Big Issues

On the money: My interview with Naomi Klein (uncut)

August 9, 2017

naomi pic

Six months into Donald Trump’s dizzying presidency, it’s tough not to stand by slack-jawed. Amidst the endless media circus around Russian emails, alternative facts and ever-erupting scandals, conspiracies no longer hide in dark corners. They’re, as journalist/activist Naomi Klein puts it, lying in plain sight.

Breaking down the shell game at work is Klein’s specialty. And in No Is Not Enough, she beckons us to take our eyes off the Trump reality show and keep them on the ringleaders: the corporate coup of CEOs, billionaires and Goldman Sachs bankers Trump’s anointed to power. Klein warns they’re part of a kleptocracy-in-the-making with a long deregulatory wish list, the most controversial of which are just waiting for the cover of shock and crisis (think war, terrorist attack, economic meltdown, natural disaster).

I spent the better part of an hour chatting with Klein at the end of her book tour. Since we could only fit 1/5 of that in print, I’m including a mostly unedited (just slightly condensed) transcript of our conversation here.

After No Logo you said you were done talking brand politics. But Trump’s really forced you back in the ring on this one – now that, as you say, we’re all living inside a Trump branded world. Can you explain how the Trump show is the perfect stage for a much deeper corporate coup and for shock politics to play out?

Trump has always understood the power of distraction and he is very adept at using the media to build his own celebrity, obviously, and to distract attention from things he would rather not have attention paid to. This has been the story for his business career, which has always been fuelled by his own celebrity, which covered over unsound business practices as he turned his affair into a live action soap opera into the 80s, that’s how he became a household name. Of course he went much further with Apprentice. I think he sees being president as being executive producer of the world’s largest reality TV show, which is now a nuclear armed reality TV show. I think some of the distractions are ones he’s staging, part of the reason he will not log off Twitter is because he understands having everybody gasping at his outrageousness is better than having close attention paid to what he’s actually doing in office which is a complete betrayal of what he promised to do on many different fronts, particularly on economics.

At the same time, I think the landscape is more complicated than that. There are aspects of the Trump show that Trump would like much less attention on, like the various Russian intrigues involving members of his family that’s being pushed by Democrats and cable news, which is enjoying ratings that they’ve never seen before for so-called news. This is also helping to deflect attention from what he’s doing on the economic front. We have very little information about what Rex Tillerson is doing as Secretary of State, whether he is furthering the interests of his former employer, ExxonMobil. There is scarce attention to the economic agenda being advanced by Trump’s Goldman Sachs intensive economic team. None of it can compete with the Trump show. This is different from what I’ve written about in the past in terms of the Shock Doctrine because it’s this daily schlock distraction show. One of the things I’m really worried about is how Trump and his team takes advantage of a major external shock, not just the average shocks you’ve seen so far that they are generating…what I’m thinking of is a terrorist attack on domestic soil or a major financial meltdown like we saw in 2008 and how that would become a pretext to push forward policies that are much more radical that Trump has mused about, that his appointees are known to be in favour of.

At this point most people get that wars are waged for oil and not freedom, etc but you say it goes much deeper than that. That the shocks are cover not just for accessing oil in XYZ country, but for dismantling the American government…

There are many reasons why it might be in the Trump administration interest to launch a full fledged war. One would be to just deflect attention [from their economic agenda], one would be to get the price of oil back up, which is something we know Rex Tillerson would be particularly interested in considering his ties to ExxonMobil and the fact that ExxonMobil’s profits have been way down since the price of oil went down since they went so heavily into expensive sources of oil like the Alberta tar sands – at one point a third of Exxon’s reserves were in the Alberta tar sands. This is something they share with Putin. He also wants the price of oil back up because as a petro-state, as a state that has a lot of oil reserves locked up in the frozen tundra where it’s very expensive to drill for oil, they also have an interest in that. I think there are a lot of different forces that might make that more likely.

