As we approach the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, pundits and historians will judge his job performance so far. That’s what they do. But some of the president’s grades are obvious, especially for those who care about keeping the environment and our children healthy, keeping our people safe from weather disasters, living in a time when the nation is at peace, and salvaging America’s reputation overseas.
On the bright side, Trump deserves an excellent grade for his entertainment value. He has been a godsend for impressionists, comedians and wig makers.
He has been a blessing for the legal profession, too. He has inspired so much litigation that it may be boosting our GDP. In addition to the battery of lawyers on both sides of the Russia investigation, legions of attorneys are benefitting from the lawsuits filed to challenge the Trump Administration’s actions. As of August, Trump had been sued in federal courts 134 times over topics ranging from sanctuary cities to transgender soldiers.
Trump had been sued in federal courts 134 times over topics ranging from sanctuary cities to transgender soldiers.
It is when we get to his policies, behaviors, ethics and judgments that Trump’s grades plunge into “F” territory. For example, his stated reason for dismissing climate change (he says it’s a Chinese plot) is obviously absurd, but that’s his story and he’s sticking to it, even while unimaginable and unprecedented hurricanes, floods and fires are taking lives and property. The impacts of climate change are not only overwhelming entire regions of the United States, they are quickly overwhelming the federal government’s ability to respond to and help communities recover from these horrific events.
Next, it seems important that we learn as much as possible about the environment, our influence on its health and its influence on ours. But the Administration is dismissing federal scientists and science programs whose work cannot be replaced by states. Its decisions seem based on fiat and bias rather than good policy or even common sense. In one recent case, Trump’s Department of Interior ordered a halt to a half-completed study by the respected National Academies of Science on the health impacts of surface coal mining in West Virginia.
Trump fails miserably on core curricula like maintaining the dignity of the presidency or our ability to trust what a president says. He is chronically careless with facts to the extent that he might be suspected of trying to mislead us. His constant complaints that the media are putting out “fake facts” and “false news” obviously are meant to discredit those who point out that it’s the President who engages in fake facts and false news. He uses hyperbole to promise the biggest and the best, while raising expectations beyond what Congress can accomplish and blaming it for the failures. He uses innuendo to start tantalizing rumors to distract public attention or to impugn without facts the integrity of his critics.
Trump also deserves an “F” on his policies. He has a reputation for not understanding the policies he supports. His idea of America’s energy security is stuck in last century’s era of King Coal and Big Oil. He maintains that our economy would falter without fossil fuels even though the nation, more than 30 of our states, and 34 other countries have learned to grow GDP without growing carbon emissions. While the rest of the world acknowledges that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have begun exacting a terrible toll, Trump wants the United States to be the world’s biggest producer and supplier of fossil fuels.
Trump’s commitment to creating jobs for American workers is belied by his apparent disinterest the world’s dynamic market for clean energy technologies. When Trump took office, nearly 50 of the world’s poorest nations had committed to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2050. The commitments that so many nations made in the Paris climate agreement opened the door to enormous future growth in low-carbon technologies.
Nevertheless, it is China rather than America that leads the world in manufacturing solar panels, in developing energy storage technology and in making a transition to electric vehicles. While Trump takes steps to roll back the historic vehicle efficiency standards established during the Obama Administration, a growing number of countries are planning to shift completely to zero-emission vehicles.
China’s $102 billion investment in domestic renewable energy two years ago was more than twice that invested by the U.S. “China is cementing its global dominance of renewable energy and supporting technologies,” the Guardian notes, “leaving countries including the US, UK and Australia at risk of missing the growing market.” Yet Trump seems disinterested. We have seen no plan for America to compete for market share and jobs.
On national security, Trump is tipping diplomacy’s delicate balance of “guns” and “carrots” toward guns. Anyone below the age of 13 today has never lived when America was not at war. Anyone born since 1984 has lived with war for at least half of his or her life. Trump has never served in a war to learn its real costs. But he has engaged in boyish brinksmanship with North Korea to the point where we might be at the threshold of an “unbelievably bloody” new war. Worse, he appears to be a little too fascinated with nuclear weapons.
In regard to ethics, Trump has lowered the bar to levels that would frustrate our most limber limbo dancer. He engages openly in nepotism, conflicts of interest, profiteering from public office, and the refusal to make his tax returns public, as other presidents have done. Although he is a billionaire, he has not been shy about living large at taxpayer expense.
While his base seems to like the idea of “America First”, the United States remains part of a world economy, critical strategic alliances and important international collaborations on a variety of issues. In the past, we have prided ourselves on being a positive influence in world affairs, but it did not take long for Trump to damage how the world sees us. A survey of 37 nations released in June by the Pew Research Center found that confidence in America’s leadership had “declined steeply in many nations”. The decline in trust is especially pronounced among our closest allies in Europe and Asia, Pew found. In fact, the international community trusts Vladimir Putin more than it trusts Trump.
As for governing, Trump does not seem to be driven by a vision for the country, a philosophy of government or even a consistent ideology. Many of his decisions appear to be motivated by a strange animus toward Barack Obama, including the impulse to lay waste to every part of Obama’s legacy. Trump’s team is not only revoking Obama’s entire climate-action agenda; in the style of dictatorships, it has taken down websites on the topic and purged the words “climate change” from the vocabulary of federal agencies and employees.
As October began, the majority of the American people disapproved of how Trump is performing as president. His approval rating was a miserable 38%. More than 60% of Americans want the federal government to do something about climate change. Four out of five Americans oppose the Administration’s attempt to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation that for the first time sets limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Nearly 60% of Americans opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. As Trump took over the presidency, 65% of U.S. adults believed that alternative energy resources such as solar and wind should be a higher priority than expanding the production of oil, coal or natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency was viewed favorably by 63% of the American people.
Trump and his team have taken the opposite direction in each of these areas, ignoring the wishes of the people they were elected and appointed to serve.
Some who disagree with Trump’s agenda may be taking comfort in the idea that he is getting little of it done. But the dust and bluster obscure the fact that he is reshaping the judiciary and, as the Atlantic put it, “quietly remaking the nation’s regulatory landscape, especially on the environment and criminal justice.” Those developments will affect the nation for years to come.
None of my admittedly biased grades of the Trump presidency are meant to be partisan. Trump has shown he is agnostic when comes to Party allegiance. His performance has less to do with partisanship than with his personality, his standards of conduct, and whom he is listening to.
What should be a political issue in next year’s mid-term elections, however, is Congress’s failure to push Trump a higher standard of leadership. Even though Trump is their titular leader, the Republicans who control Congress should be meeting their constitutional obligation to check and balance a president who needs it.
If things do not change dramatically for the better in the coming year, next fall could bring us another very exciting election.
Author’s note: The conclusions and opinions in this post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of others associated with the Presidential Climate Action Project.