The term “shock doctrine” describes the quite brutal tactic of systematically using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock: wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes, or natural disasters, to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called “shock therapy.”
Trump and his top advisers are trying to pull off a domestic shock doctrine. The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of antipollution regulations or programs for the hungry. In their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations. It’s a program so defiantly unjust and so manifestly corrupt that it can only be pulled off with the assistance of divide-and-conquer racial and sexual politics, as well as a nonstop spectacle of media distractions. And of course it is being backed up with a massive increase in war spending, a dramatic escalation of military conflicts on multiple fronts, from Syria to North Korea, alongside presidential musings about how “torture works.”
The goal? The “deconstruction of the administrative state” (the government regulations and agencies tasked with protecting people and their rights).
And “if you look at Trump’s Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.”
What’s happening in Washington is not the usual passing of the baton between parties. It’s a naked corporate takeover, one many decades in the making. It seems that the economic interests that have long since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they’re tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of elected officials, all that cajoling and legalized bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement. So now they’re cutting out the middlemen— those needy politicians who are supposed to protect the public interest— and doing what all top dogs do when they want something done right: they are doing it themselves.
Up to now in US politics there’s been a mask on the corporate state’s White House proxies: the smiling actor’s face of Ronald Reagan or the faux cowboy persona of George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney/ Halliburton scowling in the background). Now the mask is gone. And no one is even bothering to pretend otherwise.
The Trump family’s business model is part of a broader shift in corporate structure that has taken place within many brand-based multinationals, one with transformative impacts on culture and the job market, trends that I wrote about in my first book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. What this model tells us is that the very idea that there could be— or should be— any distinction between the Trump brand and the Trump presidency is a concept the current occupant of the White House cannot begin to comprehend. The presidency is in fact the crowning extension of the Trump brand.
The fact that such defiant levels of profiteering from public office can unfold in full view is disturbing enough. As are so many of Trump’s actions in his first months in office. But history shows us that, however destabilized things are now, the shock doctrine means they could get a lot worse. The main pillars of Trump’s political and economic project are: the deconstruction of the regulatory state; a full-bore attack on the welfare state and social services (rationalized in part through bellicose racial fearmongering and attacks on women for exercising their rights); the unleashing of a domestic fossil fuel frenzy (which requires the sweeping aside of climate science and the gagging of large parts of the government bureaucracy); and a civilizational war against immigrants and “radical Islamic terrorism”(with ever-expanding domestic and foreign theaters).
A large-scale crisis— whether a terrorist attack or a financial crash— would likely provide the pretext to declare some sort of state of exception or emergency, where the usual rules no longer apply. This, in turn, would provide the cover to push through aspects of the Trump agenda that require a further suspension of core democratic norms— such as his pledge to deny entry to all Muslims (not only those from selected countries), his Twitter threat to bring in “the feds” to quell street violence in Chicago, or his obvious desire to place restrictions on the press. A large-enough economic crisis would offer an excuse to dismantle programs like Social Security.
We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens; it has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand. A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them. When we find ourselves in that position, without a story, without our moorings, a great many people become vulnerable to authority figures telling us to fear one another and relinquish our rights for the greater good.
There’s one thing I’ve learned from reporting from dozens of locations in the midst of crisis, whether it was Athens rocked by Greece’s debt debacle, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Baghdad during the US occupation: these tactics can be resisted. To do so, two crucial things have to happen. First, we need a firm grasp on how shock politics work and whose interests they serve. That understanding is how we get out of shock quickly and start fighting back. Second, and equally important, we have to tell a different story from the one the shock doctors are peddling, a vision of the world compelling enough to compete head-to-head with theirs. This values-based vision must offer a different path, away from serial shocks—one based on coming together across racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divides, rather than being wrenched further apart, and one based on healing the planet rather than unleashing further destabilizing wars and pollution. Most of all, that vision needs to offer those who are hurting—for lack of jobs, lack of health care, lack of peace, lack of hope—a tangibly better life.
Trump, extreme as he is, is less an aberration than a logical conclusion, a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half century. Trump is the product of powerful systems of thought that rank human life based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, physical appearance, and physical ability, and that have systematically used race as a weapon to advance brutal economic policies since the earliest days of North American colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. He is also the personification of the merger of humans and corporations, a one-man megabrand, whose wife and children are spin-off brands, with all the pathologies and conflicts of interest inherent in that. He is the embodiment of the belief that money and power provide license to impose one’s will on others, whether that entitlement is expressed by grabbing women or grabbing the finite resources from a planet on the cusp of catastrophic warming. He is the product of a business culture that fetishists “disruptors” who make their fortunes by flagrantly ignoring both laws and regulatory standards.
Most of all, he is the incarnation of a still-powerful free-market ideological project, one embraced by centrist parties as well as conservative ones, that wages war on everything public and commonly held, and imagines corporate CEOs as superheroes who will save humanity.
In 2002, George W. Bush threw a ninetieth-birthday party at the White House for the man who was the intellectual architect of that war on the public sphere, the radical free-market economist Milton Friedman. At the celebration, then US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld declared, “Milton is the embodiment of the truth that ideas have consequences.” He was right— and Donald Trump is a direct consequence of those ideas.
With US vice president Mike Pence or House speaker Paul Ryan waiting in the wings, and a Democratic Party establishment also enmeshed with the billionaire class, the world we need won’t be won just by replacing the current occupant of the Oval Office.
from her new book: No is not enough, defeating the new shock politics.