Dreaming an Alternate Reality Into Existence
This paper is an analysis and commentary on Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough (2017), an inspirational and in-depth investigation of Donald Trump’s rise to power, that culminated in his election as President of the United States of America in 2016.
Building on Naomi Klein’s clear analysis and profound insights, I will offer my contribution to the conversation by arguing that some disturbing traits of Trump’s success in business and politics may reveal, like in a mirror image, shortcomings in the progressive camp. I will maintain that by having an honest look at those shortcomings, we can hope to create a different storyline for our future.
In today’s highly interconnected world what happens on the American political stage is of planetary relevance, and studying the Donald Trump phenomenon means having a look at dynamics that are present, at a different scale, across all industrialized societies.
As I embark on completing a Ph.D. in Wisdom Studies, I am delighted to start my journey with a book on politics, justice, and ultimately the life conditions of millions. Its inclusion in Ubiquity University’s curriculum shows that alive wisdom can and must descend right into our bodies, into our homes, and into our presidential palaces.
Compelling Vision Versus Shock Doctrine
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was shocking and confusing to the progressive-minded people of not just the United States, but the entire world. I followed the election news with a mixture of frustration, hope, and sheer bewilderment. And yet, once the astonishment and sadness had moved through, I wanted to understand how Trump, who exemplified some of the most abject tendencies I had ever seen in a political leader, had managed to climb his way to the White House while the progressive camp watched in dismay.
How could millions of people elect as their leader a man of proven lack of compassion, moral fault, and disinhibited greed? What was it that we, the progressive, ecologically conscious, compassionate people had failed to understand in the 2016 presidential campaign? Why were we not able to inspire global change, not just in the 2016 elections, but in countless other small and big scale events across the planet? Those were the questions that gathered in my mind in the aftermath of Trump’s election, and most of them remain valid today.
The following pages follow Naomi Klein’s journey into the mechanisms of Trump’s election and, hopefully, provide some answers to the above questions. The starting point for Klein’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon is the realization that Donald Trump is not just as a businessman and a politician but also, and mainly, a brand.
Is a Progressive Brand Possible?
Klein argues that Trump’s rise in both the business and economic world is just an example of the enormous power that brands have acquired in the last three decades in industrialized societies, a process that has transformed some traditional brands into superbrands. (Klein, 2017, p.23)
Superbrands, like Apple, Starbucks or Nike, are powerful symbols loaded with status and meaning. When a consumer buys from a superbrand, they are not just interested in the material product—be it a pair of shoes, an iPhone, or a coffee. Consciously or not, the customer is also buying the brand behind those products, with its associated values, its capacity to bestow status, and its symbolic power.
The idea that corporations would be much more successful if they focused on producing brands as opposed to products came into its full fruition in the decade of the 80s. Until then, companies were mainly concerned with providing goods or services, and most consumers treated the brand of a product as a representation of its intrinsic qualities such as efficiency and price.
In the 80s, however, companies like Starbucks, Nike or Apple started focusing more and more on their brands, eventually turning them into superbrands: symbols that represented a worldview and a value system. An example of the value systems created by superbrands would be Apple’s “Think different” (conveying creativity, originality, and style) and Nike’s “Just do it” (communicating courage, decisiveness, and dynamism). The subliminal message those brands conveyed was that by buying their products, we had somehow access to the more immaterial and profound values that the brand represented. By buying a pair of Nike shoes, we would become more dynamic. By buying an Apple computer, we would be more original and creative than the rest. The relationship between consumer and product was forever changed.
The association between brand and values was reinforced through relentless marketing campaigns, curated design, and the creation of a whole mythology around the brand itself. While allocating more resources on design and marketing, the superbrand companies outsourced the manufacturing of actual products in anonymous factories relocated there where labor was cheapest.
Workers, once the most valuable asset of a company, were treated as increasingly disposable and thousands of people lost their jobs during the transition to superbrands and the consequent closing of factories all around North America and Europe. (Klein, 2017, p. 26). For companies, on the other hand, the transition to superbrands proved to be a real treasure cove, if they were able to ride the wave.
