The election of Joe Biden has not demolished the Republican Party, or that party’s ongoing attempts to block policies that might give humanity a chance at survival. Moreover, the advent of the Biden administration has not negated some of the most persistent threats we face. In this interview, renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the importance of critical thinking, the deep existential threat of the climate crisis, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and the tragic continuity of U.S. foreign policy between presidential administrations. Chomsky also emphasizes the urgency of ending the tyranny of pharmaceutical companies and making COVID-19 vaccine technology available to all.
George Yancy: For you, in its current instantiation, the Republican Party is willfully attempting to undermine the conditions for the survival of human society itself. When I think about this, it is clear to me that political parties place profound emphasis on gaining power. Without necessarily psychologizing this, is it that the Republican Party embodies a death wish or some kind of profound nihilism?
Noam Chomsky: There’s a lot of factors, but some of them are on the surface, before we get into psychology. First of all, Trump had an enormous effect. There were plenty of problems in the party, but he just poisoned it and by now he owns it. He was a genius at tapping into all of the poisonous currents that lie right beneath the surface in America, which includes white supremacy, and “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories. He knew very well how to bring up such poisons, mobilize them, and turn them into a raging force of terrified people who think the world is coming to an end. That’s the kind of genius that Adolf Hitler had, and others who are not very pretty people. And Trump still has these people; they have taken over the party. David Brooks, who is a longtime dedicated Republican, argues that the GOP is far worse than we think.
Let’s take climate change. When you examine the climate policy, there are things that happened that tell us a lot about American politics. If you go back, just before Trump, which is the last time when Republican leaders could actually talk without the Trump shadow, it’s very interesting to look at the Republican primaries. I’m referring to a time when there is the cream of the crop of the Republican leadership. There’s no Trump yet. Every single one either denied that climate change is happening or said if it’s happening then they don’t care. There was one Republican, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was described as the “sane” one, as the adult in the room. He was considered so decent that he was invited to speak at the 2020 Democratic Convention. He was considered a “good Republican.” I think that he was worst of the lot. If you look back at what he said, he was the one person who said, ‘Yes, global warming is happening, humans are responsible for it, and the science is right.’ But as governor of Ohio, he said that we in Ohio are going to use coal and not apologize for it. He was aware that they were destroying the world, destroying the prospects for human life, but he said that he would do it and not apologize for it. Now, that’s the “sane” person in the room that you invite to Biden’s Democratic National Convention speech. That tells you something about the mentality — and not just the Republicans.
But why did the Republican Party become such dedicated denialists? This wasn’t always true. It wasn’t true in 2008 when John McCain ran for president. He did have a climate plank in his platform, not very much, but something other Republicans in the Senate were beginning to consider. They were considering moderate measures to do something about global warming. Well, the Koch brothers, who own a huge energy conglomerate, heard about this effort. They had been working for years to try to ensure that the Republican Party didn’t make a move toward trying to do anything that would harm their profits. Perhaps some of the Republicans may have been true believers, maybe they really were, but who cares? Maybe Hitler really believed that the Jews were poisoning civilization, and that he and others believed that they had to save themselves, but it doesn’t matter if they believe it or not. So, if David Koch talked himself into it, I don’t care. The Koch brothers were devoting themselves to controlling the party, making sure it didn’t have any hint of concern for climate change. When they heard about this deviation, they went into overtime to try to cut it off at the pass. As a huge juggernaut, they engaged in massive lobbying, threats, buying off senators and astroturfing. Everything you could think of. Then the Republican Party shifted: “There is no more a serious climate problem.” And since this, they have been a party of denialists. And the leadership is dedicated to this. They have a media echo chamber at Fox News. They had Rush Limbaugh, when he was around, and others. When it comes to the voting base, well, that’s their world; they turn to Fox News for their source of information. They are being bombarded with this stuff and the results are clear.
There was a recent Pew Research Institute poll that had very interesting results. It gave people a choice of 15 options for what they thought was a major problem. And they divided it into Republicans and Democrats. Democrats were not all that great I should say, but among the Republicans, it’s shocking. The least important issue for them was climate change. It’s only the most important question that’s ever arisen in human history. Is our species going to survive in any recognizable form? This question has to be answered right now — this generation. However, climate change, along with sexism, was ranked the least important issue. What’s at the top of the list? Well, “illegal” immigrants and the budget deficit. And notice the budget deficit became an issue this January. Before that it was not a problem. It was great to have a budget deficit, because the Republicans were creating it to enrich their constituency of great wealth. So, it was fine to have a budget deficit. However, as soon as the Democrats come in, the budget deficit is the most urgent problem we face, along with an assumption that there will be a “hoard of illegal immigrants” who are going to carry out the “Great Replacement,” and carry out genocide against the white race. You know the litany.
