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‘The most important election in history’ — Chomsky on Trump

A powerful Democracy Now! interview on the risk of a coup in the US, the climate crisis and the nuclear arms race

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Tear gas fired by BORTAC paramilitary troops hangs over anti-police brutality protesters outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, 22 July. In late July, US president Donald Trump chose the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC, a special forces arm of the US Border Patrol) as the lead agency in his effort to spark violent incidents in Democrat-controlled cities. PHOTO: TEDDER (CC BY-SA 4.0) 

We’re glad to be able to present the transcript of an interview of respected US social critic Noam Chomsky on the radical US TV/radio programme, Democracy Now! The interview was carried out on 23 July by hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! democracynow.org The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Barely 100 days before the presidential election in November, this week president Trump announced he is sending a surge of federal officers into large Democrat-run cities like Chicago.

This comes after Trump first sent federal agents to Portland, Oregon, where the camouflage-clad paramilitary agents attacked anti-racist protesters, even snatched activists off the streets in unmarked vans.

On Wednesday night, when federal forces fired tear gas at protesters in Portland once again, among those hit was Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as Portland’s police commissioner.

The response to Trump’s outrageous and likely unconstitutional deployment of federal agents has been resoundingly critical. Oregon governor Kate Brown denounced the ‘secret police abducting people’, and the Oregon attorney general has now sued several of the federal agencies involved.

“Four more years of Trump’s climate policies and nuclear policies might simply doom the human species”

In the streets, a contingent of women has grown nightly, protecting protesters by forming a ‘wall of moms’.

Oregon senator Ron Wyden described the federal agents as ‘essentially fascist’, and warned, ‘If the line is not drawn in the sand right now, America may be staring down the barrel of martial law in the middle of a presidential election.’

Well, for more on this and much more, we spend the rest of the hour with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist, and author, laureate professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Arizona and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than 50 years.

He spoke with Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I on Thursday. We reached him at his home in Tucson, Arizona, where he is sheltering in place with his wife, Valeria. I began by asking professor Chomsky to respond to the surge of federal agents Trump is promising to unleash on the country.

NOAM CHOMSKY: President Trump is desperate. His entire attention is – there’s one issue on his mind; that’s the election. He has to cover up for the fact that he is personally responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans. It is impossible to conceal that much longer.

Just compare the United States with Europe or even Canada; it’s becoming a pariah state to the point where Americans aren’t even permitted to travel to Europe. Europe won’t accept them.

His chances of victory depend on his doing something dramatic. He was trying very hard to set up military confrontations that you mentioned, martial law. It’s moving toward martial law. He might even be able to try to cancel the elections. There is no telling what he would do. He is completely desperate.

“There’s no precedent for sending militarised forces to control a city when there is total opposition on the part of the mayor, the governor, the senators, the population.”

This is like the actions of some tinpot dictator in a neo-colony somewhere, a small country that has a military coup every couple of years. There is no historical precedent for anything like this in a functioning democratic society. If he could send blackshirts out in the streets, he would be happy to do that.

Exactly how this will eventuate is very hard to say. The courts are unlikely to do anything. We may even get to a point where the military command has to decide which side they are on. The man is desperate. He is psychotic. He is in extreme danger of losing his position in the White House and will do anything he can to prevent it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Chomsky, what you just said echoed the concerns of senator Ron Wyden that we may be headed – the US may be headed towards the imposition of martial law. You’ve just called Trump psychotic, previously having referred to him as a sociopath. You pointed to the massive differences between Biden and Trump when we had you on earlier this year, saying about Biden that ‘he is pretty empty, you can push him one way or another’.

And you’ve also said that this is the most crucial election in human history, literally.

Now, in a Fox News interview just on Sunday [19 July], Trump refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the 2020 election:

Donald Trump: I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose. I don’t lose too often. I don’t like to lose.
Chris Wallace (Fox News Sunday): But are you gracious?
Trump: You don’t know until you see. It depends. I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.
Wallace: Are you suggesting that you might not accept the results of the election?
Trump: I have to see. Look, Hillary Clinton asked me the same thing.

SHAIKH: Could you comment on that and what your concerns are in the event – I mean, you’ve just said that, in fact, the elections somehow could be cancelled. Could you talk about under what conditions Trump might be able to do that? And in the event they are not cancelled, what are your concerns, depending on the outcome of the vote, what Trump might do?

CHOMSKY: Well, there are various manoeuvres that theoretically they might undertake. One might be to try to refuse to accept the vote, to make sure that the Republican governors don’t authorise their own electors. Technically, they could refuse.

Trump could throw it into the house [of representatives] where there are enough Republicans to essentially turn the election into the kind of farce that you find, as I said, in some tinpot dictatorship. That is one possibility.