Apple, for instance, became an enormously successful superbrand. Today, the power of its brand gives Apple a massive competitive advantage, because while other companies can produce comparable or better products, obviously none of them can manufacture products with the Apple brand. If a consumer wants to buy the Apple brand with its associated meaning, symbol, and status, there is only one company they can buy it from, which entitles Apple to price its products significantly higher than the competition.
Donald Trump’s ascent to power replicates many of the characteristics of superbrands, except that this time, the voter is the consumer, and Trump himself is the brand.1 Other than that, the method Trump used to build his brand is not all that different from the one used by Apple or Nike. Through a combination of clever market tactics, lack of moral qualms, and sheer luck, Trump started by converting his name in a high-end real estate brand associated with quality and luxury. It has been a dramatically successful experiment, and today, we can spot the Trump logo on dozens of hotels, plazas, golf courses, and resorts all around the world. Trump himself does not own most of the structures named after him, but instead sells his brand through leasing contracts, making huge returns both in terms of money and visibility, with negligible production costs.
However, the Trump brand is not anymore limited to high-end real estate. Klein explains in detail how, thanks to his incursions into massive televised events such as reality TVs and wrestling competitions, Trump created a personal brand with himself as the flagship product, a brand that speaks success, wealth, and power. Arguably the most significant feat Trump has been able to pull off, though, “is merging his brand with the ultimate symbol of power and authority: the White House.” (Klein, 2017, p. 30)
Trump’s strategy for success in politics has a lot to do with building his personal brand and defending it at all costs, with little consideration left to decency, public interest or pure logic. This is why, since he became a candidate for the Republican Party, Trump has needed to mobilize an arsenal of symbolic weapons, from Twitter storms to fake news, distortion of reality, and outright lies. In the absence of equally powerful symbols coming from the opposite camp, Trump’s brand has won the 2016 presidential elections—and the worst may be yet to come.
What can the progressive camp learn from the clever and unscrupulous strategy with which Donald Trump first converted his name into a superbrand and then convinced roughly half of the American electorate to place that brand in the White House?
Brands are a complex phenomenon that can be exploited to gain money and power, and the expansion of the marketplace towards subtler and more immaterial products is opening the doors to new forms of speculation: the more abstract a product is, the less measurable its value is, the more it is prone to arbitrary pricing. But the fact that consumers are becoming sensitive to more subtle and abstract products may be something we need to understand rather than oppose. Most of us, for example, would concede that a piece of art is something worth spending money on if one is so inclined. Art, though, has not many measurable intrinsic characteristics: its value resides in more intangible qualities like beauty, meaning, and the status it confers to its owner. I would argue that pieces of art are potent symbols, in many ways not too dissimilar from brands. That people are sensitive to the symbolic power of art, is not a problem in itself.
Perhaps, then, consumers are globally becoming more sensitive to abstract and subtle “products,” like brands. And after all, when someone buys an Apple computer over a cheaper alternative from a less powerful brand, it is possible that the design, symbolism, and status they are acquiring are not entirely worthless and they may even enhance the user experience and creativity. Voters, in a similar way, may want to be tantalized by powerful symbols as well as convinced by sensible ideas. They may be looking for charismatic candidates, powerful communicators that call to their imagination and emotions as much as they represent their values.
The recent political events in the United States and worldwide remind us that voters, like consumers, are not pure rational actors. We are complex beings who tend to act in accordance with our ideas and values, but we are also sensitive to a whole range of non-rational inputs such as symbols, aesthetics, subliminal messages, and emotionally charged content. Voters want to be convinced, but they also want to be inspired, aesthetically pleased, emotionally aroused, and ultimately, seduced.