That was such an interesting point you made in the book – that Putin’s support for Trump isn’t necessarily as superficial as needing Trump to lift sanctions on Russia, it’s more that Putin needs Trump’s chaos, doesn’t he?

I think they have some shared interest. There’s no better way to get the price of oil back up than major global instability.

And the Russian economy’s been seriously slumped since the price of oil went down.

Right. Their major export is oil and gas so they’ve been in a budget crisis much like Alberta has been since the price of oil collapsed, with huge implications for the economy. And this is a big part of the reason why we’re seeing protests and domestic instability in Russia. This is one of the many things that are missed when all eyes are on the Trump show and the Russian narrative is basically the single story that sucks up all the oxygen. Which is not to say that there’s nothing there and it shouldn’t be investigated but the way it’s being covered and focused on is at the exclusion of all else, which I think is tremendously reckless because I think where Trump is most vulnerable is in his economic betrayals. Trump’s base is completely defended against all the Russia stuff – it’s just fake news. That’s how Trump defends against it. It’s good for ratings, it’s terrible political strategy.

You say preventing war and fighting climate chaos are one and the same fight. How so?

Well, I think they’ve always been intimately connected because accessing fossil fuels is a major driver of climate change, not the only one, but energy remains the single largest source of emissions. Agriculture is also a huge factor. Many wars are fought in order to safeguard access to fossil fuels. If you look at the various players, they have a particular interest in driving the price of oil up, and that the price of oil needs to be at a certain rate in order for extreme energy to make economic sense, meaning tar sands, Arctic drilling. Because we are in an age when the easy to access fossil fuels are largely depleted, fossil fuel interests need to go after these harder to access, more ecologically damaging fossil fuels that also happen to be very expensive. From a climate perspective it’s absolutely catastrophic for us to be opening up these new fossil fuel reserves so preventing the wars that will send the price of oil up is absolutely in keeping with the climate interest, which is to prevent the further expansion of the fossil fuel frontier with these higher carbon fossil fuel sources.

Q Everyone is talking about impeaching Trump, will it happen and when, but impeaching Trump won’t stop the shock politics or the corporate coup. Why is Pence even more disturbing to you?

When I talk about the corporate coup what I’m talking about is the huge gap between how Trump ran and how he’s governing. And that’s not true on every front. In lots of ways, he ran a racist campaign, and he’s running a racist presidency, he ran a campaign scapegoating immigrants, he’s scapegoating immigrants while in office. I think as his economic agenda is revealed to be a sham and as he fails to bring back the jobs and protect health care and social security, we’re going to see even more a doubling down on the parts of his agenda that are all about scapegoating blacks and immigrants and Muslims, you name it.

The reason I called it a corporate coup is he did run promising to drain the swamp, “I’m so rich I don’t need Wall Street’s money,” and promising to break up this collusion between corporate America and politicians. But what he’s been doing is appointing all these CEOs into his cabinet, five former Goldman Sachs executives, the former CEO of Exxon. He met with  staggering number of CEOs since he took office, 190 his first few weeks in office. Then they stopped releasing logs of visitors. His governing is very different to how he campaigned and that’s why I call it a corporate coup – and getting rid of Trump would leave all these people in place in their jobs. They might just be able to more effectively get through their agenda without Trump. The only way Republicans would decide they want to get rid of trump is if they saw him as a liability for advancing a brutal economic agenda. Right now he’s serving them well. If we look at Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, they want to introduce the largest tax break since before Reagan. They want a 15 per cent corporate tax rate. They want to get rid of the estate tax. There are people around Trump who’d like to get rid of social security altogether, and Dodd Frank, legislation introduced after the 2008 financial crisis trying to prevent another one. All of this is benefiting tremendously from the Trump show because the media can’t spare 10 minutes to cover the economic agenda, because they won’t their eyes away from this reality television narrative of impeachment, who’s going to be voted off the island, who’s going to end up indicted. It’s media catnip, they can’t stop it. I’m not saying they should stop it. I am saying they have a duty to cover the conspiracies in plain sight and that’s failing to happen to a really scandalous degree.

