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‘Conservation Republicans’ Never Coming Back. That Ship Done Sunk.

"... the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation." — Teddy Roosevelt
"... the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation." — Teddy Roosevelt
Charles Mace / Library of Congress

The headline was jarring: “Trump has veered dangerously from the conservative legacy of protecting our air, water and natural resources.”

Conservative legacy? Veered? I must have missed something.

I read the rest carefully. Trammell S. Crow, a wealthy environmental and education philanthropist who lives in Dallas, said in an op-ed essay in The Dallas Morning News last week that Trump’s calamitous assault on the environment was some kind of anomaly, a departure from his great record on immigration and deregulation.

I was still very lost. It seemed to me Trump’s meat-ax attacks on environmental protections have been entirely consistent with his meat-ax attacks on foreigners, ethnic minorities, international diplomacy, Democrats, liberals, personal integrity and anything else he can reach with an ax between huffs and puffs.

In his essay in the News, Crow had a very different take. “For most of its history,” he wrote, “the Republican Party has made it part of its mission to protect our natural places and resources.

“From President Abraham Lincoln, who first protected Yosemite, to George H.W. Bush, who strengthened the Clean Air Act, Republicans have worked to create a cleaner, healthier world.”

So, sure, he’s right: the period from Yosemite to George H.W. Bush constitutes most of the Republican Party’s history — about 80% of it by my calculation. On the other hand, GHWB was elected president 30 years ago. That’s a long time.

The serious trajectory of the Republican Party since the first Bush has been toward climate denial and an atavistic hostility to any and all climate protection, with one very disturbing exception more recently: The latest thing cropping up on the Trumpian right is the concerning rebirth of an old right-wing racist trope, the conflation of racial purity with environmental purity.

Two years ago in a column called, “Choose Between a Green America And a Brown America,” Ann Coulter wrote that, “mass Third World immigration is a triple whammy for the environment because: 1. Millions more people are tromping through our country; 2. The new people do not share Americans’ love of nature and cleanliness; and 3. We’re not allowed to criticize them.”

Last year she said in a tweet, “I’m fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders.”

Tucker Carlson said a year ago, “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration.” Later he wrote, “Illegal immigration comes at a huge cost to our environment.”

So it’s concerning that Crow displayed some not unrelated themes in his essay: “There are many things I appreciate about Trump,” he said. “Under his leadership … difficult issues like immigration and border security are now being addressed.”

I think the term “addressed” may be one of the more worrisome euphemisms of recent times. Does “addressing” immigration include ripping children from their parents, herding human beings in cages, using words like criminal and rapist to describe a neighboring nationality? I hope my own family never gets addressed.

Crow said, “There are many things I appreciate about Trump. Under his leadership, the economy has grown, unemployment has fallen, and long-stagnant institutions have been reformed.”

Umm. Would “long stagnant institutions” include, by any chance, the EPA, which the Trump administration has been hacking apart at the seams, working to divest of scientific authority, relentlessly reducing it to a regulatory rubble?

“Trump and his administration are working to build a country where free enterprise and businesses can thrive,” Crow said. “It’s a vision I support.”

Ah, but not entirely. “But on environmental issues,” Crow goes on, “the president has veered dangerously from the conservative legacy of protecting our air, water and natural resources, to the point where ‘conservation conservatives’ like me cannot remain quiet.”

So let’s go back to that 80/20 divide in the history of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement, from the beginning up to the election of George H.W. Bush and then everything since. The truly astonishing thing is how different the nation looks on opposite sides of that border in time.

On the far side of that line, environmental protection was a truly bipartisan program. In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, giving broad powers to the EPA with only one nay vote in the House, not one in the Senate.

In 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush ran for president on an environmental platform and, once elected, presided over a major strengthening of the nation’s clean air laws. The Senate passed the new regulations 89-11. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”

That was then. Everything since for the Republicans has been pretty much downhill. Denial of climate change, hostility to regulation and even an animus against science itself have become hallmarks of Republicanism since the rise first of the tea party, then of Trump.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, more than one Republican vowed to abolish the EPA — a promise that is now dogma in the post-Trump Republican Party. In the 2014 midterm congressional elections, the Huffington Post surveyed the websites of all 107 Republicans running for the Senate and found only one where climate change was even mentioned.

As Jaime Fuller reported in The Washington Post at the time, Republicans in the House in 2011 and 2012 tried 95 times to kill the EPA.

In a Pew Research poll taken in 2014, 46% of Republicans and Republican-leaners said there was no evidence the planet is warming. Seventy percent of tea party Republicans said the same.

“I’m fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders.” — tweet from Ann Coulter
“I’m fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders.” — tweet from Ann Coulter
Gage Skidmore

In a poll this year, Pew Research found that 84% of conservative Republicans believe human activity contributes little to nothing to climate change. Of liberal Democrats, 96% said the opposite.

In his op-ed piece, Crow wants to pluck out and denounce climate denial and anti-environmentalism from a larger fabric of denial that he endorses. He’s down with the border wars, with the resistance to immigration and presumably with Trump’s approach to regulation, all of which he thinks have been great for the economy and, presumably, great for him.

Crow concludes with a plea apparently addressed directly to Trump, followed by a veiled threat: “It’s time for the president to join the ranks of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as Republicans who have made America great by protecting our environment,” he says.

“If he refuses to do so, it will soon be time for conservation conservatives to hold him to account.”

Oh, sure. Republicans are going to hold Trump to account. What Republicans? When? For what? Every time I turn on my TV, I see a parade of Republicans from all over the country so afraid of him and of his supporters in the party that they won’t even mildly ding him for asking a foreign power to step into an American presidential campaign or for using the lives of allied soldiers as leverage.

They’re afraid to take him to task for treason. I doubt seriously they’re going to take him to task on climate change.

Crow cites a number apparently borrowed from but not attributed to a bombshell government report published last month predicting that unchecked climate change will reduce the size of the U.S. economy by 10% by the end of the century, twice the severity of the Great Depression.

What he doesn’t say, and what Republicans seem least apt to talk about, is that no national economy is an island. Climate change is already laying the tinder of global instability in a way that ought to preoccupy all of us.

The industrialized economies pump out the vast preponderance of pollutants. But it’s the poorest economies, the ones least equipped with the smallest reserves and thinnest margins of safety, that take it on the chin. Stanford Earth at Stanford University reported this year that global warming has already made global inequality 25% worse than it would have been without warming. And we’re just getting started.

The instability will move faster than the warming. All of this middle-finger posturing behind border walls, the snarls of superiority denigrating refugees as litter, all of that will come back to bite us hard if that’s where we think we’re going to leave it. Paint me a picture of a wall high enough to keep out that world. Then tell me what life will be behind it.

Trammell S. Crow is a generous and thoughtful man whose support has been crucially important to an array of environmental and educational institutions. I don’t mean to snarl or give the middle finger here to anything he said.

But it’s absurd even to imagine the existence of a Republican Party with an environmental soul worth saving. That soul sailed long ago. What’s left is the Republican ignorance movement, with its red eyes snapping, its jaw set firmly against reality and its nose permanently out of joint. If it survives, the rest of us do not.

Also probably on borrowed time is the doctrine of unfettered consumer-based capitalism, piling up riches for the few by cranking out junk for the many. We should hope that some other less destructive form of capitalism will survive. Speaking as a reporter who has covered local government all his life, I am very unhopeful about government alone as a means for achieving anything much beyond its own job tenure.

But in the meantime, we should forget about Teddy Roosevelt riding back into town with his mad grin and pop-bottle specs to usher in a new Republican environmental renaissance. I offer a much easier idea. Just elect Democrats.

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