Sunday, November 27, 2016

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, December 4.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is President Trump the reincarnation of President Tyler?

Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Tyler & Trump: More alike than different?

The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation's 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump's party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions--prior to his presidential run in 2012--to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.

Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.

Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.

After Tyler's vetoes, the Whigs expelled him from the party. Then, almost all of Tyler's cabinet resigned. Trump is still awaiting his turn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but already there is intraparty turmoil at his transition headquarters in New York City's Trump Tower. Trump has purged some Republican party stalwarts in favor of outsiders and family members as his suspicion grows.

The Whig Party leadership never contemplated that Tyler might become president just as the Republican Party leadership never believed that Trump had a chance at the nomination. Once he had won the nomination, they believed he could not win the presidency.

Tyler was recruited to be Harrison's running mate to balance the ticket by attracting Southern voters. But Tyler's states' rights views ran counter to the Whigs' desire to use to the federal government to modernize the economy and the infrastructure, a program known as the American System. Hence, Tyler's disagreement with the plans of Congressional Whigs. He felt the states should remain responsible for infrastructure.

Of course, in contrast, Trump wants the federal government to engage in a long and costly program of infrastructure improvements, a program not favored by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the other hand, Trump's focus in a globalized economy on "making America great again" is reminiscent of Tyler's focus on states in the era of an emerging national economy.

Those hostile to Tyler nicknamed him "His Accidency." It is fairly clear from the reaction to Trump's victory that few people expected him to become president. While it wasn't an accident, it may have seemed that way to a Republican establishment whose primary system was supposed to crown an establishment choice early on and make that candidate impossible to catch.

In fact, it's possible that Trump did not at first intend to run a serious campaign. In that respect his success may have seemed like an accident to him. Trump may have started out intending only to raise his public profile in order to enhance the Trump brand. Trump nemesis Michael Moore claimed that he had direct confirmation (though the source remained anonymous) that Trump was merely trying to get more money for his reality television show, "The Apprentice." And, an insider from the nominally independent pro-Trump Make America Great Again PAC (which was eventually closed down) said that she was told Trump was merely trying to make a good showing. But then Trump became enamored with his own success.

In the end even statements and actions by Trump which Moore and others characterized as self-destructive only seemed to draw more supporters to him. Was Trump intentionally trying to self-destruct only to be caught off guard by the appeal of his supposedly self-destructive words and behaviors? Only he can tell us.

There is already talk that Trump could be impeached based on possible illegal activities that surface from his past. The standard response to such an assertion is that Republicans control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But the claim is that Congressional Republicans will soon tire of having someone in the presidency who though nominally Republican cannot be counted upon to enact their agenda. The successful removal of Trump from office would, of course, make Vice President Mike Pence president. Pence is a seasoned politician who is aligned with the Republican agenda.

Tyler differs from Trump, of course, in key ways. Tyler was a lawyer who came from a political family and held several elective offices before ascending to the vice presidency and then the presidency. But it's worth noting that the fractiousness of the Tyler presidency was a prelude to the dissolution of the Whigs--which by the early 1850s had disintegrated due not only to internal disagreements over slavery, but also lack of a coherent, unified message.

Republicans face internal divisions among those who voted for them as well. The traditional Republican coalition of business interests, libertarians, and social conservatives was augmented this year by an influx of white working-class voters feeling besieged by economic globalization. Of course, many white working-class voters had already been voting Republican for a long time because of their discomfort with what they perceived as the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party. But it was the new and crossover working-class voters who proved decisive.

Those voters oppose the free trade agenda of the Republican Party and are skeptical of the party's corporate ties. Moreover, social conservatives can hardly find Trump's embrace of same-sex marriage comforting. And, the business lobby hates Trump's opposition to so-called H-1B visas, the kind that allow foreign high-tech workers to work in the United States. Scarier yet for the business-oriented globalist Republicans, Steve Bannon, Trump's closest advisor, is calling for what he dubs "an economic nationalist movement."

Will these internal tensions cause the Republican Party to go the way of Whigs? At the very least, the road ahead for the Republican Party and Donald Trump does not look like a smooth one, and Trump's unpredictable style is likely to keep the public and the pundits guessing every step of the way about what comes next.

Images of John Tyler and Donald Trump sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump: America's pilot-in-chief in the post-ecological age

Many Americans are frightened by the idea of Donald Trump as the country's new pilot-in-chief, fearing he'll crash the airliner of state (including climate and environmental policies) into a mountain or the ground. Clinton, they argued, for all her flaws, knows how to fly this thing called a country using the federal government and at least won't end up crashing it.

But my metaphor assumes that every American believes he or she is on the same plane. And, that understanding is what seems to have clouded the minds of so many when thinking about the U.S. presidential campaign this year. For those living in America's small towns and rural areas and for those in the downwardly mobile working class, their plane has already crashed!

These groups are now dazed and wandering around in the wreckage trying to figure out how to live from day to day. It is no wonder that such voters were immune to cries that Trump would crash the country. The business-as-usual globalism that they believed Hillary Clinton represented seemed to them like it would only make things worse.

Both Donald Trump and Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders told these disaffected groups that a big part of the reason their communities and livelihoods crashed was a set of trade agreements that essentially shipped their jobs overseas. That made sense to them, and for a time they had two competing champions. But only Donald Trump made it to the general election.

Having already seen their lives and livelihoods crash, those disaffected Americans who voted for Trump did so with more than a little glee in the hope that the specially outfitted luxury airliner America's elite flies would crash as well. I think many of these voters were aware of the irony of voting for someone as their champion who really does fly around in his own private luxury airliner. But, they had simply had enough of establishment candidates and wanted to send a message. They certainly got everyone's attention when Trump won.

