For those of us who can’t help looking at those events without turning lines from WB Yeats’s The Second Coming over in our heads (“what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), Klein’s new book – which examines in detail both the phenomenon of Trump and how liberal and progressive forces might counter his reality – is a brilliant articulation of restless anxiety.
Speaking at her home in Toronto last week, Klein suggested to me that Trump’s novelty was to take the shock doctrine and make it a personal superpower. “He keeps everyone all the time in a reactive state,” she said. “It is not like he is taking advantage of an external shock, he is the shock.
The daughter of American parents, Klein lives in Toronto with dual citizenship. When she thought about putting her book together, her original plan was for an anthology of articles threaded together with interviews, but once she started analysing the presidency she kept writing in a kind of frenzy. One of the benefits of having a deadline and an all-consuming project was that it meant she was forced to use the blocking app Freedom to protect her from the distraction of the internet. “I think if I hadn’t written this book I just would have stared at Twitter like many others for months on end, watching it unfold, and writing snippy things at people.”
That tendency among Trump’s critics, she says, is a symptom of his banal influence. She devotes one section of her book to the notion that through Twitter Trump is making the political sphere in his own image and that “we all have to kill our inner Trump”. Among other things, she says, the president “is the embodiment of our splintered attention spans”. One essential ingredient of resistance, she suggests, is to retain a belief in telling and understanding complex stories, keeping faith with narrative.
One of the questions that Klein’s book does not reach a conclusion about is how conscious Trump is of his shock doctrine tactics. Is he a demagogue in the scheming manner of Putin and Erdoğan, or just a useful idiot for the forces around him?
“I think he is a showman and that he is aware of the way that shows can distract people,” she says. “That is the story of his business. He has always understood that he could distract his investors and bankers, his tenants, his clients from the underlying unsoundness of his business, just by putting on the Trump show. That is the core of Trump. He is undoubtedly an idiot, but do not underestimate how good he is at that.”