One of America’s foremost public intellectuals tells us why, now more than ever, Americans have a responsibility to be critical of authority.
By Sam Fragoso
During 2016’s presidential election, polymath MIT professor Noam Chomsky became a go-to authority on Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Rusk/Flickr)
Eighty-eight year old Noam Chomsky is pretty used to weighing in on all matter of topics for news readers. In the past few months alone, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor, activist, and author of over 100 books has talked to publications like the New York Times and the Guardian about burkinis, the conflict in Syria, and the bicycle theory. But during and following last year’s election, the polymath has become something of a media authority on one topic in particular — America’s new president-elect, Donald Trump. Since November 8th, Chomsky’s talked separately to Al Jazeera, the Daily Mirror, Truthout, and Jacobin about who Trump is, what he might do in office, and the conditions that fostered his rise in the United States.
It’s not hard to understand why so many have turned to Chomsky for answers about Trump. Chomsky’s well-known for critiquing U.S. presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush; last spring, he heralded a rightward shift in the Democratic party, saying America’s two parties have collapsed into one faction, both targeting “moderate Republicans” (Trump, you may recall, garnered votes from many previous Barack Obama supporters the following fall).
But perhaps Chomsky’s most pertinent qualification is a prediction that he made six years ago in an interview with Truthdig’s Chris Hedges. “If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response,” he told Hedges, comparing contemporary disillusionment in the U.S. to that in late Weimar Germany. “We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force.” Chomsky followed these remarks by suggesting that the polls indicated right-wing Republicans would “sweep” the next election.
Of course, Republicans seized control of the Senate and upheld their majority in the House of Representatives in 2016’s elections, not in 2012’s. Nevertheless, Chomsky’s suggestion that America might be open to the appeal of a leader championing the white male demographic and American military superiority, even encouraging violence at campaign rallies, reads as pretty uncanny in 2017.
“[Noam] Chomsky may not always have the right answers,” wrote the New Yorker’s Gary Marcus in 2012. “But he has always had the wisdom to pose the right questions.” Ahead of Trump’s inauguration on January 20th, Chomsky sat down for an interview with Pacific Standard to pose some of those questions — and, in the process, to encourage more Americans to do the same.
Earlier this year you said about Trump, “We don’t know what’s in his mind. I suspect he doesn’t know what’s in his mind. It’s, as far as we know, pretty vacuous.” Given your study of presidents and the people that elect them what about a vacuous person, someone whose politics are objectively nebulous, do you think appeals to voters?
He’s kind of a con man. He was able to say things to a sector of the population that, in a way, articulated their own concerns and feelings, and did it pretty effectively. To what extent that reflects his own views, to the extent that he has views, is very hard to say.
For example, compare his rhetoric with his cabinet appointments. His rhetoric [when] talking to working people was that he’s anti-establishment, he’s going to confront Wall Street, he’s going to be in favor of the little guy, and so on. But what are his cabinet appointments? A guy [Steven Mnuchin] — the main one, secretary of treasury — with many years of service with Goldman Sachs? He says he’s going to bring back jobs and coal and manufacturing. How’s he going to do that? By picking a secretary of labor [Andrew F. Puzder] who’s very anti-labor. That’s the way it’s going to work?
It’s not that he’s vacuous, that’s a mistake. He has some consistent commitments. One of them, and probably the most dangerous, is to end the efforts to try to deal with the most significant problem we face, how to confront the very urgent and serious problem of environmental catastrophe. We don’t have a long time to deal with that. That’s urgent, and he wants to retard it.
The U.S. now has, literally, thanks to him and the Republican Party, the worst position in the world on this issue. Just at the same time as the American election, there was a conference in Morocco of about 200 countries trying to implement in specific ways the general commitments that were made at the Paris negotiations. It came that the conference basically collapsed as soon as the elections took place. It turned into a pretty depresseddiscussion about whether the international project could even continue with the world’s most powerful state trying to undermine and destroy it.
If you look at his fiscal programs, they’ve pretty consistently called for sharp tax cuts for the very rich and for the corporate sector, with various comments on how he’d compensate for this. It looks like a typical Paul Ryan-style program of enriching the very wealthy and the powerful in the corporate sector, while the rest of the population just takes a hit. That’s hardly the way in which he appealed to his white, working-class voters.
For the voters that chose him, who believe in him — because there are people who sincerely believe in him — what state does this country have to get in for them to see that perhaps Trump doesn’t have their best interests at heart?
Well, that’s what we’ll soon see. In fact, let’s take a look back a few years. Many of the Trump voters voted for Obama in 2008. They were seduced by his rhetorical commitment to hope and change. As you recall, the slogan of the 2008 election was “Hope and Change,” and there were plenty of working-class people, middle-class people, in fact the majority of the population, who had been pretty badly hurt by 25 years, maybe 30 years of neo-liberal policies. They have every right to call for change and to call for hope, so they voted for Obama. They pretty soon found that there was no relevant change and not much hope. Now they’re voting for someone else who is calling for hope and change. “I’m going to make America great again. I’m going to change the things that are harming you.” How?
What’ll happen, to get to your question, is when they find, with him, that there’s little hope and not much change, there could be a number of possibilities, some of them pretty ugly. One of them would be a standard move that’s made by authoritarian figures and authoritarian structures when the promises to their constituency can’t be fulfilled, mainly scapegoating. “Let’s blame it on people who are even more vulnerable and who are suffering even more than you are. Let’s make it their fault.”
