Book Review: “No Is Not Enough” — Damned by Branding
Naomi Klein argues that the more fearful we are, the more vulnerable we are to politically opportunistic manipulation.
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein. Haymarket Books, 290 pages, $11.56.
By Ed Meek
In No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein analyzes the roots of our current dystopian political nightmare from the point of view of a utopian progressive. Klein is an unusual writer. On the one hand, she is an academic researcher (her new book is almost one third endnotes); on the other hand, she has an accessible style aimed at a general audience. Her new book explains and critiques Trump’s rise to power and presents an alternative vision of politics and society in the form of a “people’s” manifesto.
Klein is well known for her theory of what she calls “the shock doctrine.” The idea is that when a crisis occurs, 9/11 for example, those in power use the downturn to promote their own self-serving agendas. For example, Saudi radicals, working under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, fly planes into the World Trade Center killing 3000 Americans. The United States is temporarily destabilized. The Bush Administration initially goes after Bin Laden, but then the government decides that it would be the perfect time to invade Iraq — as a means toward implementing the neo-con doctrine of establishing American hegemony in the Middle East. At the same time, Vice President Cheney and his aggressive friends give the go ahead to the CIA to use torture on captured terrorists while Congress passes the Patriot Act empowering the NSA to spy on anyone that threatens the interests of the United States, including our allies and American citizens. Americans, traumatized as a result of an enemy attack on native soil, are suitably panicked to support the radical moves of the Bush Administration.
Klein makes the argument that when we are anxious, we are vulnerable to manipulation. Many of the Americans who voted for Trump wanted a strong man who would respond to their fears — of immigrants and minorities and liberal elites — whom they saw as threatening. Trump roared that he was on their side; he would build a wall to keep Mexicans out, ban Muslims from coming in, and respond to what he called to the growing carnage in cities without law and order. What Trump has done, in the guise of protector-in-chief, is to use his office to aid and assist corporate control via “a cabinet of billionaires,” to appoint family members to positions of power, and to sell, sell, sell the Trump brand.
The title, No Is Not Enough, is based on the idea that we have had a number of recent movements who aligned themselves against the status quo. Occupy Wall Street was effective in calling attention to the growing disparity between the 1% and everyone else. (In fact, as Think Progress points out, the top 1% percent is worth more than the bottom 90%.) Along with the efforts of the Occupy Movement, the writings of economist Thomas Piketty have established that the yawning gap between the rich and poor is worse than we thought. Klein’s argument is that, while the Occupy protestors did a good job of questioning corporate and plutocratic propaganda, they failed to come up with an alternative. They made no inspiring demands.
The latter, of course, was one of the many flaws of the Clinton campaign. Trump promised plenty of jobs and a muscular return to American supremacy. He promised to clean up the swamp of Washington. He would Make America Great Again. Clinton didn’t serve up as sweeping a vision for a better America. Ushering in more Obama-inspired policies was simply not enough.
Klein attributes much of Trump’s success to branding. In her 1999 book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies she examined the forces behind the rise of branding in advertising, and she draws on some of her research to explain Trump’s ascension. In the 1980s it dawned on companies that most of the goods hawked to American consumers were essentially the same. From running shoes and coffee to ice cream and cars, products were available to consumers at reasonable prices. People had to be persuaded to purchase a particular item. The answer was branding. Based on the work of French child psychologist Clotaire Rapaille, advertisers began to sell their stuff as class-driven symbols of a comfortable (and comforting) lifestyle. “There are passengers and drivers on the road of life. Driver’s Wanted,” advertised Volkswagen — and VWs became the epitome of cool. “Just Do it,” enthused Nike, promoting its athletic equipment as chic emblems of achievement. Starbucks, unlike Dunkin’ Doughnuts, is “the best coffee for the best you.” Rapaille claimed that images bypassed the rational brain, appealing to people’s desires for status, wealth, and power. Trump, as Klein sees it, seized on branding as a way to sell himself as the epitome of amoral wealth creation — a gambit that would make mountains of money that would fuel an empire. From real estate and hotels to casinos, water, and steaks, Trump doesn’t make products; he just puts his charismatic name on them.
In a sense, Trump sold himself as a fantasy brand when running for President. He claimed to be just like many of the low income, non-college educated Americans who voted for him. But he was really rich, so he had a freedom his supporters could only dream of; he could do whatever he wanted without paying a price, from assaulting women and making fun of war heroes to insulting the disabled. He took advantage of the grid-locked political system, which was hungry for a contradictory dream machine, and won. He was an outsider, just like his followers; yet he would sweep into government and make great deals with the insiders. He could play both sides of the fence (or would that be wall?).
Klein encourages us to resist our homegrown authoritarian, but she wants us to have a plan in place. She worries that Trump and company will be faced with a crisis (or even engineer a catastrophe) in order to curtail our rights, throw journalists and protestors in jail, and bring back torture.
Bernie Sanders had a plan and Klein was a Bernie supporter. She endorses his platform and calls for “free” higher education, “free” healthcare, and robust investment in green energy. She wants people to take back the power, form their own co-ops, and work together to fight climate change. No Is Not Enough includes a thoughtful approach, a Leap Manifesto she authored along with representatives of various communities in Canada, including indigenous people, women’s groups, etc. (Klein is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States.) She is careful not to use terms that would be negative or scary to the mainstream — mentions of socialism, communism, and Marxism are avoided. She embraces the rhetoric of progressivism instead. Like Bernie, she may be onto something when it comes to an approach that eschews ‘radical’ language. According to recent polls, more than half of Americans now say they would like Medicare to be available for everyone. Of course, tuition “free” higher education was enormously popular among all those young Bernie supporters.
I had a brief conversation with Mass Representative Denise Provost just before the Presidential election. I asked her how she thought it would turn out. Provost replied that she was sure the “forces of good would triumph over the forces of evil.” It didn’t work out that way, did it? How do we convince those in the ideological middle and on the right to put their crippling fears aside and vote based on the best interests of a sane and sustainable future? It will be a tall order: Trump’s supporters would rather indulge in conspiracies than listen to facts and we have a mass/mainstream media, knee deep into the superficialities of branding, that would rather make money via distraction than present uncomfortable truths. America’s trouble lies deep, but Klein has high hopes — if we can go beyond No.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.