There’s a dangerous myth that Donald Trump’s presidency is too buffoonish to be ranked anywhere on the Chavez-Mussolini scale of authoritarianism, that a commander in chief who spends much of his day curled up in the Lincoln Bedroom rage-tweeting his favorite shows on Fox News Channel may be bad for America’s global image as a serious nation but that no actual humans were harmed in this production.
To those who still believe this, I say: Let them go to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
In recent weeks, a journalist for the New York Times, Eric Lipton, did exactly that as part of an extraordinary year-end project from the Times with the depressing but accurate moniker of “This Is Our Reality Now.” It looked at how the Trump administration’s unprecedented rollback of environmental protections is changing life, and not for good, for everyday Americans. The fact that some of the grossest pollution is befouling some of the states with the highest election margins for Trump adds another grimy layer of irony.
At the Fort Berthold reservation, Lipton found that while surging oil and gas production has brought some much-needed economic benefit to a remote piece of land in western North Dakota, a growing number of tribal members are questioning the trade-off. For example, a $1 million early-childhood learning center was paid for by a pipeline company, but only as a fine for a spill of more than 1 million gallons of polluted fracking wastewater that reached the reservation’s main drinking water supply.
When Lipton arrived on the reservation, he found the frigid night sky was a weird orangey-yellow from all the lit flares of oil and gas wells. Not only have flaring emissions roughly doubled during Trump’s presidency, but in September — with little fanfare — the president’s so-called Environmental Protection Agency gutted an Obama-era rule that had been imposed to curb methane and related pollution from well flaring. It was a rule that not only would have aided the fight against climate change — methane is a significant greenhouse gas — but also sought to make the air less foul to breathe for people who live near these wells.
Lisa DeVille, whose family has lived on the North Dakota reservation for decades, told the Times she’s been treated for the respiratory sickness known as the Bakken cough because it’s been frequently reported by oil-field workers in the Dakotas. “My children and grandchildren breathe in this air,” she said. “How is this going to affect our health?”
Residents of North Dakota (which Trump won in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote) aren’t the only ones breathing dirtier air or drinking more polluted water because of decisions that Trump or his minions at EPA made with the stroke of a pen, sometimes aided by the GOP-dominated Congress of the last two years. Times reporters on the “This Is Our Reality Now” beat found that efforts to curb toxic industrial pollution on the Kanawha River in West Virginia (Trump: nearly 68 percent in 2016) have ground to a halt, while Team Trump is allowing coal plants in states like Texas (Trump: 52.2 percent) to keep polluting the air at high levels, and has blocked rules intended to protect California farm workers from exposure to a toxic pesticide.
Rivaling the tax cut that enriched big corporations and billionaires and caused the federal deficit to soar (but didn’t do a darned thing for Wall Street), the Great Environmental Rollback is probably the most consequential policy maneuver of Trump’s nearly two years in the Oval Office. In some cases, the measures have meant higher short-term profits for executives saving money on pollution controls, at the cost of long-term damage to the communities where they do business. Other times, like rolling back fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles, Trump has gone farther than even the industry wanted to go, let alone the public.
When I was growing up, there was a genre of James Bond-type movie thriller in which a maniacal billionaire or evil genius is holed up in an inaccessible mountain lair having invented some kind of doomsday device that threatens to destroy the whole planet until our hero saves the day with seconds to spare. A part of me always questioned the logic of these films — who would actually do such a thing? Little did I expect to see this scenario play out in my lifetime, with the earth-destroying madman not under the North Pole but barricaded in a White House bedroom with a TV remote, wreacking havoc not with the push of a button but the stroke of a pen.
And things are likely to get worse in the second half of Trump’s term. Over Christmas week, when few were watching, the Times reported that Trump’s EPA is now reversing yet another Obama-era rule meant to curb toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. And this is a case where the “why” is arguably worse than the “what” -- because the administration is claiming that impact assessments should only cover the economics, not the “cost” of declining human health. That opens a Pandora’s box for all sorts of rulings to make polluters richer amid the din of everyone else’s Bakken cough.
President Evil strikes again.
As the calendar flips to 2019, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of several landmark events that convinced America that it was time to start saving the Earth, or else. On June 22, 1969, news that a passing train had lit on fire the toxic sludge that passed for the Cuyahoga River in the heart of Cleveland became a battle cry in the fight to clean up the nation’s rivers. A massive oil slick that fouled beaches and killed wildlife near Santa Barbara, Cali., that same summer provided momentum for 1970′s first Earth Day.
It was the beginning of a half century in which a United States that disagreed about most everything else found remarkable solidarity around protecting the environment. It was a Republican “law and order” president, Richard Nixon, who created the EPA and signed the earliest landmark antipollution bills into law. In many ways, that consensus has held up all the way into 2019. A 2018 poll conducted by academics from Yale and George Mason University found 56 percent of Republicans — yes, Republicans — are part of a broader U.S. consensus that favors both a carbon tax and curbs on power-plant pollution, even if it causes electric bills to increase.
So how does Trump get away with this literal garbage? While the real beneficiaries of these policies may be a handful of coal or oil executives and their highly paid lobbyists, the president sells it to the millions in his base -- somewhere from 35 to 46 percent of the electorate -- not on the specific policies (which we’ve seen they don’t like) but on the attitude, or attytood. Trump’s reactionary EPA infuriates the Left, the talking heads on CNN, and pointy-headed know-it-all scientists on the East and West Coasts. So therefore it must be making America great again.
Trump voters are destroying their lungs or drinking toxic tea in order to own the libs. Some of them may be laughing all the way to the grave. And while the short-term, devastating health impacts are going to hit the hardest in the communities where less-privileged citizens live, the long-term effects of climate change are going to wallop all of us — especially those kids and grandkids you just showered with shiny new toys over the holiday season and who will grow into a world marred by global warming.
Another hallmark of the New Year’s season is the year-in-review article that trumpets the big headlines of the previous 12 months — the Trump-Russia scandal, school shootings, a Supreme Court nomination fight. It’s hard for the drip-drip-drip of planetary destruction to break through. But I can’t help think historians — if future society is still healthy enough to even have historians — will look back on this environmental dereliction of duty as the biggest story of the Trump era.
The time to start fighting back is now. A Democratic House can’t write new laws, but it can block potential bad ones and use its subpoena powers to expose the ongoing ecological nightmare to the public, setting the stage for a new age of environmental protection to commence in 2021. The clock is ticking — and I don’t mean the one counting down to the new year in Times Square.