Naomi Klein never wanted to return to the subject of her first book, No Logo. But she had to revisit consumer culture and corporate branding to talk about Donald Trump and his shocking rise from business man and reality TV show host to president for her new book, No Is Not Enough. In it, Klein lays out a convincing case for how Trump exploited the conventions of reality TV and pro wresting—along with his personal brand—to take advantage of the 24-hour news cycle like no other politician has.
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The book’s title refers to Klein’s argument that saying no to Trump is not enough to get out of the current political situation; people fighting against Trump and everything he represents must also be saying yes to an alternative worldview, and working to build it. The A.V. Club spoke with Klein over the phone last week about defeating Trump, his noxious but very successful personal brand, and the role pop culture plays in politics.
The A.V. Club: You write about how Trump is a human megabrand who took his personal brand and his experience in reality TV and wrestling and applied them to politics. And how the real way he was able to exploit his brand was through The Apprentice. Is this the culmination of celebrity culture and personal branding?
Naomi Klein: I hesitate to say it’s the culmination because things can always get more insane. But it’s certainly something we haven’t seen before in terms of a fully commercial global brand—really a family of brands—not just Trump but also Ivanka, who has a sub-brand. We’ve never seen this before. We’ve had presidents in financial conflicts of interest before, but this phenomenon where a sitting president image avatar is out there selling golf courses and condominiums, even as he is in office and having the value of his personal brand inflated dramatically by fact of his being president, is new territory.
AVC: You also write about how because he has merged his business identity with the U.S. government, by talking about him we are taking part in marketing him.
NK: We are in a no-win situation, because the thing about a company built around an individual personality, a lifestyle brand built around an actual human being, is that when that human being’s name is mentioned—where their celebrity is increased when the meaning of their brand is confirmed and reconfirmed—we are all increasing the value of that brand. So the thing to understand is that Trump’s business model is very new in the scheme of corporate history. The whole idea of a lifestyle brand—as opposed to a company that makes things and brands them and uses marketing to sell them—is a phenom that didn’t emerge until the ’90s.
And so Trump’s act of construction is not building a building. It is building the meaning of the name “Trump.” Because his revenue really comes from selling his name to people who do actually build things. They pay enormous sums of money for the supposed privilege of being associated with the name Trump or the name Ivanka, because of that image construction. That’s why it seemed like a good idea for Trump to run for president in the first place. He knew he was going to get not just a huge amount of free publicity, as he did through The Apprentice, but this 24/7 platform to embody the meaning of the Trump brand, which is power through wealth.
That is the meaning of the Trump brand—being the boss who is so rich and so powerful he can do whatever he wants. So the way in which he ran for president was to embody that idea as fully as he possibly could with his outrageousness. I don’t think he actually thought he would win. I think the original idea was purely a marketing idea. It seemed a no-lose situation, because he would get so much free publicity. And this has always been his genius—I shouldn’t use the word “genius” when talking about Trump—but he’s always understood the value of free publicity.
This is the way he constructed the Trump brand in the ’80s, to use his philandering, his affair on his wife Ivana with Marla Maples, to create a live-action soap opera playing out primarily through the New York tabloids and then national media as well to build up his own celebrity well beyond what he should have earned through the scale of his real estate development at that stage. He learned the value of free publicity early on—he certainly has a knack for it—and then The Apprentice just put him into the stratosphere. Because here you have this absolutely priceless commercial for the meaning of the Trump brand, this platform for him to embody being the ultimate boss, exercising power and control over people’s lives and fates. Long, loving shots of his fleets of helicopters and private jets and penthouses and vacation homes and golf courses. And he gets paid for it! He doesn’t have to pay for it. And other companies pay him to promote their brands via The Apprentice.
So if he has one gift, it is using the media to create his brand. And there are limits to The Apprentice in that it’s just on for one hour a week. But the thing about a presidential campaign is that it’s on all the time, and it’s all free. And I think he couldn’t resist that. But one of the points I try and make in the book is that this is only possible because the table had been set for him so perfectly by our commercial news. Not just cable news, but much of the commercial news that had stopped covering policy and issues and how they play out in people’s lives and were already covering elections as if they were essentially reality TV shows.
And you know, Trump walked into a media setting for which he was far better suited than the other contenders because he actually knows how to do reality TV and made them all look like pretenders. And so this couldn’t have happened if our news media was more serious and lived up to their responsibilities more fully. And I would argue that they’ve only gotten worse since Trump got in office. Trump is media crack. The ratings have never been higher. The reason CNN would run an hour of an empty podium waiting for him to show up during the campaign is because they were terrified if they turned away from Trump their rating would go down.
And then we have the mea culpas from, you know, [president of CNN] Jeff Zucker, saying, “Maybe we played some role in creating this monster.” But all they’ve done is double down on this addiction to Trump drama at the expense of covering issues about what matters most to people’s lives. Ever since [James] Comey was fired, we have been in this—well, even before then. I’d say ever since [Steve] Bannon was demoted, and drama started playing out between Bannon and Jared Kushner and the firing of Comey and “Is he going to to get impeached?” we have been trapped in a classic Survivor reality TV show, like, “Who’s going to get voted off the island?” And this has every single news show enjoying ratings never seen before. And you can see that it physically pains them to talk about the stakes of this administration, whether it’s health care or climate change or the deregulation of the financial sector or social security. None of it can compete with this reality show.
