In this continuation of an extensive interview, world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the growing extremism of the Republican Party, Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, Democrats’ abandonment of the working class and impending threat of the climate crisis.
David Barsamian: Talk about the present occupant of the White House. In some ways, his boorish and grotesque behavior is a pretty easy target. People can feel very virtuous about denouncing Trump. But Public Citizen warns, “Every day we witness a further slide toward authoritarianism under Trump.” Are you concerned about that?
Noam Chomsky: I’m less concerned than they are. I think the system is resilient enough to withstand a figure who is defying subpoenas, defying congressional orders and so on. I think Trump is in many ways underestimated. He’s a highly skilled politician who is very successful in what he’s doing.
He’s got two major constituencies. One is the actual, standard constituency, the Republican Party — both parties, but much more the Republicans — private wealth, corporate power. You’ve got to keep them satisfied. Then there is the voting base. Here, what’s happened to the Republicans over the years is pretty interesting.
During the neoliberal period, both parties have shifted to the right. By the 1970s, the Democrats had pretty much abandoned the working class. The last gesture of support for the working class was the Humphrey-Hawkins bill in 1978, a full employment bill that former President Jimmy Carter watered down so it didn’t really mean anything. But since then, the Democrats have simply handed the working class over to their main class enemy: the Republicans. Some little changes here and there, but it’s pretty substantial. The Democrats have become what used to be called moderate Republicans.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have just gone off the edge…. They’ve just become “a radical insurgency.” You see it almost daily. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that if Republicans have a chance to appoint someone else to the Supreme Court in an election year, “Fine, we’ll do it.” When it was Obama, he said, “No, in an election year you can’t do it.” They have simply abandoned any pretense of being a parliamentary party, and upped it to the jugular. But meanwhile, we’re going to support private wealth, corporate power with utter dedication. You can’t get votes that way. There are not enough people that are going to say, “Fine, let’s do that.”
What the Republicans have had to do since the 1970s is to try to kind of cobble together a voting constituency on some grounds other than their actual policies. It’s been very interesting to watch it. It started with former President Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy. The civil rights movement alienated Southern racists. The Nixon team pretty openly said, “We can pick up votes by being racist.” They didn’t use the word, but essentially did by catering to the racist elements of the South that are opposed to the civil rights movement.
It was then picked up by one of the chief Republican strategists, Paul Weyrich. He noticed in the mid-1970s that Republicans could get lots of votes if they pretended — stress pretended — to be opposed to abortion. The Republican Party had been almost completely pro-choice. Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Barry Goldwater, all of them, their position in the 1960s was that the state has nothing to say about things like abortion. It’s a matter between a woman and her doctor. Weyrich recognized that Republicans can get the votes of Northern Catholics, workers and Evangelical Christians, who are a huge population in the U.S., if they pretend to be opposed to abortion. Instantly, they all became passionately opposed to abortion. That’s now one of the leading planks of the Republican Party.
Guns is another one. “We have to be pro-guns. We can pick up people this way.” A good part of the population, especially the working class, has indeed suffered under the neoliberal programs instituted since the Reagan years. We can’t tell people, “Look, we’re screwing you, so we have to find some scapegoat who is responsible for it.” In the case of Reagan, it was outright racist: It was the Black “welfare queens,” the Black woman driving up in a limousine to the welfare office to steal your hard-earned money, all that stuff. Now it’s immigrants. “The immigrants are coming to steal your jobs,” or “China is going to take your jobs.” It’s kind of amazing to watch it work.
For example, forget immigrants — that’s so transparent we don’t have to talk about it. There’s almost 100 percent agreement that China is taking our jobs. But how is China taking our jobs? Does China have a gun to the heads of the CEOs of Apple and GM and Microsoft, and says, “You’ve got to send jobs here?” It’s the corporate managers who are deciding to do it. So if you don’t want the jobs to go to China, you should be saying, “Well, the corporate managers shouldn’t have the right to make that decision.” So, who should have the right? If you believe in democracy, it should be the people who work in the enterprise. But where are we now? Back to the gentleman named Karl Marx in the mid-19th century. We should have worker control of enterprises. So the logical argument about China stealing our jobs goes straight to workers’ control of enterprises, the main theme of the American working class in the early Industrial Revolution. Somehow you don’t read about that.
