Say No to Centrism

Naomi Klein on why the most dangerous thing Democrats can do right now is moderate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2016, in Essington, Pennsylvania.

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

In her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, the author and activist Naomi Klein identifies the election of our current president as the result of a number of trends in American society. Klein has long written about what she perceives to be the devastating effects of globalization and American militarism; here she presents Trump as part of a culture obsessed with branding, where honesty is irrelevant and winning is what counts. She partially blames neoliberal economics and the glorification of wealth for this state of affairs, noting that “Trump’s assertion that he knows how to fix America because he’s rich is nothing more than an uncouth, vulgar echo of a dangerous idea we have been hearing for years: that Bill Gates can fix Africa. Or that Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg can solve climate change.”

Klein also puts forward an agenda for overcoming Trump, which she believes should include much more economic populism, as well as a commitment to criminal justice reform. About more controversial issues, such as reparations for slavery and colonialism, she asks, “Why not?”

I recently spoke by phone with Klein. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how branding took over American politics, whether centrism is really dead, and why one of the many scary things about Trump’s plutocracy is that it may force him to become even more racist.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think Trump is the culmination of the different things you have been writing about over your career?

Naomi Klein: Well, my first book was about the rise of lifestyle branding and how it was impacting the culture and then lots of public space. Brands became more and more voracious in their desire to co-brand with previously public spaces as they saw their mission being to sell ideas, as opposed to products. If companies don’t see themselves as producers of things but rather as creators of ideas, then it doesn’t really matter who produces their products.

Trump is very much the culmination of that project in the sense that the last frontier of co-branding is just swallowing the government itself. I think that the Trump family is really doing that in broad daylight. The meaning of the brand that he’s been building over decades is power—indeed impunity—through wealth. Being the boss who gets away with anything. What better way to express that and embody that than by being the president?

When you say “that project” it implies that Trump’s election was part of a conscious plan, but by what forces exactly?

I think Trump entered politics initially as a marketing project. He was open about that. He brags that he would be the first candidate to actually make money while running for president. I don’t think when he first ran he seriously thought he could win. I do think that it began as a means by which to get absolutely unlimited free marketing for the Trump brand and to embody the meaning of that brand, which is power. There’s a natural evolution, right? Even the fact that Trump wanted to buy Mar-a-Lago in the ’80s was sort of an early hint of how he sees politics. He was sort of playing president at this winter White House that originally had been donated by its owner to the U.S. government as a winter White House. It was clear that he liked the narrative behind it, that he was living in a presidential mansion even before he became president.

The groups that you write about, the super-capitalist types like the Koch brothers, were initially turned off by Trump. How do you understand that if you see Trump himself as the culmination of these trends in capitalism and society?

Well, I think they’ve made their peace with him for the most part. What they’re realizing is that a huge amount of it was just marketing, certainly when it comes to the economic policies. I think the difference between Trump and a traditional Republican candidate is simply that he was willing to say whatever it took to get elected. I think there’s been an unwillingness to cross certain red lines for a traditional Republican candidate. I don’t think they knew what to make of him. Now that they see the kind of economic policies he wants to introduce and the type of people that have been appointed, I think they can’t believe how good they’ve got it.

How was he able to get away with the campaign then?

I think the idea that Trump ever was going to be a champion of the working class was a completely absurd idea and was only a marketable idea because of the failures of the Democrats. There was such a strong political vacuum that he was able to exploit and mix up with all kinds of toxic ideas. The argument I make in the book and the reason why I call it what I call it is because I don’t think that this can be countered by just deconstructing Trump.

I don’t think he won the election. I think the Democrats lost the election. The low enthusiasm cannot just be written off as being the result of a candidate with too much political baggage. I think that it was a failure to speak to very real economic crises in the country. That vacuum has been left open by centrist, liberal parties around the world, and into that vacuum are entering hypernationalist figures who mix it up with xenophobia, climate change denial, anything international, and they stir. It’s a potent mixture.

Have you been any happier with Democrats since Trump’s election and the ways they have gone after him?

