4 Things 'The Shock Doctrine' Illuminates About The Trump Presidency
There’s a moment each day that I’ve come to intimately know and dread. I wake up, pick my head up off the pillow, and then I remember: Donald Trump is our president. It’s enough to make me want to put my head right back down again. Instead, I reach over to my nightstand and check my phone, wary of what awaits me: maybe he’s insulted a foreign leader, threatened a vulnerable population, or tweeted an insane conspiracy theory. It’s become exhausting simply to endure the daily indignities.
Though Trump’s presidency may feel uniquely terrible, it’s not without precedent. Recently, I re-read The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and was struck by eerie parallels between the text and our present. In the book, Klein chronicles the history of governments like Pinochet’s bloody Chilean regime, post-apartheid South Africa, and the UK under Margaret Thatcher. Through these varied civic structures and historical moments, Klein tugs at a common thread: She tells the story of how political shocks disoriented their countries’ citizens and how politicians took advantage of the situation to pass shocking economic and social privatization. Though the book was written in 2007, its message feels ominously familiar. Here's the blueprint it provides for how to observe and react to the Trump presidency.
1. Trump’s Catastrophic Rhetoric Serves a Purpose
Klein structures much of her book around a quote by Milton Friedman—the Chicago School economist who provided the economic framework for the modern Republican Party:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.
In many of the examples she describes, politicians took advantage of actual crises to pass policy that would have otherwise been unthinkable. For example, Klein describes how in 1985 Bolivian president Víctor Paz Estenssoro justified, “the elimination of food subsidies, the canceling of almost all price controls and a 300 percent hike in the price of oil,” as necessary steps to address the country’s catastrophic 14,000 percent inflation. Though these economic changes caused mass suffering, they were initially countenanced by the country due to the gravity of their economic woes.
Trump campaigned on promises to drastically change the trajectory of our nation. He has, amongst other things, promised dramatic tax cuts, mass deportations, and an “America First” foreign policy. Ordinarily, only a crisis would merit such changes. Unfortunately for Trump, he didn’t inherit a crisis: our economy is strong, we’ve had net-zero immigration for years, and ISISis on the wane. So, lacking an actual crisis to justify his policies, Trump has simply invented one. Viewed through this lens, Trump’s farcical depiction of inner cities, lies about the murder rate, and description of the present “American carnage” make much more sense. If these things were true, they might warrant Trump’s extreme plans. As Klein notes, politicians like Trump are drawn to disaster and calamity as “nonapocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions.” Lacking an actual apocalypse, Trump’s rhetoric is designed to convince us that we’re living in one so he can remake our government according to his own warped ideology.
2. Trump Is the Pinnacle of the GOP’s Privatization Fetish
The Shock Doctrine’s economic refrain shows how, again and again, free-market ideology — leveraged through U.S.-led global initiatives like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — forced nations in crisis to sell off publicly-held assets to “jumpstart” their economies. In Chile under Pinochet, for example, “the public school system was replaced by vouchers and charter schools, health care became pay-as-you-go, and kindergartens and cemeteries were privatized.” Developed nations weren’t immune to the march of privatization, either. Under Margaret Thatcher, the UK sharply cut public housing provisions and sought to limit the power of blue-collar unions.
All of this should sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to Trump’s proposed domestic policies. Betsy DeVos is positively giddy at the prospect of replacing public education with a system of school vouchers. Previous experiments in school choice have shown just how destructive these policies would be to our public schools. In the eyes of the Trump administration, however, this may well be a feature not a bug. Indeed, the GOP is more or less unified in its belief that private enterprise is always more efficient and effective than public institutions. This belief helps explain the present zeal to excise the organs of the state. The recently proffered Affordable Care Act replacement, for example, sharply reduces current government healthcare subsidies but turbocharges health savings accounts, seeking to shift the locus of healthcare back towards the free market.
But, the conservative rebellion against the Affordable Care Act is just one example of right-wing opposition to federal government action in any sector of public life. Speaking at CPAC, Steve Bannon concisely summed up the Trump administration's goal as “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
This animus against the public sector didn’t begin with Trump. Indeed, Klein spends several chapters describing the Bush administration’s efforts to outsource government functions like military engagement and disaster response to contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton. Still, Trump has helped transform this small-government impetus into crass anti-government sentiment — to the point that Sean Spicer actually defended the new healthcare bill simply by pointing out that it had fewer pages. This is frequently painted as sheer incompetence, yet Klein offers a more convincing take: “When the same mistakes are repeated over and over again, it’s time to consider the possibility that they are not mistakes at all.”
3. Disorientation is Deliberate
Klein begins one chapter with a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince:
“For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less.”
This is an instruction our government has taken to heart. Trump’s first two months have been a flurry of non-stop sources of outrage. Between the widely decried refugee ban, the increased deportations, the abdication of federal protections for trans students, the threats to dismantle our healthcare system, or the head of the EPA's denial that CO2 influences climate change, it can be difficult to know where to begin. And that’s exactly the point. Klein notes, “people can develop responses to gradual change — a slashed health program here, a trade deal there — but if dozens of changes come from all directions at once, a feeling of futility sets in, and populations go limp.”
I imagine the fatigue Klein describes is familiar to anyone alarmed by our country’s present direction. However, in order to effectively resist these changes, it’s crucial to avoid getting bogged down in feelings of despondency. Instead, focus on one or two issues that you feel particularly passionate about, and trust that others will fill in the gaps. This will help you be a more effective change-agent, and that’s vital because…
4. Resistance is Essential
Klein’s book is the story of regimes that effectively parlayed political shock into devastating economic policy. But, it’s important to remember that history is not prophecy. While a limp and compliant population is one potential outcome, Klein notes that it’s not the only one. “We do not always respond to shocks with regression,” she says, “Sometimes, in the face of crisis, we grow up — fast.”
Already, there are promising signs that our country has started to recover from the initial shock of Trump’s election; resistance is widespread. To see evidence of its effectiveness, one only to look at the administration’s current fight to repeal Obamacare. After Trump surprised the nation in November, Republican elected officials began salivating at the prospect of repealing the ACA whole-cloth. That calculus changed dramatically, however, when those same officials came face-to-face with the people whose healthcare they planned to repeal.
Outraged citizens turned up in droves at town hall after town hall, to the point that some congressional reps ducked meetings with their constituents altogether. Ultimately, when the Republican plan was unveiled last week, it was a far cry from the total repeal conservatives dreamed about in November. “Shock, by its very nature, is a temporary state,” Klein notes.
As the initial shock of Trump’s election continues to wear off, we cannot sink into despondency. Instead, seek out others who feel as you do, and begin to fight back.