AVC: We’re a pop culture website, but we find ourselves covering this, like you said, reality TV show because so much of it suddenly seems to fall into our realm in a way it definitely did not before Trump became president.
NK: Yeah, and it’s definitely all of comedy, it’s all of late night. But I think, honestly, the real culpability is for those media outlets whose mandate is not to entertain but to inform. So I would say don’t beat yourself too much for covering him. [Laughs.]
AVC: [Laughs.] Thank you for saying that.
NK: It really isn’t up to a pop culture website to hold him accountable. It’s CNN who really should. And because they are trading the short-term fix of increased ratings by focusing on Trump drama—and I’m not saying they shouldn’t cover the Russian investigations, of course they should—but the blanket coverage, it’s not about news values. It is about ratings. And it comes at a tremendous cost because Trump supporters are fully defended against this. As far as they’re concerned, this is a vast conspiracy, it’s fake news, it doesn’t impact their daily lives, it makes them see Trump as a victim, which he wants to be seen as.
Whereas all the data show that where he is vulnerable, and where the brand he created is vulnerable—and here I’m not talking about Trump’s brand but rather the intimately connected brand called “make America great again” that he created to make all these promises to working Americans—is intensely vulnerable, if there is sustained scrutiny of the kind we’ve seen about Comey and Russia. If that spotlight were trained on the fact that he’s appointed five Goldman Sachs former executives to his Cabinet, that his commerce secretary is renegotiating NAFTA to make it far better for corporations and worse for workers, and they’re talking about this right out in the open… I mean, how much news have you seen about that?
And this actually matters, because a lot of people voted for Trump because of the promises he made around jobs. And so it’s a failed political strategy if the goal actually is to get Trump impeached. Trump’s not going to get impeached if he’s still useful to the Republican party, and the only thing that makes him not useful to the Republican party is if his base turns on him. And that’s not going to happen over Russia. That’s going to happen over economic betrayal. But that’s not going to happen if no one knows that it’s happening.
I think we’re seeing some of this with health care finally getting coverage. So the stakes are tremendously high. And this is not just a media problem. It’s a problem of the Democratic Party’s strategy. It’s clear that they think that they can also double down on failed strategy, which is a dangerous strategy. The electoral strategy for 2016 was “vote for me, I’m not Trump” and “Trump is dangerous, so get out and vote.” The electoral strategy for 2018 seems to be “Give the Democrats the majority in the House so we can impeach Trump.” Not, “Vote for us because we have something transformative to offer that will make your life better.” So this dangerous situation we’re in is that it’s a combination of that strategy from the leadership of the Democratic Party and commercial news media being more than happy to tell themselves that they’re doing their job by focusing on Russia and the impeachment narrative for 95 percent of the time.
AVC: You write in the conclusion of your book that it is horror, rather than the traditional shock, that we’re experiencing with Trump, and that it’s the same horror as reading dystopian fiction, in that both the best of that fiction and Trump take current trends and follow them to their obvious conclusions. A lot of classic dystopian fiction saw a huge sales increase after Trump was elected. What do you think of people turning to books like 1984 right now? Is it helpful to understand Trump through the remove of fiction?
NK: Well, I do think that Brave New World is the better book—
AVC: I absolutely agree. It’s much more relevant than 1984.
KN: Because it is the amusing-ourselves-to-death situation. So I’m not even sure we’re turning to the right dystopian fiction, to be honest. [Laughs.] But more broadly and well before Trump, I’ve had this concern that mainstream science fiction and in particular cli-fi [climate change science-fiction], the sort of ecological apocalyptic landscapes—and there’s great sci-fi and great cli-fi out there—but in a way, the sheer repetition of this narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I think the biggest challenge we face in Western culture at this moment is an inability to imagine a future other than ecological apocalypse. We’re all stumbling down a road trying to escape people who would eat our children. I think at a certain point, just through sheer force of repetition, it becomes self-reinforcing rather than a warning.
When I wrote my last book, This Changes Everything, about climate change, I started it with a quote from science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s a really relevant quote, so I’ll read it to you:
In my books I’ve imagined people salting the Gulf Stream, damming the glaciers sliding off the Greenland ice cap, pumping ocean water into the dry basins of the Sahara and Asia to create salt seas, pumping melted ice from Antarctica north to provide freshwater, genetically engineering bacteria to sequester more carbon in the roots of trees, raising Florida 30 feet to get it back above water, and (hardest of all) comprehensively changing capitalism.
The reason I started the book with that quote is because I do think that at this moment in late capitalism it is easier in our minds to imagine raising Florida 30 feet to escape the rising seas than it is to regulate capitalism to make it serve human beings. So this is why I worry about turning to dystopic fiction as prep for this moment. I think reading some utopian fiction might be better for our minds and souls at this juncture.
