WHEB Commentary

Ted Franks

Science 101: Will the Republicans come back to class?


Do individuals make history? Or are larger forces at work, sometimes crystalising through personalities, but sometimes not?

It is a timeless debate. You might think it was reserved for highfalutin academic treatises. But we are about to live through a crucial experiment on just this point.

Barring some very unlikely events, Donald Trump has been ejected from the Presidency of the United States. Is he the manifestation of a coherent movement? Or is he, in fact, the original creator of such an unwieldy mass of radical views?

This thorny question will play out in US politics for the next few years at least.

The bad news is that the global progress of sustainability, and particularly the fight against climate change, will depend on the answer. Perhaps surprisingly, there is good news too. It is actually now possible to imagine a Republican Party which isn’t implacably opposed to climate action.

For those that had to read that last sentence twice, let me explain.

At the moment, Donald Trump is the right wing of American politics. The plan is just the man. That something like 71 million Americans voted for it and him, is partly down to who he is, and partly because he embodies some core beliefs they share.

Those beliefs can be hard to define. There is a tonne of noise. The man himself doesn’t want to waste time on spelling and punctuation, let alone factual accuracy. Consistent policy, and listening to his team, aren’t even worth dreaming about.

But there are some clearer bits of signal. Two core aspects in particular were both evident in Trump even before his entry into politics. The first is his take on race, immigration and American identity. The second is his aggressive “zero sum” view of international trade. This, of course, is mingled with the same heavy dose of negativity towards foreigners.

Most of the other policy moves he made bored him as much as they horrified us. This is a man who has changed his party affiliation five times. We can trace almost mind-bending changes of opinion on issues from abortion to gun control to taxing the rich.

Instead, Trump uses his uncanny instincts to pick the stances that fit with his voter coalition. The actual policy issues are just collateral damage as he works the crowd.

So environmental protections are crushed because they represent governments and regulation. The USA marches out of the Paris Accord because it is a suspicious example of international cooperation.

Donald Trump doesn’t understand climate change. But he knows that he can cast it as a liberal conspiracy. And he can find useful foil in a Swedish schoolgirl, to help rally his crowds. So that’s how he’ll treat it.

So here’s the rub. He will at some point leave the stage. Or at very least, stop reliably delivering massive political capital for the Republicans. When that happens, they will need to win votes on their own again.

Will it make sense for them to stay on the wrong side of this bit of history? Even the most committed fossil energy enthusiasts can already see the world is changing. The oil patch is crumbling, and there are plenty of jobs in the new green world. A new industrial complex is emerging, complete with flag-waving American champions. Energy independence will be more real than it could ever be in the fossil era.

Is it a core Republican position to oppose this? Will they die on this hill the same way they might for gun rights and immigration control? It’s not even that important for the man himself. As the public mood changes, will they still cling to climate denial?

It will take much of the time which is now in short supply to find the answer to this. But at least this weekend’s results give a glimmer of hope. It is still some way off, but climate change may yet unite Americans more than it divides them.

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