I think where he is most vulnerable is in these betrayed economic promises. Some of the early research would indicate that the kind of message that would resonate most with people who voted Democrat in previous elections and voted for Trump in this election has to do with this appointment of five Goldman Sachs executives to his Cabinet. That is being so antithetical to how he campaigned. I think he’s vulnerable on the tax giveaway to the ultra-rich they’re planning. I think he’s vulnerable on health care. I think on the Goldman Sachs point in particular, it is hard for a lot of elite Democrats to hammer him on that given their own ties to the financial sector.

But I don’t think it’s enough just to hammer him on it. I think that the best response to Trump is to hammer him on his economic lies and to propose a platform and vision for the economy that is more economic populist, that is more about redistributing wealth from these super-rich to services that are going to benefit the vast majority of Americans. There has to be an exposing of Trump and a proposal that responds to the very real economic precariousness that he tapped into. I think that by going all in on Russia all the time they are failing on both counts.

With these stories coming out every day, it’s really hard not to talk about Russia.

During the election, it was really hard not to focus on Trump all the time because it had news value and we heard the same arguments. What worries me is that the same idea that we can’t look away, we never know what he’ll say, and that’s why Trump was given so much more coverage than any other candidate—that same logic is now being applied to why you ca’’t look away from whatever the scandal of the day is. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be covered. Unfortunately, there’s a grain of truth in Trump’s attacks on CNN, in these undercover videos of them saying it’s all about the ratings. A lot of it is about the ratings.

OK, sure, but he fired the director of the FBI and may have obstructed justice. It’s hard to say, “Well, we really should be talking about Goldman Sachs.”

I think there’s a capacity to cover more than one major story at a time. I think there’s been a decision in many newsrooms to go all in, absolutely all in, blanket coverage [on Russia] because the ratings are incredible, because it is basically a reality television script. Who is going to be voted off next? That is cable news crack.

What did you make of Trump getting up in Iowa recently and bragging about all the Goldman Sachs people he had brought on board and being met by cheers?

Well, how big a cheer was that really? How much of that represents his base? I’m not convinced that this is going to be a cheer line on the campaign trail.

I guess my fear is that the reason he can get away with hypocrisy on this is because his racism and xenophobia speak to people, and so they trust him.

Well, my real fear is that as it becomes less and less possible to present himself as any kind of economic populist and as the jobs don’t come back and as people lose their health insurance, then he needs to double down on the attacks on immigrants, on riling up fears of black crime, it could be trans people in bathrooms, whatever it is, it’s going to become more important.

I think certainly there’s a portion of his base who are primarily motivated by racism and misogyny. In terms of how you beat Trump, I think it’s a combination of peeling away the part of his base that was primarily motivated by economics. There’s no doubt in my mind that you can’t just primarily be motivated by economics and vote for Trump without there also being a willingness to basically write off people of color. It might not be actively racist, but there is a discounting of other people’s lives in that vote.

In your book, you talk about some of the things that you think that the left should unite around. Isn’t there a danger that a lot of those things will turn off the voters you want to woo?

I think if there was a serious and credible campaign promising people universal, single-payer health care, free college tuition, a serious jobs program, and one that was centered around our desperate need to get off of fossil fuels in a huge hurry … If we were to take the science of climate change seriously, we would have in our hands the most expansive jobs program of the century. I think there’s a lot that Democrats can offer and have not offered. I think it is interesting to see what Jeremy Corbyn was able to do in a very short period of time from when he put out the Labour Party manifesto in the U.K. and the election. He didn’t win the election, but he sure turned around his political fortunes. No, I don’t think that you can just write off the entire white working class, if that’s what you’re saying.

I am not saying that but rather asking if you think some of the things that you are talking about, like criminal justice reform or reparations, are going to do that. I suppose I am asking whether these voters have concerns that have more to do with race and culture than economics at some fundamental level.

All we know is what we’ve been told is possible for 40 years turns out to be wrong. Nobody would have thought that a guy who calls himself a “democratic socialist” in the United States would have gotten 13 million votes and carried more than 20 states. That happened.

