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Deteriorating Climates: Home and Abroad

Here in the United States, the socio-political climate has never been pristine. Normally, it amounts to maintaining an environment wherein the rich stay rich and all others stay hopeful—except for the segregated and downtrodden. Therefore, it is notable that between the 1960s and early 2000s, the social environment did improve: it got more equalitarian—the social rules favored tolerance. But, of course, it didn’t last.

With Donald Trump’s election, a harsh reaction to this bit of progress set in. Thus, the nation’s social climate has been steadily deteriorating for over three years, thanks to President Trump’s conspicuous habit of acting out both his narrow-minded, often bigoted, conceits (legal and otherwise) and his adolescent frustrations. In behaving this way, Trump has, by his own example, liberated the seedy, sleazy and sordid among the American population—many of them armed with religious self-righteousness and extraordinary capitalist greed, to say nothing of the firearms some of them carry.

Here is how Sunita Sah, an associate professor of Management at Cornell University, contextualizes the present situation: “President Donald Trump regularly uses blatant violations of long-established social and political norms to signal his ‘authenticity’ to supporters. Asking foreign countries to investigate and deliver dirt on his political opponents, which prompted an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the most recent example in a long string of norm-shattering behaviors.” She goes on to tell us why this is important: “Norms are perceptions or beliefs about what we understand the rules for acceptable behavior to be.”

Norms or rules of behavior can be shifted. For instance, the consequences of Supreme Court decisions to support gay rights or the legality of abortion shifted societal norms in a more tolerant and humane direction. Trump’s election began a process aimed at reversing this direction—you can see this in his Supreme Court nominations.

Donald Trump, being a hardly disguised racist and supporter of white nationalism, has authored this regressive turn. Another four-year term for this presidential bigot and it will take a generation for the U.S. to dig itself out of the resulting social morass.

In the meantime, the global atmospheric climate is deteriorating as well. This, of course, is not just a local affair, but there is a hometown connection. The U.S. is one of the worse atmospheric polluters (others include China and India). Here again, President Trump and his supporters defy the norms. Despite cumulative evidence of global warming and its imminent dangers, his administration scornfully dismisses it because it gets in the way of “economic prosperity.” Being inconvenient, Trump has decided it isn’t real.

Thus, while U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the “point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us,” the U.S. president blithely continued to roll back regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Here is how Dr. Michael E. Mann, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, characterizes such behavior: “He [Trump] is locking in permanent, irreversible damage to our environment through his irresponsible environmental policies, including his efforts to block progress on climate change. … Once we go beyond key tipping points–the melting of the major ice sheets—there is no going back.”

This is the “climate” that surrounds the present (Dec. 2-13) meeting going on in Madrid, Spain, the goal of which is to galvanize the world’s industrialized countries and get them to move toward “carbon-neutral economies” while also lending the necessary aid to poorer nations which, on their own, do not have the resources to achieve this goal.

You would think that this is a no-brainer, one of those life-or-death situations, like an invasion—in this case an invasion of seawater, the rising levels of which will put in jeopardy millions of people in major coastal cities if the current trajectory of 3°C (5.4°F) increase in temperature comes about. Among these cities are Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka and Shanghai. Then there are the disappearing Pacific islands. It is a no-brainer that should trigger a rapid and effective response. But, not in Trump’s Washington, where it has been decided to send low-level officials to the Madrid meeting. By doing so, the president helps put a planetary population in the position of a “dead man walking.”

So what is the common denominator when it comes to President Trump’s approach to these two deteriorating climates?

The common denominator is Trump’s decision-making process—a process dictated by an obsessive and extreme ethical egoism. “Ethical egoism says that I morally ought to perform some action if and only if, and because, performing that action maximizes my self-interest.”

It doesn’t matter if the decision is seen as immoral by a majority of others, as long as there is sufficient feedback that the decision maker’s self-conceived interests are being served. And, in the case of most of Trump’s decisions, there are a sufficient number of supporters to reinforce his actions, and this is all the feedback he needs. Thus, the president can oppose gun control knowing that, despite almost daily massacres, the National Rifle Association supports him and this benefits his political interests. The president can decide to delegitimize abortion rights and those of gay people, while simultaneously acquiescing in the claims of white nationalism, believing that there are an exaggerated number of voters who share his bigotry. And, the president can make decisions that undermine the rule of international law, as with his support of Israel, knowing that there is a vocal and influential group of Zionist fanatics assuring him that it is in his political interest to do so.

Denying global warming and making decisions that many others believe puts the future of the entire planet at risk is motivated by this same ethical egoism. Trump has termed global warming a “hoax” that was “invented by China.

This being the case, he feels he is not obligated to address the issue. Instead he has adopted policies that please coal mining companies and deregulates polluters. Those who agree with such dubious decisions have rallied to his side and supplied him with the selective feedback that supports his ethical egoism.

Trump has also told us that as a real estate developer “I have done more environmental impact statements probably than anybody that’s … ever been president.” That means “I know more about the environment than most people.” By the way, it takes a certain simple-mindedness to be so extreme an ethical egoist. Here you see Donald Trump proving the point.

The resulting process of national degradation (the  opposite of “Make America Great Again”), to saying nothing of the negative global consequences, will continue until Trump is removed from office and as many of his appointees as possible are purged. It is unlikely that the Republicans in the Senate will do the patriotic thing and convict their puerile leader. Most of these politicians are products of a Republican Party that has been made over in Trump’s image. That leaves the nation with the November 2020 election. It will be a genuine test of the political and ethical maturity of the American people. The result should be another one of those no-brainers. However, we have yet to go through the TV election ad season.

 

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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