Rebel in the Desert: Noam Chomsky on Donald Trump’s America

For the past seven decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of America’s most famous and most radical intellectuals. A groundbreaking thinker in the field of linguistics, Chomsky expanded his notoriety via a principled opposition to US foreign policy and cutting analysis of the propagandistic nature of the corporate media.

Last year, at the age of 89, Chomsky relocated from his longtime home at MIT in Boston to the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was there this past May that, at the end of a dark hallway on that desert campus, I met with Chomsky to discuss the RussiaGate scandal, Donald Trump’s relationship with the media, well-known conspiracy theories, and his response to critiques from right-wing libertarians.

PRIMO NUTMEG: Thank you again for meeting with me. I really do appreciate it. It’s always an honor to speak with one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era. So, I sincerely do appreciate your time.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Thank you very much.

PN: It’s likely that the key story that will define the Trump presidency is the so-called “RussiaGate” accusations. I know that you previously stated that these claims were something of a joke and that Trump himself is largely a distraction. But could you please clarify if you think Russia did anything devious, if leaking the DNC emails are really even a crime, or if you believe that Russia did collude with Trump, but that the story has been manipulated by the mainstream media to create sort of a Neo-McCarthyist Red Scare?

NC: I presume that Russia had an interest in the outcome of the election and probably tried to influence it. I don’t consider that a major issue. For one thing, if you want to consider intervention in elections, there are vastly greater ones.

So, for example, it’s well-established by very solid, empirical work by academic political scientists—Thomas Ferguson is the major one—that American elections are, in a certain sense bought, in the sense that you can predict the outcome of an election with extreme precision simply by looking at the single variable of campaign-funding.

And, in fact, Ferguson did a very close, careful analysis of the 2016 election, which verified this hypothesis in a way that most people aren’t aware of: He looked closely at the way campaign-funding worked, and it turned out that, in the last stages of the campaign, when the big investors and capitalist interests became afraid—they didn’t like Trump, but they were afraid that there might be a moderately-liberal Democrat—they poured money in a very targeted way not just to the President’s but to the Senate and House elections, and that led to a change which is reflected in the vote.

So that’s real manipulation of elections. Massive manipulation. Did the Russians do something minor? Maybe.

Furthermore, manipulation of elections by external powers is pretty normal. The United States, in fact, is the champion in that regard. We not only intervene in elections; we overthrow governments if we don’t like them, things like that.

In fact, if you want to look at manipulation of elections recently, the most striking example, which to my knowledge has only been reported in the business press—Bloomberg, Business Week—is the last German elections. Everyone was surprised by the rise in the votes gained by the more-or-less neo-fascist party, Alternative für Deutschland. It turns out that there was a campaign organized by a Texas media company that works for Trump, Le Pen, Netanyahu, others. They collaborated with the Berlin Facebook office, which provided them with a detailed demographic analysis of voters in Germany. And they were able to micro-target election-based ads to these individuals in a way which seems to have had a fairly significant influence on the rise of the neo-fascist party. That’s a detectable case. Others may exist or may not.

In fact, the US not only intervenes in elections—let’s say, in Russia for example—but is very proud of it. So Clinton massively intervened in the 1996 elections in which Yeltsin, his favorite, was elected. And it was considered a great triumph. It wasn’t hidden.

So maybe the Russians tried to do something. There’s no indication that it had much effect, doesn’t seem to me a significant issue.

I think it’s picked up by the Democrats and by the liberal press because they hate Trump, of course, and are trying to find some way to undermine him. Democrats are seeking an excuse for why they lost an election, which should have been an open-shut affair if they’d had ran a decent campaign and had had decent programs.

PN: Well, what’s interesting is if you look back to the 2012 election, President Obama was very critical of Mitt Romney’s position on Russia, and was saying that it was a Cold War era position. I believe he even said at one point that “the 1980s called.”

What do you think it was that caused the Democrats to suddenly become such hawks against Russia? Was it what happened with Ukraine? Or was there maybe something else that has caused this new wave of, again, what seems like a second Cold War almost?

