Donald Trump had indicated in the third presidential debate that he might not concede victory to Hillary Clinton. He did, however, tell his supporters one day later that he would accept any election results if it was won.
Trump’s threat to reject democratically run election results should have disqualified him from running for the highest office in the land.
He won the 2016 election, then divided the country like no other incoming President. And when he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, he not only refused to concede defeat, but he also sought to block the certification of the electoral vote by urging his fanatical supporters gathered at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, to “stop the steal” of the election. Months earlier, he had already put his base on high alert by saying, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
The attack on the Capitol could have resulted in the overthrow of the U.S. representative democracy system under a less incompetent wannabe leader. But the January 6 attack instead featured Trump’s hallmark disorganization and lack of a coherent plan.
A day after the attempted coup, Trump announced that there would be an “orderly transition” of power on January 20, but that did not mean that he had plans to “go gentle into that good night.” On the contrary, he continued to spread lies about the 2020 election, which he himself called the “Big Lie,” even after he had failed to convince officials in Georgia and Arizona to overturn those states’ results. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, also tried to convince a federal judge in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to overturn hundreds of thousands of votes in the state.
Trump’s position was quite simple: If democracy fails me to produce the desired election results, damn democracy!
Trump’s “Big Lie” continues to hold sway over the overwhelming majority of Republicans voters, and the Republican Party itself is increasingly unwilling to accept defeat. Consequently, Republican-controlled states have passed a series of new voting restrictions and taken control of local and state election boards. These developments are a sign of the anti-democratic mindset of the GOP during the Trump era.
In the interview that follows, Noam Chomsky reflects on the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection and offers us his own insights on what may lie ahead in a country where a very sizable segment of the population still believes in Trump’s lies.
Noam Chomsky is recognized worldwide as one the most important intellectuals. His intellectual stature has been compared with that of Newton, Galileo, and Descartes. His work has had a tremendous influence on many areas of scientific inquiry including linguistics and logic, mathematics, psychology, media studies and philosophy. He is the author of some 150 books and recipient of scores of highly prestigious awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto Prize (Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), and of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of MIT and currently Laureate professor at the University of Arizona.
C.J. Polychroniou: A year ago, on January 6, 2021, a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block certification of the electoral votes — a routine procedure following a presidential election — that would have formalized Joe Biden’s victory. Although the Capitol building had been broken into on several occasions before, this was the first time that an attack on democracy was actually incited and orchestrated by an outgoing president. Months later, Trump would condemn the criminal prosecutions of those who participated in the Capitol attack. This even though he had already condemned the insurrection after he was impeached over them. Noam, from your perspective, how should we interpret what happened on January 6, 2020?
Noam Chomsky Although the motives and perceptions of the participants in the assault on Capitol were different, they all shared the same goal: to overthrow an elected government. It was also an attempt that could have been successful if a few prominent Republican leaders had changed their stances and agreed to the coup attempt, and the military command made different decisions. Trump was making every effort possible to facilitate the coup. This would have been applauded by a large number of Republican voters as well as the Republican political leadership.
The future has many implications. The Republican organization — it’s hard to regard them any longer as an authentic political party — is now carefully laying the groundwork for success next time, whatever the electoral outcome may be. It’s all completely in the open, Not only notAlthough it is often hidden, its leaders are proud to have made it public. And it is frequently reported, so that anyone who is interested enough in the American political scene cannot miss it. To mention just the most recent discussion I’ve seen, the Associated Press describes how the GOP is carrying out a “slow-motion insurrection” and has become “an anti-democratic force,” something that has not happened before in American politics. Barton Gellman was born a few weeks prior. outlinedThe plans are described in detail The Atlantic.
The many known flaws of the formal democracy system are well-known. These include the radically undemocratic Senate; the immense role of concentrated wealth in determining electoral outcomes; legislation; the structural benefits provided to traditionalist rural minorities, and many others. There are also wider issues.
What was progressive in 18th century America is now so outdated that the U.S. would likely be rejected for not meeting democratic norms if it applied for membership to the European Union. These questions deserve more attention that they receive.
With all due respect for the Founders, one question — raised by Thomas Jefferson in his own terms — is why we should revere the sentiments of a group of wealthy white male 18th-century slaveowners, particularly now that the amendment system has succumbed to the deep flaws of the formal political system. No less curious are the legal doctrines of originalism/textualism that call on us to decipher their pronouncements with little regard to social and economic conditions as a decisive guide to judicial action. It is easy to see a lot of things that seem strange when you look at our political culture from far away.
