Dr Kevin Waite is an American slavery lecturer for Durham University’s History Department, specialising in the political history of the American South in the 19th century with a focus on slavery. He was kind enough to afford The Bubble an interview on his views on ‘the Donald’ and his potential impacts, environmental and otherwise.
The interview took place on 27/01/17, so tackles the big questions resulting from Trump’s first week as President of the U.S.A.
A: Thanks very much for giving me this interview. So, obviously I’m going to be asking you some questions tailored to Trump’s impact on the environment, but feel free to extrapolate in any way. The first question I’ll ask you is: what were your most striking thoughts when you were watching the inauguration?
K: My immediate thoughts were this guy is still both a clown and a disaster. What really concerned me was his insistence on American isolationism and America’s withdrawal from global affairs. Within the first week it’s already become clear to me that he’s really going to limit American outreach and humanitarian aid, which is going to have some disastrous consequences. We’ve seen it with what’s known as the ‘Mexico City Policy’, withdrawing foreign aid from charities that perform abortions. Whilst it’s what every republican administration does in their first week, what’s alarming about Trump’s approach is that he seems to be cutting off aid from organisations who even talk about abortions. We’re yet to see the fallout from this, but I think that’s going to have immediate consequences on thousands and thousands of lives.
A: This ‘gag rule’ must have particular precedence to you because of the version enacted by the House of Representatives in 1836 over anti-slavery discussions. Do you see any relevance in that parallel?
K: It’s never good when you can be placed in the same camp as 19th century slaveholders, in terms of restrictions on free speech. It’s alarming the gag he put on federal employees, like the EPA and Park Service workers. Have you seen some of them going rogue? Somebody had access to the Badlands National Park account and started tweeting facts about climate change, which were quickly taken down. And whilst it wasn’t or shouldn’t have been entirely surprising to us to see the Trump administration scrub the website clean of all references to global warming and climate change, I think it showed just how starkly divorced from this issue Trump and his team are. How wilfully ignorant they are.
A: The 1836 ‘gag rule’ was repealed 8 years later which ironically, could be two Trump terms. Do you think he’ll last that long? Do you think he’ll last even one whole term?
K: Everybody talks about the next 4 years – we just need to make it through the next 4 years, then we’ll have a progressive Democratic candidate in office and things will get a lot better. I’m not entirely sure it’s going to be just 4 years. I mean, look at how all these liberal voters were bamboozled in November. I was really convinced that Hillary was going to win, as was the mainstream media. Hell, I even gave a talk on what would happen after Hillary won. That said, the way the last week has gone it seems entirely likely he’ll get impeached even before his first 4 years are up. I think a lot of Republican congressmen would like to see that happen. Mike Pence aligns a lot more closely with standard right wing Republican ideology. Trump is a total loose cannon and nobody’s quite sure what we’re going to get. But with Pence we know exactly what we’ll get. His presidency would empower a Republican Congress even more-so than a Trump presidency would.
A: Picking up on what you were saying about how surprised you were that Hillary didn’t win, some people speculate (especially in a documentary called Hypernormalisation) that part of the reason everyone was so shocked with the outcome is due to the rise of the internet. We go online and it’s like a world of mirrors; our own opinion is just reflected back at us, making us complacent, less likely to vote or protest. Do you have any thoughts on this?
K: I agree with all of that. We knew the election was going to be a little too close for comfort because American politics have become so partisan. It seemed very likely that traditional Republican voters would vote Trump and traditional Democratic voters would vote Hillary. It’s just that people on the left thought there would be a critical mass of either disaffected Republican voters or newly impassioned liberal voters to tip it in Hillary’s favour. What’s surprising to me about Trump’s victory isn’t so much that the West Virginia coal miners with legitimate grievances over their declining economic power voted for him. It’s that he won over the well-educated Republicans who aren’t hurting, and who are in fact are doing pretty well in this near full-employment economy.
A: And do you think that this particular demographic still feel positive about the way they voted? Or do you think, like with Brexit, there is now a kind of myriad, secret Trump voter?
K: Immediately after Trump’s election – even after his inauguration – that didn’t seem to be the media focus. I mean, I remember the day after Brexit and how everybody was googling ‘What is the EU? What is Brexit?’ but thus far the media hasn’t focussed on the regretful Trump voter, though I’m sure they exist. It’s hard for me to assess just how numerous they are because honestly, I don’t really know any Trump voters, aside from a few right-wing friends on Facebook. And that will just tell you how much of a bubble I live in and how hive-like American politics has become.
A: When I was visiting the state of Maine, the Trump voters I did meet told me quite staunchly that the reason they became pro-Trump is because they wanted Bernie. When he was cut out of the rat-race, they went to the other side and voted Trump, as they hated ‘crooked Hillary’. Have you got any thoughts on this?
K: I knew that demographic existed and I’d overheard conversations between Bernie supporters about shifting allegiances because they thought Trump was the most populist and most anti-corporate – which is beyond ironic. I don’t think Hillary was any great champion of the lower classes, but I find it indisputable that her policies would have been better than Trump’s for most poor Americans.