Well, if people are living in that world, you can kind of understand why about 40 percent of Republicans say that it’s right to use political violence to protect the country from what’s “happening.” But you can’t even call it surreal. It’s often from outer space, but it’s working. Take a look at Marjorie Taylor Greene. For her, it’s literally from outer space. After all of the ridiculousness got exposed, her funding shot into the stratosphere. She is now getting more support than anyone else. And you can see it from people who believe this. Incidentally, these are not poor people. The Robert Pape studies and other studies, for example, Anthony DiMaggio’s work, show that the main Republican Trump base is moderately affluent. It’s people who are above the median. Not very rich, but people who own stores, run construction businesses, insurance salesmen. What used to be called the petty bourgeoisie, those above the median but not great. These are people who see their traditional lives being taken away from them. They have been harmed by neoliberal policies where their communities may be collapsing. You go to a rural town in the United States and their businesses are closed down, the bank is shuttered, and young people are leaving their traditional “happy” white Christian, white supremacist environments…. Well, that is all disappearing. You can build this up to the “Great Replacement,” where the idea is that they’re all trying to take it away from us and kill us all. All of these things feed together, but right on top of it, you have a highly corrupt, cynical leadership which is willing to be bought off to become deniers of what’s happening, which happens to be on the verge of destroying human life on Earth.
And incidentally, it’s not the first time that this has happened. Just go back 50 years to Richard Nixon and the Southern strategy. It’s not very different. Nixon recognized that you have to have limited civil rights, very limited, for African Americans. By doing so you’re going to alienate the Southern white population. In this way, he’s going to set up a racist party, which will pick up white Southern votes. It was perfectly open; it wasn’t concealed. A few years later, in the mid-1970s, the Republican strategist Paul Weyrich had a flash of light and realized that if the Republican Party pretended to be opposed to abortion, they could pick up the huge Evangelical vote and make inroads into the Northern Catholic vote, a lot of whom were Democrats. I stress pretended as the leading figures in the Republican Party were what we now call pro-choice. Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, in the 1960s, passed one of the strongest legislations giving women the right to choose. The same with George H.W. Bush, and the same with the rest of them, but they turned on a dime. They all became passionately anti- abortion. The whole anti-abortion policy, within this context, is a fraud…. You can’t even call it cynicism. I don’t know what’s the right word. It’s evil incarnate, and it’s running across the board.
And you can’t blame just [Republicans]. Take the current situation with vaccines. Unless vaccines go to the Global South, to the poorer countries, to Africa, to Asia, unless they get vaccines quickly, the virus is going to mutate. It’s already happening, you get more lethal strains. You may get something like Ebola, which is so lethal you can’t do anything about it. Pretty soon it’s going to spread back to Europe. You guys are all going to die. What are they doing? Holding on to the vaccines, refusing to give them to Africa and Asia. It’s not just beyond immoral, especially considering what Europe did to these areas over the centuries, it’s suicidal. It is the importance of greed and ensuring that I have what I need which overwhelms everything. A large part of it is protecting the so-called intellectual property rights of the big pharmaceutical corporations. We’ve got to make sure that they make exorbitant profits, even if we kill ourselves…. This is a malady that is deep-seated. An important step was taken by President Joe Biden when he announced that the U.S. would support a temporary waiver of patent rights at the World Health Organization. That will initiate a long negotiating process with many pitfalls, and will not relieve the horrendous crisis in India or the immediate problems of lack of vaccines for the poorer areas. Much more must be done, without delay.
I think that this raises the issue of the crucial importance of education. You’ve argued that education is often a site of indoctrination, which you link with the essential point that critical questions are not being asked, where there are not enough people who are being disobedient. Do you still hold this position? I suspect that you still hold this to be true because I don’t think that many of us are asking those necessary questions. And we don’t seem to be disobedient, especially in ways that challenge how we are not being good stewards of the Earth, not only in terms of climate change, the use of fossil fuels, but in terms of how we are finding ourselves on the precipice of a nuclear war.