AVC: There’s a lot of trolling of Trump online, especially on Twitter, and you write about how the #PresidentBannon hashtag got under his skin. How do we jam the Trump brand?
NK: The reason why nothing sticks to Trump—or very little sticks to Trump—is that he created this brand idea that has to do with being the guy who gets away from it. It’s this ultimate power through wealth and this dream that represents in an age of tremendous economic precariousness and constrained options for so many people—that watching Trump be able to do whatever he wants to whoever he wants is this obvious vicarious kind of thrill for a certain demographic.
This is why catching him out not paying his taxes, treating his employees like garbage—none of this sticks to him because that actually reinforces his power, power over other people, which is this specific kind of power that he’s selling. So if the meaning of the Trump brand is being the ultimate boss who has the power because he’s so rich, the way you undermine that brand is by making him look like a puppet, and by showing that while he’s playing gold and admiring his properties, it’s actually other people making the key decisions and he doesn’t really know what’s going on. That bothers him, no doubt, and it does somewhat undermine his brand.
The fact that he’s refused to divest from his labyrinth of business holdings, the fact that he’s continuing to profit from his brand and indeed create all kinds of new opportunities to profit off the presidency—including launching a new line of hotels specifically targeted to red states and middle-class voters, this new hotel chain called American Idea that they’re launching in Mississippi for people who can’t afford his luxury brand—it’s outrageous. If he’s doing this, then the flip side is that he’s left out a lot of levers through which to pressure him. You know, the reason you want a president to divest from his business holdings is that foreign governments can try to exert pressure on him by becoming customers of these hotels and inflating the value of how much they’re willing to pay for a Trump brand.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so ripe for corruption, because when you’re selling a brand name and that’s your business model—you’re not selling a thing, you’re selling the value of the Trump name—there’s infinite capacity to inflate that value. Who are you and I to say what that is worth? And it’s very hard to quantify it. There’s a property in Panama where Trump has collected somewhere around $30 million just from selling his name to this property—it’s somewhere between $30 million and $50 million. It would be so easy for a developer to slap on an extra $6 million to a Trump licensing deal and have that be a backdoor bribe. Who are we to say what that is worth. It’s so ephemeral. And this is the appeal of selling something as ephemeral as a brand name, is that it can be inflated beyond all reason.
We all know these stories of companies with a commercial model who have not figured out how to commercialize their business model selling themselves for many billions of dollars because of the value of the brand they’ve built up. So the problem with a politician to be in the business of selling this name is that the opportunity for corruption is endless. The opportunity for bribery is endless.
But the opportunity for pressure is also endless. I live in Toronto, and we’ve just gotten news that our Trump Tower is going to de-Trump itself. And I think this is going to start to happen as the brand becomes more toxic and people use this lever. We’ve seen it with the “grab your wallet” campaign, and just this morning there was an AP story about a company that makes, among other things, Ivanka-branded shoes. Workers are not only suffering under abusively long hours and low pay, but there are accounts of workers being beaten with shoes until they bleed. And let me tell you, I’ve been covering sweatshops in Asia for 20 years, and that’s one of the most extreme stories of abuse I’ve ever heard. And the group that blew the whistle on this, the Chinese government detained three of the labor monitors. So when they did that—and this is also not something that happens all the time—so when they did that, did they think they were doing a favor to the U.S. president? Is that a service being provided to the Trump administration? These are questions that we’ve never seen before with a U.S. president.
But that’s a side note. I do believe that our ability to jam the Trump brand is somewhat limited. I think we can chip away at it, but ultimately the way to undermine the Trump brand is a better product in the political marketplace, if you’ll forgive the capitalist metaphor. In the sense that the reason I call the book No Is Not Enough is that I do think that the negative messaging on Trump is severely limited because he is tapping into a very deep, and in many a rightful, desire for deep change, and a feeling that the whole system is so broken and so corrupt that you might as well raise a middle finger as some kind of act of agency.
That’s not the only thing motivating the base—people are also deeply motivated by racism and misogyny—but I think as part of a global phenomenon, if you look at Brexit and [Marine] Le Pen and these repeated political upsets, the anti-authority feeling is very deep because of multiple layers of system failure. And the only thing that will be a real alternative to Trump is there being an option on the ballot that recognizes that we’re in a moment of profound system failure—ecologic, economical, equality, racism. In multiple fronts we are reaching untenable levels of a system failure. There has to be political solutions that are hopeful, that are exciting, that are credible to counter that. So we can chip away at the Trump brand, but I don’t know if we’ll beat it until there’s a better product out there.
AVC: This is a silly question to wrap up, but do you know that you’re name-dropped in the new Dirty Projectors album?
NK: This is the one that goes… “You say no logo”?
AVC: “Your heart is saying clothing line / My body said Naomi Klein, no logo.”
NK: I kind of cringed under my desk at that. [Laughs.] Is that terrible to say? I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, I guess I’m not totally comfortable being invoked as a girlfriend dis.