All politicians discuss their policies in terms meant to appeal to a target audience. When it’s done well and honestly, we call it powerful rhetoric. When it’s more tendentious and inelegant, we call it spin. And when it reaches a point where the language and the policy are completely at odds, we call it Orwellian, after George Orwell’s 1984 and the totalitarian Ministry of Truth it depicted. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
But Orwellian language only sounds chilling coming from a regime able to enforce obedience. Coming from a stumbling, feckless regime staffed by amateurs and ideologues, it just sounds desperate.
John J. DiIulio Jr., who worked in the George W. Bush White House on faith-based initiatives, famously referred to the Bush administration as “the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
Thus far, Trump’s administration is the reign of the Mayberry Ministry of Truth — apparatchiks delivering up-is-down talking points with little evident wit or enthusiasm. It is a reflection less of authoritarian confidence than intellectual exhaustion.
Which brings us to this week’s rollout of Trump’s new executive order on energy. It came served on a bed of talking points utterly unmoored from the substance of the policy. Let’s hit a few of the high points.
“A different direction”
A senior administration official introduced the executive order to the press on Monday, the night before it was released. Reporters asked him whether Trump and his administration believe in climate change. He said, “Sure, yeah.”
All the new policy represents, he repeated several times, is a “different direction” on climate change policy.
Finally, a reporter asked him, well, what effect do you suppose this new direction will have on greenhouse gas emissions?
"I can't get into what that ultimately means from an emissions standpoint,” he said. “I have no idea."
That is … unconvincing.
A different kind of regulation aiming at the same target is a new direction. Regulations replaced by some other approach, perhaps something “market-oriented,” is a new direction. An EO that literally does nothing but roll back restrictions on carbon pollution is not a new direction on climate policy, unless the direction is simply “less.”
It’s like Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” on poverty, which involves reducing support for poor people, or House Republicans’ promise of “access” to health care as a replacement for, you know, health care. Words don’t work like that.
This one, repeated several times by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, is an old chestnut on the right. The idea is that the left meddles with the market so darn often that a businessfella can’t get his bearings. He’s scared to invest.
But consider the context. There’s a global agreement (the Paris accord) to address climate change. President Obama implemented a government-wide series of initiatives to support the commitments made there. Both America’s short-term and long-term carbon targets are on public record. Obama released a Climate Action Plan detailing the direction of US policy. Other countries — virtually the entire rest of the world — have released similar plans.
It could not be clearer which way the world is moving on climate in coming years. It’s been gathering steam for a long time.
What Republicans have done is try to slow and stymie Obama’s policies with lawsuits (many launched by Pruitt himself). That’s why the Clean Power Plan is stuck in court. That’s why its fate is so, to coin a phrase, uncertain.
Now that Obama’s policies are being attacked and degraded in patchwork fashion, businesses in the energy sector do not know what the new rules will look like. They don’t know if Trump’s “different direction” will last longer than a term. They know that in the long term, coal is on the way out and the world is moving in the direction of less carbon. What should they do?
The power sector, which makes investment decisions with a 20- to 40-year time horizon, is warily holding its course, E&E reports, assuming that the long-term push toward decarbonization will continue. But the situation is much murkier now. “The only certainty in Trump's climate orders?” goes a Utility Dive headline. “More lawsuits.”
Yet Pruitt repeats his anachronistic talking point like an incantation.
“Clean coal — really clean coal”
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump announced triumphantly (trumphantly?) at his signing ceremony. “We're going to have clean coal — really clean coal.”
This is also an old chestnut on the right, one of its earliest and most vigorous defenses against climate policy. The exact meaning of the term has always been strategically fuzzy. When it comes to climate change, it means coal with the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
But when discussion turns to current plants (none of which, save one financial disaster, have CCS attached), “clean coal” just means modern coal plants. Most extant US coal plants are not modern, for the record, and those that are still put up more carbon than any other electricity source.
Strategic fuzziness has allowed the term to become a kind of all-purpose response to criticisms of coal.
