Noam Chomsky, born on December 7, 1928, is a linguist, cognitive scientist, logician, political commentator, activist, author and philosopher. He has spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the most recent title of Institute Professor Emeritus. In 2017, Chomsky taught a short-term politics course at the University of Arizona in Tucson and was later hired as a part-time professor in the linguistics department there, with his duties including teaching and public seminars.
Chomsky is the author of more than 100 books on topics such as linguistics, politics, war and mass media. His latest offering (co-authored with Robert Pollin) is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, released on September 22, 2020.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Professor Chomsky, how are you and your wife doing during the pandemic?
Noam Chomsky: Just isolating. Haven’t been out of the house for months.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It really starts to get to a person after a while, doesn’t it?
Noam Chomsky: (laughs) Yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s frustrating and scary to imagine just how many people may die before this pandemic ends. What is your prediction on just how bad it will get before it’s over?
Noam Chomsky: It depends on which kinds of policies are followed. If you go back to say late March, the United States and continental Europe were about the same in terms of number of cases and number of deaths. Europe has a slightly larger population than the United States. Take a look at the curve since. In Europe, it has gone down very sharply with many fewer cases and many fewer deaths, and in the United States, it has increased. So it depends on which policies you follow.
The polices of the Trump administration are basically murderous. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump and his associates are responsible for killing more than twice as many Americans that died in the Vietnam War by needless incompetence and malignance. So again, it depends on which policies you follow.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It has been reported from author Bob Woodward that Donald Trump lied from the very beginning about how deadly COVID-19 is, downplaying the seriousness of the virus to the American people. However, early in his term, Trump also dismantled the pandemic reaction program President Obama had in place, so didn’t that also contribute to the mishandling of the health crisis?
Noam Chomsky: In Trump’s first days in office back in January 2017, some of his first acts were to dismantle the pandemic response program that had been executed under Obama. He immediately started efforts to defund the Center for Disease Control and all other health-related aspects of the government. That went on for years and went on as as late as this past February. While the pandemic was raging, he was denying and other countries were reacting, Trump presented his budget proposal for 2021 defunding the Center for Disease Control even further and other health-related conglomerates of government.
Meanwhile, for the years he’s been in office, he terminated programs in which the United States scientists were working with their Chinese colleagues to try to identify potential virus threats and so on. There were simulations run with pretty grim predictions, and Trump just disregarded them. When the pandemic finally struck, the United States was singularly unprepared.
China provided all the relevant information on January 10. The Chinese scientists had sequenced the genome and presented all the information to the world. The countries where the governments cared about their cities began to act, the East Asian countries, Oceania, New Zealand, Australia and China itself. They had it pretty much under control. Even though they were very hard hit in South Korea, they acted, and they pretty much succeeded. The same is true for other countries like Vietnam for example. Most European countries started to do something. Britain was kind of an outlier. But even in Italy, the severe pandemic was sharply reduced, and the country’s now opening up.
The United States was completely different. The Trump administration was bombarded with information from the intelligence agencies saying, “There’s a serious crisis.” Trump refused to listen and didn’t respond. It’s nothing that will go away. He’s just focused on his electoral votes. Then came a series of very erratic actions, a lockdown and doing anything that comes to mind just to try to make it look as if he’s doing something important so that he can get re-elected.
I won’t run through the whole series of his actions. They’re almost unbelievable. But the most recent one, for example, was firing the scientist in charge of vaccine production because he made some critical comments about the quack medicines Trump was trying to advertise. Just a couple of weeks ago came the latest. Trump pulled out of the international consortium that’s working on developing and distributing vaccines. Of course, that severely weakens the international effort and also harms the United States. If somebody else comes up with the vaccine, the United States won’t have it. But it doesn’t matter. He’s got to wield the wrecking ball to make it look as if he’s doing something important, and it sells with his constituency. It’s pretty remarkable, but there are a couple of countries where the authorities are really severely harming the population with the way they’re treating this thing and where the popularity of the leader is increasing among their own constituency.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are some of the most significant ways the Trump administration is harming the climate?
Noam Chomsky: The Trump administration is basically alone in the world with a few outliers that not only are refusing to do anything about this imminent crisis, but are dedicating their efforts in making it worse. He’s doing everything he can to maximize the use of fossil fuel and just a couple of weeks ago, opened up a major reserve in the United States for drilling by the energy corporations. It’s ridiculous because the price of oil is so little, they don’t even want to do it. But he’s pressing them to try to destroy the world as fast as possible. At the same time, these corporate executives that he’s put in charge of relevant parts of the government are busy dismantling the regulations that provide some degree of protection from the devastating effects of global warming and that protect the population from toxic chemicals and the severe pollution which has a deadly effect because it’s coming on top of major respiratory infections. Recently, they again reduced emissions controls all in the interest of profit for a very small but powerful sector of the economy and improving Trump’s electoral prospects.
