It's March 2017, and the political process and the media in the U.S. are a depressing mess, on top of an ever-growing pile of issues that are not remotely being addressed, much less resolved by society: inequality, climate change, a global refugee crisis, you name it.
Donald Trump presents a new problem on top of the old familiar ones; a toxic multifront political disaster whose presence in the White House is doing damage to the national psyche on a daily basis. But in the first few months of his presidency it appears he is unwilling or unable to carry out almost any of the campaign promises he made to his base. Repealing Obamacare was supposed to be a cinch — well, that was a total disaster for Trump and the Republican party; the first big legislative rollout of his presidency, and it didn't even make it to a vote. What about canceling TPP? Trump did do that, right?
In a recent interview with the renowned intellectual and public commentator Noam Chomsky, he told me TPP was dead on arrival regardless of who was elected. What about scrapping NAFTA? Chomsky said he was doubtful Trump would be able to do much there either. What Trump appears to be doing, Chomsky observed, is ramming through the standard GOP wish list: tax cuts, corporate welfare, climate change denial. How would Trump's voters react to that? What we need to worry about, Chomsky says, is the potential for the Trump administration to capitalize on a "staged or alleged" terrorist attack. The text of our interview follows.
Jan Frel: Do you observe any meaningful signs of the key power factions in Washington aligning against Trump?
Noam Chomsky: Well, the so-called Freedom Caucus, which is a Tea Party outgrowth, has been refusing, so far, to go along with the health plan that he has advocated. There are other indications of the Tea Party-style far-right, separating themselves from Trump's proposals.
On the other hand, if you take a look at what is actually happening in Washington, apart from the rhetoric and what appears in Sean Spicer's press conferences and so on, the old Republican establishment is pretty much pushing through the kinds of programs that they have always wanted. And now they have a kind of open door that is Trump's cabinet, which draws from the most reactionary parts of the establishment. It doesn't have much to do with Trump's rhetoric. His rhetoric is about helping the working man and so on, but the proposals are savage and damaging to the constituency that thinks that Trump is their spokesperson.
JF: Do you think there will ever be a moment of awakening, or a disconnect for Trump's supporters of his rhetoric and what he's been doing in Washington, or can this just keep going?
NC: I think that sooner or later the white working-class constituency will recognize, and in fact, much of the rural population will come to recognize, that the promises are built on sand. There is nothing there.
And then what happens becomes significant. In order to maintain his popularity, the Trump administration will have to try to find some means of rallying the support and changing the discourse from the policies that they are carrying out, which are basically a wrecking ball to something else. Maybe scapegoating, saying, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't bring your jobs back because these bad people are preventing it." And the typical scapegoating goes to vulnerable people: immigrants, terrorists, Muslims and elitists, whoever it may be. And that can turn out to be very ugly.
I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly.
JF: Have you observed any rethinking in elite circles about how to protect and expand multilateral trade and investor agreements since the Brexit referendum, the election of Trump and his scrapping of TPP, and his threat to 'terminate NAFTA'?
NC: Well, first of all, TPP was kind of dead on arrival. Almost everybody was opposed to it. With regard to NAFTA, I rather doubt that Trump will actually move to abrogate NAFTA; there is too much involved in the integration with Mexico and Canada. There might be some changes, but in general the support for the forms of international trade agreements that have developed over recent years are a strong priority for elites. There's a lot wrong with them, and they ought to be changed. But for all of Trump's talk about what's wrong with them, I have yet to see a proposal as to what he thinks we ought to be doing.
JF: Do you observe any substantial divergence, on Trump's part, from the longer-term plans and project of the State Department and the Defense Department in the Middle East or in Southeast Asia?
NC: Well, his main policies that have been implemented and not just talked about are in the Middle East, where he has transferred authority more to the Pentagon. Relaxed conditions on drone strikes. Sent more troops. There have been more atrocities in Yemen and in Syria. There is more giving the Pentagon leadership more of a free hand. Which is not a huge change from Obama's policies, but a more violent and aggressive version of them.
JF: Do you see Russia as anything like a real threat to the integrated and allied industrialized countries in Europe and North America? Lost in the hysteria over Russia's potential interference in U.S. domestic affairs is that by virtually every measure of modern state power, Russia doesn't come close, whether it's finance, science and tech research, advanced manufacturing, agricultural and cultural exports.
NC: Yeah, it's all just a joke, as it was incidentally through the Cold War almost entirely. Right now the matter of Russian interference in U.S. elections has half the world cracking up in laughter.
I mean whatever the Russians may have been doing, let's take the most extreme charges, that barely registers in the balance against what the U.S. does constantly. Even in Russia. So for example, the U.S. intervened radically to support [Boris Yeltsin in 1993] when he was engaged in a power play trying to take power from the Parliament, Clinton strongly supported him. In 1996, when Yeltsin was running, the Clinton administration openly and strongly supported them, and not only verbally, but with tactics and loans and so on.
All of that goes way beyond what the Russians are charged with, and of course that is a minor aspect of U.S. interference in elections abroad: "If we don't like the election, you can just overthrow the country."
JF: MIT has released a massive archive of your work over the previous decades. Have you had the time to search through it, and did you learn anything about yourself?
NC: That is the kind of thing one doesn't want to learn. You know, there is a very rich collection there of some stuff that has been published, a lot of things like notes for classes over 60 years, and notes for talks over 60 years, and scraps of paper on which ideas are written. Looking through it all, I am sure that I will rediscover a lot of things that I have forgotten, but maybe rightly.
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