If this is true, can we build a “brand” based on values that are respectful to humanity and the environment? I believe so. In his first presidential run in 2008, Barack Obama conveyed much more than a rational, well-thought agenda. He managed to excite, inspire, and ultimately seduce his audience. Obama built a powerful symbolic figure by virtue of his biography, appearance, and charisma, which was a major factor in his success both in the Democratic primaries and in the presidential elections. Obama, in other words, created a brand.2
By comparison, in the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton fell short of creating a compelling personal image. True, Clinton was the first female politician to have a realistic aspiration to President of the United States. But other than that, Clinton’s communication spoke blandness, indecision, and privilege and she did not succeed in freeing herself from the image of a pro-establishment, elitist candidate. As a result, Clinton did not create an image of herself that was different enough, and just as powerful, as her opponent’s. The results are there for all to see.
The progressive-minded leaders have not always been capable of inspiring and arousing their own base, perhaps holding the opinion that substance is more important than form and that using powerful symbols to appeal to the aesthetic sensitivity of voters is nothing short of manipulation. It is maybe time those leaders re-learned how to inspire their audience, and part of the process will be creating brands that transmit values through the power of symbol.
There is another arena where Trump and other right-wing populist demagogues have, in the last few years, consistently over-performed the progressive camp: moving people’s emotions. Enter shock doctrine.
The Shocking Power of Emotions
Donald Trump has consistently and relentlessly used radical tactics to submit citizens of his own and other countries to emotional attacks and manipulation through what Klein calls shock doctrine. Shock doctrine consists in taking advantage of a traumatic and shocking event—a natural disaster, a deadly attack on the civilian population, war, famine—to push through a series of pro-corporate measures (the shock therapy). (Klein, 2017, p.7)
Shock doctrine is based on a clever though dehumanizing understanding of the way emotions work. In the aftermath of a sudden and catastrophic event, people tend to go into a state of shock, fear, and disorientation, which gives rise to a natural human tendency to seek security and guidance. Consequently, when in a state of fear, many people become vulnerable to figures in power.
As a result, the powers that be may take advantage of the state of shock of a community to present radical measures as fast and necessary response to the situation, knowing well a population that feels safe and optimistic would never accept those same measures. The logical albeit worrisome conclusion is that, for certain corporations and politicians, a catastrophic and violent event can be a golden opportunity to pursue their interests and amass more wealth and power.3
Fear, desperation, despair and other similar emotions are the ultimate tools in the shock therapist’s box. Through propaganda, distortion of reality, and pitting entire sectors of the population against one another, Donald Trump and other leaders have so far largely succeeded in promoting their own financial and political agendas with minimum pushback.
That appealing to emotions is a fundamental aspect of public speaking and politics, is hardly a surprise. Take any inspiring political speech, whether it is Martin Luther King’s (1963) “I have a dream” intervention at the March on Washington, or Robert Kennedy’s (1966) “Ripple of Hope” anti-apartheid speech at the University of Cape Town. In those powerful discourses, the speaker appealed both to the intellect and the emotions of the audience—this is why words like “hope” and “dream” remained impressed in our collective consciousness for generations.
In the 2016 presidential elections, however, the progressive camp failed to produce a candidate that was inspiring as well as knowledgeable and trustable. The only Democratic candidate that could have had a chance to galvanize the electoral base, Bernie Sanders, succumbed to friendly fire in the Democratic primaries. As a result, the Democrats failed to inspire, arouse and motivate their base, while Trump succeeded, through evoking fear, anger, and contempt, to electrify his voters.
What can the progressive camp learn by its failure to counter Trump’s shock doctrine? The most important lesson to learn here may be a recognition of the power of emotions, and of the places where we have failed to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their minds.
If we do not want the Trumps of the world to manipulate the electorate, we need to recognize that we are speaking to human beings, with aspiration, desires, and impulses. We need to inspire people with grand visions as well as convince them with rational arguments. Klein (2017) puts it this way: “The interplay between lofty dreams and earthly victories has always been at the heart of moments of deep transformation.” (p.217). In other words, if we want to create a different reality, what we need is a compelling vision that can touch the hearts of many, as well as open their minds.
