Just as Trump’s national security and economic policies are sure to generate and deepen crises, the administration’s moves to ramp up fossil fuel production, dismantle large parts of the country’s environmental laws, and trash the Paris climate accord all pave the way for more large-scale industrial accidents — not to mention future climate disasters.
Firefighters from across Kansas and Oklahoma battle a wildfire near Protection, Kansas, on March 6, 2017. Photo: Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle/AP
DURING THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign, some imagined that the more overtly racist elements of Donald Trump’s platform were just talk designed to rile up the base, not anything he seriously intended to act on. But in his first week in office, when he imposed a travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries, that comforting illusion disappeared fast. Fortunately, the response was immediate: the marches and rallies at airports, the impromptu taxi strikes, the lawyers and local politicians intervening, the judges ruling the bans illegal.
The whole episode showed the power of resistance, and of judicial courage, and there was much to celebrate. Some have even concluded that this early slap down chastened Trump, and that he is now committed to a more reasonable, conventional course.
That is a dangerous illusion.
It is true that many of the more radical items on this administration’s wish list have yet to be realized. But make no mistake, the full agenda is still there, lying in wait. And there is one thing that could unleash it all: a large-scale crisis.
Large-scale shocks are frequently harnessed to ram through despised pro-corporate and anti-democratic policies that would never have been feasible in normal times. It’s a phenomenon I have previously called the “Shock Doctrine,” and we have seen it happen again and again over the decades, from Chile in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s coup to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
And we have seen it happen recently, well before Trump, in U.S. cities including Detroit and Flint, where looming municipal bankruptcy became the pretext for dissolving local democracy and appointing “emergency managers” who waged war on public services and public education. It is unfolding right now in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing debt crisis has been used to install the unaccountable “Financial Oversight and Management Board,” an enforcement mechanism for harsh austerity measures, including cuts to pensions and waves of school closures. This tactic is being deployed in Brazil, where the highly questionable impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was followed by the installation of an unelected, zealously pro-business regime that has frozen public spending for the next 20 years, imposed punishing austerity, and begun selling off airports, power stations, and other public assets in a frenzy of privatization.
As Milton Friedman wrote long ago, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Survivalists stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; these guys stockpile spectacularly anti-democratic ideas.
Now, as many have observed, the pattern is repeating under Trump. On the campaign trail, he did not tell his adoring crowds that he would cut funds for meals-on-wheels, or admit that he was going to try to take health insurance away from millions of Americans, or that he planned to grant every item on Goldman Sachs’ wish list. He said the very opposite.
Since taking office, however, Donald Trump has never allowed the atmosphere of chaos and crisis to let up. Some of the chaos, like the Russia investigations, has been foisted upon him or is simply the result of incompetence, but much appears to be deliberately created. Either way, while we are distracted by (and addicted to) the Trump Show, clicking on and gasping at marital hand-slaps and mysterious orbs, the quiet, methodical work of redistributing wealth upward proceeds apace.
This is also aided by the sheer velocity of change. Witnessing the tsunami of executive orders during Trump’s first 100 days, it rapidly became clear his advisers were following Machiavelli’s advice in “The Prince”: “Injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less.” The logic is straightforward enough. People can develop responses to sequential or gradual change. But if dozens of changes come from all directions at once, the hope is that populations will rapidly become exhausted and overwhelmed, and will ultimately swallow their bitter medicine.
But here’s the thing. All of this is shock doctrine lite; it’s the most that Trump can pull off under cover of the shocks he is generating himself. And as much as this needs to be exposed and resisted, we also need to focus on what this administration will do when they have a real external shock to exploit. Maybe it will be an economic crash like the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Maybe a natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. Or maybe it will be a horrific terrorist attack like the Manchester bombing. Any one such crisis could trigger a very rapid shift in political conditions, making what currently seems unlikely suddenly appear inevitable.
So let’s consider a few categories of possible shocks, and how they might be harnessed to start ticking off items on Trump’s toxic to-do list.
