The following is part of an interview Noam Chomsky gave to Sam Fragoso in Pacific Standard a few days ago:
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 depressed discussion 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.
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.