About four years ago, on October 9, 2016, one month prior to the U.S. Presidential election, I published a heart-felt and in some ways painful essay at this blog in which after 30 years of political privacy in my professional life — including, importantly, my teaching — I found it necessary to come out of the closet of political neutrality to condemn in no uncertain terms the threat which I believed one of the candidates, Donald Trump, posed to the United States and the world if he were elected President.
Sadly, four years later, all of my concerns have been validated, plus one threat that I had not thought about, namely that the Trump administration would damage American democracy in ways big and small, and that as the November 2020 election approached, President Trump himself would pose the greatest threat imaginable to the sanctity of the electoral process and thereby to the credibility and even the existence of our democratic form of government.
Of course, within the realm of environmental policy, the damages done to U.S. policy over the past four years are legendary, but not really a surprise. Indeed, see my essay at this blog from one week after the 2016 election (“What Does the Trump Victory Mean for Climate Change Policy?”, November 10, 2016), as well as dozens of essays I’ve posted since then.
So, rather than review the dismal record of the Trump administration over the past four years, I thought it might be more interesting for you — as it has been for me — to offer my essay of warning from four years ago.
This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality
October 9, 2016
I have been writing essays at this blog for over seven years, and throughout that time, through perhaps 100 more-or-less-monthly essays, I have tried very hard to keep politics at bay, and to view each and every issue I discussed from a politically neutral, yet analytical economic perspective. But I find it difficult to remain neutral in the current U.S. Presidential election cycle.
Since before the summer, I had resolved to write today’s essay, but I decided to wait until one month before the November U.S. election to post it, simply because I thought this was the point in time when people would be paying most attention to the upcoming election but would not yet have completely made up their minds. In particular, I want to address this message to people who – like me – are political independents.
I have been teaching at Harvard for close to 30 years, and every year I take pride in the fact that at the conclusion of my 13-week course in environmental economics and policy, my students cannot say – on the basis of what I have said in lectures or what they have read in the assigned readings – whether I am a tree-hugging environmental advocate from the political left, or an industry apologist from the political right (actually, I am neither, although hostile voices in the blogosphere have sometimes wanted to peg me as being on the opposite of whatever extreme they occupy).
Likewise, I have remained bipartisan in politics, ever since I directed Project 88 more than 25 years ago for the bipartisan coalition of former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Republican Senator John Heinz. Starting with the White House of President George H. W. Bush, and continuing with every administration – of both political parties – since then, I have worked on substantive matters of environmental and energy policy, in some cases closely and intensively, and in some cases indirectly and on the periphery.
Such professional bipartisanship and political neutrality have been important to me, and have been consistent with my voter registration, as I am officially registered as an independent (in Massachusetts, this goes by the designation of “unenrolled”).
So, over the years, I have voted for Democrats and I have voted for Republicans, for various offices ranging from the Mayor of my town to the President of my country. And in each and every one of those elections, although I preferred one of the two principal candidates (sometimes very strongly), in no case did I fear for the future of my community, my state, or my country if my candidate lost and the other candidate won.
This time is different. In all honesty, I fear for the United States and I fear for the world if Donald Trump is elected President. The time for my professional bipartisanship and political neutrality has ended – at least temporarily. And so I apologize to my readers for using this platform – An Economic View of the Environment – to express my broader, personal views on the upcoming election. This is a departure that I hope never again will be necessary.
I am not part of a campaign, and I am not recommending a candidate. Rather, I am recommending that everyone vote! Of course, today’s essay, like all my posts at this blog, expresses only my personal views, and is not written on behalf of my employer, nor in my capacity as a faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School.
What Drives My Fear of a Trump Presidency? His Views on the Environment?
My fear of the consequences of a Trump victory in the Presidential election is not simply because of Mr. Trump’s misleading, (consistently) inconsistent, and fundamentally incorrect statements in the realm of environmental and energy policy.
Let me be clear. I do find Mrs. Clinton’s policy positions in my area of expertise – environmental and energy economics and policy – to be superior to Mr. Trump’s positions. I will not repeat here my views of Trump’s environmental and energy positions, because I have frequently been quoted in the press as critical of his pronouncements and positions in this realm (Climate Central, E&E News, Scientific American, New York Times, Washington Post, The Verge, New York Times, The Week, Law Street, Climate Central, New York Times, The Hill, Newsmax, Climate Central, Grist, and National Public Radio). And a few times I have been quoted as criticizing Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions in the environmental and energy realm (New York Times, Denver Post, and High Country News). (For that matter, I have been quoted perhaps hundreds of times over the past seven and a half years as sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Obama administration environmental and energy policies.)
So, yes, I believe that the world would be worse off with what I anticipate would be a Trump administration’s environmental and energy policies. But that is not what really frightens me.
What Really Does Scare me about a Trump Presidency?
What frightens me is much broader and more profound. I worry about what a Trump presidency would mean for my country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty. This comes not from any analysis of policy proposals, but from Trump’s own words in a campaign in which he has substituted impulse and pandering for thoughtful politics. From the first day – his June 16, 2015 announcement of his Presidential bid (in which he described Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers, criminals, and rapists, and promised to “build a great wall”) – until today, Mr. Trump has built his populist campaign on false allegations about others, personal insults of anyone who disagrees with him, and displays of breathtaking xenophobia, veiled racism, and unapologetic sexism.
As disturbing as Trump’s stated positions are in economic policy, national security, and personal liberties, possibly even worse is the reality that Donald Trump, if elected President, would – intentionally or unintentionally – provide cover and support for the ignorant, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that sadly inhabit a substantial fraction of the U.S. population. In many ways, Trump represents not the best that my country has to offer, but rather the worst excesses of American culture.
Trump is clearly a politician who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. That is the definition – word for word – of a demagogue.
The Bottom Line
If you are an independent, like me, please do not sit on the sidelines of the upcoming election, condemning both candidates for their failings.
It has been said many times by many people that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate for President. I do not disagree with that sentiment. Nor can I dispute the fact that her primary campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders pushed her to adopt positions of the left, including her unfortunate reversal regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
But Mrs. Clinton would bring significant, positive experience to the presidency from four decades of public life, including as a member of the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State. In contrast with Mr. Trump, she has surrounded herself with legions of smart and experienced advisers in dozens of key policy realms. Her campaign has produced detailed proposals on the most important challenges facing the country (although I do question some of her environmental positions). But she is, if anything, a realist – not an ideologue, and certainly not a demagogue, which is precisely how I would characterize Mr. Trump.
I recognize that many people harbor very negative feelings about Mrs. Clinton. The low approval ratings (of both candidates) validate that. I respect those voters who have serious concerns about a Clinton presidency.
My core argument is that there are great differences between the two major candidates. I disagree strongly with those of my fellow political independents (and others) who say that because both candidates are flawed, they will not vote.
In my view, that would be a mistake. The fate of the United States and the fate of the world are really in our hands. If you are an independent, please do not sit out this election. It is much too important.