In Al Gore’s environmentalist movie “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) he tells an amusing story: In his schooldays, the theory of plate tectonics won nearly universal acceptance. But there was one skeptic in the class who doubted that continents could shift on floating plates. “He is now,” said Gore, “the science adviser in the Bush White House.”
What was funny in a documentary is becoming unfunny now. Donald Trump has proposed as director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma attorney general and skeptic of the theory of global warming – this when polar ice caps are visibly collapsing. Trump’s transition team is also reported to be in pursuit of current EPA scientists who do not share the new director’s outlook. The trend is disturbing – not because of Pruitt’s skepticism but because his appointment is obviously intended as a jab in the eye for those who value clean air and water.
I hear disturbing echoes of the 1950s, when the Eisenhower administration’s tolerance of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s mischief led to embarrassing escapades. One was the pillaging by McCarthyite goons (one was Trump’s late friend, Roy Cohn) of U.S. Information Agency libraries abroad. Another was an attempt to subvert the Bureau of Standards, which oversaw the integrity of weights and measures. The motive of the latter raid I don’t recall, though it showed obvious disrespect for scientific procedure. The former was the purge of allegedly subversive books, including those of Mark Twain.
Will this contemptuous approach to government policy be renewed, these many decades later? It is early, but the signals are ominous. And not limited to the EPA. Rick Perry, former Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate who advocates the abolition of the Department of Energy is now to head it. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s candidate for secretary of state, is a big oil lobbyist cozy with Europe’s troublemaker, Vladimir Putin, and has been decorated by him.
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These appointments go beyond the usual shift of ideological flavors when parties and presidents change. Will Trump’s policies in areas of vital public interest – and health – be governed by prudence and the broad public interest or by the eccentric impressionism that seems to be a Trump specialty? There is, moreover, a studied discourtesy in these reversals of longstanding policy that might have been predicted from Trump’s campaigning manners.
Manners? What, you might ask, do manners have to do with government? For answer, consider the words of Edmund Burke, 18th century British statesman and acknowledged father of modern conservatism, friend to the restless American colonies and foe of the blood-thirsty French Jacobin revolutionaries of the 1790s.
Of the latter, he wrote: “Their system of manners leaves no doubt of their determined hostility to the human race. Manners are of more importance than laws. ... The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe ... (giving) their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”
Burke’s words should be engraved on a monument. They read today like a commentary on the tone of the recent election, in which Trump – no knight he – treated the first woman nominated for president by a major American party with threats and insults, leading his audiences in chants of “Lock her up” and speaking to her in their debates like a jailbird. “If I were president,” he said, “you would be in jail.” More of his misogynist locker-room talk, perhaps, but certainly not the language of chivalry or mutual respect.
I can hear the Trumpites protesting that Hillary Clinton is a grownup who could take care of herself and who, if she couldn’t stand the heat, had no business in the kitchen. True; but beside the point. If presidential candidates mean it when they call for post-election harmony and unity, why do they suppose that the awful manners of campaigns don’t matter? The increasingly embittered tone of presidential elections, which Trump substantially worsened, is disturbing. If Burke is right, as he usually is, trash talk followed by trash appointments aimed at trashing good policies will further debase public morality and democratic government itself.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.