(As I've written before, Trump attracted most of the traditional Republican voters--business-oriented voters, social conservatives, and libertarians. What tipped the balance were the excess votes coming from those who might have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.)

Whether Trump can or will actually fulfill promises made to those who supported him is unknown. The news out of Washington last week does not bode well for such an outcome as 1) conservatives downplay new infrastructure spending that would help create the jobs Trump promised, 2) Chamber of Commerce Republicans could balk at his levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods that is supposed to protect American workers and 3) Trump considers John Bolton for secretary of state, a man who would certainly try to derail a warming of relations with Russia favored by Trump.

Trump may also face Republican attempts to impeach him to make way for establishment Republican Vice President Mike Pence to become president. Even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks couldn't resist hinting at the possibility in a recent column. Given the coverage of Trump to date, it doesn't seem far-fetched that a determined Republican Congress could build a case against him.

The shock of Trump's victory has been likened to the shock the world felt when British voters narrowly chose to leave the European Union, a move dubbed "Brexit." I detailed then the energy part of the Brexit equation suggesting that Great Britain's declining oil and gas production from the North Sea since 2004 had undermined the prosperity of the country--except for the financial class mostly located in and around London, a major world financial center.

I noted that stagnant wages were a common theme both in Britain and the United States and suggested a link with the high worldwide price of oil from 2010 through most of 2014.

I also noted in another piece that both major U.S. presidential candidates--while differing on environmental issues such as climate change--embraced speeding up economic growth. My conclusion in this much older piece is that what U.S. political parties differ on ecologically speaking is not whether we should protect the long-term habitability of the biosphere for humans, but rather at what pace we should undermine that habitability for short-term gains, both political and economic.

This is what I mean when I say we have a pre-ecological politics in a post-ecological age. The sciences tells us quite grimly what the prognosis is for the climate, the oceans, the rivers, the soil, the forests, and the myriad other species that share the planet with us, but we do not understand. Most of us cling to the what I call the modern myth, the premises of which I'll repeat here:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Those who fret about Trump's climate and environmental policies have reason to be concerned. But, in truth, our trajectory with Clinton would only be somewhat less injurious to the biosphere--though it might have upheld other values such as the importance of maintaining the natural beauty of some public lands. (We should also not overestimate what one person, even the president of the United States, can do good or bad regarding such matters.)

This is not to dismiss the Paris climate agreement from which Trump has pledged to withdraw the United States. The agreement was an important watershed moment in which the world was united at least in saying that climate change was real and an urgent priority. But what we need to do to address climate change goes far beyond what that agreement contains.

Our larger problem is that our political discourse remains pre-ecological. Changing that discourse won't happen just because another party takes the White House in four years.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The most powerful word in politics is 'no'

I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."

It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.

Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)

If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.

More often than not voters seek to vent their spleens when they vote. There is always something to be angry about, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to express anger. We humans are made for it. It is an instinctual response meant to warn others. Expressing it as voters has the added benefit of giving us a feeling of power. Voting is one of few arenas where the average person has the same say as the richest billionaire.

(The corollary to anger in this context is fear. And, while people often vote their fears, the way they tend to articulate their reasons for voting their fears is through the expression of anger.)

America's elites are puzzled about why there is so much anger among the electorate this year. Those elites are out of touch with the damage that the globalizing economy has inflicted on rural and small-town America. They are out of touch with a population whose incomes have stagnated or declined since the Great Recession. They are out of touch with people who have simply given up looking for work and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed.

One might make the case that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee for president, he might be far ahead of Donald Trump given Sanders' consistently high polling numbers versus Trump. But part of Sanders' secret is his ability to harness the power of "no." "No" to big bankers. "No" to barons of industry. "No" to unfair trade deals. Still, Sanders had more than just the word "no." He had a plan for addressing the damage done to middle-class families by the powerful. Sanders had a "yes" as well.

Clinton often seems as removed from the suffering masses as the elites I described above. I understand that her temperament would never have allowed her to growl like Sanders or Trump. But she has not been able to find a definitive "no" in an election that is turning out to be all about "no," either "no" to the establishment or "no" to Donald Trump.

When Chile's implacable dictator, Augusto Pinochet, made himself subject to a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he would continue as president for another eight years, he handed his opposition the most powerful word in politics. The "No" campaign has become famous and has been chronicled in a film of the same name. Pinochet lost, and the "No" campaign effectively ended his rule.

Not every important issue lends itself to "no." The "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign never made much of a dent in illicit drug use. Saying "no" to climate change--that is, telling people how terrible it will be in order to get them to act to prevent and mitigate it--has not been a very fruitful strategy. Instead, climate change deniers have styled climate change as a hoax, and have, in a sense, taken over the "no" position.

In order for "no" to work well in public discourse, it helps to have a villain to whom you are saying "no": rich bankers, dictators, "evil" political opponents, foreigners. "No," when used against an amorphous atmospheric problem such as climate change, falls flat. Vilifying coal and oil company executives works much better. We want to say "no" to somebody specific.

The problem with "no" is that when it is not paired with a "yes" in some form, it leads to nothing more than the politics of anger. Entire political movements can be fueled for a long time on anger. But very little positive change can be accomplished unless there is ultimately something to say "yes" to that will unite the disparate chorus of "no," the members of which don't automatically agree on solutions.

Beware of the "no"-mongers who offer you no comprehensible and feasible path to "yes." They just want to keep your anger alive for their own gain and that of the powerful vested interests they represent.

One more thing: Solving the problems behind the "no" would actually undermine the power of the "no"-mongers. That's why they don't ever actually try to solve them.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.