Another possibility is he might just try to call out the military to impose martial law.

The point is, he [feels he] cannot lose.

First of all, he is psychologically incapable of losing.

Secondly, if he loses, if he leaves the White House, he may be facing serious legal problems. Now he has immunity, but there is a whole swamp around him. He has tried to keep it from being investigated.

He fired all the inspectors general when they were beginning to investigate it. When the federal attorney for the Southern District of New York, that’s Wall Street and so on, the most important federal judicial district, started looking into it, Trump fired him, replaced him with a flack from the private equity industry.

There is nothing he would not do to try to maintain office. Virtually nothing you can think of.

This is a major crisis.

There is been one or other form of parliamentary democracy for 350 years in England, and 250 years here, and nothing like this has happened before.

We are dealing with a figure who is out of the political spectrum for functioning democracies. And he has a political party behind him which by now has just turned into cowardly sycophants. They are terrified to cross his imperial majesty.

He has got a popular base of heavily-armed, angry white supremacist militias. There is no telling what he would do. I think the country, by November, may be a different country. And the world may be a different world, given US power.

But that is kind of the immediate issue.

The reason why this is the most important election in history has nothing to do with this.

Four more years of Trump’s climate policies and nuclear policies might simply doom the human species, literally.

We don’t have a lot of time to deal with the environmental crisis. It is very serious. Every prediction that has been made by scientists has been too conservative. Each time, it comes out worse.

I won’t run through the details but it is a major catastrophe looming. We have some time to deal with it.

Four more years of Trump might well take us to irreversible tipping points. At the very least, it will make it much harder to confront this growing crisis. There is no stopping the polar ice caps, the ice sheets from melting, the Amazon forest from being destroyed. Large parts of the world might become simply unliveable.

We are talking about potential sea rises of maybe one or two feet by the end of the century. Much more, later. This is all totally catastrophic. You can’t conceive of how human society can survive in an organised way.

At the same time, Trump is dedicated to destroying the arms control regime.

Last August he terminated the Reagan-Gorbachev INF [Intermediate Nuclear Forces] treaty, which helped control the potential for nuclear war growing from a European conflict.

Now he has dismantled the Open Skies Treaty that goes back to Eisenhower. [The treaty allows signatories to fly reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories – at short notice – to collect information on military forces and activities. – ed] That is gone.

Trump has imposed frivolous demands to try to delay negotiations on the New START treaty, which the Russians have been pleading for for a long time. [New START limits the number of US/Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, and the total number of air-, sea- and land-based launchers for strategic nuclear weapons on each side to 800. – ed] This is due for renewal in a few months.

It may already be too late to renegotiate New START, the last of the arms control treaties. Trump is now threatening to carry out nuclear weapons tests, tests that would undermine the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, almost 30 years old. The United States never ratified it, but has lived up to it.

All of this opens the door wider for other countries to react the same way.

The arms industry is of course euphoric. They’re getting huge new contracts to develop major weapons to destroy all of us. This encourages others to do the same.

So there will be new contracts down the road for hopeless means to try to defend ourselves against the monstrosities that we’re helping to construct.

This is Trump, racing toward this, apparently enjoying it.

The term you used, ‘sociopath’, is perfectly accurate. Whether this can be contained within the constitutional structures of the United States, we don’t know.

Something similar to this happened in the United Kingdom a couple of months ago. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, prorogated the parliament, closed the parliament, so that he could ram through his version of Brexit. This was regarded by British legal experts as the worst crisis in 350 years.

Well, in Britain, the supreme court nullified it. That is unlikely to happen here.

I might say that there is another country that is trying to mimic the United States, Brazil, with another ridiculous dictator, Jair Bolsonaro, who’s trying to be a clone of Trump.

He and his family are involved in all kinds of sordid criminal activities, they came under investigation. He fired the investigators. But that was blocked by the courts in Brazil. Not here.

When Trump fired them all, purged the executive, nothing from the courts. Nothing from the Republicans in congress.

Brazil at least has a thin barrier to another military dictatorship. The United States is in worse shape. This is pretty serious. There’s been nothing like it. There are no precedents that have any real relevance.

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Hundreds of women and nonbinary people in Portland, Oregon, USA, began putting themselves between federal agents and Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators as human shields on 20 July. This photo was taken on 24 July. On 29 July, Portland Wall of Moms splintered over allegations of lack of support by white women for Black women in the group, and the registering of ‘Wall of Moms’ as an NGO by its white founder, Bev Barnum – apparently without consulting the new Black leadership of the group. Both aspects were heavily criticised by the local BLM group, Don’t Shoot Portland. PHOTO: TONY FROM PNW (CC BY 2.0) 

SHAIKH: Professor Chomsky, you’ve mentioned again now the lack of safeguards there are in the US to the possible imposition of martial law.

