Noam Chomsky, the renowned scholar and MIT professor emeritus, says that the rise of Donald Trump in American politics is, in part, fueled by deeply rooted fear and hopelessness that may be caused by an alarming spike in mortality rates for a generation of poorly educated whites.
“He’s evidently appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe," Chomsky told The Huffington Post in an interview on Thursday.
Trump's rise as the Republican presidential front-runner has been confounding for Americans across the political spectrum. The bombastic, billionaire demagogue has won three of the first four primary states and holds a lead in the polls, both nationwide and in upcoming primary contests. He now appears poised to take an insurmountable delegate lead over the next several weeks, based on a platform of hate and vitriol targeted at women, Latinos, Muslims and other minorities.
A legion of less educated, working-class white men has fueled Trump’s rise. And while many say the business mogul is capitalizing on their fears about the perceived decline of white dominance in America, Chomsky says there may also be more existential forces at play.
Life expectancy, in general, has increased steadily over time. And thanks largely to advances in health care, many people around the world live longer lives. There are exceptions, of course -- during war or natural catastrophes, for example. But what’s happening now in America, he says, is “quite different.”
Despite vast wealth and modern medicine, the U.S. has lower average life expectancy than many other nations. And while the average has been increasing recently, the gains are not evenly spread out. Wealthier Americans are living longer lives, while the poor are living shorter ones.
Poorly educated, middle-aged American white males are particularly affected, multiple recent studies suggest. While Americans from other age, racial and ethnic groups are living longer lives than ever before, this particularly segment of the population is dying faster.
A study on the issue found that the rising death rate for this group is not due to the ailments that commonly kill so many Americans, like diabetes and heart disease, but rather by an epidemic of suicides, liver disease caused by alcohol abuse, and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
“No war, no catastrophe," Chomsky says, has caused the spiking mortality rate for this population. "Just the impact of policies over a generation that have left them, it seems, angry, without hope, frustrated, causing self-destructive behavior."
That could well explain Trump’s appeal, he speculated.
In an interview with Alternet this week, Chomsky compared the poverty that many Americans now face with the conditions an older generation confronted during the Great Depression.
“It’s interesting to compare the situation in the ‘30s, which I’m old enough to remember,” he said. “Objectively, poverty and suffering were far greater. But even among poor working people and the unemployed, there was a sense of hope that is lacking now.”
Chomsky attributes some of that Depression-era hope to the growth of an aggressive labor movement and the existence of political organizations outside of the mainstream.
Today, however, he says the mood is quite different for Americans who are deeply affected by poverty.
“[They] are sinking into hopelessness, despair and anger -- not directed so much against the institutions that are the agents of the dissolution of their lives and world, but against those who are even more harshly victimized,” he said. “Signs are familiar, and here it does evoke some memories of the rise of European fascism.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that a study on rising death rates for middle-aged white Americans received a Nobel Memorial Prize. It was, in fact, one of the authors of the study who won the prize for other work.