Naomi Klein: Trump Is the First Fully Commercialized Global Brand to Serve as U.S. President
A decade after Naomi Klein published her now-iconic book "The Shock Doctrine," the best-selling author and activist reflects on how President Trump represents a form of continuous shock and how he ran a branding campaign—more than a political campaign—in order to capture the presidency. Naomi Klein’s latest book is "No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need."
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, one of the interesting things, to me, in reading your book was the—how you connect, for instance, the work you had done long ago on branding and how the Trump administration has become the branding of the president and how he was able to understand the importance of branding way back during when he was doing the Apprentice program.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: In fact, you talk about, you analyze The Apprentice and its impact on American consciousness.
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. So, I think we need to understand that Trump is not playing by the rules of politics. He’s playing by the rules of branding. And, you know, there have been presidential conflicts of interest before. There have been presidents with business interests before. But there has never been a fully commercialized global brand as a sitting U.S. president. That is unprecedented.
And the reason that’s unprecedented is because this is a relatively new business model. It is—the business model that has been adopted by the Trump Organization is really not one that existed before the 1990s. It is what I called in my first book, No Logo, the hollow brand model, right? And the model comes out of the fact that in the—so, the original history of branding is you have a product—you know, maybe it was rice, maybe it was beans, maybe it was shoes—you’re a manufacturer first, but you want people to buy your product, so you brand it. You put a logo on it. You identify it with, you know, some sort of iconic image, like Uncle Ben’s or whatever it is, right? You give it a kind of personality.
That stopped working in the 1980s. Customers got savvy to it. I had—probably the most requoted quote of mine in No Logo is from an advertising executive who said, "Consumers are like roaches. You spray them and spray them, and they become immune after a while." It’s just lovely insight from a marketer, yeah, about how they see customers. So, marketing started to get more ambitious, and then you started to see these companies that position themselves as lifestyle brands. And they said, "No, we’re not product-based companies. We are in the business of selling ideas and identity." Nike was the ultimate example of this. Nike CEO Phil Knight stepped forward and said, "We are not a sneaker company. We are not a shoe company. We are about the idea of transcendence through sports," right? Starbucks wasn’t a coffee company; it was about the idea of community and the third place. And, you know, Disney was family. And all this. So, there was these—you know, the corporations would have their sÃ©ances and come forward and say, "We have our grand idea." This changed manufacturing dramatically, because once you decide that you’re in the business of selling an idea as opposed to a product, well, it doesn’t really matter who makes your product. What you want to do is you want to own as little sort of hard infrastructure as possible, and your real value is your name and how you build that up.
So, Trump was more of a traditional business in the 1980s. And Trump was just sort of like a guy who built buildings, but—built buildings and had a flair for marketing. But the game changer for him was The Apprentice. That’s when he got to—he realized he could enter the stratosphere of the superbrands. And his business model changed. It no longer became about building the building or buying the building. That was for other people to do. He was about building up the Trump name and then selling it and leasing it in as many different ways as possible. So you’ve got the Trump water and Trump Steaks and Trump’s very so-called dodgy university. And so many of the towers, the Trump towers around the world, the Trump resorts around the world, those are not owned by the Trump Organization. The Trump Organization is paid millions of dollars by these developers for the privilege of putting the Trump name on those towers.
So, this has huge implications for how we understand the corruption at the heart of Trump’s decision to merge his global brand with the U.S. government, which is what is underway on so many different fronts, because, honestly, what it means is, every time we say the word "Trump," even when we’re saying it in a negative light, we’re doing his marketing for him. So, you know, with this lawsuit that was just announced by the attorneys general of New York and D.C.—
AMY GOODMAN: Maryland.