But even in other countries around the world where martial law has been declared, it requires minimally the compliance of those who are in charge of the military. Do you see those in the US going along with Trump in the event that he chooses to attempt to declare martial law?

CHOMSKY: As I say, there is no precedent for this in any minimally-functioning democracy.

There are countries, many of them, where the military has taken over, often with US support or even initiative, because we wanted to overthrow the civilian government. And nothing like this has happened since – aside from the fascist regimes and war regimes, totally different conditions. There’s just no precedent.

There were, as you may recall, a couple of weeks ago, press reports with headlines about how Trump is expanding his purge of the executive, which has almost been cleansed of any controls or dissident voices.

He’s extending this to try to purge the military. Well, there were speculations at the time that the purge of the military might be preparation for a plan to try to bring the military in, to carry out something which would amount to a military coup.

The military so far has been refusing.

They pulled out the 82nd Airborne from Washington after Trump wanted it in there. They have been rejecting the proposals from the White House for more force and violence. That is why he is resorting to forces outside the official military in his current campaign to set up violent confrontations in Democratic-run cities, the plan right now.

What the military would do, we don’t know.

If you look for precedents in Third World dictatorships, it would depend on how those at the colonel level react, people close in contact with troops. But we have no precedent for anything like this. There’s nothing like it. This is a unique situation in modern history, in the modern history of the democratic, more-or-less democratic societies.

GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, I wanted to play for you what president Trump said on Fox News about the cognitive test he recently took, saying it was difficult:

Donald Trump: I took a test. I said to the doctor, it was Dr Ronny Jackson, I said: ‘Is there some kind of a test, an acuity test?’ And he said: ‘There actually is’, and he named it, whatever it might be. And it was 30 or 35 questions. The first questions are very easy. The last questions are much more difficult, like a memory question. It’s like you’ll go: ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV.’ So they would say: ‘Could you repeat that?’ So I said: ‘Yeah. So it’s person, woman, man, camera, TV.’ ‘OK, that’s very good.’ If you get it in order, you get extra points.

GOODMAN: President Trump keeps talking about aceing this cognitive test, a test that is given to see if someone is suffering from dementia, some kind of cognitive difficulties. This isn’t an IQ test. He continually goes back to it. Is the United States being run by a madman, Noam Chomsky?

CHOMSKY: As you say, the test is given for incipient dementia. But what can you say about a person who, before speaking before an adoring crowd, raises his eyes to heaven and calls himself the chosen one?

What can you say about an administration where the secretary of state says: ‘Perhaps Trump has been sent by the good lord to save Israel from Iran’? The country is being run by madmen.

There are no parallels to this.

In fact, you can see it in everything that is happening. You go back to late March or so, the United States was about the same as Europe in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. It was roughly the same.

Take a look at the chart since. Europe has sharply declined. It is not over the problems, not doing as well as Asia or Oceania, but way down.

The United States remains stable.

You look at the medical journals, they point out that Trump’s malfeasance and incompetence, just his lack of concern for the welfare of the population, has killed maybe 100,000 people. That’s a pretty significant slaughter.

And that is why he is flailing around wildly to find somebody to blame it on.

That is why he is using the current opportunity to send quasi-military forces, more or less paramilitary, to set up violent confrontations with Democratic mayors and governors.

And there’s no precedent for sending militarised forces to control a city in opposition – when there is total opposition on the part of the mayor, the governor, the senators, obviously the population.

This is treating the country like occupied territory, with the totally clear purpose of trying to set up confrontations which will somehow save him from electoral defeat.

And if there is defeat, he may just refuse to leave the White House, as he intimated on Fox News the other day, in which case you really have to ask, what happens next?

Does the military move in and remove him? Or what happens when militias start surrounding the White House? We don’t know.

This is a situation which has never arisen in a functioning democracy apart from the fascist takeovers in Italy and Germany, and in some other countries, in the interwar period.

Trump is sometimes, even by experts in the topic, said to be moving toward fascism.

I think, frankly, that gives him much too much credit.

Fascism was a serious ideology. I think it’s well beyond his ken or concern. This is more like a minor dictator in a small country that is subjected to military coups over the years.

There is no conception of introducing real fascist ideology. In fact, in some ways, we are almost the opposite of it.

The fascist systems were based on the principle that the powerful state under the leadership of the ruling party and the maximal leader should basically control everything.

They should run and control the society, including the business community.

We are almost the opposite. It is the business community controlling the government.

And any infringement on their power would lead to a kind of confrontation that is almost unimaginable.

So I don’t think it is fascism.

It is essentially tinpot dictatorship.

