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As protests against racist police violence rock the country, fascism ascends in the Trump White House and the COVID-19 pandemic persists, this country is at a pivotal moment. I spoke about this flash point in history with Noam Chomsky, known as the father of modern linguistics, who is one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals and the author of over 100 books, including Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, Optimism Over Despair, Hopes and Prospects, Masters of Mankind and Who Rules the World?
In the following interview, Chomsky provides insight on how we can best grapple with the current moment – and prepare for the sobering future.
George Yancy: Before I ask you about COVID-19, I’d like to start by asking your thoughts on the horrible murder of George Floyd and how you understand the protests that have occurred throughout the U.S. and the world. I am especially interested in your response to Trump’s rhetoric to deploy the military to suppress a so-called insurrection.
Noam Chomsky: “Horrible murder” is right. But let us be clear about the murders of Black Americans going on right now. The brutality of a few racist policemen in Minneapolis constitutes a small part of the crime.
It has been widely noted that death rates from the pandemic are far higher among Black people. A current study found that “Americans living in counties with above-average black populations are three times as likely to die of the coronavirus as those in above-average white counties. This slaughter of Black people is partly a result of how resources were devoted to dealing with the crisis, mostly “in areas that happened to be whiter and more affluent.” But it is rooted more deeply in a hideous record of 400 years of malevolent racism. The plague has been taking different forms since the establishment of the most vicious system of slavery in human history — a prime foundation of the country’s industry, finance, commerce and general prosperity — but has at most been mitigated, never brought close to a cure.
American slavery was unique not only in terms of its viciousness, but also in that it was linked to skin color. Within this system, every Black face was marked with the emblem, “Your nature is to be a slave.”
Other sectors have been harshly treated. Jews and Italians were so feared and despised a century ago that the 1924 racist immigration law was designed to bar them from the country, sending many Jews to crematoria. In support, racists of the day could plead that we had to protect ourselves from the Jews and Italians running the major criminal syndicates, from creatures like Meyer Lansky and Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. But they were finally assimilated. The same happened with the Irish.
With Black people, however, it is different. They are deemed permanently unassimilable in a society cursed by racism and white supremacy. For the victims, the effects are compounded by the lasting socioeconomic gaps engendered by the curse, intensified by the neoliberal assault of the past 40 years, a great boon to extreme wealth, a disaster for the more vulnerable.
The slaughter of Black Americans proceeds under the radar. The president, whose malice knows no bound, has been exploiting the focus on the pandemic to pursue his service to his prime constituency, great wealth and corporate power. One method is eliminating regulations that protect the public but harm profits. In the midst of an unprecedented respiratory pandemic, Trump has moved to increase air pollution, which makes COVID-19 far more deadly, so much so that tens of thousands of Americans may die as a result, the business press reports. As usual, deaths are not randomly distributed: “Hardest hit are low-income communities and people of color,” who are forced to live in the most dangerous areas.
It is all too easy to continue. The protesters know all of this very well. They need no studies. For many it is their lived experience. The protests are not just calling for an end to police brutality in Black communities, but for much more fundamental restructuring of social and economic institutions.
And they are receiving remarkable support, as we see not only from actions all over the country but also from polls. An early June poll “found 64 percent of American adults were ‘sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,’ while 27 percent said they were not and 9 percent were unsure.”
We may compare this reaction to another occasion when similar protests occurred: 1992, after the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King almost to death. A week of riots followed, with over 60 deaths, finally quelled by the National Guard backed by federal troops sent by President Bush. The protests were mostly limited to Los Angeles, nothing like what we are seeing today.
Trump has one overriding concern, his own welfare: How can I use this tragedy to enhance my electoral prospects by firing up the most racist and violent components of my voting base? His natural instincts call for violence: “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” And send in the military to teach the “scum” a lesson they’ll never forget.
Trump’s plan to “dominate” the errant population by violence elicited widespread anger, including bitter condemnation by former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with expressions of sympathy for the protestors. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen wrote: “As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today…. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough — and I’ve seen enough — to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.”