NC: Well, you know, the roots are pretty deep. You have to look back to the collapse of the Soviet system if you want to understand what’s happening.

In around 1990, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. The question was: what’s going to happen next? And there were two quite different visions. Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking for the former Soviet Union, advanced the idea of what he called “a common European home.” That there should be a single, broader European home—including Western Europe, including Russia—eliminate all military alliances, have a common security system, and work towards a common, integrated future.

The US wasn’t having any of that. George Bush I and his Secretary of State, James Baker, had their proposal. What they wanted, and what Gorbachev agreed to, was a unified Germany that would become part of NATO.

For Gorbachev to agree with that is a pretty substantial concession. After all, Russia had practically been destroyed twice in the century by Germany alone. Germany as part of a hostile military alliance is a little frightening from a Russian perspective. But he agreed.

And there was a quid pro quo. The quid pro quo was that NATO would not move, the phrase was, “one inch to the east.” By that they meant East Germany. Nobody was talking about anything beyond that. That was never in writing. It was a gentleman’s agreement. And when the US very quickly moved NATO into East Germany, Bush and Baker argued that there was only a verbal discussion, never an official commitment.

We can debate that, but what next happened under Clinton is that NATO expanded all the way to the Russian border. And from the Russian point-of-view, which we should try to understand, that’s the traditional invasion route, through which Russia has been repeatedly invaded and virtually destroyed. Now all part of a hostile military alliance.

The US went on, including under Obama. George Bush II had withdrawn from the ABM Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It’s well-understood that what’s called “missile defense” is, in effect, a first-strike weapon. Nobody believes that any conceivable missile defense would ever stop a first strike. Conceivably it might stop a retaliatory strike, which makes it, in effect, a first strike weapon. These are being placed right near the Russian border. The claim is that they are defense against Iran, but the claim isn’t even laughable.

It was pointed out right at the time—at the beginning of the expansion—by George Kennan and other statesmen, that expanding to the Russian border was a tragic error of historic significance. It virtually guaranteed tension and conflict at the border, which is extremely dangerous. And, of course, that’s taken place.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy was subjected to a rapid marketization—“shock therapy” it was called—which devastated the economy in the ’90s. The economy was in almost total collapse. Millions of people died. It was a monstrosity from the point-of-view of the Russian population.

And there was a reaction. Putin came in and restored a kind of nationalist effort to restore Russia’s place in the world, its power, build its economy and so on. All of this led to an inevitable conflict.

The Obama Administration tried to, at first, what was called “reset” relations with Russia, become more amicable. But that broke down under disagreements over a series of issues. Ukraine, which you mentioned, was one. There were others. And policy reversed. Clinton herself was pretty much a hawk on Russia.

Now the situation is mixed. There’s interactions on Syria. There’s threatening conflicts. And there is what’s often called a New Cold War.

PN: Another thing that’s pretty remarkable about the Trump Administration and about his campaigning is that he largely ran against the corporate media. He obviously has called them “fake news” many times. And, at some points in his campaigning, he also even took dovish approaches. He was seemingly criticizing Hillary Clinton from the left on Iraq, for example, and—

NC: That was a joke. He supported the Iraq War. After it turned into a disaster, everyone became a late opponent of the war.

PN: Well, what I was just going to ask about is generally the relationship between the media and Trump. Because another thing that’s kind of funny is that the media, although they are very critical of Trump, when he does something like bomb Syria, that’s when they seem to celebrate him. And, in fact, some of the criticism against Trump—for example from Rachel Maddow—has been that he’s being too soft on North Korea recently.

So what is your overall take on this at-least-supposed rivalry between Donald Trump and the corporate media?

NC: First of all, it’s not true. Donald Trump had enormous support from the corporate media. Fox News is the most-watched cable news program. There’s no other media outlet that has been so openly and fanatically politicized. Others try to be more-or-less neutral, whether they succeed or not. But Fox doesn’t even try.

Apart from that there’s the radio system. Talk radio, which has been taken over by the far right, reaches huge numbers of people. And, again, it’s so extreme you can barely describe it.

