Vandals in the White House

An oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa. The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history. Credit Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

There are vandals in the White House. The past fortnight has made it clear. All it took was a little distance for perspective. A revealing trip abroad. A self-satisfied rejection of the Paris climate change accord, infused with contempt for 190 countries. Throw in a dramatic buildup to the announcement scheduled for the odd time of 3:00 EDT so it can play live, prime-time, in Europe.

There are vandals in the White House. The evidence has been there all along, but for me it took seeing it through eyes from outside this country to really get it. Our media paradigm can limit our understanding by its familiar narrative of left vs. right and our tendency to focus on national news, lacking a solid international context. It was unsettling, jarringly so, to read commentary and comments from Europe today.

I was embarrassed for our nation while Trump attended the NATO conference in Sicily. His signature heedless arrogance was distilled in the 20 second clip-gone-viral of his pushing past the Montenegro prime minister for the group photo. J.K. Rowling’s assessment, also viral, was apt: “What a tiny, tiny, tiny, little man.”

That was mere boorishness. More meaningful was his decision to substitute a scolding of the attendees for not paying their fair share in lieu of the requisite recommitment of the U.S. to the organization’s common defense. Even so, the European leaders managed to overlook his slights and obliviousness and tried to impress on him the overriding importance of remaining in the Paris climate change accord.

Yesterday my embarrassment was superseded by shame. The vandals in the White House smashed the agreement we had in collaboration with every other country in the world, save Nicaragua and Syria. But it was obvious today that the damage went well beyond that. Trump’s words, in his role of president, were so emphatically dismissive of any concern for the rest of the world’s population that they have been rightly seen as an abdication of moral and political leadership.

There are vandals in the White House. Like I said, the evidence has been there all along. Exhibit A is Steve Bannon and his ambition for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looked for a time that Bannon’s star was fading, but the recent turmoil over the Russia investigations have resulted in his reinstatement close to the president’s ear.

Bannon was one of the advisors pressing Trump to trash the Paris accord. He has also talked candidly about the need for the administration to deconstruct via the elimination of regulations, particularly those that were put in place during the Obama presidency. He even plainly said that many cabinet picks had been made for the express purpose of dismantling the regulatory authority of their agencies.

Naturally, that was only stating the obvious. Consider first those whose background showed them to be hostile to the agency they would lead: Scott Pruitt for EPA, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, Rick Perry for Energy, Ryan Zinke for Interior, Betsy DeVos for Education. Then there is Ben Carson, whose obvious lack of qualifications make his effectiveness to lead HUD questionable.

Rex Tillerson was a controversial, but defensible, choice for State. But since his confirmation, the department has been decimated of experienced career staffers and managed in such a way that morale is reported to be at an all-time low. Tillerson himself has made it clear he has little interest in the institutional memory and protocol of the department.

Jeff Sessions was an obvious pick for Attorney General only in that he was an early and loyal Trump supporter. His early pronouncements and orders have confirmed the suspicion that for him “Make America Great Again” really does refer to white America. Preferably pre-1960s.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s “Team of Vandals” will have any role other than demolition. Judging by the Vandal-in-Chief, it would seem unlikely. Coming up on 5 months into his term, there is little evidence of anything of substance that Trump proposes doing. Only what he wants to undo.

Of course, he talks in vague terms about infrastructure, tax reform, health care, and building a wall. But the only significant new policy he actually tried to implement, the Muslim travel ban, is still hung up by injunction due to its unconstitutionality. Infrastructure and the wall, tangible building projects that are at least somewhat connected to his past experience, remain nebulous and seem far off at best. His tax reform plan, when finally released, turned out to be a single page of bullets and tons of white space. But it had a White House letterhead. For months he claimed to have a really great health care plan. Naturally, he had no such thing, leaving it to the House Republicans to come up with it. He continues to demonstrate that, even now, he has little knowledge or interest in what is actually in the plan.

And so it is with the Paris accord as well. No one really expects that Trump has any meaningful knowledge of the pros and cons of the the climate change agreement. What we know for sure, though, is that he is offering nothing better. He said nothing during his speech about the threat of global warming. Nothing about the science. Nothing of our responsibility to future generations. Instead, his message was the equivalent of taking a can of neon spray paint to the agreement and scrawling  “USA! USA! USA!” across every page.

Way to go Mr. President. Everyone got the message.