The changes in the past two decades are perhaps a sign that large parts of the population are coming to recognize long-concealed truths about our society, a ray of light in dark times.
We are often told that the United States is the most powerful country in the world. We are fed on a diet of “American exceptionalism.” Yet, globally, we have the highest number of deaths due to COVID-19. We were systemically unprepared. How do you explain this incongruity, and what role does Trump play in all of this?
The lack of preparedness has three basic causes: capitalist logic, neoliberal doctrine, and the character of the political leadership. Let’s run through them briefly in turn.
After the 2003 SARS epidemic was contained, scientists were well aware that a pandemic was likely and that it might be caused by another coronavirus. They also knew how to take measures to prepare. But knowledge is not enough. Someone must use it. The obvious candidate is the drug companies, which have all the resources needed and huge profits, thanks in no small measure to the exorbitant patents granted them in the mislabeled “free trade” agreements. But they were blocked by capitalist logic. There’s no profit in preparing for a possible catastrophe down the road — and as economist Milton Friedman intoned at the dawn of the neoliberal age 40 years ago, the sole responsibility of the corporation is to maximize shareholder value (and management wealth). As recently as 2017, the major drug companies rejected a European Union proposal to fast-track research on pathogens, including coronavirus.
The other candidate is the government, which also has the necessary resources and has played a significant role in developing most vaccines and drugs. But that path is blocked by the neoliberal doctrine that has prevailed since Reagan, who informed us that government is the problem — meaning that decisions must be removed from the government, which is to some extent influenced by citizens, to the unaccountable private tyrannies that were the primary agents (and beneficiaries) of the neoliberal triumph. So, government is barred as well.
The third factor is individual governments. Keeping to the U.S., President George H.W. Bush had established a [President’s] Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to keep the president abreast of important scientific issues. One of President Obama’s first acts on taking office in 2009 was to commission a PCAST study on how to deal with a pandemic. It was provided to the White House a few weeks later. The science-oriented Obama administration proceeded to put in place a pandemic infrastructure which planned early response to infectious disease threats. That was in place until Jan. 20, 2017, when President Trump took office, and within days began to dismantle the entire executive branch science infrastructure, including the preparations for pandemic, and indeed moved on to reject science generally from a role in informing policy, reversing the bipartisan initiatives since World War II that have been critical for developing the modern high-tech economy.
To drive further nails into the coffin, Trump disbanded programs in which scientists worked with Chinese colleagues to investigate coronaviruses. Each year, he defunded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That continued with his budget proposal of February 2020 while the pandemic was raging, calling for further CDC cuts (while raising subsidies to fossil fuel industries). Scientists were systematically replaced by industry officials who would ensure that private profit is maximized whatever the impact on the irrelevant public.
Trump’s decisions accord with the judgment of his favorite pundit, Rush Limbaugh, to whom he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He instructs us that science is one of the “four corners of deceit,” along with academia, media and government, all of which “exist by virtue of deceit.” The guiding maxim of the administration was articulated more eloquently by Franco’s leading general in 1936: “Down with intelligence! Viva death!”
As a result, the U.S. was “systematically unprepared” when the pandemic hit.
In February, Trump said that COVID-19 would just disappear, that “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He was profoundly mistaken and then blamed China, even “racializing” the disease. Some would claim that Trump has blood on his hands because of his gross mishandling of COVID-19. What are your thoughts about this?
Tens of thousands of Americans died as a result of Trump’s dedicated service to his primary constituency: extreme wealth and corporate power. His malevolence persisted after the disease struck. A few weeks after discovery of the first symptoms last December, Chinese scientists identified the virus, sequenced the genome, and provided the information to the WHO and the world. Countries in Asia and Oceania reacted at once, and have the situation largely under control. Others varied. Trump brought up the rear. For two crucial months, U.S. intelligence and health officials tried to capture the attention of the White House, in vain. Finally, Trump noticed — possibly when the stock market crashed, it has been reported. Since then it has been chaos.
