President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord is alarming for its consequences — the diminution of America’s diplomatic clout in the immediate term, the prospect of retaliatory carbon tariffs in the medium one, and the heightened risk for civilizational collapse in the long run.
But Trump’s decision may be just as concerning for what it tells us about the president and his party more broadly. After all, there is a case that the Paris agreement could actually be strengthened by the exit of a government that views its basic premises with contempt and incredulity.
It is much harder to see an upside to the fact that our president is capable of taking such a needlessly destructive course — for such incoherent and petty reasons — while enjoying the enthusiastic support of Congress’s ruling party.
Here are five disconcerting things we learned about the people who control our government from Thursday’s announcement in the Rose Garden:
1) Trump sees alienating our European allies as an end in itself.
Supporters of the Paris deal had hoped that Trump’s meeting with our G7 partners would bring out his inner globalist: Surely, once America’s core allies unanimously implored him to remain in the agreement, Trump would appreciate the diplomatic hazards of joining Syria and Nicauraga at the table for climate pariahs.
“He feels much more knowledgeable on the topic today,” Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser and a leader of the White House’s pro-Paris contingent, told reporters last week. “He came here to learn, he came here to get smarter.”
But the message Trump conveyed to his counterparts was more like, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”
As the Washington Post reports:
Pressure from leaders abroad also backfired. One senior White House official characterized disappointing European allies as “a secondary benefit” of Trump’s decision to withdraw … In the end, several officials said, the Group of Seven summit felt more like a Group of Six against One, at least on climate issues, as every other leader went around the table urging Trump to remain in the Paris accord.
This account comports with Trump’s Rose Garden speech, which painted America’s European allies as abusive partners, whose arguments for the agreement were offered in bad faith:
The same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and in many cases lax contributions to our critical military alliance. You see what’s happening. It’s pretty obvious to those that want to keep an open mind.
The Post goes on to suggest that Trump’s decision to undermine international cooperation on a threat to human survival was, in part, revenge for a hostile handshake:
If he needed a nudge … one came from France over the weekend. Macron was quoted in a French journal talking about his white-knuckled handshake with Trump at their first meeting in Brussels, where the newly elected French president gripped Trump’s hand tightly and would not let go for six long seconds in a show of alpha-male fortitude.
“My handshake was not innocent,” Macron said. He likened Trump to a pair of authoritarian strongmen — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and said that he was purposefully forceful because he believed his encounter with Trump was “a moment of truth.”
Hearing smack-talk from the Frenchman 31 years his junior irritated and bewildered Trump, aides said.
The president’s superhuman pettiness is no revelation. But the Paris decision illuminates the dark implications of that pettiness for U.S.-EU relations. Trump was never going to be a popular president overseas. And he’s worked diligently, if unconsciously, to further poison his own image in the eyes of the world.
For autocrats like the Saudi royal family, this fact poses no great obstacle to effective diplomacy — offering the world’s most powerful Islamophobe a gold medal and orb access isn’t going to alienate King Salman’s base.
But for the democratically elected leaders of Western Europe, performative sycophancy is not an option. On the contrary, publicly slighting the American president is a political no-brainer for Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
Trump hasn’t suffered his last hostile handshake. And our country hasn’t suffered the full consequences of our president’s intolerance for Europe’s disrespect.
2) Trump believes that his job isn’t to serve the interests of the American people, but those of a small and declining industry whose workers disproportionately voted for him.
The last time the president tried to pull America out of a landmark international agreement that he did not understand, his advisers restrained him with the warning that his own supporters would be hurt.
Trump was, in his own words, “ready and psyched to terminate NAFTA,” when his aides implored him to think of the farmers:
[Agriculture Secretary Sonny] Perdue even brought along a prop to the Oval Office: A map of the United States that illustrated the areas that would be hardest hit, particularly from agriculture and manufacturing losses, and highlighting that many of those states and counties were “Trump country” communities that had voted for the president in November. “It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good,” Trump recalled. “They like Trump, but I like them, and I’m going to help them.”
On the night of his election, Trump promised that he would “be president for all Americans.” But many times since then, both publicly and privately, Trump has suggested that his overriding responsibility is not to the American people, but to the portion of electorate that put him in power.
This governing philosophy kept America in NAFTA, but pushed it out of Paris. Here’s the Post again:
When Trump heard advocates arguing that the era of coal was coming to an end — something Cohn told reporters on last week’s foreign trip and also a frequent talking point by some cable news pundits — Trump only became more adamant that pulling out of the Paris pact could help rescue the U.S. coal industry, said a Republican operative in close contact with the White House.
“When he hears people make comments like ‘Coal jobs don’t matter anymore’ or ‘Those are going away,’ he thinks of all those people who got the election wrong and didn’t realize that, no, these people are important to us,” the operative said.
… [One European leader] made an economic pitch: By encouraging renewable energy, you boost the economy, you boost innovation and you stay competitive. But Trump seemed unmoved by any of the appeals, instead telling the group that this was what he had promised during his election campaign and that he was protecting his voters, according to the official.