But Trump shows how empty the shell game has become. He is signing a document that allows coal plants to run dirtier — that is its primary purpose and effect. It specifically relieves new coal plants of the obligation to bury their carbon. It contains zero incentives for any coal plant to get any cleaner.
“Clean coal” has become a rhetorical gesture of fealty to the conservative tribe, nothing more. Ignorance is strength, coal is clean.
This is the one bit of Orwellian phrasing on this list that appears to be new, a coinage by Scott Pruitt in an interview with Breitbart. “Part of his goal,” Pruitt told the far-right outlet, “was to re-focus the agency toward Congress’s original authorities.”
What is remarkable about the EPA is precisely how much authority and power Congress granted it. And what’s remarkable about the Clean Air Act — the law that enabled Obama’s climate regulations — is precisely how broadly it was written.
A flurry of environmental law passed under Republican President Richard Nixon, who faced a liberal Congress and was willing to trade domestic policy to get what he wanted internationally. It was under Nixon that the EPA was founded. Ensuing years saw passage (or major updating) of the nation’s foundational environmental laws — the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act.
That was a more bipartisan time. Bipartisanship, especially on the environment, has steadily withered since. But those original laws keep marching on. They were written broadly — deliberately, so that they could grow and adapt to new science and new threats. The Clean Air Act says, in effect, “regulate anything in the air that harms humans.” It contains specific provisions instructing the EPA to regularly evaluate new science and update regulations accordingly. This process has kept environmental law advancing even in the face of congressional gridlock, a process scholars call “green drift.”
The Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and that EPA should regulate it if it’s dangerous. The EPA found that it is dangerous (in its endangerment finding). Those two facts together mean that EPA regulating carbon dioxide is Congress’s intent. It is what the law mandates.
To grow and evolve, to serve as a powerful tool for each new generation of legislators — that was the “original intent” of the Clean Air Act.
“Clean air and water”
Trump has said a number of times that he loves “clean air and water” and will ensure that all Americans enjoy them.
He has also proposed cutting EPA’s budget by 30 percent, a move that would make the Heritage Foundation blush — slashing, according the Washington Post, “25 percent of its employees and scrapping 56 programs including pesticide safety, water runoff control, and environmental cooperation with Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement.”
There’s no squaring that circle.
The conservative movement is out of ideas
This kind of insistence that words make reality is a sign of a movement out of ideas.
In his celebrated 1997 book, The Politics Presidents Make, political scientist Stephen Skowronek identified political cycles that he says have repeated throughout American history, marked by a regular succession of presidential types.
There are “reconstructive” presidents, who remake politics in their image (FDR, Reagan). They are followed by handpicked successors (Truman, George H.W. Bush) who continue their legacy. Then comes a “preemptive” president, from the other political party but still constrained by the reigning orthodoxy (Eisenhower, Clinton), then maybe another faithful orthodox type (JFK, George W. Bush), another preemptive (Nixon, Obama), and finally a “disjunctive” president, a representative of the orthodoxy who is not particularly committed to it and is utterly unable to cope with the crises it has created (Carter). That’s when the orthodoxy falls apart and space is cleared for a new reconstructive figure.
Recently, several scholars — Skowronek himself, Julia Azari, Corey Robin — have argued that Trump is the next Carter: a disjunctive president, the sucker who gets to preside over the crumbling of an exhausted orthodoxy.
The health care debacle certainly seems to fit that script. Trump is only fitfully committed to (or even aware of) conservative principles and was woefully unprepared to shepherd legislation that reflected a pinched, mean, and unpopular dogma.
Trump’s energy and environmental policies fit the model as well. There might once have been some truth to the notion that US conservatives value public health and simply differ on the right way to support it. There were plausible policy arguments. All that remains now is a nihilistic impulse, the endless will to bring down what their enemy Obama has built — that, and an atavistic attachment to the nation’s 50,000 remaining coal miners.
But the talking points live on, delivered by the Mayberry Ministry of Truth, the sad, galumphing remnants of the conservative paradigm established under Reagan.