be done. But being in contact with folks who are very involved in the Jeremy Corbyn campaign and who were really on the front lines of the process of radically changing the Labour Party, I know that they had to fight at absolutely every turn and face attacks well above what the Bernie folks faced within the DNC. But yet they won. They won by starting a movement that led tremendous numbers of young people and others to become members of the Labour Party and vote for the candidate that they wanted as party leader. They then had to repel coup attempt after coup attempt from party elites.
The process of taking over a party that has been colonized by neoliberalism and by the interests of economic elites who do not want to change is in an extremely difficult one. Anybody who’s waiting to hear “oh you guys were right after all” — it’s not going to go down that way. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting. It just means you have to approach it as a battle for the soul of, not just the party, but the country.
The vision you put forward in your book under the rubric of the Leap Manifesto is in many ways a 21st Century version of social democracy with higher taxes on the rich to finance generous public social programs, infrastructure and a full transition to a low-carbon economy. In the past generous social welfare programs such as the New Deal have often been marred by exclusionary practices that channeled more resources to favored racial or ethnic groups. What could be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
This is the moment of deeply intersectional politics and organizing. The only solutions that are viable are ones that tackle multiple problems, multiple crises, overlapping crises, simultaneously. If we don’t fight to make sure that the communities that have been most ravaged by this system are first in line to benefit from this transition, then the opposite will be the case. There will be a process of re-victimization and deepening of economic exclusion. Already solar panels are being manufactured by prison labor. Prisoners in California are fighting wildfires caused by climate change. Many of the jobs being created in the green economy are precarious, non-union, not paying a living wage. We have to make sure that deep principles of justice inform how we change.
Going back to the role of the press, Trump and his administration have repeatedly launched attacks against establishment media organizations such as the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN among others for purveying “fake news.” These attacks are often unfair if not unhinged from reality. How should the left respond given that it has long criticized these same media institutions for serving as mouthpieces for powerful corporate interests?
I think just because Trump is attacking traditional or corporate media as fake news doesn’t mean that they deserve our blanket defense. We certainly need to be defending the principles of a free and independent press, but we don’t have that. We should take a posture of defend and transform, sort of like with Obamacare. Just as this is the moment to be putting forward a vision of single-payer health insurance, it is also the moment of putting forward a vision of a truly democratic, non-commercially driven independent media. Corporate media was never acceptable to us and its failures are what created openings for Trump.
They don’t appear to have learned much.
They gave us Trump. And I frankly believe that through their own greed they are creating conditions to keep him in power, rather than doing real journalism about the conspiracies in plain view.
There’s been so little coverage of his economic agenda, of the myriad broken promises he made to American workers. That is where he is so much more vulnerable than on Russia. There is almost no issue-based reporting, which is exactly what was missing from the campaign. They have spent almost no time unpacking what policy means to people’s lived experience. This is a basic job of journalism. Yet, it’s still not happening in favor of following the same formula of reality TV, which is great for ratings and terrible for democracy.
At times it feels like years have gone by since the inauguration when we’re still in the early days of this administration. How can people stay grounded and emotionally healthy so they don’t burn out?
Part of the reason why it is so important to save some space to carve out a forward-looking agenda that is really about the world that we deeply want and need is that vision is deeply healing and sustaining in these very difficult and unavoidable battles.
Every sturdy revolutionary social movement has had that forward-looking vision — the dream as Martin Luther King said. In South Africa, the vision laid out by the Freedom Charter sustained the anti-apartheid struggle all those years, that utopian imagination of the world beyond the nightmare. I think that it sustains us in these long struggles that, if we are to be honest, are going to take our lifetimes. This is not just a four-year battle. Not when we’re talking about the level of deep change that is required. The finish line isn’t in sight. So we have to find a way to sustain ourselves. And I think when we have that vision in sight, it also, to some extent, informs how we treat each other in struggle. It forces us to think long-term about the planet, about future generations, but also about our relationships with one another. We’re in this for the long haul and we have to act like it.
Illustration: Emily Gage.