NAOMI KLEIN: Oh, sorry, of Maryland and D.C.—yeah, maybe New York will get in on it—you know, it’s getting at part of it, in the sense that foreign governments are clearly favoring Trump hotels as a way to ingratiate themselves to the president. But the conflict is more continuous than that, because Trump’s big idea, the idea at the center of his brand, is the power that comes with wealth. And so, the more powerful he is—and, of course, he happens somehow to have got himself the most powerful job in the world—that fact alone is massively increasing the value of his brand, which his sons are cashing in on busily on every front by selling that name for inflated prices. And, of course, Trump, by not divesting from the Trump Organization, profits from that as president. So the conflict is baked in, happening every second.
AMY GOODMAN: So you talk about jamming the Trump brand. How?
NAOMI KLEIN: Right. So, this phrase, "culture jamming," was very much in vogue in the 1990s when these superbrands sort of emerged and started kind of projecting their names onto ever more surfaces. You know, maybe you remember some of the campaigns, like "Just don’t do it," which—exposing the sweatshops that Nike products were being made under; you know, "Joe Cancer," taking on Joe Camel, this, you know, cartoon character which is basically selling cigarettes to kids.
So, yeah, I’ve been thinking about: How do we jam the Trump brand? Because I think you have to kind of accept Trump on his own terms to some degree. And this idea that we’re going to somehow catch him out, damage him by proving that he is corrupt, you know, that he treats people awfully, that’s his brand. His brand is that he’s the boss, and he gets to do whatever he wants. That’s what he has been selling now for many, many decades.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, along with that—
NAOMI KLEIN: So the more he gets away with it—yeah.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: But to get back to The Apprentice, The Apprentice, as you so aptly describe, was really based on selling a cutthroat brand of capitalism to the American people as the way that people should be. And—
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, it’s televised class war. I mean, it opens up with an image of a homeless man sleeping rough on the streets of New York, and then cuts to Trump in his limousine. And it’s basically like "Who do you want to be? The homeless guy or Trump?" Right? And so, you know, this happens. You know, the show launches at a time when people understand that this—that neoliberalism is not lifting all boats. It is this cutthroat world of winners and losers. And which one do you want to be?
And that was very sharply played out in The Apprentice, and it got more brutal as the show went on. And, you know, I didn’t know this until I started researching this book, I have to admit. I had maybe watched The Apprentice a couple of times. I didn’t know that in later seasons they deported half of their contestants into tents in the backyard. They called it Trump’s trailer park. And, you know, they would overlay the sound of like howling dogs at night. And it was this idea of creating drama out of the massive inequalities of our economic system. The people who were sleeping in the backyard, who had been deported into Trump’s trailer park, would peek over the hedges to look at the people living in the mansion, you know, drinking champagne and floating around in the swimming pool, right? So, I think that this is part of his appeal, like not to challenge this massive inequality, but to promise that if you play by my rules, you end up in the mansion. And it will be even sweeter because people are sleeping outside, right? Because you won.
And, you know, I think that this has been very much the message that he ran on as president, right? The promise of lifting you up, the chosen few—right?—the white working class, and at the explicit extent—at the explicit expense of brutality against people of color, right? And so, that formula that he honed, that was so profitable, that got such great ratings on The Apprentice, is now—the world is his reality show. And, you know, I quote Newt Gingrich in the book, where Newt Gingrich was asked—and he’s been such a booster of Trump’s—what he thought of Trump staying on as executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice, and Newt Gingrich, in a rare criticism of Trump, said that he thought it was a bad idea, because Trump was now the executive producer of a show called The United States. And I thought that was, you know, a rare moment of truth, right? We’ve all been recruited as extras into this show.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I think the Trumps have declared this week "Apprentice Week," and he and his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump are going to Wisconsin today, where they’re going to Waukesha, where a GE plant is closing, and it’s heading to Canada, where you’re from. And we’re going to talk about all this and more with Naomi Klein. Her new book is out; it is called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. We’ll also talk about this weekend in Chicago, where we both were. Bernie Sanders held a major event, the People’s Summit. Four thousand people came. You’ll hear some of what he has to say. And also, what happened in Britain with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader? Is he soon to be the British prime minister? Stay with us.