GOP wreckers cannot tolerate even the weakened system that survives. Their systematic attack on the fragile structure is not without consequences. Methods extend from “taking hold of the once-overlooked machinery of elections” at the ground level, to passing laws to bar the “wrong people” from voting, to devising a legal framework to establish the principle that Republican legislatures can “legally” determine choice of electors, whatever the irrelevant public many choose.
In the not-too-distant background are calls to “save our country” by force if necessary, where “our country” is a white supremacist Christian nationalist patriarchal society in which non-white folk can take part as long as they “know their place”; not at the table.
[White people’s] fear of “losing our country” is [in part a response to]There are demographic tendencies that are eroding white majorityities, resisting even radical gerrymandering that is imposed in order to amplify the structural benefits of the scattered conservative countryside vote. Another threat to “our country” is that white supremacy is increasingly rejected, particularly by younger people, as is devotion to religious authorityYou can even join a church.
Although the right-wing propagandists’ accusations are largely fantasy and delusion, they have enough basis in reality for those who see their world of dominance disappearing before them. And with the social order crumbling under the neoliberal assault, these fears can easily be manipulated by demagogues and opportunists — while their masters in the executive suites and mansions relish the opportunity to carry forward the highway robbery that they have engaged in for 40 years if future challenges can be beaten down, by state and private violence if necessary.
That’s a world that may not be remote, though it won’t last long with the supreme climate denialists in charge. When Hungary, the current darling of the right, descends towards fascism, it’s bad enough. If the U.S. does this, it’s a grave threat to human society’s long-term survival.
What does the January 6 Capitol attack reveal about the state of U.S. Democracy in the 21st-century? Do you agree with the view of Trump as a product of poor political institutions?
It shows us that the only political democracy that exists is hung by a delicate thread.
If political institutions — more generally, intertwined socioeconomic-political institutions — can yield a President Trump, they are infected with profound malignancies. A moment’s reflection shows that the malignancies are so profound that they are driving organized human society to suicide, and not in the distant future, with Trump and his acolytes and apologists enthusiastically in the lead. It takes real literary talent to exaggerate.
What are these institutions? That’s much too far-reaching an inquiry to undertake here, but there are some instructive highlights.
The so-called Founders outlined clearly enough the kind of society they envisioned: “those who own the country ought to govern it” and ensure that “the minority of the opulent are protected from the majority” (John Jay, James Madison, respectively). Their model was England, where the reigning institutions had been described accurately a few years earlier by Adam Smith in words that bear repetition: The “masters of mankind,” the merchants and manufacturers of England, are the “principal architects” of government policy and ensure that their own interests are “most peculiarly attended to” no matter how “grievous” the impact on others, including the people of England but also, much more severely, the victims of “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” notably the people of India, then the richest country in the world, which England was robbing and despoiling for the benefit of the masters. Under the protection of the state they control, the masters can pursue their “vile maxim”: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people,” the maxim of the feudal lords adopted by the masters of mankind who had been replacing them since the “glorious revolution” of the preceding century.
The masters of humanity have always known that free-market capitalism would bring down their societies and themselves. They have always argued for a strong state to protect them from market ravages and leave the less fortunate exposed. That has been dramatically plain in the course of the “bailout economy” of the past 40 years of class war, masked under “free market” rhetoric.
These core features of the reigning state capitalist institutions have been exacerbated by the rot spreading from interwar Vienna, adopting the term “neoliberalism” in the international Walter Lippmann symposium in Paris in 1938, then in the Mont Pelerin Society. The ideas were implemented under almost perfect experimental conditions during Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in Chile, crashing the economy in half a dozen years, but no matter. They had a bigger goal in mind by then: the global economic system in the era if vigorous class war, launched by Ronald Reagan & Margaret Thatcher and carried on by Bill Clinton & other successors. This firmly established the vile maxim as well as dismantling such impediments, like a limited welfare program and labor unions.
That’s the kind of terrain in which a Trump can appear, though there are of course multiple factors of varied nature that interact.
It seems that American society has accepted political violence as a normal. Firstly, what do you think are Trump’s motives for continuing to spin the “Big Lie”? Do you agree that neofascism and election subversion are gaining ground?