Maybe the most shocking thing about the American electorate is that 40 percent of eligible voters don’t vote. I think the idea that the goal is to get all of Trump’s voters is ridiculous. I think the ground is so much more fertile with people who have just completely tuned out because they’re either so overworked or just sick of the whole project. That’s the other thing that I found really interesting about Corbyn’s campaign is that they activated traditional nonvoters. That’s how they turned it around. Particularly, young voters.

He still lost, though.

He still lost, but he lost in an election campaign that was called, specifically, to wipe him out, because that’s what the polls were showing was going to happen, right? The political opinion in England has turned around so much that right now the Tories are fleeing from austerity. Theresa May’s party is now in the midst of debating getting rid of tuition fees. He’s completely changed the debate in the country. I don’t think you can just say, “He lost so there’s nothing to learn from that.” That was a massive political upset.

I think we are in a malleable political moment because of a collapse of a project, the neoliberal project, that Trump is tapping into on the right, but there are figures on the left who are also tapping into it. If the left is going to run on an economic populist platform, it has to do a better job of integrating race and gender than the Sanders campaign did. I think the numbers bear that out. If Bernie had been able to get 50 percent of the black vote in key states, he would have won. Let’s take a hard look at why he didn’t; let’s not just blame the [Democratic National Committee] for that.

Whatever one thinks of the neoliberal project, however, I wonder if it’s easy to overstate its decline. Macron just won big in France despite running an empty and vacuous campaign that was just warmed-over centrism, and Hillary did better than Corbyn despite the fact that she was an atrocious candidate. Is there no danger from overreading how ready the country is for left populism? Perhaps more centrist approaches still might make some sense?

Well, then, the Democrats should have won in Georgia because they had their Macron.

It’s a Republican district, and Macron’s better looking than Ossoff. Come on.

[Laughs.] This idea that the U.S. needs to find Macron … The U.S. had a Macron. His name was Barack Obama.

Well, he won two elections.

Then Trump won.

Yeah, well, as you’ve said, Hillary ran a terrible campaign.

I realize that. I realize that, and I realize there’s a tremendous desire to just look for Hillary without the baggage and run a status quo campaign. I think if there’s one message from my book, it’s that what has traditionally been seen as cautious centrism may actually be incredibly dangerous right now. We’re in a moment when we need transformational politics from a climate perspective, from a racial justice perspective, from an economic inequality perspective, and where the appetite for it is deep. We can choose to ignore that, but I think that’s a massive gamble.

Don’t you think the way people responded to Bernie and Corbyn, and the way both of them ran, was such that they both became brands? The word cultish sounds judgmental, but …

Some people are a little bit culty. Some people are. It happens. It’s hard to resist. I think the appeal of Sanders and Corbyn, particularly to young people, has to do with the fact that as individuals they’re kind of outside of their time. That they sat out the whole neoliberal period and kept on keeping on with their message and their values throughout this period and are therefore trusted messengers. Talking to young people who worked on both those campaigns, they are building brands around Bernie and around Corbyn, but they themselves are the least brand-conscious political figures, marketing-conscious, focus-grouped figures you could imagine.

The problem with applying the tools of corporate marketing to politics, for me, was never about the tools. It was about the dissonance between the message and what was actually being proposed. When Tony Blair rebranded the Labour Party, New Labour, in the ’90s, he was taking this word that used to mean workers and a party that was aligned with the interests of working people and just turning it into an empty brand.

I think that what Jeremy Corbyn has done is reunite the word labor with the idea of a party that stands with working people again. Yes, they’re using viral videos, and they’re using all the most cutting-edge communication tools, but that dissonance isn’t there. He’s not a hollow brand, and neither is Bernie in the way that I think we’ve seen a lot of political figures, like Justin Trudeau just to use a current example, using similar tools. That, to me, is the problem: the dissonance between the rhetoric and the reality, not using the tools. I think we live in a culture where everyone needs to use these tools.