Not surprisingly, Trump and his minions have been thrashing around desperately to find some scapegoat to blame for his crimes against Americans, oblivious to how many more people he slaughters. Defunding and then pulling out of the WHO [World Health Organization] is a sadistic blow against Africans, Yemenis, and many other poor and desperate people who had been protected from rampant diseases by WHO medical aid even before the coronavirus struck, and are now facing new catastrophes in addition. They are dispensable if it will improve his electoral prospects.
Trump’s charge against the WHO, which is too ludicrous to discuss, is that it was being controlled by China. By pulling out, he increases Chinese influence. But it is unfair to criticize him for foolishness. The outcome only underscores the fact that he never cared about this in the first place.
Speaking of responsibility and blood on one’s hands, a certain interpretation of individual rights seems to override a collective social responsibility for many in the U.S. who are not observing the recommendations of the WHO and the CDC, including a blatant rejection of wearing masks. What would you say is fueling this anger and lack of responsibility toward the health and safety of others?
Republicans overwhelmingly have faith in the president, no matter how much his actions harm them. His god-like image is amplified by those who surround him, thanks to his successful campaign to get rid of everyone but fawning sycophants, like the second-in-command, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who muses that God may have sent Trump to earth to save Israel from Iran. Pompeo’s fellow evangelicals, the largest base of Trump supporters, likely agree. And they hear much the same generally from the Republican Party, which has virtually abandoned any shred of integrity and abjectly worship him whatever he does. Much the same is true of his media echo chamber. Studies have shown that the primary source of information for Republicans is Fox News, Limbaugh and Breitbart. In fact, an interesting dyad has developed: Trump issues some random pronouncement, it is hailed by Sean Hannity as a path-breaking discovery, and the next morning Trump turns to Fox News to find out what to think.
Surveys of public opinion reveal the consequences. A Pew poll in April, when Trump’s responsibility for the growing disaster was beyond serious debate, found that 83 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners rated Trump’s response to the outbreak as either excellent or good (as compared with 18 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners). They are listening to a president who had been comparing the virus to “regular flu,” and who in mid-April tweeted instructions to his supporters to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The 2nd Amendment has not the slightest relevance, but Trump knows what buttons to push. He was, transparently, urging his troops to take up arms, part of his more general attempts to encourage armed protestors to violate orders in states with Democratic governors (like Virginia), at a time when there were almost 50,000 recorded deaths.
Let’s kill more Americans, not just Yemenis and Africans, if it will improve my electoral prospects. “Down with intelligence! Viva death!”
When we exclude the Astroturf operations and the fervent loyalty of the voting base, it’s not clear that much is left of an appeal to “individual rights” in any meaningful sense.
Nor is it clear that the protestors are overriding social responsibility. They evidently don’t see it that way. They would be appalled at the idea that what they are doing is similar to people with assault rifles running around the streets shooting randomly, though the comparison is apt. They do not think they are endangering anyone. Rather, they are following their revered leader in protesting an effort by the radical left, maybe on instructions from China, to destroy their elementary rights and even to take away their guns.
All further signs that the country is in deep trouble — and in the light of U.S. power, the world with it.
Apart from Trump’s incompetence, what needs to be done globally so that we might both prevent another pandemic and what must we do to be better prepared in the future?
I don’t feel that “incompetence” is quite the right word. He’s quite competent in pursuing his primary goals: enriching the very wealthy, enhancing corporate power and profit, keeping his base in line while he stabs them in the back, and concentrating power in his hands by dismantling the executive branch, and so intimidating congressional Republicans that they timidly accept almost anything. I didn’t hear a peep from them when Trump fired the scientist in charge of vaccine development for daring to question one of the quack cures he is promoting. There is dead silence from these ranks as he carries out his purge of inspector generals, who impose some controls on the swamp he has created in Washington, also insulting one of the most respected Republican senators, 86-year-old Chuck Grassley, who devoted his long career to establishing this system.
It is an impressive achievement.
What has to be done globally is to follow the advice that scientists are providing. A new pandemic is likely, probably worse than this one because of global warming, which may become climate roasting with another four years of the Trump plague. Steps have to be taken to prepare for it, the kind that were recommended in 2003 and were in small part pursued until Trump wielded his wrecking ball. There should be international cooperation in seeking coronaviruses and other potential hazards, developing the scientific understanding needed for rapid development of vaccines and drugs to alleviate symptoms, and implementing contingency plans to be put in place if a pandemic strikes again.