So, China is taking our jobs, immigrants are taking our jobs, welfare mothers are stealing from you, you have to have guns, you can’t have abortions, etc. Republicans had to cobble together a voting constituency including these sectors and also the relatively affluent. Trump voters are mostly pretty affluent. They, of course, are going to vote Republican for their own reasons.
What’s happened in the past roughly 15 years, when you take a look at every Republican primary, when somebody came up from the popular base, they are so “crazy” that the Republican establishment wasn’t able to tolerate them and was able to beat them down — people like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and others. The difference in 2016 is they couldn’t beat them down. Trump is a skillful politician, and he managed not only to win the nomination, but to put the entire party in his pocket to a remarkable extent. Amazingly, he’s been able to maintain the support of people that he is shafting at every turn with his pretense of being the guy who is standing up for you. It’s very interesting to watch it.
There was an interesting article in The New York Times, a long study of Midwest farmers. These are not poor farmers with a garden in their backyard; these are pretty affluent farmers. But they’re suffering from the trade war. They’re losing their market for soybeans. But they’re still supporting Trump. And the reason is, “We’ve got to stop the Chinese practices. It’s unfair to us. And Trump says he supports us.” In fact, the main person they quote in the article says, “Trump says, ‘farmers are marvelous people, I love you,’ and I’m going to vote for him.” So, a little sweet-talk.
And also, a little bit of cash doesn’t hurt. So there’s now $16 billion sent to farmers in the Midwest to try to compensate for their trade losses. Where does that $16 billion come from? It comes from the trade war. Tariffs are simply a tax on consumers. That’s what a tariff is: A tariff, the way it spells itself out, it ends up with higher prices for consumers. And it’s not small. The New York Fed just estimated the annual tax bite as about $800 per family. That’s a big tax increase under Trump, which helps pay off his constituency.
It’s a pretty nice scam, when you look at it, and they’re carrying it off very effectively. Trump and Steve Bannon and the rest are pretending to be the tribunes of the people, defending the American worker from all these attacks. By now, there are a few Democrats who are starting to talk about it, but as a party, the Democrats have pretty much abandoned the working class.
In fact, many working people voted for Obama believing his nice rhetoric about hope and change. But within about two years that was shattered. By the 2010 midterm elections, it was gone. Trump comes along and says, “I’m your defender. I’m going to protect you from not only foreign enemies but the people who are stealing your jobs.” He’s carrying it off, and the Democrats are helping him.
Take this laser-like focus on the Robert Mueller report, Russiagate. It was obvious from the beginning that they were not going to find very much. They’ll find that Trump’s a crook. OK, we knew that already — but they’re not going to find any real collusion with the Russians, and they didn’t. They’re not going to find any real significant Russian impact on the election. There couldn’t be.
You want to talk about interference with the election? Campaign funding by the wealthy and the corporate sector utterly overwhelms the effect of any imaginable foreign interference. That’s the real interference with elections. Whatever the Russians might have tried to do, it’s a piece of straw in a haystack. And, of course, it’s nothing compared with U.S. interference with Russian elections, let alone other countries, where we just overthrow the government. But the Democrats focused all their hopes on somehow “Mueller is going to save us,” and “Let’s not look at Trump’s policies.”
But these policies are murderous. Trump’s climate policy may literally be a virtual death knell for the species. It’s not a small thing. There’s almost no talk about it. The Nuclear Strategy Review, which escalates the threat of nuclear war significantly, that’s not under discussion. The tax scam, which was just a gift to the rich and the corporations, a double gift. For one thing, it poured a lot of money into their pockets. Secondly, it created a huge deficit which can be used as a justification for cutting social spending. We can go on and on.
None of this is being discussed. Let’s instead talk about the fact that maybe somebody in the Trump campaign talked to a Russian oligarch who placed an ad somewhere. It’s as if the Democrats are working for him, like paid agents of the Trump campaign.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, writes, “My head hurts, puzzling over whether Trump is just a big blowhard who’s flailing around, or a sinister genius laying traps to get himself impeached to animate the base ahead of the election.”