So that’s huge media support. Trump had enormous corporate support, plenty of funding. The campaign ran a billion dollars or so. Enormous media support.

And he’s a canny politician. He understood very well that a good part of the population is extremely disillusioned, angry, frightened, doesn’t like what’s happening. This is happening all over the world, incidentally. Same in Europe. Take a look at the last Italian election, or practically every recent European election. The main kind of centrist parties, center-left or center-right, are being virtually destroyed. There’s an anger, a fear, a contempt for institutions, looking for something else. And the reasons are not that obscure.

Starting roughly in 1980, general social and economic policy shifted towards what is called neoliberalism, which is designed in ways in which lead to sharp concentration of wealth and stagnation or decline for much of the population. So real wages in the United States are roughly what they were in the 1960s. Productivity has increased, but it’s not going to labor. It’s going to capital. There is growth, but very few hands.

Meanwhile, public services decline. And as wealth concentrates, that means that its power over government concentrates, almost automatically, by many means—lobbying, all sorts of ways that are familiar. So the government becomes less and less responsive to popular interests. You find, in effect, a decline in functioning democracy.

Well, all of these phenomena do lead to extreme discontent and hatred of establishment institutions. Trump was able to capitalize on that. It’s total pretense, of course, to be working for the ordinary, common man. Meanwhile he’s shafting them in every possible way, but gaining their popular support by catering to their often pretty legitimate grievances.

In fact, what’s actually happening in the Trump Administration, whether by design or by accident, is kind of a two-tiered program: Trump gets the media to focus on him. And, in fact, that’s his one doctrine: Me. Everything follows from that.

So he does one crazy thing after another. The media focuses on it. They spend time criticizing it. A couple days later they expose the lies. Meanwhile he’s on to something else. All of this appeals to his base and leads to the picture of the media as sort of picking on the guy who is speaking for us.

While he’s doing that—and the media are kind of cooperating by the way they focus on this—the really savage wing of the Republican Party—Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, those guys—are ramming through legislation which is extremely harmful not only to the general population, but to the world at large. And that’s kind of in the corner.

So the media do not focus on the major issues in the Trump Administration. The most significant one by far—it overwhelms everything else—is the race of the Republican Party towards destruction of an environment in which organized human life can survive. That’s not a small fact. These are imminent problems for this generation or the next. Deep problems. And it’s kind of astounding that the most powerful country in world history has departed, openly and publicly, from the international effort to at least do something about the problem and, beyond that, is racing to try to increase the destruction. And the equally-astounding fact is that this isn’t a headline every day. In fact, it’s not just the United States—although the US is in the lead.

Take, say, the one Republican achievement that they are proud of: the tax bill. It’s a total giveaway to the rich and the corporate sector. It’s not gonna help anyone else. But if you appeal to the anger and, of course, a large part of the Trump support is Evangelical churches, so you give them whatever they want, you know, a chance to be politicized, a Supreme Court justice, then you can keep the base in-line while meanwhile serving your actual constituency, which is the rich and corporate power, and shafting everyone else.

It’s a workable program. So far he’s succeeded. I have to give him credit for it.

PN: So I did mention Syria. Trump did of course bomb Syria again this year as he did almost one year to the day prior. Both of those bombings were predicated on the accusation that Assad used chemical weapons on “his own people.” Do you believe that those gas attacks took place, or that they were carried out by the Assad regime?

NC: I think that the weight of evidence suggests that they were probably carried out and carried out by the Assad regime. But the fact is that we don’t have really strong evidence, overwhelming evidence. If I had to make a guess, I’d say, yes that’s what happened. And, in fact, you could even think of reasons for it.

But the bombing was a purely symbolic act. First of all, they didn’t know it. So they didn’t have strong evidence for it. Secondly, it was pretty plainly coordinated with the Russians so that there wouldn’t be any conflict. They bombed targets that didn’t seem of any significance. One of them may have been, in fact, a medical facility.

And it was a one-shot affair, mainly for the usual reasons: to fire up the base, gain some support, look as if you’re tough, doing something different from Obama. Those are the main criteria. It doesn’t matter what the consequences are.

