Noam Chomsky sat down earlier this summer with actor Wallace Shawn for the New York Public Library podcast. Chomsky brought his traditional dry sense of humor to the wide-reaching conversation, which ranged from the threats facing the survival of the human species to the popularity of Bernie Sanders.
Commenting on the threat of nuclear annihilation, Chomsky explained the history of the Doomsday Clock, which is a “very revealing, brief analysis of the state of the potential for human survival.”
Of the clock, he said, “Two years ago it was pushed forward to three minutes to midnight. A week into Trump’s term, it was moved to two and a half minutes to midnight—that’s the closest it’s been since 1953... Now it’s more dangerous than it has been throughout the whole nuclear age, and that’s now combined with the threat of global warming. So what are we doing about it? Well, what we’re doing about it is ignoring it.”
Shawn asked Chomsky about his belief in giving power to everyday people, even those “who are controlled by Fox News.” Chomsky elaborated on the distinction between elite power and the people in American history, beginning with the influence of slave-owning elites during the American Revolution, and how that’s manifesting in the Trump era:
“You take a look at the factors behind… what we call the American Revolution and this talk about taxation without representation, and so on, but there were other factors which were more significant... One of them was a decision by the British court [and] Lord Mansfield, a high British legal official in 1772 [who] declared that slavery is so odious that it cannot be tolerated in Britain.... American elites who were mostly slave-owners saw the handwriting on the wall, and that was undoubtedly a factor in their concern a couple of years later to liberate themselves from a country which might impose that here....
"The Vietnam War was the elites, the Iraq invasion was the elites…Take today’s policies. Today’s Republican leadership…is trying to carry out some of the most savage attacks on the American population in recent history… The [attacks are] not coming from Trump, they’re coming from Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership and his billionaire cabinet. That’s elites.”
Chomsky offered a theory on Trump voters as well.
“If you ask, why did people vote for Trump, there’s a lot of reasons. Some of them are understandable, quite understandable. As I’m sure you’ve seen it’s been discovered the last couple of years, that among the American white working class—lower middle class, white males mainly—something quite remarkable is happening, an increase in mortality. That doesn’t happen in developed societies except in war or something like that. And it’s apparently a kind of hopelessness, despair… Many of the people who voted for Trump, voted for Obama, working people, because they believed the propaganda about hope and change…They didn’t get hope, they didn’t get change, and now they’re listening to a con man who’s saying the same things.”
Chomsky said that while many things have not changed since Trump’s election, the focus on climate change has taken a large turn for the worse.
“Maybe the most dramatic of all is one that’s barely getting discussed and that’s the U.S. withdrawal from the rest of the world on the issue that’s of greatest significance to the prospects for human survival….Every country in the world with the exception of the United States is now committed to at least some actions on this issue. The U.S. was, too, up until November 8.”
COP 22, the climate conference in Morocco, took place the same time as the 2016 election.
“It was the follow-up to the Paris negotiations of December 2015…The intention in Paris was to reach a verifiable treaty, but that could not be done because of the Republican Party. The Republican Party would not accept binding commitments, so there were only sort of verbal commitments, and this follow-up conference was intended to sort of put teeth into the agreement. And the conference started, early November, taking place November 8. The day of the election, the World Meteorological Organization submitted a report of the situation of global warming, climate, a very dire report, and then the conference ended. The election returns came in, everybody was stunned. The rest of the conference was essentially, Can we continue, is there any hope of continuing when the most powerful, wealthiest country in world history is deciding not only not to participate but to drive the train backwards? And that’s been what’s proceeding since."
Chomsky also looked back at the 2016 election results.
“I think if you take a look at the last election the outcome in many ways is extremely optimistic. And the reason is the quite remarkable success of the Sanders campaign. Which remember, is a break, a sharp break of at least 100 years of American political history.”
Chomsky explained that despite campaign funding being a typical indicator of election results, Sanders surprised everyone.
“Sanders totally broke it, no funding, enormous success, now he’s the most popular candidate in the country. What does that tell you about the electorate? If somebody could approach people with policies that mean something to them, those… working people who voted for Obama and were disillusioned, don’t have to be disillusioned. There are policies, very sensible policies that could meet their perfectly justified hopes and aspirations. It doesn’t look like to me a hopeless situation—it seems to be a dysfunctional political and economic system which can be changed…The fact that it is a very free country, gives us the opportunities, just have to grasp them.”