Trump … understands nothing about the economy; he doesn’t care about the world. But he is extremely skillful in carrying off the primary tasks that a “narcissistic megalomaniac” has to achieve. One is maintaining the support of wealth and corporate power, which he is doing. That’s handed over to McConnell and the rest. They make sure that that works. And it’s working brilliantly. Corporate profits are going through the roof. It’s fantastic. Wages are pretty much stagnating. What more can he ask? But the other thing is: He has to keep his voting base energized, and he’s doing it, very well.
Impeachment is another case. If the Democrats move to impeachment, I think they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot. You can see exactly what’s going to happen. Suppose the House impeaches Trump. It goes to the Senate. The Senate is in Trump’s pocket. They’ll exonerate him. Then what happens? Trump starts making speeches about how, “I’m exonerated, the Deep State and the treacherous Democrats are trying to destroy the guy who is standing up for you against your enemies.” Just like what happened with the Mueller report. They were just walking into a trap.
If you want to be concerned, you want to overturn Trump on the basis of his actual crimes, the thing to look at is not Congress, it’s the New York State Attorney General’s office, which is carrying out, apparently, careful investigations of Trump’s fraudulent dealings over decades, which I’m sure are going to pile up crime after crime, maybe enough to send him to prison after he’s out of office. That’s probably where it’s all going to come out.
But in general terms, that’s a minor issue. He’s not my favorite person, as you can see, but as compared with the crimes he may have committed, the fraud in New York with his hotels and so on, that’s very minor as compared with the fact that he’s escalating the race to disaster. This is the most important decision in human history. We’ve got a couple of years to try to deal somehow with the environmental crisis. It can be controlled. It’s not easy, but it can be done. If you waste a couple of years by trying to escalate the crisis, you might just push us over the edge.
I don’t know if you’ve looked at this, one of the most amazing documents in human history that came out of the Trump administration, from a part of the bureaucracy, naturally. It was a 500-page environmental assessment study done by the Transportation Administration, the point of which was to argue that we should not impose new emissions controls on cars and trucks. And they had a very sound argument. The argument is, “Look, we’re going off the cliff anyway, and car emissions don’t make that much of a difference. So who cares?”
Their estimate was that by the end of this century, global temperatures will have risen 4 degrees Centigrade. That’s way beyond what the scientific consensus says will make life unlivable. So, what they’re saying is, “We’re finished, it’s all done anyhow, by the end of the century, everything will be destroyed. So why stop driving?” Can you think of anything like this in human history, ever? Hitler wasn’t saying. “Let’s destroy the world.”
Of course, they’re assuming that … nobody is going to do anything about it. But all of this passes without anybody paying attention. Let’s worry about whether Russia had some minor influence on the election.
Talk about the young people in Congress like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and others, and teen activist students like Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Haven Coleman of Denver, and other young people involved in Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement.
That’s very exciting. That’s really the hope for the future. These are very impressive people. Extinction Rebellion are great people. The Sunrise Movement — which is, after all, a small group of young people — succeeded partly just through their activism, like sitting-in in congressional offices, got some support from especially Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who is doing a wonderful job.
They managed to put on the agenda the Green New Deal. Now, of course, it immediately got denounced as a “crazy” this, that, and the other thing. But it’s a great achievement. There has to be some kind of Green New Deal if we’re going to survive. And they managed to move it from obscurity to the legislative agenda, along with Ed Markey, the senator from Massachusetts. That’s a real achievement. And there are very solid, substantive proposals as to how you could implement these proposals. One of the most detailed and persuasive I know of is by Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. It can be done. These groups have broken through the silence and apathy on it. That’s a remarkable achievement.
In fact, it’s the hope for survival of any kind of civilized life. This is not a small thing. The human species is facing questions that have never arisen before: Is organized human life going to survive in any recognizable form? We’re approaching the level of global warming of roughly 125,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 25 feet higher than they are now. You don’t have to have much of an imagination to know what that means.
Shall we race toward it the way the Trump administration and the Republican Party wants us to do? Or shall we do something about it, the way Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion and Ocasio-Cortez want to do? That’s the decision that has to be made. It’s good that you bring that up, because that’s of extraordinary importance.