And he is desperate, he will do anything, almost anything imaginable, to try to keep himself from being tossed out of the White House.

How this will eventuate, we don’t know, but it is going to be a very difficult couple of months ahead.

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Armed white supremacist at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, on 12 August 2017. PHOTO: EVAN NESTERAK (CC BY 2.0)

GOODMAN: You talk about those in power, Noam Chomsky, profiting enormously now. You have Goldman Sachs reporting over $2.4bn in second-quarter profits. A new study by Americans for Tax Fairness found US billionaires have added $584 billion to their personal wealth since March.

That is a greater amount than the budget shortfalls of 23 US states.

They are making these profits in the midst of the pandemic, on the one hand, when you need stimulus packages to help those who are being crushed, who are soon to be evicted, when we are talking about an economic situation, the unemployed to a level we have not seen since the Great Depression. You write about this and speak about this.

How do people dig themselves out? What needs to happen right now in this country, Noam?

CHOMSKY: What you’re describing is... the country is in kind of a parody of the way it usually runs.

It is a country run essentially by the corporate sector, which has overwhelming influence on the government and which is kind of symbolised by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, who made $13bn in a single day.

They’re just running wild, using Trump and the administration or using the cover of the pandemic to increase their dedication to enriching the very rich and the corporate sector who are, of course, eating it up. They love it.

I mentioned military industry. That is another example of it.

You might regard it as a last-ditch effort to try to impose the maximal rule of extreme wealth and corporate power running parallel to the Mitch McConnell-Trump campaign to pack the judiciary top to bottom with young ultra-right Federalist Society lawyers who will be able to make sure that no matter what the public wants, nothing but their ultra-reactionary policies will ever be able to be implemented for at least a generation.

They are running on all stops to try to maintain what they have succeeded in largely getting through the neoliberal period, the last 40 years, an enormous concentration of wealth, concentration of political power, with the general population stagnating, declining, even to the point where there is an increase in mortality in the last few years among working-age people, white working-age men and women, mostly men, some women.

Nothing like this happens in functioning developed societies.

The Republicans know very well that they are a minority party.

Trump, in fact, pointed out not long ago that if there were fair elections, the Republicans would never win political office.

The country, basically, for a long time, has been pretty much a one-party state, the business party, with two factions. They have changed over time.

"Trump’s malfeasance and incompetence, just his lack of concern for the welfare of the population, has killed maybe 100,000 people."

In the last several decades, pretty much since [Newt] Gingrich [speaker of the house of representatives, 1995–1999], and extensively since [Mitch] McConnell [senate minority leader since 2006 and senate majority leader since 2015], the Republicans have just gone off the political spectrum.

If you look at international rankings, they’re alongside the European parties with neofascist backgrounds.

Serious political analysts describe them as a radical insurgency that has abandoned parliamentary politics. We talked a couple of days ago with Greg Palast, whose very interesting work has shown the extent to which they’re desperately trying to purge electoral lists to prevent the wrong people from voting so somehow they can hang on.

All of this is happening in parallel along with what you describe, the massive enrichment of the super-rich and the corporate sector under the cover of the pandemic.

Every couple of days, some executive decision or decision of one of the corporate clones, the corporate figures Trump placed in charge of the various agencies like the EPA [environmental protection agency], passes further legislation to smash the public in the face and enrich the rich, like cutting back pollution standards, which, of course, is great for the coal companies. They are hanging on by a thread, but we can keep them going longer to cause maximal destruction to organised human society.

Also, right in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, increasing pollution, of course, maximises deaths.

And it is selective.

Who are the people who live near the polluting factories? The people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

You don’t see Goldman Sachs executives living there. What you see is poor, black, Hispanic [people], Puerto Ricans. They are the ones who will take the brunt of it. They are already suffering much worse from the pandemic. This will make it worse.

It is kind of similar to what you see in Brazil where Bolsonaro is quite happy to see the indigenous populations of the Amazonian region facing literal genocide, first from destruction of the forest, now from the pandemic.

Many of them live hundreds of miles from the nearest health station. Illegal loggers come in and spread the pandemic – they die.
Do you think Bolsonaro minds? He thinks they ought to be eliminated.

He said so: ‘We don’t need those people, so let’s get rid of them altogether.’

So let’s get rid of the people living near the polluting industries. Who needs them? They vote the wrong way, anyway. They’re the wrong colour.

This is something happening in the world under the US aegis, which is literally unparalleled in modern history, again with the single exception of the true fascist states in developed society. There are no other words to describe it.

Democracy Now! has been an audience-supported independent media project since 1996. It broadcasts an hour-long programme five days a week. This is a lightly-edited version of the transcript for much of the 24 July edition of Democracy Now! You can watch or listen to this programme and others at: www.democracynow.org