So, the struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of…well, not exactly light, but relative sanity… continues in the Trump entourage. Not long ago, the pundits were reporting on how Jared Kushner—a leader of the sane faction—had managed to cut down the influence of the Steve Bannon/alt-rightist creeps. Trump’s renunciation of the Paris climate change agreement signals a resurgence of the forces of darkness. How did they win this one?
Trump’s renunciation of the Paris pact can be explained on two levels: the political and the personal. Politically, it’s readily understandable. Trump wants to keep his promises to his base, if he can; never mind how reckless and dishonest those promises may have been. He said he would bring coal jobs back to Appalachia and trash the Paris accord. He can’t do the former, but he can pretend to try by doing the latter. Anyway, climate change denialism remains the unchallengeable dogma in the Republican Party today, and, with a few notable exceptions, Trump has hewed to his adopted party’s orthodoxy. If climate change is just a big hoax, then why should the United States bother with international agreements to combat it?
On a personal level, the trashing of Paris can be seen as a projection of Trump’s sociopathic personality onto national policy. Often overlapping with narcissism, sociopathy is basically egoism run wild, a pursuit of personal advantage with indifference to the harm it may inflict on others. Trump gets votes by inciting fear and suspicion of vulnerable populations. He doesn’t care that his demagogy—and the policies he implements to make good on his demagogic promises–hurts people. He doesn’t care that his mendacity and his angry, hateful rhetoric debase American democracy. It’s all worked out fine for him—he got elected president– so why not? Similarly, Trump doesn’t care what impact US actions have on the rest of the world. If combatting climate change involves some kind of sacrifice on the part of the US, then screw it and screw the rest of the world.
Now, this may not seem to make sense, since global warming is bad for the US as well for the rest of the world, and it’s not at all clear that the fight against it involves net economic cost to the US. As Paul Krugman and others have pointed out, and as much of the American corporate world has come to see, there is lots of economic opportunity in the transition to a low emissions economy. How do we explain this willful blindness? Apart from the political exigencies already discussed, I think David Brooks was on to something in his column today in arguing that the Trumpites just don’t understand a world in which people honestly seek to cooperate for common benefit. The Trump world view
…asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”
There’s no denying that selfishness and power-seeking are often important drivers of human behavior. But not exclusive drivers. The urgency of global warming has called forth a remarkable degree of global consensus about the need for cooperation. Trump can’t see that: he is into dominance, and assumes everybody else is too if they have any brains. The US must be getting screwed by the Paris accord because he would screw the rest of the world if he could, and Obama was too weak (or stupid) to do so.
And so, under Trump, the United States of America is the outlier—the proud, lonely carrier of the torch of benighted self-interest. Trump thinks that the world laughs at the United States for acceding to the Paris accord. He doesn’t see that the world is actually laughing at him. Remember the weird photo of Trump caressing a crystal ball in the company of his Arab oligarch hosts? Does anyone believe that this pose by five North European prime ministers is anything but a deliberate spoof of Trumpian folly? You gotta laugh, even if you can’t help crying.
Here is another interesting perspective, from Josh Marshall, on Trump’s decision to trash the Paris accord.