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‘Trump Was a Cliché’: Reading Naomi Klein in India

President Donald Trump did not create a catastrophic global system – it created him. The present crisis, Naomi Klein tells The Wire, is ‘not just about… Trump and Modi’.

Where were you when Trump won the election? I was in Delhi, on a morning that felt like it already belonged far in the future prophesised by his victory. The smog was so thick that, inside the house, it blurred the view down the hall to the kitchen. Outside the house, there was no view.

The Mad Max-level pollution was only a backdrop, though, for the main action in India: demonetisation. The prime minister had announced it barely 12 hours earlier. We were still waking up, cash-less and clueless, in a haze of misinformation that hid the real objectives of that shock policy. Haze and shock: Delhi on the morning of November 9, 2016, was a picture drawn straight from the warnings of Naomi Klein.

The same morning, Klein was in Sydney. She was meeting with leaders of the environmental, labour and Indigenous movements in Australia, who had gathered in the hope of making “an integrated leap forward on climate action, racial justice, decent jobs and more”. Any feeling of hope drained from the room as news from the US Electoral College arrived.

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“It was as if everyone instantly understood, without even having to speak, that we were about to be blasted backward by a gale-force wind and all we could do now was try to hold our ground,’ Klein writes in the early pages of her fourth book, No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. “The idea of forward momentum on any one of our pressing crises seemed to evaporate before our eyes.” No is Not Enough (NINE) is Klein’s effort to regain and focus that momentum, at a time when it is more urgent than ever.

Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough opened at #2 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list

A unified theory of crisis

For 20 years, Naomi Klein has been an essential analyst of the US-led neoliberal era and its elite stage-management. Her first book, No Logo, dismantled the screen of swooshes and slogans that had, through the 1990s, covered up the deindustrialisation of the US, the junking of blue-collar America, and the rise of Asian sweatshop economies.

The Shock Doctrine produced new critical vocabulary for the 2000s, and the US’s turn to permanent war. Major ‘shocks’, natural or political, were now opportunities for the hostile takeover and restructuring of whole parts of the world by private interests linked to US political elites. This ‘disaster capitalism’ was tested abroad, in post-invasion Iraq, and came home to raid New Orleans (and most hurricane-hit regions since then). Her third big book, This Changes Everything, extended her critique of predatory capitalism to its ruinous effect on the planet.

As a public intellectual, Klein rises to the famous challenge from Edward Said: that “the task for the critical scholar is not to separate one struggle from another, but to connect them.” Her 2016 essay  Let Them Drown’, for example, offered a stunning synthesis of headlining events – drawing the circle between petroleum lobbies, carbon economies, climate disruptions, drought, conflict, refugee flows and Western recommitments to racism, war and mass incarceration. Her writing consistently revealed the big picture, and opened bridges between progressives everywhere, who had spent too long rubbishing each others’ priorities.

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Read together, Klein’s books also pointed straight to an outcome exactly like we saw on November 9, 2016. When I told Klein about what that morning looked like from New Delhi, she replied with a description of where she was sitting, in the province of British Columbia in western Canada, where her family lives.

‘When I look out there’s a blanket of smoke,’ she said, ‘Because a huge part of this province has been on fire for weeks. It looks a lot like the images we’ve seen from Delhi, but this is not from power-plant exhaust and cars. Our forests are combusting – spontaneously combusting because of record-breaking heat.’

British Columbia had just elected the left-of-centre NDP to its provicial government. ‘And yet this province is having a pipeline forced through it to triple the capacity of carrying tar-sands bitumen,’ Klein said. ‘It underlines that this is not just about extreme right-wing politicians like Trump and Modi; it really is systemic.’

‘This idea that there’s going to be any self-correction from the system, just feels, as I look out at this white haze, pretty insane.’

Trump is news, but not new

No Is Not Enough is Klein’s most urgent book. It was written fast, in a triumph of compression: A lot of her global analysis, along with an overview of the 2016 election, in fewer than 300 pages. Klein passes on more cerebral treatment in favour of a clear, unambiguous picture of the present emergency and principles for overcoming it.

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The picture she wants us to see is one in which Trump was never the exception, but the ‘logical conclusion’ of a system held hostage to corporate enrichment. Klein does share a few lurid images that remind us of the man’s private worldview: memorably, a set on his hit TV show The Apprentice, where ‘losers’ are forced to live rough in a tented camp, peeking through a hole in a wall onto the luxurious campus of the winning contestants.

But President Trump did not create the catastrophic global system – it created him. The Trump administration, explicitly hostility to climate action and economic justice, only follows many US administrations that have been implicitly resistant to them.

‘Not only was Trump predictable, Trump was almost a cliche,’ Klein told me. ‘It’s boring how predictable Trump was. Whatever extent he still seems surprising speaks to cultural denial… denial about the extent to which global elites are willing to let the planet burn for profit.’

‘The urge, certainly among liberals, is to present all of this as being just about Trump’s mental health, Trump’s extreme personality disorder, with the idea that just replacing Trump will solve all the problem,’ Klein told me. She is less wary of the urge to normalise Trump, and more of ‘the urge to pathologise Trump, at the expense of an analysis of how he represents the culmination of a corporate takeover many decades in the making.’

President Trump, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and senior White House officials are briefed about Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The hurricane was one of two that devastated the US territory of Puerto Rico, leading to a notorious ‘disaster capitalist’ response. Source: whitehouse.gov

Conflicts as usual

It is that analysis that Klein provides in NINE, and its central dynamic is conflicts of interest. But the phrase is not quite up to the heavy lifting it has to do: Describing how the corporate-political nexus is not looking to solve planetary crises as much as to capitalise on them.

Trump is only the final, most gaudy expression of that nexus. His presence in the Oval Office is barely even a ‘conflict’ of interest: He gleefully treats the Presidency as a business asset, used to boost the Trump brand and projects as far away as India. His appointees to other high offices, such as former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, have been an open admission of how many corporate interests are invited to the feast. (Only the ineptitude of the White House has interfered with that plan so far – Tillerson was fired in March 2018, and only learned of it when he read the POTUS’ tweet saying so).

The fact that Trumpism is worse does not mean that it is new. ‘We still haven’t seen anything as outrageous as what Dick Cheney did – going from CEO of Halliburton to Vice President [of the United States], with no stops in between, and then the Bush administration handing Halliburton a no-bid contract worth billions of dollars.’

‘There are lots of ways Trump is pushing the wholesale privatisation of government, and government in the corporate interest, into new territories,’ Klein said. The timing of it – as the clock runs out on climate change – is a gut-punch. ‘But it’s not because something new is happening.’

This is part one of a two-part interview essay with Naomi Klein. Read part two tomorrow.

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