While it may be arguable that most people react more strongly to negative emotions such as fear and anger than they do to joy and hope, this should not discourage us. People do experience healthy anger towards the injustices they witness, healthy fear that the environment will be damaged beyond any possibility of healing, and healthy contempt for the misuse of power of their leaders. Tuning into the full emotional spectrum of human experience is not manipulation: it is inspiration and recognition of the reality of millions of men and women around the world.
It is time the progressives of the world came up with a compelling, enticing, mesmerizing vision—a vision that expresses harmony with nature, with the planet, and with all human beings. A vision that inspires as much as it educates, arouses as much as it persuades, and seduces as much as it convinces.
Dreaming, envisioning, visualizing the future we want to build are not just optional activities: they are necessary to create sustainable change. But a dream devoid of emotional content is like a pretty painting which we quickly forget. If a vision does not speak to our hearts, then it will never give birth to a new reality. It is in this spirit of combining vision and emotion that Naomi Klein and other activists from all around the world gathered in Canada in 2015and gave birth to The Leap Manifesto, reproduced in Klein (2017), which ends on the following note:
This is our sacred duty to those this country harmed in the past, to those suffering needlessly in the present, and to all who have a right to a bright and safe future. Now is the time for boldness. Now is the time to leap. (p. 271)
Words like “sacred duty,” “boldness” and “leap” are meant to inspire, arouse, and speak to the hearts of the reader. Using these terms is not emotional manipulation: it is passion, and passion may be precisely what the progressive camp has been missing in the 2016 presidential elections and countless other occasions.
The world is in a state of crisis. Climate change has given way to climate emergency, with extreme temperatures, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions becoming more frequent and intense by the year. In January 2019, while Australia was recording record-high temperatures of 46.6 °C in Adelaide, North America experienced a relentless cold wave producing temperatures of around -30 °C in Chicago. At least 21 deaths in North America were directly attributed to the cold wave, while more than 2,300 flights were cancelled in the United States (Smith, 2019, January 31).
Meanwhile, economic differences are spreading, with a smaller percentage of the world population owning an ever-greater share of the global economic resources (Klein, 2017, p.48). In politics, things do not look more promising as populism, irrationality, confrontation and separative nationalism are taking hold in the in North America, South America, and many European countries.
Given these conditions, it would be easy to fall into despair and hopelessness or to lock ourselves up in anger and refusal towards what is happening. But crisis, from the Greek κρίσις, literally means “a turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death.” (Crisis, n.d.). We are, then, at a crucial point in history, one where our choices matter more than ever.
Trump’s ascent to power is an opportunity for us to reflect, consider, and take action. It is only by understanding the driving forces behind a phenomenon as shocking as the ascent of Trump to the White House that we can craft a compelling vision and dream an alternative reality into existence.
If the task sounds too complicated for our minds, too daunting for our hearts, then only our minds and hearts together, our intelligence and our emotions, our reason and our imagination, can and will measure up to the challenge.
 The strategy of converting his person into a brand is not exclusive to Donald Trump: several other politicians in Europe, mainly from the populist right-wing political end of the spectrum, have done the same. For example, as I write this paper, Matteo Salvini is serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior in Italy. Salvini, who is part of the populist right-wing party Lega Nord, has adopted many of Trump’s communication and branding tactics, albeit on a smaller scale.
 The Obama brand is perhaps best represented visually in the “Hope” poster designed by Shepard Fairey for the 2016 elections campaign. The poster is accessible at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster
 In the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane in 2005, for example, President George W. Bush adopted a series of pro-corporate measures, from privatizing the school system, to demolishing public housing units and replacing them with upscale condos. (Klein, 2017, p.155)
Crisis (n.d.). In Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/crisis#etymonline_v_361
Kennedy, R. F. (1966). “Day of Affirmation” Speech Speech. Retrieved from http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/unicape.php
King, M. L. (1963). I have a dream… Speech. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
Klein, N. (2017). No is not enough: resisting Trump’s shock politics and winning the world we need. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Smith, M. (2019, January 31). Extreme Cold Weather Spreads East. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/31/us/weather-polar-vortex.html
Wisdom [Def. 1]. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionary Online. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wisdom
Leave a Reply