PN: A lot of folks out there have denied that Assad carried out that attack. And that position has been labeled a “conspiracy theory.” I did just want to talk with you about this term because I know that it’s a somewhat complicated term because a lot of things can be labeled a “conspiracy theory.”

There are conspiracies that are happening by the wealthy and powerful. There are conspiracy theories that the media itself pushes, like the Russia collusion. And there are insane conspiracy theories about a reptilian illuminati.

When you hear this term “conspiracy theory,” are there any conspiracy theories that you believe might have been purposely-delegitimized, things that actually might have happened, such as if the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, RFK, MLK, if any of those assassinations were carried out by the US government? Overall, are there any “conspiracy theories” that you think might actually be legitimate?

NC: There are conspiracies all the time. Just go back to Adam Smith, an iconic figure. He wrote in his famous book, Wealth of Nations, that if you see a few businessmen talking to each other privately, they’re probably engaged in a conspiracy against the public. That’s the normal kind of conspiracy: when those in power get together to try to achieve their gains, often in secret. Sometimes you find out about it later. So that happens all the time. That’s normal life.

The term “conspiracy theory” is used to refer to ideas that the speaker wants to delegitimize, maybe correctly, maybe not correctly. But you just have to take a look at any one of these proposals on its face, forget the name, and ask: Is it plausible? Is it pointing to something? Is it discovering something?

PN: Well, for instance, I think that the most popular, or the most widely-received “conspiracy theories” would be that the US government took part in the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. Do you think that, in any of those three instances, that might actually be the case?

NC: I think it’s conceivable in the Martin Luther King case. Maybe not the government, but some element in the government might have had a role in that.

In the John F. Kennedy case, it’s extremely unlikely. There’s a lot of confusion about this. I’ve written about it. I don’t take any stand on who killed John F. Kennedy. Maybe the mafia, maybe somebody else. But I think the evidence is overwhelming that it was not a high-level conspiracy with policy consequences. That much we can check by looking at the evidence.

What were the policy positions of Kennedy? What changed after the assassination? The answer is, essentially none. A lot of it focuses on a completely misinterpreted national security memorandum, NSAM-273, in which Kennedy agreed, rather reluctantly, with a proposal from McNamara that troops should be withdrawn from Vietnam in another year or so. But what’s overlooked is that he added “after victory.” He insisted that it be “after victory.”

It looked at the time, as if the US might have succeeded in its goal in establishing a client regime in South Vietnam. It looked optimistic at the time. So he said, “Well, if that’s true, okay, then we don’t need troops anymore.” But that’s not a dovish position. In fact, if he had been interested in withdrawing, there was a perfect opportunity just shortly before.

In August 1963, the government discovered that the Diem brothers running South Vietnam, running the client state, were negotiating with the North, to try to settle on some peaceful, negotiated settlement that would end the war. If Kennedy had been interested in withdrawing, that was a perfect opportunity. He could’ve taken credit for it, saying, “Okay, we have peace. The war’s over. Let’s come home.” What did they do? They decided to overthrow the government and install a super-hawkish general. That was right at the same time. And until the end, he remained one of the more hawkish parts of the government. And if you look at the other cases, I think the thing collapses.

In the Robert Kennedy case, I think there’s questions about what happened, but I don’t know of any evidence that the government might have been involved. In the King case, it’s somewhat different.

PN: Another range of conspiracy theories has to do with central banking and how the Federal Reserve, for example, was established on Jekyll Island when a bunch of wealthy bankers met. I know that you, in the past, have said that a central bank is necessary in our current economic system, or current world. But it seems that a lot of monetary theorists trace back most of our social ills to central banks.

Thomas Greco, for example, has highlighted how tight monetary policies lead to artificial scarcity and the cancerous, consumptive nature of the global financial system. So shouldn’t it really be in the forefront of a popular movement to also take on monetary policies and oppose the current central banks that we have, and maybe create local currencies like the EF Schumacher Institute does with Bay Bucks, or maybe something even more radical than that?

