In case you had any doubt, the two most recent super-storms, Harvey and Irma, whose damage will hit $300 billion, underscore the fact that the U.S. will need to spend many trillions of dollars protecting our shorelines and modernizing our infrastructure. Only the federal government can do this, as right wingers like Texas Senator Ted Cruz found, when he changed direction on states’ rights and groveled for more aid for Houston.
Donald Trump took office promising big bucks for infrastructure spending and make-it-in-America jobs. Such a program might have lifted his popularity above the mid-30s — and still could. The ever impulsive Trump seems to be changing course again.
Having cast his lot with the Republicans, Trump is furious that the House and Senate don’t just follow his decrees. A poor student of the American constitution, he misses the nuances of separation of powers and the fact that we are not a parliamentary system. The entire Senate GOP caucus doesn’t just defer to Mitch McConnell. Each senator is a free-lance.
So now, Trump is bitterly feuding with the Republicans and cutting deals with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, of all people. Given that it’s Trump, he makes the feud bitter, nasty, and personal. Just ask Mitch McConnell. There are even noises that he may run in 2020 as an independent.
Let’s all take a deep breath and consider the several implications of this latest change of course. First, it is highly risky politically. When Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report comes out, probably in November, there will be several impeachable offenses (there already are), and Trump will need those Republicans.
Even in the more Trumpian House, there are several Republicans who have had just about enough. Trump going behind their backs to make a deal with the arch-fiend, Nancy Pelosi?! Better to get impeachment over with and move on to President Pence. Payback is coming.
Conversely, if Trump is serious about a massive public infrastructure program, he’d have all the Democrats on his side, and enough Republicans. There’s nothing like a series of unnatural catastrophes to get the attention of Red State conservatives.
The scale of these plagues is Biblical — floods, fires, droughts, vermin — but even with President Pence, Noah’s Ark and repentance won’t quite solve the problem unless we want to go directly to the End of Days. It will take serious government spending.
Trump, who changes course more impulsively than a tornado, began by supporting public infrastructure. But this, like so much of the rest of Trump’s 160 mile-an-hour wind, was just rhetoric. He then shifted to a thoroughly bogus concept of privatized infrastructure, subsidized by tax breaks and financed by his private equity pals, via the private bond market.
This approach could make a fortune for certain corporations, but it cannot possibly solve the problem. Privatizing ordinary water and sewer systems and shifting to toll highways is one way of getting more investment, but it is far more expensive to build seawalls, harden power grids, and invest in long-deferred public transit modernization.
My fair city of Boston, for instance, had a near miss in 2012 with Superstorm Sandy. Much of Boston is low-lying. The so-called Innovation District by the harbor, widely ridiculed as the Inundation District, is about an inch above sea level. The charming Back Bay neighborhood was reclaimed from the Charles River and much of it is built on pilings.
There are all sorts of creative plans to protect Boston from the inevitable catastrophe that would result from a direct hit. Boston has several small harbor barrier islands that could be connected by a moveable storm surge barrier like the one outside Rotterdam Harbor. There are also ideas for storm-surge canals. It would cost in the range of $10 to 20 billion.
When the Boston flood inevitably comes, doing a lot more damage than that, Bostonians will wring their hands (and wring out a great deal more) and ask why the investment wasn’t made before rather than after the catastrophe.
If Trump repositions himself as an ideological independent (rather than just a loose cannon), he could win public support as the great Infrastructure President. Will this happen? Who knows? Trump doesn’t know. It depends on what he watched on cable TV 10 minutes ago. I could flatter myself that me might read this column, but he doesn’t have the attention span to get this far into it.
So here we are. The catastrophic consequences of global climate change are here, not in 2040 but in 2017.
Today, in case you missed the irony, is September 11. You can be sure that if Houston or South Florida had been devastated by a terrorist attack, using weapons of mass destruction, America would rise to the occasion and find the resources. The attacks of 9-11 even rescued the presidency George W. Bush, one of the least prepared and least plausible presidents since Andrew Johnson.
Well, the revenge of nature is far more menacing than the revenge of ISIS. So which course will Hurricane Donald take?
There is a kind of race between his effort to find a purpose for his presidency and the impeachment clock, a race between his dealmaker side and his attention deficit tantrums. If Trump weren’t such a total, impulsive, undisciplined flake, he might take the perverse political gift of these two catastrophic storms.
Will he? Or will he tack back toward the shipwreck that is the Republican Party? Or will a storm surge of impeachment sweep him out of office first?
It’s all as hard to predict as the weather. We deserved the retribution of climate change. We did not deserve this president.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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