Police officers join members of the public to view the flowers and messages of support in St. Ann’s Square in Manchester, England, on May 31, 2017, placed in tribute to the victims of the May 22 terror attack at the Manchester Arena. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
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A Terror Shock
Recent terror attacks in London, Manchester, and Paris provide some broad hints about how the administration would try to exploit a large-scale attack that took place on U.S. soil or against U.S. infrastructure abroad. After the horrific Manchester bombing last month, the governing Conservatives launched a fierce campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party for suggesting that the failed “war on terror” is part of what is fueling such acts, calling any such suggestion “monstrous” (a clear echo of the “with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric that descended after September 11, 2001). For his part, Trump rushed to link the attack to the “thousands and thousands of people pouring into our various countries” — never mind that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was born in the U.K.
Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the Westminster terror attacks in London in March 2017, when a driver plowed into a crowd of pedestrians, deliberately killing four people and injuring dozens more, the Conservative government wasted no time declaring that any expectation of privacy in digital communications was now a threat to national security. Home Secretary Amber Rudd went on the BBC and declared the end-to-end encryption provided by programs like WhatsApp to be “completely unacceptable.” And she said that they were meeting with the large tech firms “to ask them to work with us” on providing backdoor access to these platforms. She made an even stronger call to crack down on internet privacy after the London Bridge attack.
More worrying, in 2015, after the coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, the government of François Hollande declared a “state of emergency” that banned political protests. I was in France a week after those horrific events and it was striking that, although the attackers had targeted a concert, a football stadium, restaurants, and other emblems of daily Parisian life, it was only outdoor political activity that was not permitted. Large concerts, Christmas markets, and sporting events — the sorts of places that were likely targets for further attacks — were all free to carry on as usual. In the months that followed, the state-of-emergency decree was extended again and again until it had been in place for well over a year. It is currently set to remain in effect until at least July 2017. In France, state-of-emergency is the new normal.
This took place under a center-left government in a country with a long tradition of disruptive strikes and protests. One would have to be naive to imagine that Donald Trump and Mike Pence wouldn’t immediately seize on any attack in the United States to go much further down that same road. In all likelihood they would do it swiftly, by declaring protests and strikes that block roads and airports (the kind that responded to the Muslim travel ban) a threat to “national security.” Protest organizers would be targeted with surveillance, arrests, and imprisonment.
Indeed we should be prepared for security shocks to be exploited as excuses to increase the rounding up and incarceration of large numbers of people from the communities this administration is already targeting: Latino immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter organizers, climate activists, investigative journalists. It’s all possible. And in the name of freeing the hands of law enforcement to fight terrorism, Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have the excuse he’d been looking for to do away with federal oversight of state and local police, especially those that have been accused of systemic racial abuses.
And there is no doubt that the president would seize on any domestic terrorist attack to blame the courts. He made this perfectly clear when he tweeted, after his first travel ban was struck down: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.” And on the night of the London Bridge attack, he went even further, tweeting: “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” In a context of public hysteria and recrimination that would surely follow an attack in the U.S., the kind of courage we witnessed from the courts in response to Trump’s travel bans might well be in shorter supply.
This April 7, 2017, photo shows the USS Porter launching a tomahawk missile at a Syrian air base. Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP
The Shock of War
The most lethal way that governments overreact to terrorist attacks is by exploiting the atmosphere of fear to embark on a full-blown foreign war (or two). It doesn’t necessarily matter if the target has no connection to the original terror attacks. Iraq wasn’t responsible for 9/11, and it was invaded anyway.
Trump’s likeliest targets are mostly in the Middle East, and they include (but are by no means limited to) Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and, most perilously, Iran. And then, of course, there’s North Korea, where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declared that “all options are on the table,” pointedly refusing to rule out a pre-emptive military strike.
There are many reasons why people around Trump, particularly those who came straight from the defense sector, might decide that further military escalation is in order. Trump’s April 2017 missile strike on Syria — ordered without congressional approval and therefore illegal according to some experts — won him the most positive news coverage of his presidency. His inner circle, meanwhile, immediately pointed to the attacks as proof that there was nothing untoward going on between the White House and Russia.
But there’s another, less discussed reason why this administration might rush to exploit a security crisis to start a new war or escalate an ongoing conflict: There is no faster or more effective way to drive up the price of oil, especially if the violence interferes with the supply of oil to the world market This would be great news for oil giants like Exxon Mobil, which have seen their profits drop dramatically as a result of the depressed price of oil — and Exxon, of course, is fortunate enough to have its former CEO, Tillerson, currently serving as secretary of state. (Not only was Tillerson at Exxon for 41 years, his entire working life, but Exxon Mobil has agreed to pay him a retirement package worth a staggering $180 million.)
