Lesser of Two Evils: Chomsky vs. Greenwald . . . and the Ignored Factor

Photograph Source: Lord Jim – CC BY 2.0

Noam Chomsky believes that it is so imperative that Trump be defeated that he will vote for Biden, while Glenn Greenwald challenges the political strategy of the lesser-of-two-evils dictum. It is difficult to imagine anyone more intellectually commanding than Chomsky, but Greenwald is no inferior. Chomsky and Greenwald are unbroken, rational warriors who apply contrasting chessboard logic to this issue. In my day job as a psychologist, I’ve learned how people in abusive relationships can so focus on certain types of reasoning that they lose their integrity and become too broken to liberate themselves.

Noam Chomsky

In an Intercept interview, “Mehdi Hasan and Noam Chomsky on Biden vs. Trump” (April 17, 2020) we see that Noam Chomsky, at 91, continues to have his overpowering intellect and now—with his full white beard and apocalyptic warnings—resembles a Biblical prophet, and so he makes me worry that if I disregard him, I will go to Hell.

Chomsky tells us that Trump’s MAGA rallies bring up childhood memories of Hitler rallies. He calls Trump a “malignancy” several times: “The issue of greatest urgency is to get rid of the malignancy in the White House . . . . Keep this for another four years means racing to the abyss of global warming possibly reaching irreversible tipping points. . . sharply increasing the threat of nuclear war . . . stuffing the judiciary with young ultra-right mostly unqualified lawyers.”

“Never Biden” people make Chomsky think of the early 1930s in Germany when the Communist Party took the positon that there is no real difference between the Social Democrats and the Nazis, and refused to join with them to stop the Nazis. “We know where that led,” Chomsky warns.

To ensure that the Never Biden folks cannot delude themselves, Chomsky reduces it to easy arithmetic, “Failure to vote for Biden in this election in the swing states amounts to voting for Trump. It takes one vote away from the opposition, same as adding one vote to Trump. So if you decide you want to vote for the destruction of organized human life on earth, for the sharp increase in the threat of nuclear war, for stuffing the judiciary . . . then do it openly, say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want’ but that’s the meaning of Never Biden.”

I am in Ohio, a swing state, and Chomsky makes me think that if I don’t get off my ass and vote for Biden, I will have to answer to God for enabling Trump to build his own Brownshirt paramilitary wing.

For Chomsky, “the future of humanity is at stake, this is a unique moment,” and it is beyond naïve to think that not voting is going to in any way change the DNC. For Chomsky, lesser of two evils is not the right way to frame this issue—it’s about preventing a devastating catastrophe.

Hasan tells Chomsky that Greenwald points out that Biden, an Iraq war hawk, is more likely to start foreign wars and kill innocent people, but Chomsky declares that this is “empty speculation. . . Trump is tearing to shreds the arms control agreements.” With Biden in the White House, Chomsky sees an opportunity for grass roots movements to have influence, but not so with Trump, who is not even a “quasi-human being” and will not respond to popular movements.

It is difficult to disagree with Chomsky that we will get an even more horrible judiciary with a Trump re-election, though it is also difficult to forget that Joe Biden, as Senate Judiciary chair in 1991, while ultimately voting against Clarence Thomas, allowed Anita Hill to get biblically stoned by Republicans on that committee, paving the path for Thomas to get on the Supreme Court.

How about voting for Biden as an antidote to global warming? Sorry, but he is not exactly going to prevent environmental catastrophe. Even if the two-faced Biden actually keeps an environmental campaign promise or two, easy Green Capitalism is not going to save us from the carcinogenic consumerism that is devouring the planet.