He’s already done plenty of this. “Make it the fault of immigrants, the fault of welfare cheats and Reagan’s trick, bad people, Muslims. Let’s make it their fault.” That can lead to pretty ugly consequences. We’ve seen that in the past over and over. Another possibility is that a constructive alternative could be developed by progressive forces, maybe the kind that mobilized for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that could lead to real policies of hope and change. Real ones, not fake ones, which could bring in more of those people.
Speaking of the people, I love your philosophy on education. You’ve quoted a physicist who used to teach at MIT: “It’s not important what we cover in the class, it’s important what we discover.”
That’s right. That’s what education ought to be.
You’ve been part of the education system for over 65 years. Do you think this country is creating more curious and inquisitive people — students — now in 2016, than in the past?
No. I wish I could say yes. It’s a mixed story, of course, but the major thrust in educational policy has been to turn the educational system into something more controlled, more test-oriented, more directed away from free inquiry and understanding to regurgitation of what you’ve learned and following orders and passivity. Also, the public education system is very much underfunded and under attack under Trump’s choice for the secretary of education [Betsy DeVos], who is someone who actually opposes the public education system.
One of the major contributions, historically, of the U.S. to democracy is under attack, and in the Trump administration will probably be under more severe attack. I think there has not been a move in the direction that you indicate and that I think would be appropriate. In fact, if anything, I think perhaps the opposite.
You think the opposite is true?
The opposite would be training for passivity and obedience and regurgitation of facts that you’ve learned, but not encouraging free inquiry, creativity, efforts for children and students in general to develop their own capacities in ways that conform to their interests, their hopes, their possibilities for becoming free citizens in a really democratic society, as well as contributors to the cultural development of society and the world.
Facts are interesting, especially now, as we’ve been hearing this narrative about how we’re living in the post-truth, post-fact world. In thinking back on your book, Manufacturing Consent, do you think that’s true? And if it is true that we’re living in a post-fact world, is it possible that we’ve been inhabiting this post-fact world for quite a while now?
There are plenty of examples in history of post-truth, post-fact worlds, and some of them are not very attractive. For example, take perhaps the utter depths of human history, the Nazi regime, which was implanted and we should remember, the leading outpost of Western civilization. The peak of Western civilization in many ways was Germany in the 1920s in the arts, the sciences, and even as a model for democracy. Within 10 years, it had descended to the depths of barbarism in a post-fact society. The propaganda was extremely effective in creating a world of illusion in which the Aryan race was under attack by Jews and Bolsheviks, and only Nazi Germany could protect the white Aryan race from destruction.
Is that a post-fact world? Well, like a lot of propaganda, in fact almost all effective propaganda, there were little bits and pieces of truth scattered around, enough to base a post-fact world on. There were Jewish bankers, there were Jewish Bolsheviks. Bits and pieces of that fanatic and crazy story were, in fact, correct, and it was unfortunately convincing enough to take maybe the most civilized and educated part of the world down to the utter depths of barbarism. That’s post-fact with a vengeance.
Is Trump analogous to Adolf Hitler or other past ideologues, as some have suggested?
There are some loose similarities to other demagogic figures, and there are some loose similarities to the U.S. and the late stages of Germany. In fact, I’ve written about this 15 years ago, long before Trump, others have as well. But I think we’re in a historically specific situation. We have to consider it realistically, ask how we can act in an effective way to send off the worst dangers and use the opportunities that do exist to try to counter the worst and build a basis for something much better. I think there are real opportunities to address the legitimate concerns and fears of a substantial part of the Trump constituency and offer them something real, not something that’s a pure con.
Let’s take something concrete: One of the programs that he’s proposed, which on the surface makes sense, is the infrastructure program. The U.S. badly needs investment in the infrastructure all across the board, from fixing roads and bridges to building a successful educational system with enough teachers, decent schools, support for teachers, research and development, and so on. The few details that have come out from [Trump’s] advisors and from him indicate that the way they intend to do it is essentially by a taxpayer bribery of the corporate sector. They don’t use those terms, but what it means is the taxpayer credits to private business to build infrastructure that they will profit from.
An alternative would be an infrastructure program that develops things that we really need, like a high-speed rail, for example, or well-supported public-school systems with a decent teacher salary and respect for teachers. They’re not going to come out of the private sector by taxpayer bribery. These are going to require government investment, meaning popular commitment to use funds for the benefit of the general public. One constructive response to Trump would say, fine, let’s have an infrastructure program, but let’s do it the right way.
Do you see a day where your voice — progressive, authoritative, adversarial — will be non-existent, either as a result of government censorship, or because there’s no one capable of combating the powers that be like you have?
It’s always a question, but I don’t think it’s a question of primary concern. There have been much worse times, and there are plenty of opportunities and plenty of protection for freedom of speech and association, if we defend these rights energetically and pursue the opportunities that we have.
Is it daunting — or at times overwhelming — to be one of America’s most visible public intellectuals?
I don’t think of myself that way. I think everybody should be saying things like this, and thinking through. They’re not quantum physics, they’re pretty obvious, and I think most of us kind of understand them. What matters is what’s said, not who says it.
Your voice especially matters, though. Don’t you feel there’s a responsibility on your shoulders?
Same as your responsibility. Same as the responsibility of your friends. All of us have things we can do. We have opportunities, we should pursue them to the best extent we can.