Coal companies employ a little fewer than 80,000 people in America. The renewable-energy industry employs 3 million. The fact that the president would evince indifference to the latter workers, and unconditional loyalty to the former — on the grounds that solar employees displayed insufficient loyalty to him at the ballot box — is not only insane in policy terms, but corrosive in political ones.
That Trump is too incompetent to actually implement his “Champagne for my real friends, real pain from my sham friends” governing philosophy does not make it any less toxic. It’s true that the president’s health-care bill radically increases health-care costs for elderly people in rural America, while decreasing them for young professionals in deep blue urban centers. But that in no way ameliorates the damage Trump does to our civic life, by suggesting that his only loyalty is to the “American people” — and that liberals don’t belong to that category.
3) The Republican Party is more beholden to reactionary billionaires than the energy industry writ large.
Around these parts, we tend to paint Republicans as mercenaries in the one percent’s class war. But the GOP isn’t really beholden to the rich, per se: According to recent surveys, somewhere between 45 and 64 percent of American millionaires support higher taxes on the wealthy.
The trouble is, the socially responsible fat cats aren’t altruistic enough to put billions of dollars into convincing Congress to raise their taxes — and reactionary plutocrats are quite eager to invest such sums in safeguarding their wealth from Uncle Sam.
Trump’s decision on Paris shows that a similar dynamic governs the GOP’s relationship to the fossil-fuel industry. In the aggregate, Big Energy favored remaining in the agreement for the sake of providing investors with regulatory certainty and preserving America’s influence over international climate policy. (A few may have also supported the deal out of the recognition that climate change is real and even big-money oil barons have an interest in preventing the world’s coastal cities from being swallowed by the sea.)
But the GOP’s biggest Big Energy investors were against it: The Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity lobbied hard against the deal.
Having our nation’s economic and environmental policies dictated by the narrow interests of extractive industries is terrible. But having them dictated by far-right cranks, who happen to be billionaires, is probably worse. The corporate sector’s reliance on international markets and allergy to geopolitical chaos make it a less dangerous shadow ruler than a collective of America’s luckiest Ayn Rand enthusiasts.
4) The guy who ran a blog with a vertical devoted to “black crime” remains one of the most powerful people in the United States.
Speaking of insanely fortunate far-right ideologues: Steve Bannon is back. Weeks after losing his seat at the national security council — and, seemingly, his access to the president’s right ear — Trump’s chief strategist out-dueled the president’s daughter, son-in-law, and top economic adviser on an issue of great import.
With Jared Kushner compromised by the FBI’s Russia probe, the White House’s alt-right wing is poised to expand its influence. And Bannon’s allies appear determined to press their advantage:
5) The Republican Party will not be a check on Trump’s worst instincts, and he will not be a check on theirs.
Okay, this was probably already apparent. But still: On NAFTA, NATO, and the border wall, the Republican Party has demonstrated a capacity to restrain Trump’s more disruptive inclinations. And on the Iran nuclear deal and China, Trump has subordinated his party’s most hawkish rhetoric to the coolheaded consensus of Executive branch experts.
But on the subject of the Paris agreement, Trump and his party marched in lockstep toward catastrophe. Twenty-two Republican senators (including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), 40 conservative think tanks or activist groups, and every presidential candidate the party produced in 2016, all worked to assure Trump that the choice he wanted to make was the right one.
There is little mystery to why Trump wished to take the stance he did. The mundane realities of legislating have frustrated the reality star’s desire for drama and decisive action. And the needs of GOP interest groups derailed his triumphant “termination” of NAFTA. Paris provided Trump a chance to perform his courageous populism — to genuinely defy elites and experts of all stripes, along with the entire non-American world. Trump would have derived little thrill from releasing a statement reiterating his commitment to Barack Obama’s climate deal. He surely derived some satisfaction from deriding that deal in the Rose Garden.
A responsible Republican Party would have implored Trump not to indulge his impulse for grandstanding. And not merely because a responsible GOP would recognize the reality of manmade climate change, like every other major party on planet Earth.
Withdrawing from Paris is reckless and irrational, even if one believes that global warming is a Chinese hoax: The accord is strictly voluntary, and, thus, only constrains our nation’s capacity to burn carbon to the extent that we choose to constrain ourselves. Exiting the agreement gains the GOP’s climate deniers no liberty they don’t already have, while costing the United States its credibility on the world stage.
And yet, instead of checking the president’s worst impulses and formidable ignorance, Republicans encouraged the former and exploited the latter.
A different Republican president would likely have checked his party’s irrational antipathy for the Paris deal. Both parties have issues that their standard-bearers demagogue on the campaign trail, and then sacrifice to diplomatic expedience once in the Oval Office. It is hard to imagine a president Jeb! defying America’s corporate sector and core allies for the sake of nationalist symbolism.
Which is why he isn’t president.
Trump and the GOP deserve each other. But America deserves neither. And we’re gonna be stuck with both for a while, yet.