One of the 10,000 or so unique features of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it already feels like it’s gone on for years. A fractious staff, a simmering scandal, a stymied legislative agenda, cratering poll numbers—it’s the kind of boggy stuff that usually transpires in one’s second term in office, not his second month.
There are even moments when you’ve got a hard time shaking the sensation that he’s already a lame duck, no matter how incongruous (and crammed with wishful thinking among Democrats) that notion is. It’s as if this amazingly surly administration decided to invert chronology and start things off with its endgame.
Reinforcing that feeling is the fact that, to a staggering extent, his destructive legacy is already in place, barring a war or a few. (We can’t guess which region Steve Bannon’s creepy umlaut eyes are sizing up for the job; most likely, he’ll be wagging an elephant, because Bannon doesn’t think small.) Even though the perception that Trump is floundering isn’t inaccurate, it’s also incomplete.
Wherever he’s been able to act unilaterally—whether on climate change, the environment in general, science issues or energy priorities—he’s already taken steps toward damaging this country, not to mention the planet at large. And they won’t be repairable for years, if not decades. In those areas, it’s not totally clear that “decades” is even still a useful measure of how much viable future we earthlings have left to screw around in before everything goes south for good.
In other words, don’t let how much trouble he’s in distract you from how much he’s already, and possibly permanently, transformed the landscape. This week, for instance, the story yanking cable-news viewers’ eyeballs six ways to Sunday was the blow-up of the House Intelligence Committee’s already not very confident investigation into Trump’s Russian connections. Even some Republicans are calling for an independent probe now that the cretinous Devin Nunes has outed himself as the White House stooge by scuttling over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for unspecified, vaguely Trump-vindicating inside dope from a couple of Trump’s own White House staffers. Then, short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn agreed to an FBI interview on Trump’s Russia ties if the agency could guarantee him immunity.
Depending on how that shakes out, by far the week’s other most consequential event was Trump’s executive order gutting Obama’s climate-change regulations, something POTUS can do without needing anybody’s say-so. The ill effects of that could be making our lives worse long after Russiagate has come and gone—or Trump himself has, for that matter.
Even if you’re skeptical about climate change, betting everything on fossil fuels in 2017 is madness as an economic strategy.
The same goes for his simultaneous evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress may not give him the full, draconian 31 percent cut in the agency’s budget he’s demanded, which would slash its workforce by a fifth, but that hardly matters when Trump can just instruct the EPA, as he has, to dismantle Obama’s clean-power initiatives, emissions controls and support for renewable energy. (Agency head Scott Pruitt, who’s not just a climate denier but a fossil-fuel enthusiast, isn’t likely to object; destroying the EPA is the reason he got the job, just as destroying the Department of Education is the reason Betsy DeVos got hers.) Once this apparatus gets swept away, it won’t be easily restored, and that’s pretty much the point of the exercise.
It’s also been the pattern across the board. On Thurday, the New York Times reported that dozens of jobs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have gone unfilled and may simply be eliminated. The few holdovers still in place aren’t consulted on energy and science issues, and don’t even bother to write policy memos anymore.
Clearly, the goal isn’t reform, which the OSTP, like most bureaucracies, could conceivably use. It’s elimination altogether of the concept of expert analysis. Duplicated throughout the Executive Branch, from the State Department on down, the impact of that will likely outlast Trump too, because institutional memory and continuity don’t grow on trees. Of course, who even knows if we’ll still have trees?
Once upon a time, Republicans attacked Obama’s “dictatorial” m.o. in governing by executive-order fiat. Inflammatory rhetoric aside, they weren’t always wrong about his occasional overreach. But Obama only resorted to that tactic once it was obvious the GOP aimed to paralyze him legislatively. Trump has been relying on unchecked presidential powers from his earliest days in office to make drastic changes in not only his priorities, but the very nature of America’s government.
Sure, his Muslim ban has all but failed in both its incarnations, but so far, that’s been the exception, not the rule. By the time he leaves office, it’s conceivable that the Executive Branch as we know it will be unrecognizable: no longer a functioning network of more or less responsible agencies, but a volatile vehicle for one reckless man’s will.
Among other things, solving the problem of being a bull in a china shop by getting rid of the china shop is unlikely to do much to preserve, let alone improve, America’s world standing. While it’s still uncertain whether Trump will formally back out of the Paris climate accords, he’s already abdicated American leadership on the issue, just as he has on NATO. Even if you’re skeptical about climate change, betting everything on fossil fuels in 2017 is madness as an economic strategy. Renewable energy is where the action is when it comes to generating new jobs, new industries and new prosperity, and the United States used to be at the forefront of that kind of innovation.
Now our leading foreign competitors are. Trump made sure to surround himself with coal miners when he signed Tuesday’s order on climate-change regulations, and those poor suckers. (No, their jobs aren’t coming back.) For accuracy’s sake, he should have posed with a beaming trade delegation from Beijing instead, because they’ll be the ultimate beneficiaries of all this mishegoss. As it happens, Beijing’s china shop is in perfectly dandy shape.