Trump’s motives are clear enough. We don’t need a degree in advanced psychiatry to know that a sociopathic megalomaniac must always win; nothing else can be contemplated. Furthermore, he’s a canny politician who understands that his worshippers will easily accept the “Big Lie.”
Many people have wondered about the willingness of two-thirds (or more) of Republicans to believe that the election was stolen. Is it really surprising? Look at the views of Republicans on other issues. Take, for example, the question of whether humans are truly human. CreatedAs they are today about half of Republicans. Or whether Muslims want to impose Sharia law in the U.S. 60 percent of Republicans who trust Fox News. Or on a variety of pre-modern beliefs in the U.S. that make it stand out among comparable societies.
Why not a stolen election?
Election subversion is more than a threat. It’s happening in the “soft coup” that is underway right now. It is also a trend towards fascism. There is. evidenceTrump voters have similar attitudes on a range issues to European voters for far right parties of fascist origins. These sectors are now a major driving force in the GOP.
There’s also substantial evidence that this drift to the far right may be driven in part by blind loyalty to Trump. This seems to be true for the most important issue humans have ever faced: the environmental destruction. During Trump’s years in office, Republican recognition of climate change as a “serious issue,” already shockingly low, declined by 20 percentEven though nature has been warning us loudly and clearly that we are heading towards disaster, we continue to race against the clock.
This is a disturbing phenomenon with a lot of precedent. Germany was the center of Western civilization a century ago. It made great contributions to science and the arts. Political scientists considered the Weimar Republic a model democracy. A few years later, Germans were worshipping Der Führer and accepting the vilest lies, and acting on them. Martin Heidegger was one of these most revered figures. I still vividly recall my shock when I first read his 1935. Introduction to MetaphysicsIt first appeared in English 60-years ago. And I’m old enough to remember hearing similar atrocious thoughts as a child in the ‘30s, close to home. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 classic on how fascism might be implanted in America by Christian nationalists (It Can’t Happen Here) was not mere fantasy when it appeared, and it’s no surprise that it has been returning to the best-seller lists in the Trump era.
The center of U.S. politics has moved to state-level contests, but Democrats are not keeping up with this new reality. What’s going on? What’s the deal? Why is state politics more important these days and why does the Democratic Party seem to be on an unsustainable mission when it comes to political strategy?
Barack Obama seems to have made it easier for Democrats to ignore state politics. That critical area of American politics was handed over to Republicans who, by that time, were already moving toward their current stance of rejecting democratic politics as an impediment to their task of “saving the country” (the version for the voting base) and maintaining power so as to serve the rich and the corporate sector (the understanding of the leadership).
Surprisingly, there have not been any breakthroughs in the investigation by the House of Representatives into the January 6 attack. Do you believe that the congressional select committee that is being investigated will hold accountable for the events of that fateful day? What political implications could such an outcome have?
The Republican leadership has already neutralized the select committee by refusal to participate on acceptable terms, then by rejecting subpoenas — a sensible strategy to delay the proceedings by court proceedings until they can simply disband the committee, or even better, reshape it to pursuing their political enemies. That’s the kind of tactic that Trump has used successfully throughout his career as a failed businessman, and it is second nature to corrupt politicians.
However, January 6’s events have been thoroughly investigated, and even visually presented so vividly, so little substance is likely. Republican elites will not stop trying to portray the insurrection in the park as an innocent picnic. Some antifa violence was staged to make law-abiding citizens look bad. Even though there is still much to learn about the background, this is unlikely to have any significant impact on what appears to be a fairly plausible picture.
Suppose that the select committee were to come up with new and truly damning evidence about Trump’s role or other high-level connivance in the coup attempt. The Rupert Murdoch-controlled mainstream media would have little difficulty in reshaping that as further proof that the “Deep State,” along with the “Commie rats” and “sadistic pedophiles” who supposedly run the Democratic Party, have conspired to vilify the “Great Man.” His adoring worshippers would probably be emboldened by this additional proof of the iniquity of the evil forces conniving at the “Great Replacement.” Or whatever fabrication is contrived by those capable of converting critical race theory into an instrument for destroying the “embattled white race,” among other propaganda triumphs.
My guess is that the committee’s work will end up being a gift to the proto-fascist forces that are chipping away at what remains of formal democracy, much as the impeachment proceedings turned out to be.
It’s worth proceeding for the sake of history — assuming that there will be any history that will even care if the plan to establish lasting Republican rule succeeds.