Welcome to a new series from Crikey, from our insider up in the ivory tower.
Almost a year after Donald Trump was elected, there’s still a tangible sense of disbelief among the American liberal elite. It’s easy to see, as an outsider thrust into the middle of the “east coast liberal bubble,” (which, even as it is used and abused ad nauseam, is most definitely a thing), that sometimes that disbelief is focused almost entirely on how vulgar, how brutish, how lacking in decorum the president is. That perhaps if he was just a little more polite, and conformed to acceptable standards of behaviour, it might be easier to understand and to cope.
This focus on appearance as opposed to substance is a critique that can and has been leveled at any area of American — indeed global — politics. It was especially evident in some liberal responses to the Trump administration’s so-called “withdrawal” from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It was the symbolism of that withdrawal, and how bad it looked on the global stage for America to rescind leadership, that seemed so upsetting to so many.
Of course even if Trump did stay in, he was never going to adhere to the (entirely voluntary) requirements agreed to at Paris. Trump is totally opposed to any action on climate change and committed to undoing the work that has already been done. Still, before he announced the US was leaving Paris, there was a scramble to try and convince him to stay.
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This confused response to Trump — the disbelief, anger and fear mixed in with this enduring idea that he can be convinced to act in a particular way if we just reason with him — infuses the many conversations about climate change happening on the east coast today. Among some more quiet and nuanced acknowledgments that Paris was never the answer to all our problems, that all too familiar American liberal optimism shines through.
At the recent Yale Climate Conference, for example, much of the conversation focused on what states and cities are doing to fill the policy hole left by the departure of the Obama administration. States like California and Washington, we were told, are stepping up to the plate. They are creating their own carbon trading schemes, investing in renewables, walking the talk. Businesses, too, are ignoring the federal government and continuing to innovate. The World Bank, of all places, is focused on filling the investment gap in renewable energy and climate-ready infrastructure.
This is all true, to an extent. These discussions, though, reveal more about the American liberal state of mind than they do about the best way to combat the unmitigated disaster that is global climate change. From the outside, the enduring faith of American liberals in the ability of business and individual entrepreneurship to conquer all ills is shocking, even to someone like me, who should really know better. Even after Trump was elected, deep in the heart of Clinton’s political territory, the abiding faith in the American system, in the American way of doing business, economics and politics, remains.
This frames the struggle to understand Trump — and, more importantly, the conversations about how to defeat him — in a very particular way. When it comes to climate change, the focus here is overwhelmingly on market solutions, on how to convince people that it makes “economic sense” to go green. Here — at least at the events I have been to — acknowledgment that it is in fact this very economic system that got us into this situation in the first place are few and far between.
To be fair, not all of the focus is on business and markets. At the session I was able to get in to (the entire conference, including the panel featuring Leonardo di Caprio on “Citizen Engagement and Activism” was open only to a very limited number of Yale students and faculty (bubble? What bubble?), former senator, secretary of state and presidential hopeful John Kerry spoke most passionately when he was recalling the power of mass collective action. When he returned from active duty in Vietnam, Kerry reminisced, the first thing he did was join the mass protest of the first Earth Day in 1970. Twenty million people came out onto the streets and made their voices heard. And Richard Nixon, of all people, was convinced of the political expediency of creating an institution like the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump is many things, but he is no Nixon. He cannot be convinced. As the Governor of Washington put it, the way to get action on climate change is to kick the climate deniers out of office. The politics is what matters, and getting organised is key. From what I can tell, that message is getting across. American liberals and progressives are desperate to rid themselves of Trump, and, so far, they’ve been organised enough to stall most of his legislative agenda.
Underneath Kerry’s powerful call to action, though, there was also a plea. He gently suggested to a room full of Ivy League students that they might consider taking time out from their career paths to help organise and resist. Some, perhaps many of them, will, and they will mostly support Democratic causes. And then, as Kerry himself said, they’ll go on to careers in the corporate sector or establishment politics (the favourite of Yale graduates, apparently, is big banks).
So if Trump is kicked out of the White House in 2020 (or even before then) and the Democrats return to power, there is no doubt that the most powerful nation in the world will enact more environmentally friendly policies. But the people in power will most likely be the same people who were sitting in Woolsey Hall at Yale. They will bring with them their abiding faith in the American system. Their focus will be on market solutions and “bringing business along with them”, on small adjustments to a system that is inherently right and good.
Within the bubble, there’s no real interest in restructuring a broken system, or in creating genuine economic and environmental justice. Despite Trump, despite Sanders, despite everything, that system continues to work pretty well for the people on the inside. This is not offered as a criticism so much as an observation. As Dr Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Greenpeace International, observed in a much smaller Yale event, most people are simply unable to acknowledge how close to the cliff we are. From this vantage point (as opposed to one from, say, a small island in the Pacific) it’s too big, too complex, too frightening, and too abstract. The fundamental political and economic shifts that would actually be required to deal with climate change are almost inconceivable.
It’s easy, in the giant orange shadow of Trump, to believe that there is a radical, progressive opposition to him, his administration, and its horrifying policies. If there is one, though, it certainly isn’t here. The “east coast liberal bubble” is not, as the culture warriors would have you believe, a subversive, radical threat to America as-you-know-it. It’s a very conservative place.
*Emma Shortis is a PhD student and sometimes lecturer in American History from Melbourne. She is the current Fox International Fellow at the MacMillan Centre at Yale University.