NC: Well if you want to talk about a radical change in the economic system, there are all sorts of possibilities. You could have community-based banking systems. You could have control of the total financial system. But that means overthrowing capitalism. We’re not talking about small things here.

If you’re going to have anything like the kind of state capitalist system that prevails in the United States, Europe, and to varying degrees the rest of the world, then it just won’t be managed without a central banking system. It’s not a conspiracy.

PN: What are your thoughts on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies?

NC: The background system, blockchain system, is probably a useable system. But I’d be very surprised if Bitcoin really survives as a major part of the economy. Maybe.

PN: Well, it’s really been pushed by right-wing libertarians. And this is something else that I would like to ask you about, since this is another group that really opposes the Federal Reserve.

I know that you’ve said that right-wing libertarianism is essentially barbaric and would lead to private concentrations of power. But what I wonder often is if, in a truly free society, wouldn’t there be different economic systems in different places and wouldn’t some people be allowed voluntarily to have what some might call “anarcho-capitalism”?

NC: Sure, if certain people decide, “We want to be slaves,” I don’t think they should be stopped. I don’t expect it to happen if the options are available. But I wouldn’t like to see a society in which concentrated force, including military force, blocks people who say, “We want to be slaves of some master.”

If people say, “We want to rent ourselves to somebody”—which is temporary slavery as classical liberals described it—I don’t think that should be barred. But I think that better options can be provided which people will accept.

PN: Well, I did actually have a question for you from a right-wing libertarian, Walter Block. I don’t know if maybe you’ve heard of his name before. He’s involved with the Mises Institute. He’s also an Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans. I just wanted to read you a question that he has. Again, these aren’t my words, they aren’t very delicate. I’m not trying to be insulting, I’m just reading what he wrote.

NC: That’s fine.

PN: He says, “You lefties favor sexual and other acts between consenting adults. Why not also capitalist acts between consenting adults? Like, hiring someone for $6/hour, less than the minimum wage. You think that’s exploitative? But if the worker agrees, that’s the best opportunity he sees for himself. Ditto sweat shop labor. Ditto using money. You call yourself an anarchist, and yet would have the government prohibit by law these things?”

NC: First of all, consent is a very curious notion. It’s well-understood, all the way back in the tradition of classical liberalism—James Mill, John Stuart Mill, others—that hiring yourself, that renting yourself to someone, essentially, is temporary slavery. Now do you consent to that? Well, if the choice is starving, yes probably you consent to that. But that’s a curious kind of consent. You have to look at the conditions under which people make agreements.

If there’s an enormous disparity of power between the owner and the person renting himself, under those conditions to talk about consent is a joke. It’s like saying, if I’m holding a big club, and you’re over there, and I say, “I want you to lie down on the floor.” And your choice is either, I’ll lie down on the floor or have my head smashed by a club. You consented to lie down on the floor. But do we take that seriously?

PN: It’s also just worth mentioning that Dr. Block asked for the opportunity to debate you. He’s even said that he would come here to Arizona. I just was interested, would you possibly debate him if he wanted to come out here?

NC: Possibly. The concept of debate, first of all, is one of the most irrational inventions that human beings have come up with. Just think about what a debate is. The ground rules for a debate are that you’re not allowed to change your mind. You’re not allowed to say to the person who you’re talking to, “That was an interesting idea. Let’s pursue it.” It’s just the height of irrationality.

I mean, I sometimes participate in them if there’s some point to doing it. But I think it’s a totally ridiculous notion.

Suppose we have a graduate seminar in the sciences. Is it set up as a debate? Or do we have an interchange in which people have proposals and they discuss them and if somebody else has an idea that you think makes some sense, you pursue it, and so on. That’s what a sane, rational interchange among grownup human beings should be. Not, “Here’s my position. There’s your position. I stick to it no matter what.”

I mean, it’s a game, if you like. Like a football game. Maybe it’s fun for people to play. But it’s not a rational interchange. So, as I say, I sometimes agree to participate while recognizing that it’s the height of irrationality.

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