When it turns out that all of these distractions and Trump’s incompetence is a liability to advancing that agenda that could well happen, then the Republicans will throw him under the bus. Right now there hasn’t been any clear major break with any Republican lawmakers saying that they are against Trump. We’ve seen some criticism from some people like McCain but they are still united behind Trump. That will only change when he seizes to provide distraction of this usable cover and he ends up more of a liability. And we end up with the same agenda but with somebody significantly more boring, like Mike Pence but Mike Pence terrifies me. Part of the reason I decided to write the book is I know his track record in the aftermath of Katrina when he was chair of the Republican study group, which was the organization that provided the map for how to exploit Hurricane Katrina to turn New Orleans into this laboratory for extreme so called free market economics: privatizing the school system, shutting down public housing, creating a tax free private enterprise zone, redacting labour protections. The policies I’ve spoken about in The Shock Doctrine came out of a meeting that was shared by Mike Pence. I consider him to be one of the most dangerous lawmakers not only because of his extreme anti choice views and his general creepiness on so many social issues, on economics he’s equally extreme.

A lot of Canadians are horrified by Trump but there’s also a sense that Trump’s not really our battle to fight, we already got rid of Harper. Why and how are Canadians supposed to resist Trump?

The main thing that we can do is hold our government to a higher standard in the Trump era. The danger of a figure like Trump is everybody looks good in comparison to him. This is a sort of a dynamic that the Trudeau government as well as several provincial governments are very keen to exploit – the ease with which they can seem progressive in comparison to Trump no matter how little substance there is behind their memes and their tweeting. In Canada, we’re not going to be the ones to defeat Trump, but I think what we can do is hold our government to a higher standard and say precisely because what is happening in the US is so dangerous because they’re going completely rogue on climate, because their immigration policies are so incredibly dangerous and racist, we need to do much more of substance on all of those fronts. It’s not just true for Canada, it’s true for any government making claim to progressive leadership. In order to earn that label we have to do more. We have to increase our ambitions on climate. Not just be satisfied that we’re better than Trump. If we’re serious about averting catastrophic climate change in the Trump era that means we all have to do more. If we are disgusted by Trump’s racism, that means we can’t be satisfied with memes and tweets saying refugees are welcome here, we need change in laws. And we need the kind of substantive opposition that would actually open our borders to people’s whose lives are becoming less safe under Trump and who are being denied entry under Trump. Tangibly, it means repealing the Safe Third Country agreement, as one example. I think it’s pretty scandalous that major states and cities in the United States have been more willing to stand up to Trump than the Trudeau government. I think the Trudeau government has done worse than not stand up to Trump. The Trudeau government has actively run PR for Trump again and again, whether it was posing for a picture with Ivanka sitting in her father’s chair in the oval office or taking Ivanka to the theatre and telling European parliamentarians that Trump’s not so bad and he’s a good listener. I mean Trudeau has actually worked very hard to soften Trump’s image in a way that I think is quite scandalous. He does not need to be doing that. It’s one thing to say we can’t pick a fight with our major trading partner, it’s a different thing to do the kind of marketing for Trump that Trudeau has been doing. And he’s also just following orders shamelessly. This major increase in weapons spending that we’ve seen is a direct response to Trump going to NATO and saying we need you to pull your weight, which is code for buy more American weapons.

Bill McKibben said that on the environment Trudeau is at least as bad as Trump. He’s certainly gotten more pipelines further along then Harper ever did. What’s your take on that?

 With Trump people know what they’re getting, they understand that they have a president that’s gone absolutely rogue on climate. I think the danger of Trudeau and Notley is they’re so good at saying the right things and introducing some genuinely good climate policies that it is masking the fact that they’re overseeing massive expansive in tar sands production which is catastrophic for the planet and a complete betrayal of Canada’s commitments under the Paris Accord. So it lulls people into complacency whereas what we’re seeing under Trump is that people know what is happening and they are responding accordingly. It’s just different. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to say one is better or worse and they’re both bad.

