C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, let’s start with a reflective look at how the US 2016 presidential elections shape up in terms of the state of the country and its role in global affairs and the ideological viewpoints expressed by some of the leading candidate of both parties.
Noam Chomsky: It cannot be overlooked that we have arrived to a unique moment in human history. For the first time, decisions have to be made right now that will literally determine the prospects for decent human survival, and not in the distant future. We have already made that decision for a huge number of species. Species destruction is at the level of 65 million years ago, the fifth extinction, ending the age of the dinosaurs. That also opened the way for small mammals, ultimately us, a species with unique capacities, including unfortunately the capacity for cold and savage destruction.
The 19th century reactionary opponent of the Enlightenment, Joseph de Maistre, criticized Thomas Hobbes for adopting the Roman phrase, “man is a wolf to man,” observing that it is unfair to wolves, who do not kill for pleasure. The capacity extends to self-destruction, as we are now witnessing. It is presumed that the fifth extinction was caused by a huge asteroid that hit the earth. Now we are the asteroid. The impact on humans is already significant, and will soon become incomparably worse unless decisive action is taken right now. Furthermore, the risk of nuclear war, always a grim shadow, is increasing. That would end any further discussion. We may recall Einstein’s response to a question about the weapons that would be used in the next war. He said that he didn’t know, but the war after that would be fought with stone axes. Inspection of the shocking record reveals that it’s a near miracle that disaster has been avoided this far, and miracles do not go on forever. And that the risk is increasing is unfortunately all too evident.
Fortunately, these destructive and suicidal capacities of human nature are balanced by others. There is good reason to believe that such Enlightenment figures as David Hume and Adam Smith, and the anarchist activist-thinker Peter Kropotkin, were correct in regarding sympathy and mutual aid as core properties of human nature. We’ll soon find out which characteristics are in the ascendant.
Turning to your question, we can ask how these awesome problems are being addressed in the quadrennial electoral extravaganza. The most striking fact is that they are barely being addressed at all, by either party.
There’s no need to review the spectacle of the Republican primaries. Commentators can barely conceal their disgust, and concern for what it tells us about the country and contemporary civilization. The candidates have, however, answered the crucial questions. They either deny global warming or insist that nothing should be done about it, demanding, in effect, that we race even more rapidly to the precipice. Insofar as they have detectable policies, they seem to be intent to escalate military confrontation and threats. For these reasons alone, the Republican organization – one hesitates to call it a political party in any traditional sense – poses a threat of a novel and truly horrifying kind to the human species and to the others who are “collateral damage” as higher intelligence proceeds on its suicidal course.
On the Democratic side, there is at least some recognition of the danger of environmental catastrophe, but precious little in the way of substantive policy proposals. On Obama’s programs of upgrading the nuclear arsenal, or such critical matters as the rapid (and mutual) military buildup on Russia’s borders, I haven’t been able to find any clear positions.
In general, the ideological positions of the Republican candidates seem to be more of the usual: stuff the pockets of the rich and kick the rest in the face. The two Democratic candidates range from the New Deal-style of Sanders’ programs to the “New Democrat/moderate Republican” Clinton version, driven a bit to the left under the impact of the Sanders challenge. On international affairs, and the awesome tasks we face, it seems at best “more of the same.”
CJP: In your view, what has led to Donald Trump’s rise, and is he simply another case of those typical right-wing, populist characters who frequently surface in the course of history whenever nations face severe economic crises or are on national decline?
NC: Insofar as the US is facing “national decline,” it’s largely self-inflicted. True, the US could not possibly maintain the extraordinary hegemonic power of the early post-World War II period, but it remains the potentially richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages and security, and in the military dimension, virtually matches the rest of the world combined and is technologically far more advanced than any collection of rivals.
Trump’s appeal seems based largely on perceptions of loss and fear. The neoliberal assault on the world’s populations, almost always harmful to them, and often severely so, has not left the US untouched, even though it has been somewhat more resilient than others. The majority of the population has endured stagnation or decline while extraordinary and ostentatious wealth has accumulated in very few pockets. The formal democratic system has suffered the usual consequences of neoliberal socioeconomic policies, drifting toward plutocracy.
No need to review again the grim details – for example, the stagnation of real male wages for 40 years and the fact that since the last crash some 90 percent of wealth created has found its way to 1 percent of the population. Or the fact that the majority of the population – those lower on the income scale – are effectively disenfranchised in that their representatives ignore their opinions and preferences, heeding the super-rich funders and power brokers. Or the fact that among the 31 developed countries of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], the US, with all of its remarkable advantages, ranks near the bottom, alongside of Turkey, Greece and Mexico, in inequality, weak social benefits and a high level of poverty.
In part, Trump supporters – predominantly, it seems, lower-middle class, working class, less educated – are reacting to the perception, largely accurate, that they have simply been left by the wayside. It’s instructive to compare the current scene with the Great Depression. Objectively, conditions in the ’30s were far worse, and of course, the US was a much poorer country then. Subjectively, however, conditions then were far better. Among working-class Americans, despite very high unemployment and suffering, there was a sense of hopefulness, a belief that we will somehow come out of this working together. It was fostered by the successes of militant labor activism, often interacting with lively left political parties and other organizations. A fairly sympathetic administration responded with constructive measures, though always constrained by the enormous power of Southern Democrats, who were willing to tolerate welfare state measures as long as the despised Black population was marginalized. Importantly, there was a feeling that the country was on the road to a better future. All of this is lacking today, not least because of the successes of the bitter attacks on labor organization that took off as soon as the war ended.