Is Biden a “quasi-human being” or just one more scumbag? Biden, like Trump, is a chronic liar with no hesitation of cruel lying. With respect to his policy history, besides being instrumental to the launch of the Iraq War, he has given corporate America just about everything they’ve ever asked for: supporting the repeal of Glass-Steagall; supporting NAFTA; supporting the Reagan tax cut; supporting the Bankruptcy Act of 2005 that, among other gifts to creditors, broadened the types of student loans that cannot be discharged by bankruptcy, exacerbating the student-debt crisis; and repeatedly calling for cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Glenn Greenwald

This brings us to Glenn Greenwald’s critique of the lesser-of-two evils dictum in his interview on acTVism with Zain Raza: “Glenn Greenwald on Noam Chomsky Favouring Biden Over Trump & Voting for Lesser of Two Evils” (April 16, 2020). Greenwald is an attorney and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who helped Edward Snowden get truths out about the U.S. government’s mass surveillance. Greenwald appears to me like a guy who maybe at age four lost one argument with his parents about bedtime, but since then has not lost an argument to anyone. Maybe that’s not true, but if in the hereafter I have to answer to God for my not “voting Blue no matter who,” I want Glenn as my defense attorney.

Greenwald begins by telling us that he is “as big of a fan of Noam Chomsky as it gets” and that he has “nothing but the highest admiration for him,” but he rejects the idea that it is the moral responsibility to vote for the lesser-of-two-evils Democrat.

This lesser-of-two-evils thinking, for Greenwald, was much more defensible in 1980, when there was a clearer difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Back then, the Republicans were the party of Ronald Reagan, laissez fair economics, corporate power, eliminating government social programs to help the poor, and attacking labor unions. Even though the Democratic Party was supporting imperialism, it was still the party of the working class and labor unions. For Greenwald, back then, there was a clear difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, and so voting for the lesser of two evils made sense.

However, Greenwald reminds us that after the 1990s, Bill Clinton turned the Democratic Party from one of “the working class to one of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, banks, credit card companies, and the military industrial complex,” and the differences between the parties diminished greatly.

Greenwald grants that there remains some differences between the parties, but the problem is: “We’ve been following this advice for decades that says even though we can’t stand the Democratic Party leadership, even though they believe in things completely anathema to what we believe in, it’s still our duty at the end of the day to pledge our unconditional support to them.” For Greenwald, there are two problems with this view.

First, Greenwald argues that when you pledge your unconditional support to politicians, you have no leverage: “They have no reason to do anything but ignore you with contempt because you’ve put yourself in a subservient position . . . where you say, ‘I don’t care how much you trample on my values, I’m still going to vote for you.’ Why would anybody listen to a group of people who say that?” Politicians are not going to make concessions to people who have already pledged, at the end of the day, to vote for them anyway. This strategy, for Greenwald, guarantees your impotence. Politicians are going to give concession to people who they believe they still must win over.

Second, what is the exit strategy? Greenwald: “If you continue to empower and support and fortify this neoliberal, corporatist, militarist wing of a party over and over and over again. . . Gore. . . .Kerry. . . .Obama . . . Hillary Clinton . . . . Now we’re supporting Joe Biden. What is the point of politics if that’s what you’re doing?”

The Bernie Sanders Campaign

Chomsky offers his view on why Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2020, “It’s not just the manipulations of the DNC . . . . It’s also something else. The Left didn’t appear. Sanders was hoping for a surge in the popular vote, especially among young people who were very strongly in support of him. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t important enough to take a few minutes to go to the polls.”

Should we shame young people who strongly believed in the ideas of Bernie Sanders but didn’t come out in large numbers for him in 2020? Or should we ask them if they were deflated when Bernie told them in 2016 to vote for the lesser-of-two-evils Hillary Clinton, and then further de-energized when Bernie pledged his support to whoever the Democrats nominated in 2020?

People supported Bernie Sanders, Greenwald points out, because they believed he supported a political revolution against the Democratic and Republican establishment, and “now to tell those same people it’s time to get behind the very establishment who you thought you were launching a revolution against is a message that is not landing well for millions of people.”

When Bernie was a young man, his inspiration was Eugene Debs—the real-deal socialist and five-time presidential candidate. Debs, unlike Bernie, refused to ask his supporters to support Democratic candidates. Debs knew that not only would his supporters feel betrayed by such a request, but that this could kill the socialist movement. He not only opposed the Democratic Party but also opposed WWI, which got him imprisoned; and for that, Gene Debs remains to this day an inspirational figure of integrity.