For the U.S. in particular, that means extricating the society from neoliberal dogma, which has had bitter consequences in the domain of health (and many others). The business model for hospitals, with no waste or spare capacity, is an invitation to disaster. More generally, the highly inefficient privatized health care system is a terrible burden on the society, with double the costs of other developed countries and some of the poorest outcomes. A recent Lancet study estimates its annual cost at almost $500 billion and 68,000 extra deaths. It is outrageous that the U.S. cannot rise to the level of other societies and instead relies on the most cruel and costly system of universal health care: emergency rooms. If you can drag yourself to one you can get care — followed perhaps by a healthy bill.
The same neoliberal dogma prevents the National Institutes of Health from proceeding beyond essential research and development for drugs to testing and distribution, bypassing the private companies and implementing the provisions of U.S. law, constantly ignored, which require that drugs produced with government assistance (virtually all) be available to the public at reasonable cost. The most careful studies of these matters that I know of are by Dean Baker, who estimates enormous savings with no loss of innovation if such measures are introduced (see his book Rigged, available free).
This is only a bare beginning. There are deep social, cultural and institutional problems that should be addressed.
Assuming that the November election is close, do you see Trump deploying the ruse of voting fraud to remain in power? If that happens, what do you foresee in terms of this playing out politically?
Trump and associates are already pushing that scam energetically, not for the first time. They know that they head a minority party and must resort to deceit and fraud to maintain political power. And for them, a lot is at stake. Another four years would enable them to guarantee that their far-right policies will prevail for a generation no matter what the population wants. That’s been the goal of the McConnell strategy of placing the judiciary, top to bottom, in the hands of young far-right jurists who can block programs that are in the public interest. Loss of the current opportunity might doom their project. For Trump personally, the prospects of loss may be severe, even if he is psychologically capable of accepting it like a normal human being. He may be vulnerable to serious legal charges if his immunity is lost. And with the Republican Party having surrendered to his authority, North Korean-style, he faces few impediments. We can leave the rest to the imagination.
I realize that this sounds dystopian, but who is to say that Trump, out of sheer lust for power, will not galvanize a militia to back his desire to stay in power? Any thoughts?
Can’t be ruled out. As widely recognized, the country is facing a longer-term constitutional crisis. The Senate is a radically undemocratic institution, to a lesser extent the electoral college. For demographic and structural reasons, a small minority of white, Christian, rural, traditional, often white supremacist voters can maintain control to an extent even beyond what racist Southern Democrats exercised before Nixon’s “southern strategy” brought them into the Republican fold. And this is virtually unchangeable by constitutional amendment. It’s not out of the question that in Trump’s hands, the impending crisis may come about very soon.
Noam, I know that you prefer not to talk much about yourself, but at 91 how are you personally dealing with our surreal historical moment living under COVID-19?
In narrow personal terms, it’s not a severe difficulty for my wife and me. For many others, it’s a radically different story. The moment is indeed surreal. The future will be shaped by how we emerge from the crisis. The forces that are responsible for it, and for the neoliberal assault on the population that has, demonstrably, intensified it sharply, are not sitting back quietly. They are working relentlessly to ensure that what emerges is a harsher and more authoritarian version of what they had created in their own interest. There are popular forces seeking to grasp the current opportunities to reverse the disasters of the recent past and to move forward to a far more humane and decent world. And, crucially, to confront the far more severe crises that are looming.
We will recover from the pandemic, at a terrible cost. We will not recover from the ongoing melting of the polar ice sheets and the other consequences of the roasting of the earth that will make many of the areas of human habitation unlivable before too long if we continue on our current course. Another four years of the Trump malignancy will sharply increase the difficulties of dealing with this impending catastrophe — even if we escape the threat of terminal nuclear war that Trump is escalating by dismantling the arms control regime that offered some protection and racing to develop new and more dangerous means of destruction that undermine our diminishing security.