Alexander Görlach speaking with Noam Chomsky about the current crisis of the liberal democracy in the United States and what made the Trump-phenomenon possible in the first place.
Görlach: What do we Europeans not get about this campaign? Why is Donald Trump so successful in half of the United States? How can we, seemingly unpunished, insult the values of the democracy of the United States?
Chomsky: Before the second world war, the US was by far the richest country in the world. But culturally and socially, it was a backwater, a very insular society. Still, few people know much about what’s beyond the borders, you can travel three thousand miles within! You can’t do that in Europe. Culturally, it’s moderately homogeneous, and there are enormous internal resources that don’t require interaction beyond borders. Britain was the major actor pre-WW2, together with France, in terms of international outreach. Even the real centers of cultural and intellectual life were in Europe – Paris, Berlin, London. The Second World War changed all that! But – some demographics and places have stayed the same. Religious fundamentalists, for example – 40% of the population are not concerned about global warming simply because they believe that Christ is coming in a couple of decades! You can’t find that in Europe, can you?
Görlach: No, we don’t. But how did this happen. Why is the country culturally speaking still in the first half of the 20th century?
Chomsky: Our political system is to blame – both parties have moved from the right. The Republican Party moved so far to the right, that moderate republicans 30 years ago are now Democrats! The GOP cannot get any more votes and support for their policies, so it has turned to different ways of mobilizing the population, the biggest one of which has been the white working class. The white working class has been cast aside by the Democrats, who are now basically only anymore a party of educated professionals. I mean, real wages for male workers now are what they were in the Sixties. Right before the crash in 2007, the working people had lower wages than they had 30 years ago. And it is not that the people are starving, but they feel ignored and pushed aside by the government, and feel endangered by social and cultural changes. Secular and liberal movements are a threat in their eyes! And if you have that large of a chunk of people, nobody taking care of economic policies for a white working class is a huge problem.
Take a look at the recent republican primaries in the last few elections, every single candidate that had popular support, he or she was absolutely intolerable for the party base – Michele Bachman, remember her? Herman Caine, Rick Santorum. Nothing ever happened with them, because the rich white republicans are the ones that have campaign money!
Görlach: So that is the Jeb Bush phenomenon? He was the candidate of the, if you want to put it this way, establishment of his party. But he had to drop out very early in the campaign.
Chomsky: I like to refer to him as the Mitt Romney of this year’s election. Romney managed to push through against popular opposition, but Jeb failed. The insularity of society, the fact that many of theses places have failed to modernized, is why there are so many different popular Republicans that never manage to unite all conservatives.
Görlach: Would you say that this is different in Europe? Or is it just a coincidence that this mobilization of white working class people with a populist motive is not exclusive to America?
Chomsky: It is not just a coincidence, but the sources are the same. You have a more enlightened society in Germany for example, that may still vote for populist parties, but at least they have acknowledged the existence of climate warming! Austerity policies in Europe are even more extreme than they are here. They are aimed at dismantling Europe at its post-war core – its social democratic economic achievement. Not to speak about the undermining effect they have on every nation – it’s people in Brussels deciding on policies elsewhere on the continent! There is a European Parliament, but it has no power – it’s the Commission that holds the power.
Görlach: But how does that tie itself back into what has been happening? People that vote for these populist parties do not read scholarly literature that describes this – instead, it is the emotional appeal and fear mongering that motivates them…
Chomsky: …I think the rising tensions are simply because of economics. The deal of the German success is based on reducing wage and income level. Another factor is simply that Europe is extremely racist. If everybody in Denmark is blond and has blue eyes, as soon as you include some different-looking people, things go terribly wrong. Racism does not show if the population is homogeneous.
Görlach: Interesting – I particularly think that this racism is focused on muslims. The german government tries to say that cultures are diverse, but that we also have to subscribe to the constitution, so there is no religious law outside the constitutional framework.
Chomsky: And there is not. There is no Sharia in Germany…
Görlach:…but there is the fear of it.
Chomsky: Well, Oklahoma tried to amend its constitution to block sharia law, but seeing sharia law being used in a German court is as likely as extraterrestrials touching down on earth. When you get back to the Trump base, remember that these are people grew up in a white supremacist society. And when they say that their country is being taken away from them, they are right. In a couple of decades, whites will be a minority. They see that country, privilege and feeling of superiority is indeed being taken away from them. They have worked hard all their lives, and so have their parents. They see people ahead of them that get very rich very quickly, but that’s not a problem because that’s the American dream. They worry about the people behind them, Mexicans and other minorities, and fear that with the help of the federal government they will push past the white working class.
Görlach: Actually, that is very similar to the refugee situation in Germany, where the government has assured its citizens that there has been no cut in any welfare programs that existed, and that people need not be worried about this sort of issue…
Chomsky: …and also in the UK! Take a look at the projects of the Troika – they are attempting to dismantle the support system. That’s the meaning of cutbacks and social programs. The conservatives in the UK we’re screaming that a refugee influx would destroy the NHS. But they are defunding the NHS themselves! The fantastic slogans of the Leave campaign – £350m a week and so on – are all belief. But it does resonate with the voters, because it is something that is actually happening in their lives. It’s simply misinterpreting the source. That is why all the policies that Trump proposes are completely outdated and anachronistic – building up the Military, cut taxes from the rich. It’s something that his supporters can remember.
Görlach: So is it the political system itself? Or what is your policy-oriented support?
Chomsky: We can see where the problem is, right? The political system is oriented heavily towards elections. The momentum that we are feeling right now – Bernie Sanders supporters for example – is immense. However, it is a matter of maintaining this diverse field of opinions throughout the next four years. This has, for example, been one of the most frustrating feats for the Green Party, because they have not found any way of establishing themselves and getting air time apart from during elections; every four years, they need to start from scratch!
Görlach: If you see liberalism, social democracy and christian democracy, they all developed in the mid-19th century, and all three of these are currently in turmoil…
Chomsky:…but that is only a problem central to Europe. There was a study in the 80s done by a political scientist called Walter Dean Burnham, who focused on voter abstention in the US elections. He found out that by analyzing the socioeconomic profiles of the abstainers, that their income counterparts in Europe all voted for the social democratic party, meaning that in the US there simply is nobody to vote for! In Europe, these parties have now collapsed.
Görlach: Are we facing a non-modernity then? How would you describe the state of the western societies as of now?
Chomsky: That is an incredibly difficult question to answer in one. Most parts of the United States is culturally pre-modern, but economically very modern. People who think that the world was created ten thousand years ago, but still have an iPhone. “Superchurches” are another example, something that is obviously a scam, but still attracts hundreds of thousands of wealthy people, black and white. In terms of secularism, Europe is miles ahead, even though it may not seem that way.
Header image: Noam Chomsky and Alexander Görlach – Instagram