Other than Exxon, perhaps the only entity that would have more to gain from an oil price hike fueled by global instability is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a vast petro-state that has been in economic crisis since the price of oil collapsed. Russia is the world’s leading exporter of natural gas, and the second-largest exporter of oil (after Saudi Arabia). When the price was high, this was great news for Putin: Prior to 2014, fully 50 percent of Russia’s budget revenues came from oil and gas.
But when prices plummeted, the government was suddenly short hundreds of billions of dollars, an economic catastrophe with tremendous human costs. According to the World Bank, in 2015 real wages fell in Russia by nearly 10 percent; the Russian ruble depreciated by close to 40 percent; and the population of people classified as poor increased from 3 million to over 19 million. Putin plays the strongman, but this economic crisis makes him vulnerable at home.
We’ve also heard a lot about that massive deal between Exxon Mobil and the Russian state oil company Rosneft to drill for oil in the Arctic (Putin bragged that it was worth half a trillion dollars). That deal was derailed by U.S. sanctions against Russia and despite the posturing on both sides over Syria, it is still entirely possible that Trump will decide to lift the sanctions and clear the way for that deal to go ahead, which would quickly boost Exxon Mobil’s flagging fortunes.
But even if the sanctions are lifted, there is another factor standing in the way of the project moving forward: the depressed price of oil. Tillerson made the deal with Rosneft in 2011, when the price of oil was soaring at around $110 a barrel. Their first commitment was to explore for oil in the sea north of Siberia, under tough-to-extract, icy conditions. The break-even price for Arctic drilling is estimated to be around $100 a barrel, if not more. So even if sanctions are lifted under Trump, it won’t make sense for Exxon and Rosneft to move ahead with their project unless oil prices are high enough. Which is yet another reason why parties might embrace the kind of instability that would send oil prices shooting back up.
If the price of oil rises to $80 or more a barrel, then the scramble to dig up and burn the dirtiest fossil fuels, including those under melting ice, will be back on. A price rebound would unleash a global frenzy in new high-risk, high-carbon fossil fuel extraction, from the Arctic to the tar sands. And if that is allowed to happen, it really would rob us of our last chance of averting catastrophic climate change.
So, in a very real sense, preventing war and averting climate chaos are one and the same fight.
A screen displays financial data on Jan. 22, 2008. Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images
A centerpiece of Trump’s economic project so far has been a flurry of financial deregulation that makes economic shocks and disasters distinctly more likely. Trump has announced plans to dismantle Dodd-Frank, the most substantive piece of legislation introduced after the 2008 banking collapse. Dodd-Frank wasn’t tough enough, but its absence will liberate Wall Street to go wild blowing new bubbles, which will inevitably burst, creating new economic shocks.
Trump and his team are not unaware of this, they are simply unconcerned — the profits from those market bubbles are too tantalizing. Besides, they know that since the banks were never broken up, they are still too big to fail, which means that if it all comes crashing down, they will be bailed out again, just like in 2008. (In fact, Trump issued an executive order calling for a review of the specific part of Dodd-Frank designed to prevent taxpayers from being stuck with the bill for another such bailout — an ominous sign, especially with so many former Goldman executives making White House policy.)
Some members of the administration surely also see a few coveted policy options opening up in the wake of a good market shock or two. During the campaign, Trump courted voters by promising not to touch Social Security or Medicare. But that may well be untenable, given the deep tax cuts on the way (and the fictional math beneath the claims that they will pay for themselves). His proposed budget already begins the attack on Social Security and an economic crisis would give Trump a handy excuse to abandon those promises altogether. In the midst of a moment being sold to the public as economic Armageddon, Betsy DeVos might even have a shot at realizing her dream of replacing public schools with a system based on vouchers and charters.
Trump’s gang has a long wish list of policies that do not lend themselves to normal times. In the early days of the new administration, for instance, Mike Pence met with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to hear how the governor had managed to strip public sector unions of their right to collective bargaining in 2011. (Hint: He used the cover of the state’s fiscal crisis, prompting New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to declare that in Wisconsin “the shock doctrine is on full display.”)
Taken together, the picture is clear. We will very likely not see this administration’s full economic barbarism in the first year. That will only reveal itself later, after the inevitable budget crises and market shocks kick in. Then, in the name of rescuing the government and perhaps the entire economy, the White House will start checking off the more challenging items on the corporate wish list.