When did you decide that no is not enough. Because it seems like for a big part of your career no was a big part of it, right?

To be honest, I think shortly after No Logo Avi and I went to Argentina and made a film about Argentina’s Occupy factory movement, and when we made The Take we started with this clip where the interviewer said, ‘We know what you’re against but what are you for?” It’s a fair question, right? Ever since we made the Take, I’ve tried to in my writing and reporting to highlight the yeses as well as the no’s. Yet I’ve never been comfortable saying I have it all figured out, here’s a 10-point plan and everybody follow me. The reason I’ve felt more comfortable talking about the plan is that I’ve been part of a collaborative process that involved dozens and dozens of organizations around a platform that is a forward looking vision for a justice-based transition off of fossil fuels. This grew naturally out of This Changes Everything, which is a more forward looking book than the Shock Doctrine or No Logo. It is about how climate change is a catalyst for transformation for the better. I’ve been in that space, but I don’t think you can ever in our time or any time fully immerse oneself in this space of the utopian yes when there are so many life and death struggles that require defensive resistance. We do have to stop the pipelines if we’re going to have a chance at the transition. We can’t mistake stopping the pipelines for living in a livable world. All that does not is hold the line and where we are now is unacceptable on so many different fronts.

Critiques of No Is Not Enough say the yes is too utopic, but you actually encourage more utopic thinking, saying some of our best policies health care etc me from utopic thinking and we’ve had a crisis of imagination…

I think some of the most radical and effective social movements have had this balance of fighting in the here and now against mass incarceration, carding, police violence, deportation while at the same time holding this vision of a world without prisons and borders, but I think the more mainstream left has lost that ability that boldness in the neoliberal era. A lot of us have internalized that Margaret Thatcher meming that there is no alternative, there was a willingness to say no but a loss of confidence about what the yes is. I think the most powerful social movements, revolutionary movements throughout history have always held out a dream of the world that was being fought for. Whether it was Martin Luther King’s dream or the freedom charter in the darkest days of apartheid, this utopian vision of what South Africa would look like. Part of neoliberalism was a war on the imagination, and that capacity to imagine a different world has been lost by a lot of people. So we have a lot of dystopian fiction that gets written some of it very good but for almost everyone who’s come of age in the neoliberal era, there’s been a bit of a paralysis when it comes to imaging a different world beyond capitalism.

Speaking of imagining a different world, the NDP here treated the Leap Manifesto as a hot potato, pegged by many as too radical for the party. I’m wondering what your take is now on the fallout for the Leap after the NDP passed it off to their municipal ridings to mull over.

I think it’s interesting. It was presented as this extreme small group that was sabotaging the Alberta NDP. What’s become clear since is that the conflict was not and is not between the Leap and the Alberta NDP. It’s between the Alberta NDP and the majority of people in British Colombia and Quebec who don’t want their pipelines. I think it was presented in this false way as a conflict between something called the Leap and the Notley government, but now what we see in BC is that 57% of British Columbians voted for either the NDP or the greens on a platform of opposing the Kinder Morgan platform. It’s clear powerful people in the NDP were very frightened by the idea of having to be in conflict with the Notley government so they wanted the Leap to go away, but the issues that we represented are not goin’ anywhere. So now they’re not in conflict with the Leap, they’re in conflict with BC and that’s going to be a hell of a lot harder for them to navigate.

I’m curious to see how you see this playing out with the NDP leadership race. Some frontrunners have distanced themselves from the Leap. Are they missing a Sanders-style opportunity to run further left? Mulcair lost by driving the NDP toward the centre but running as a socialist democrat didn’t win it for Sanders in the US either. So now what?