So it doesn’t matter how many people you kill, how much you destroy the environment, just keep going because there are more important priorities like profits for the fossil fuel companies and Trump’s electoral prospect. That’s it. It’s so hard to find words to describe it. There’s no such vicious malevolence in human history. Literally no one you can think of has been so evil that he’s dedicated to destroying organized human life on earth for his own benefit. No one.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Should Joe Biden implement his version of the Green New Deal if he wins the presidency?
Noam Chomsky: Well, we have to be cautious about that. There’s a split in the Democratic Party between the Clintonites donor-oriented, the pretty much conservative sector that runs the party, the Democratic National Committee and the popular base which is pressing for more progressive policies. The split shows that the Biden program has been somewhat responsive with the popular base. But the last time I looked at the Democratic Party website was August 22. If you click on the Democratic Party program on climate, this is pretty much what you found. Try clicking on it now. What you get is how to donate to the Democratic Party. What’s apparently happened is the DNC simply wiped out the programs of their own candidate.
Now things like that have been happening steadily, There’s pressures from both ends, the popular groups and the Sanders engagement in the campaign, the activism all over. That’s on one side. The other side you have your DNC and its donor-oriented and its kind of centrist group, and they’re struggling. We’ve seen the same thing in Britain where Parliamentary Party carried out a vicious attack against the Corbyn successful effort to create a popular party concerned with the needs of its constituents. It was very successful, but the right-wing Labour party didn’t tolerate it and launched a campaign so vicious that it was clear they would prefer to lose the election than to lose the party. But that’s the kind of struggle that’s going on here as well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The rhetoric from the Trump Republicans is that Joe Biden is “extreme left” or that he’s “advocating a socialist agenda.” Is that because they are afraid “socialists” will want to completely abolish capitalism, or are they just continuing to misinterpret the word “socialism”?
Noam Chomsky: Socialist means anything to the left of Attila the Hun. That’s socialist. Sanders has two major programs he kept reiterating over and over. One was what he called Medicare for All, universal healthcare. Can you think of any other countries that have universal healthcare? In fact, can you think of one that doesn’t? So what he’s saying is, “Let’s see if we can rise to the level of the rest of the world.” Is that socialist? It’s saying, “Can we become a modern civilized country like everyone else?”
The other major program that Sanders had was free college education. That’s everywhere. The most successful capitalist country, Germany, has free higher education and is a conservative basically neoliberal country. Mexico has free higher education. To say that is radical? To say, “Let’s become as decent as the rest of the world?” Is that radical?
Sanders’ programs would not have surprised Dwight Eisenhower so much, but the Republican Party has drifted so far to the right that Eisenhower would’ve been a radical socialist to them. And abolishing capitalism? The question is so ludicrous. It’s hard not to laugh. Was Sanders talking about abolishing capitalism? Did he even touch capitalism? He was saying, “Let’s become like the rest of the world.” That’s abolishing capitalism? What is socialism? These words have been so distorted that they just can’t be used anymore.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Due to the reported disparaging remarks Trump has made about the military and its leaders, do you think that he will have as much evangelical support as he did in 2016, or will they continue to be blind to his unprecedented attacks?
Noam Chomsky: Trump is an extreme version of what has happened to the Republican Party over roughly the last 60 years or more. The Republican Party has a deep problem. It has almost totally sold out to the very rich and the corporate sector. The United States is basically a one-party state, the business part, but there are two factions, the Democrats and the Republicans. If you go back to the 60s, they’re really not very different.
There’s a split in the Republican Party. The moderate Republicans are basically indistinguishable from the Democrats, but the Republicans are more business oriented than the Democrats, and they cannot come to the Republican base and say, “Vote for me. I want to harm you in every possible way and sell out to the rich and the corporate sector.” They can’t converse that way for some strange reason, so they had to turn to other issues and what is called the “southern strategy” that was actually started by Goldwater. One of the main Republican strategists in the mid 70s, Paul Weyrich, realized that if the Republicans pretend, and I stress pretend to be opposed to abortion, they can pick up the evangelical vote. So they all switched sides.
Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and others have all been basically pro-choice. Reagan, when he was governor, passed one of the strongest women’s rights legislations in the country. Their position was that abortion was not the government’s business. It was private business. But they all got the message, and they all decided that they would pretend to be opposed to abortion so they could pick up that vote. Same with gun rights. It’s a real scam. They turned gun rights into a matter of holy writ because they could pick up votes from part of the population that way.
A couple of decades prior to the Civil War, the mythology was created that the women on the plantation, the delicate women had to be defended by the chivalrous males. It’s total mythology. But Phyllis Schlafly picked that up and said, “Okay. We oppose feminism because they try and destroy these delicate women who have to be protected by the chivalrous males, and it would force women to join the military.” It resonated with a large part of the population. The general point is that the Republican Party, in order to survive, has to instruct a set of cultural issues, things that the corporate sector doesn’t care much about but they can pretend to be for like guns, anti-abortion, opposing women’s rights, making sure that pastors can preach politically in churches, things like that.
If you get that constituency together, you have a certain voting block. Meanwhile, you can stab them in the back at every opportunity, which is what they’re doing. And Trump is a genius at it. With one hand, he tells them he’s for the working class and makes some comments about guns. Meanwhile, with the other hand stabs them in the back. Take a look at Trump’s socioeconomic programs. They harm the general population, including the people he’s pandering to, but he’s managed to carry it off.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Doomsday Clock, a symbol that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe, is now set at 100 seconds to midnight. When was the last time the world was considered this close to destruction?
Noam Chomsky: Never. The Doomsday Clock was set shortly after the atomic bomb in 1947. At that point, the minute hand was seven minutes to midnight. Midnight means, “Kiss you goodbye.” It’s oscillated over the years. In 1953, it was moved to two minutes to midnight. That’s when the United States and Russia exploded thermonuclear weapons demonstrating that human intelligence had more contrived methods to destroy everything. After that, it never got back to two minutes until the Trump administration. Every year that Trump has been in office, the minute hand has been closer to midnight. Two years ago, it reached two minutes to midnight. This last January, they abandoned minutes altogether. They moved to seconds. It’s now 100 seconds to midnight. They had three basic reasons for that: the threat of nuclear war which is increasing, the threat of global heating which is increasing and the deterioration of democracy which eliminates the only means to deal effectively with the two major threats in which an informed public is directly engaged in determining the fate of the world. Those are the three reasons.
One hundred seconds to midnight. Closest we’ve ever been to termination. That was January of this year. Since then Trump has carried out a pretty impressive accomplishment. He’s made all three of these worse. On the nuclear issue, he’s continued his efforts to dismantle the arms control regime which provided some form of defense against terminal disaster. He’s also developing highly threatening dangerous weapons of destruction and basically inviting others to do the same to make the threat greater to America. That’s the nuclear issue.
On the climate issue, Trump continues to make it much more dangerous. Deterioration of democracy has reached a truly incredible point. Trump’s already cleansed the Executive branch of any independent voice. The Inspectors General who are supposed to supervise executive departments started looking into the swamp of corruption Trump has created, so he fired them.
The latest move was to publicly state that if he doesn’t like the outcome of the election, he may refuse to accept it. That’s never happened in the history of parliamentary democracies. And now people in high places are taking him seriously. There’s a high level independent commission of leading figures in the Republican and Democratic parties and other independent analysts that’s been running “war games,” asking what’s likely to happen in the coming election if Trump refuses to leave office. They just released their report which was a major article in the Washington Post.
Unless Trump wins the electoral college, every scenario they run leads to civil war if Trump and the Republicans just refuse to accept it. There are a lot of options they could pursue to try and undermine it. It’s like the actions of a dictator in a neo-colony somewhere, a small country that has a military coup every couple of years. There is no historical precedent for this in a functioning democratic society. That’s deterioration of democracy at a level we’ve never seen before and being taken very seriously in the most respectable places. I mean, things that are being said by sober conservative voices around the world you can hardly believe. It’s hard to find a more respected, sober, correspondent commentator than Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. He wrote that western society is in a crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, it will be terminal. You don’t hear comments like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So it may not be enough for Biden to win the election?
Noam Chomsky: It’s not enough for him to win. He has to take office. That’s a gap that hasn’t arisen before in the history of parliamentary democracy, but it’s arising now because we have a sociopathic maniac in the White House. The party that’s in his pocket recognizes if they can’t hold on to power by some device or another, they’re going to be lost. They’re going to pull out the stops no matter what it takes to try and hold on to power. So unfortunately, there’s a difference between Biden being elected and Biden being in the White House in January.