Along with global warming, another enormous threat to survival, which is not even discussed is the threat of nuclear war. Anyone who’s looked at the record will know that it is virtually a miracle that we’ve escaped total destruction over the last 75 years. There’s case after case, sometimes often just by accident, where we came perilously close to the missiles going off, which means basically the end for us all. Human intervention, at the last minute, blocked such a devastation. There are cases of very reckless actions by leaders, including those who many people — not me — respect. Think here of John F. Kennedy. His very reckless actions brought us very close to the brink of terminal war. You look over the record, and it’s just shocking, but it’s getting worse…. Trump’s worst crimes are his environmental policies and his nuclear policies. There was an arms control regime which had laboriously been put together since Dwight Eisenhower, bits and pieces, but it was something at least. When in office, the main thing that Trump understood was, “Let’s wreck things! I want to be on the front page, and I have no clue what to do so I’ll wreck things.” That was basically the policy. And one of the things that he wrecked was the arms control regime, step by step, every piece he could destroy. He didn’t just wreck it, but wrecked it with a declaration: “I want you to come in and join me.” Immediately after dismantling the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] in August 2019, which was the Reagan-Gorbachev treaty, which had been very valuable in reducing the threat of war in Europe, Trump sent off missiles, which had obviously been prepared, which violated the treaty. He’s telling the Russians, “Hey, boys. Join us in this fun game of destroying everything.” Trump destroyed the Open Skies Treaty, which goes back to Eisenhower. Trump was within hours of destroying the last of the treaties. In fact, it was Biden who came in literally hours before the New START Treaty — which Trump had been avoiding Russian efforts to extend — was about to expire. And meanwhile [Trump] was building new, more destructive weapons, and moving into weaponizing space, which others will follow. This is asking for suicide. People in the arms control community are well aware of it, and warning about it, but it barely gets mentioned.
Biden, unfortunately, is picking up the military program. It’s already well beyond anything that we need. Going back to your question about being disobedient, I would put it a little differently. I would stress just questioning. There is a rule of thumb that everyone should have in mind. It should be built-in from childhood. If everybody agrees on something that’s more complicated than two plus two equals four, a light should go off in your head. Nobody can agree totally on anything moderately complicated. So, if everyone agrees, then it’s probably deep indoctrination, and there’s some scam going on behind it. You should believe that in the sciences, in ordinary life and certainly in political life.
So, what are the things that every right-thinking person believes? We’ve got to face the threat of China and the threat of Iran. Everyone believes it, and so it’s obviously a question of some complexity. So, ask yourself: What’s the threat of China and what’s the threat of Iran? Well, you start asking that question, then the whole ideological system collapses. You start pushing it, and you know a lot of things are wrong, but they are not threats. So, Iran has a rotten government, not as bad as the ones we support like Saudi Arabia but pretty rotten. But is that a threat to us? Suppose Iran was developing nuclear weapons, which we have no reason to believe. Would that be a threat to us? If Iran had a nuclear weapon, could they use it, could they arm a missile with it? If they did, the country would be vaporized. The ruling clerics, which are not my favorite people, or yours, have no particular instinct for immediate suicide and losing everything that they have. American intelligence says the same thing. In the past they said if [Iran had] a nuclear program, then it would be part of their deterrence strategy. Why does a country have a deterrence strategy? Well, because somebody is ready to attack them. Who’s ready to attack them? The countries that are at war with them already, which is the United States and Israel. When the United States boasts of carrying out cyber war that destroys Iranian facilities, that’s an act of war. When Israel assassinates nuclear scientists and blows up facilities, that’s an act of war. We are openly and proudly at war with Iran. So, should they develop a deterrent capacity? Is that a threat to us if they do? In a way, yes. If a country wants to rampage freely in the region, and they don’t want to have deterrence around, yes, that’s kind of a threat.
Pursue this further, you see more. There are a lot of things China shouldn’t be doing. The internal repression in China is serious. Not as bad as a lot of things we do but serious. Yes, they should not be doing that, though it isn’t a threat to us. And, unfortunately, we can’t do much about it. We can do a lot about the repression we’re carrying out, but we don’t want to talk about that. And in the South China Sea, which has enormous commercial and security significance to China, they are violating international law and carrying out acts that they shouldn’t be carrying out. The answer to that is not to send a Naval armada into the South China Sea, which could lead to possible provocations, which could explode. And if anything does explode, we’re all finished. There can’t be a nuclear war with China or with Russia. We’re all dead if that happens. That’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is with diplomacy and negotiations. There are opportunities, which may not come out perfectly, but to take one of Trump’s rare true statements: “You think our country’s so innocent?” The one true statement that he was able to make in a flood of lies. You know, the same is true with provocations on the Russian border. Notice, the Russian border, not the Mexican border. That’s not the place to have provocative military exercises, it’s not the place to put up anti-ballistic missile installations which is what Barack Obama did, which have dual use and can be used not only for surveillance but even guidance. You just don’t do that if you want to live in a world that survives.
The basic and significant point, going back to dissent, and it should be repeated, is that if there’s too much agreement on some complicated question, you should be suspicious. Complicated questions should be debated.