Cattle menaced by a wildfire near Protection, Kansas, on March, 7, 2017. Photo: Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS/Getty Images
Just as Trump’s national security and economic policies are sure to generate and deepen crises, the administration’s moves to ramp up fossil fuel production, dismantle large parts of the country’s environmental laws, and trash the Paris climate accord all pave the way for more large-scale industrial accidents — not to mention future climate disasters. There is a lag time of about a decade between the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the full resulting warming, so the very worst climatic effects of the administration’s policies won’t likely be felt until they’re out of office.
That said, we’ve already locked in so much warming that no president can complete a term without facing major weather-related disasters. In fact, Trump wasn’t even two months on the job before he was confronted with overwhelming wildfires on the Great Plains, which led to so many cattle deaths that one rancher described the event as “our Hurricane Katrina.”
Trump showed no great interest in the fires, not even sparing them a tweet. But when the first superstorm hits a coast, we should expect a very different reaction from a president who knows the value of oceanfront property, has open contempt for the poor, and has only ever been interested in building for the 1 percent. The worry, of course, is a repeat of Katrina’s attacks on public housing and public schools, as well as the contractor free for all that followed the disaster, especially given the central role played by Mike Pence in shaping post-Katrina policy.
The biggest Trump-era escalation, however, will most likely be in disaster response services marketed specifically toward the wealthy. When I was writing “The Shock Doctrine,” this industry was still in its infancy, and several early companies didn’t make it. I wrote, for instance, about a short-lived airline called Help Jet, based in Trump’s beloved West Palm Beach. While it lasted, Help Jet offered an array of gold-plated rescue services in exchange for a membership fee.
When a hurricane was on its way, Help Jet dispatched limousines to pick up members, booked them into five-star golf resorts and spas somewhere safe, then whisked them away on private jets. “No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first-class experience that turns a problem into a vacation,” read the company’s marketing materials. “Enjoy the feeling of avoiding the usual hurricane evacuation nightmare.” With the benefit of hindsight, it seems Help Jet, far from misjudging the market for these services, was simply ahead of its time. These days, in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, the more serious high-end survivalists are hedging against climate disruption and social collapse by buying space in custom-built underground bunkers in Kansas (protected by heavily armed mercenaries) and building escape homes on high ground in New Zealand. It goes without saying that you need your own private jet to get there.
What is worrying about the entire top-of-the-line survivalist phenomenon (apart from its general weirdness) is that, as the wealthy create their own luxury escape hatches, there is diminishing incentive to maintain any kind of disaster response infrastructure that exists to help everyone, regardless of income — precisely the dynamic that led to enormous and unnecessary suffering in New Orleans during Katrina.
And this two-tiered disaster infrastructure is galloping ahead at alarming speed. In fire-prone states such as California and Colorado, insurance companies provide a “concierge” service to their exclusive clients: When wildfires threaten their mansions, the companies dispatch teams of private firefighters to coat them in re-retardant. The public sphere, meanwhile, is left to further decay.
California provides a glimpse of where this is all headed. For its firefighting, the state relies on upwards of 4,500 prison inmates, who are paid a dollar an hour when they’re on the fire line, putting their lives at risk battling wildfires, and about two bucks a day when they’re back at camp. By some estimates, California saves a billion dollars a year through this program — a snapshot of what happens when you mix austerity politics with mass incarceration and climate change.
Migrants and refugees gather close to a border crossing near the Greek village of Idomeni, on March 5, 2016, where thousands of people wait to enter Macedonia. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
A World of Green Zones and Red Zones
The uptick in high-end disaster prep also means there is less reason for the big winners in our economy to embrace the demanding policy changes required to prevent an even warmer and more disaster-prone future. Which might help explain the Trump administration’s determination to do everything possible to accelerate the climate crisis.
So far, much of the discussion around Trump’s environmental rollbacks has focused on supposed schisms between the members of his inner circle who actively deny climate science, including EPA head Scott Pruitt and Trump himself, and those who concede that humans are indeed contributing to planetary warming, such as Rex Tillerson and Ivanka Trump. But this misses the point: What everyone who surrounds Trump shares is a confidence that they, their children, and indeed their class will be just fine, that their wealth and connections will protect them from the worst of the shocks to come. They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion on higher ground.