Sanders campaign was a massive upset. What he was able to pull off and as close as he did come actually shows that if a similar campaign was run differently, with a lot more attention paid to the earliest days how to build a truly multi-racial coalition, there’s no reason why it couldn’t win. Sanders got a very small fraction of the Black and Latino vote other than among Millennials and that is not because those constituents are right wing, they aren’t. It is possible to build that coalition. This is where a lot of people are focusing their energies right now in the US. In terms of where the NDP should go, I was struck having interviewed Jeremy Corbyn last week in the UK, I just think all politicians in this country are a lot more concerned with media portrayals than either Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. There is a broad acceptance that if you’re going to run a campaign that is trying to change the world, you’re going to get slammed, people with smear you in the corporate press over and over and over again. We are at a point where there’s so much criticism about the media that that doesn’t necessarily work the same way it used to. It might even work to your advantage, which is what Jeremy Corbyn found in the last elections. When I see the unwillingness to be associated with the Leap, I think with some candidates it has to do with accepting the terms of the debate. I don’t see people engaging with the actual document words on the page, what the policies are and arguing about how we can meet our climate commitments without what we call for in the Leap, which is no more fossil fuel infrastructure. Or [they think] the Leap has been smeared so much in the corporate media that [they] can’t be associated with it. I think what we’re seeing from the Corbyn and Sanders camp is an unwillingness to allow corporate press to set the terms of the debate on a lot of issues. Not every issue.

Do you think the Leap has more legs outside of Canada at this point?

We’re seeing new groups forming all the time in Canada. In Thunderbay there’s plans to run a slate of candidates to take over city council. And we’re seeing a lot of interest in the States, as well as part of this broader conversation about the need for something similar to this platform to emerge in this moment. There’s more happening than I can frankly keep up with. There was announcement in LA city council last week, one of the councillors there formed a leap commission to explore how LA could adopt the principles of the Leap Manifesto to get the 100% renewable energy. There’s lots going on in the US and in Canada. At the national electoral level there’s all of this concern about oh have the smears so damaged it that we can’t touch it, whereas at the local level and internationally we’re just seeing more interest than ever. People think that if it’s attacked this much there must be something good there. It works in our favour. This timidness at the NDP level, I think there’s a couple issues going on simultaneously. One of them is fear of being attacked in the press, and allowing a pundit talk than is so much further to the right than the population and allowing that to determine too much. Part of it is, just reflecting ties to resource communities and not having really figured out how we navigate being a country that is tremendously reliant on natural resources extraction with the fact that we live on a planet that is in ecological collapse. We need a justice- based transition to a very different kind of economy in a big hurry and that’s politically very difficult. Then there’s the Notley factor. But now that there’s an NDP government in BC and Alberta isn’t the only NDP government – this was a big part of the issue with the Leap was that the only NDP government was in Alberta and they decided to go war with the Leap and that presented a very big challenge to the National party, where they did not want to be in conflict with the one place they were winning. But now there’s BC and BC doesn’t want the pipelines. So we’ll see what the next chapter holds.

Getting back to Trump, you talk about readying ourselves for Trump era shocks. Do you think disaster preparedness can stop Trump?

I do [believe in] the importance of being in the streets in huge numbers, if there is a moment in the US where this administration uses a crisis to attack the right to protest dissent, which I can totally see them doing. I do think you can defeat that tactic, but it takes huge numbers to do it. All you can do is slow it down. You can do some triage. But ultimately these guys need to be out of power and there needs to be a very different political project that replaces them.

In the meantime, you talk about killing our own inner Trumps. I’m reminded of what the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti said about how we’ll never end war and conflict in the world without eliminating the seeds of aggression and anger in our own hearts. Are you there yet? Have you killed your inner Trump?

[Laughs] No, I haven’t. But I am quite serious that there is this way that he is just this hyper exaggeration of the most insidious parts of the culture right now. Even just this sort of mania for rating and starring everything and everyone and list-ifying everything. I think the fact that such an extraordinarily base figure can rise to such an exalted position should serve as a cultural wake up call on so many fronts. I think there’s a need for a really deep cultural shift at this moment and I’m in the culture like everybody else. But I’m about to go off line for as much of the summer as possible. Ask me again in couple months.

So you won’t be tweeting constantly from your vacation?

[Laughs] No.