In addition, Trump draws substantial support from nativists and racists – it’s worth remembering that the US has been at the extreme, even beyond South Africa, in the strength of white supremacy, as comparative studies by George Frederickson convincingly showed. The US has never really transcended the Civil War and the horrendous legacy of oppression of African Americans for 500 years. There is also a long history of illusions about Anglo-Saxon purity, threatened by waves of immigrants (and freedom for Blacks, and indeed for women, no small matter among patriarchal sectors). Trump’s predominantly white supporters can see that their image of a white-run (and for many, male-run) society is dissolving before their eyes. It is also worth remembering that although the US is unusually safe and secure, it is also perhaps the most frightened country in the world, another feature of the culture with a long history.
Such factors such as these mix in a dangerous brew. Just thinking back over recent years, in a book over a decade ago I quoted the distinguished scholar of German history Fritz Stern, writing in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs, on “the descent in Germany from decency to Nazi barbarism.” He added, pointedly, that “Today, I worry about the immediate future of the United States, the country that gave haven to German-speaking refugees in the 1930s,” himself included. With implications for here and now that no careful reader could miss, Stern reviewed Hitler’s demonic appeal to his “divine mission” as “Germany’s savior” in a “pseudoreligious transfiguration of politics” adapted to “traditional Christian forms,” ruling a government dedicated to “the basic principles” of the nation, with “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.” Further, Hitler’s hostility toward the “liberal secular state,” shared by much of the Protestant clergy, drove forward “a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.”
The contemporary resonance is unmistakable.
Such reasons to “worry about the future of the United States” have not been lacking since. We might recall, for example, the eloquent and poignant manifesto left by Joseph Stack when he crashed his small plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, hitting an IRS office, committing suicide. In it he traced his bitter life story as a worker who was doing everything according to the rules, and being crushed, step-by-step, by the corruption and brutality of the corporate system and the state authorities. He was speaking for many people like him. His manifesto was mostly ridiculed or ignored, but it should have been taken very seriously, along with many other clear signs of what has been taking place.
CJP: Nonetheless, Cruz and Rubio appear to me to be both far more dangerous than Trump. I see them as the real monsters, while Trump reminds me a bit of Silvio Berlusconi. Do you agree with any of these views?
NC: I agree – and as you know, the Trump-Berlusconi comparison is current in Europe. I would also add Paul Ryan to the list. He is portrayed as the deep thinker of the Republicans, the serious policy wonk, with spreadsheets and the other apparatus of the thoughtful analyst. The few attempts to analyze his programs, after dispensing with the magic that is regularly introduced, conclude that his actual policies are to virtually destroy every part of the federal government that serves the interests of the general population, while expanding the military and ensuring that the rich and the corporate sector will be well attended to – the core Republican ideology when the rhetorical trappings are drawn aside.
CJP: America’s youth seems to be captivated by Bernie Sanders’ message. Are you surprised by how well he is holding up?
NC: I am surprised. I didn’t anticipate the success of his campaign. It is, however, important to bear in mind that his policy proposals would not have surprised President Eisenhower, and that they are pretty much in tune with popular sentiments over a long period, often considerable majorities. For example, his much-maligned call for a national health-care system of the kind familiar in similar societies is supported right now by about 60 percent of the population, a very high figure considering the fact that it is subject to constant condemnation and has very limited articulate advocacy. And that popular support goes far back. In the late Reagan years, about 70 percent of the population thought that there should be a constitutional guarantee of health care, and 40 percent thought there already was such a guarantee – meaning that it is such an obvious desideratum that it must be in this sacred document.
When Obama abandoned a public option without consideration, it was supported by almost two-thirds of the population. And there is every reason to believe that there would be enormous savings if the US adopted the far more efficient national health-care programs of other countries, which have about half the health-care expenditures of the US and generally better outcomes. The same is true of his proposals for higher taxes on the rich, free higher education and other parts of his domestic programs, mostly reflecting New Deal commitments and similar to policy choices during the most successful growth periods of the post-World War II period.
CJP: Under what scenario can Sanders possibly win the Democratic nomination?
NC: Evidently, it would require very substantial educational and organizational activities. But my own feeling, frankly, is that these should be directed substantially toward developing a popular movement that will not fade away after the election, but will join with others to form the kind of activist force that has been instrumental in initiating and carrying forward needed changes and reforms in the past.
CJP: Is America still a democracy and, if not, do elections really matter?
NC: With all its flaws, America is still a very free and open society, by comparative standards. Elections surely matter. It would, in my opinion, be an utter disaster for the country, the world and future generations if any of the viable Republican candidates were to reach the White House, and if they continue to control Congress. Consideration of the overwhelmingly important questions we discussed earlier suffices to reach that conclusion, and it’s not all. For such reasons as those I alluded to earlier, American democracy, always limited, has been drifting substantially toward plutocracy. But these tendencies are not graven in stone. We enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom and rights left to us by predecessors who did not give up, often under far harsher conditions than we face now. And it provides ample opportunities for work that is badly needed, in many ways, in direct activism and pressures in support of significant policy choices, in building viable and effective community organizations, revitalizing the labor movement, and also in the political arena, from school boards to state legislatures and much more.