This insouciance is representative of an extremely disturbing trend. In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity. This secessionism from the human species (if only in their own minds) liberates the rich not only to shrug off the urgent need for climate action but also to devise ever more predatory ways to profit from current and future disasters and instability. What we are hurtling toward is a world demarcated into fortified Green Zones for the super-rich, Red Zones for everyone else — and black sites for whoever doesn’t cooperate. Europe, Australia, and North America are erecting increasingly elaborate (and privatized) border fortresses to seal themselves off from people fleeing for their lives. Fleeing, quite often, as a direct result of forces unleashed primarily by those fortressed continents, whether predatory trade deals, wars, or ecological disasters intensified by climate change.
In fact, if we chart the locations of the most intense conflict spots in the world right now — from the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq — what becomes clear is that these also happen to be some of the hottest and driest places on earth. It takes very little to push these regions into drought and famine, which frequently acts as an accelerant to conflict, which of course drives migration.
And the same capacity to discount the humanity of the “other,” which justifies civilian deaths and casualties from bombs and drones in places like Yemen and Somalia, is now being trained on the people in the boats — casting their need for security as a threat, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army. This is the context in which well over 13,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach European shores since 2014, many of them children, toddlers, and babies. It is the context in which the Australian government has sought to normalize the incarceration of refugees in island detention camps on Nauru and Manus, under conditions that numerous humanitarian organizations have described as tantamount to torture. This is also the context in which the massive, recently demolished migrant camp in Calais, France, was nicknamed “the jungle” — an echo of the way Katrina’s abandoned people were categorized in right-wing media as “animals.”
The dramatic rise in right-wing nationalism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and straight-up white supremacy over the past decade cannot be pried apart from these larger geopolitical and ecological trends. The only way to justify such barbaric forms of exclusion is to double down on theories of racial hierarchy that tell a story about how the people being locked out of the global Green Zone deserve their fate, whether it’s Trump casting Mexicans as rapists and “bad hombres,” and Syrian refugees as closet terrorists, or prominent Conservative Canadian politician Kellie Leitch proposing that immigrants be screened for “Canadian values,” or successive Australian prime ministers justifying those sinister island detention camps as a “humanitarian” alternative to death at sea.
This is what global destabilization looks like in societies that have never redressed their foundational crimes — countries that have insisted slavery and indigenous land theft were just glitches in otherwise proud histories. After all, there is little more Green Zone/Red Zone than the economy of the slave plantation — of cotillions in the master’s house steps away from torture in the fields, all of it taking place on the violently stolen indigenous land on which North America’s wealth was built. And now the same theories of racial hierarchy that justified those violent thefts in the name of building the industrial age are surging to the surface as the system of wealth and comfort they constructed starts to unravel on multiple fronts simultaneously.
Trump is just one early and vicious manifestation of that unraveling. He is not alone. He won’t be the last.
Residents of the Mangueira ‘favela’ community, foreground, watch fireworks explode over Maracana stadium during opening ceremonies for the 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 5, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A Crisis of Imagination
It seems relevant that the walled city where the wealthy few live in relative luxury while the masses outside war with one another for survival is pretty much the default premise of every dystopian sci-fi movie that gets made these days, from “The Hunger Games,” with the decadent Capitol versus the desperate colonies, to “Elysium,” with its spa-like elite space station hovering above a sprawling and lethal favela. It’s a vision deeply enmeshed with the dominant Western religions, with their grand narratives of great floods washing the world clean and a chosen few selected to begin again. It’s the story of the great fires that sweep in, burning up the unbelievers and taking the righteous to a gated city in the sky. We have collectively imagined this extreme winners-and-losers ending for our species so many times that one of our most pressing tasks is learning to imagine other possible ends to the human story in which we come together in crisis rather than split apart, take down borders rather than erect more of them.
Because the point of all that dystopian art was never to act as a temporal GPS, showing us where we are inevitably headed. The point was to warn us, to wake us — so that, seeing where this perilous road leads, we can decide to swerve.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” So said Thomas Paine many years ago, neatly summarizing the dream of escaping the past that is at the heart of both the colonial project and the American Dream. The truth, however, is that we do not have this godlike power of reinvention, nor did we ever. We must live with the messes and mistakes we have made, as well as within the limits of what our planet can sustain.
But we do have it in our power to change ourselves, to attempt to right past wrongs, and to repair our relationships with one another and with the planet we share. It’s this work that is the bedrock of shock resistance.