In that same WWI era, a revered figure for many anarchists was Peter Kropotkin. But when Kropotkin, during that European gang war, sided with the lesser-of-two- evils Allies states, it was devastatingly demoralizing for anti-state anarchists such as Alexander Berkman who responded, “We regret deeply, most deeply, Kropotkin’s changed attitude.” While certainly the movement of Berkman, Emma Goldman, and other anarchists was primarily crushed by the vicious authoritarianism of Woodrow Wilson (that included imprisonments, deportations, and press censorship), Kropotkin’s lesser-of-two-evils choice was de-energizing.

Sanders, Greenwald believes, is an admirable human being who has devoted his life to the working class, but Bernie is friends with the people who he is supposed to be waging a war against, including being friends with Biden. For Greenwald, the Sanders campaign “had a wide array of attacks that it could have launched and should have launched against Biden,” but instead Sanders pulled his punches. This is contrast to Trump in 2016, who aggressively attacked the Republican establishment—and won the nomination.

Too Broken, No Popular Movements

Besides political strategy, there is a psychological issue about weakness and strength.

There are few opportunities in life for a perfect choice, and so we make many compromises, but compromises are very different than violations of integrity. Compromises are part of life. Violations of integrity are slow death.

If out of fear, we choose over and over and over again someone who is abhorrent, we are choosing fear more than whoever we think we are choosing. Fear makes us weak, and so we are choosing weakness more than anything else.

History informs us that it is popular movements that move politicians, and Chomsky is clear that building those movements is what we need to focus on all the time rather than merely focusing on elections. Of course he is right. However, it takes energy and strength to participate in building a popular movement; and when we’ve become so broken by making fear-based decisions, we are too weakened to build well-organized, sustained, powerful popular movements.

While the greater of two evils is a risk, so too is a lifetime of fear-based decision making. If we repeatedly deceive ourselves that we are compromising when we are in fact obliterating our integrity, there are consequences. We can become so broken that we are incapable of creating popular movements. We can become so broken that when those Brownshirts start marching, we will lack the strength to kick the shit out of them.

Noam Chomsky is quite right to warn us of a fascist apocalypse, but it may be worse than Trump. The 2016 Trump election resulted, in large part, from a corporatist Democratic Party’s abandonment of the 99%. The corporatist-friendly Bill Clinton created the conditions for Bush-Cheney, and a corporatist-friendly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton created the conditions for Trump. What kind of hell-on-earth nightmare do we get with the conditions created by a corporatist-bootlicking Biden administration?

As horrible as Trump is, what if the universe cut us a break by giving us one last warning with Trump—a clownish fascist fucktard? (fucktard is a not yet approved psychiatric diagnosis/insult that combines the non-taboo fuckface with the taboo retard.) What if a corporatist Democratic Party’s continued abandonment of the 99% results next time in a totalitarian murderer who is not an idiot, someone with the intelligence of Hitler or Stalin?

After Bernie quit and endorsed Biden, his national spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray—valuing her integrity more than her political career—tweeted: “With the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders, who is an incredible human being & a genuine inspiration, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I supported Bernie Sanders because he backed ideas like #MedicareForAll, cancelling ALL student debt, & a wealth tax. Biden supports none of those.”

There have been times in U.S. history when the rank and file in labor unions have been told by gutless or corrupt union leadership to cave to management demands but they refused to comply, defying both their union leadership and management. It’s called a wildcat strike. That’s what my father and thousands of other postal workers did in 1970, as one postal worker put it, “standing 10 feet tall instead of groveling in the dust.” And they won.

Gene Debs, Ralph Nader, and Briahna Joy Gray weren’t ready to grovel in the dust, and those of us who have any energy should consider expending it supporting courageous people like them, as well as maintaining our own integrity and helping one another from becoming too broken to fight.


Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His most recent book is A Profession Without Reason: The Crisis of Contemporary Psychiatry—Untangled and Solved by Spinoza, Freethinking, and Radical Enlightenment (2022). His Web site is brucelevine.net