President Donald Trump embodies almost everything Naomi Klein had warned for years.
Klein predicted the forces that explained the rise to power of Trump is not making her happy. She wrote a book 17 years, No Logo – a seductive rage against the branding of public life by globalising corporations – and made herself, in the words of the New Yorker, “the most visible and influential figure on the American left” almost overnight. She ended the book with what sounded then like “this crazy idea that you could become your own personal global brand”.
Today, Klein is laughing at her former innocence. She suggests in her new book, No Is Not Enough, exploited that phenomenon to become the first incarnation of president as a brand, doing to the US nation and to the planet what he had first practised on his big gold towers: plastering his name and everything it stands for all over them.
Klein has also charted the other force at work behind the victory of the 45th president. Her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, argued that neoliberal capitalism, the ideological love affair with free markets espoused by disciples of the late economist Milton Friedman, was so destructive of social bonds, and so beneficial to the 1% at the expense of the 99%, that a population would only countenance it when in a state of shock, following a crisis – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war.
Klein developed this theory first in 2004 when reporting from Baghdad and watching a brutally deregulated market state being imagined by agents of the Bush administration in the rubble of war and the fall of Saddam Hussein. She documented it too in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, when the inundated coastline of former fishing villages was parcelled up and sold off to global hotel chains in the name of regeneration. And she saw it most of all in the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when, she argued, disaster was first ignored and exacerbated by government and then exploited for the gain of consultants and developers.
Friedmanites understood that in extreme circumstances bewildered populations longed above all for a sense of control. They would willingly grant exceptional powers to anyone who promised certainty. They understood too that the combination of social media and 24-hour cable news allowed them to manufacture such scenarios almost at will. The libertarian right of the Republican party, in Klein’s words, became “a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain”.
In 2008, the year after The Shock Doctrine was published, Klein believed that the financial crash would prove a reckoning for this cynical philosophy. That the ways in which the Wall Street elite had enriched itself through manipulation and deregulation would finally be exposed in plain sight. In retrospect, it seems, the monumental frailties of the system, its patent vulnerability, allied with concerns over terrorism and a global refugee crisis, only made populations more desperate and fearful. They appeared to crave anyone who could suggest simple solutions to apparently intractable problems. Anyone who said that they could turn back the clock to “make America great again” and who had the branded cap to prove it.