A: To what extent do you think the candidacy of Hillary as opposed to Bernie affected the result?
K: I’m not entirely convinced that Bernie would have beaten Trump. We now know that Trump locked down the mainstream Republican vote that Mitt Romney won and then added some disaffected rural white voters to that mix. I’m not quite sure Bernie could have galvanised the centre in a way that you would need to throw off what turned out to be a strong Trump surge.
A: You could argue Trump is still trying to appeal to that demographic, in championing the Dakota Access Pipeline as boosting the economy and providing job creation. But what impacts do you think it will have and do you think it will really provide these benefits? Do you think any benefit could outweigh the negative environmental impacts?
K: The short answer is no. My prediction is the Dakota and Keystone pipeline will, ironically, negatively affect the fortunes of Trump himself. Oil prices are already low and if they sink further it’s actually bad for global markets and bad for the New York Stock Exchange in particular. At the beginning of 2016, there was a significant drop in oil prices and Dow-Jones got hammered. I imagine if Donald Trump cares about anything he cares about his stock portfolio! I think that cheaper American oil will only drag down certain sectors of the American economy. Then of course there are the really significant environmental factors to consider…to be honest, there are moments in this Trump presidency where all you can do is laugh at the gallows humour, because it’s just so bleak and so farcical. I mean this Russian shit is just off the wall! But then you check yourself and realise that it all has very scary and very real consequences.
A: Moving still with oil and gas, some would argue that Trump’s first violation of both environmental and human rights came from his appointment of Rex Tillerson, an ex-chief executive of ExxonMobil as his secretary of state. Do you have any thoughts on this?
K: Trump quickly betrayed the working class white American voter that he claimed to champion by appointing a bunch of billionaire crony capitalists. He hasn’t drained the swamp; in fact, he’s just risen its water level. Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry for that matter; big oil is going to run a significant part of this administration. I’ll preface what I’m about to say about big oil and coal by saying that, for a liberal environmentalist, I don’t actually think carbon emissions are quite as harmful as the Al Gore party line has made them seem. I certainly don’t dispute global warming, I certainly think we should try and reduce our carbon footprint, and I think we need an activist state to do this. But I don’t think the planet is going to melt in 50 years. In fact, I think bigger environmental issues in the here-and-now are deforestation, overfishing and general pollution, which you can see as somewhat distinct from carbon emissions. (A: Although, playing devil’s advocate, did you see the recent emergency announcement of high air toxicity by Sadiq Khan in London?) No, but I agree air pollution is a serious issue, and reducing dirty energy should be a real priority.
A: Running with that theme, I want to pick up on Trump’s meeting with 3 top car manufacturers to ‘ease environmental regulations’, saying ‘environmentalism is out of control’. What do you think about this?
K: What really worries me is how Trump panders to his base by claiming that coal and oil are going to bring back prosperity and jobs to the U.S.. And that’s just not true. Coal’s sun is setting. And there’s not a whole lot Trump can do to bring back the glory days of coal mining in West Virginia. The fact remains that natural gas is now a cheaper and a cleaner substitute for America’s electricity needs, and the easily accessible coal veins are all gone. This means that to get at coal, we need to blast off mountain tops and dump all that debris somewhere, often into rivers. I mean, coal is just a travesty for the environment.
A: I’m just going to wrap this up now with a few final questions. These are quite general. My first one would be: if someone is concerned about Trump, what practical action would you recommend?
K: This goes back to international aid. If somebody is concerned about Trump’s environmental impact – and everybody should be – one option is to give money to organisations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which I think is a perfectly good use of your funds. But their campaigns are phenomenally expensive. They’re trying to make legal and legislative changes, but they need tonnes of money to do so. So if small net-worth individuals wanted to make an immediate impact, I think there are better places for their money. I’ll make a pitch for Population Services International, which is a globally focussed charity which provides family planning education and general humanitarian aid. And they’ve been shown to be extremely efficient in the way they allocate their funds.
A: Do you think it’s important to keep reading the news? Or do you feel the media may paint a false portrait?
K: I think the media has belatedly recognised just what a terror Donald Trump is. Certainly, some mainstream news organisations were calling him out on his bullshit during the election, but the amount of air time that Hillary’s emails got over Trump’s clearly disastrous policies was disproportionate and insane. I think the media now is incredibly alarmed, and rightfully so. But on reading a lot of news…I can’t help it, I’m addicted to it, even though it tends to boil my blood. But I think giving money to humanitarian organisations is where I’d like to see a lot of this outrage channelled.
A: Any final thoughts? Give me your parting sentiment.
K: Something I haven’t mentioned is that there is reason for hopefulness. Of course, we’re seeing environmental degradation and disastrous policies, but if we take a step back and look at the big picture; global poverty has fallen. About a quarter of a million people every day are graduating from extreme poverty, which means that you make less than $2 a day. The global poverty rate is now under 10%, whereas in the ‘80s it was above 40%. This is really heartening news. And this is why humanitarian aid is so important, because whilst I would prefer if the global population wasn’t so monstrously large, we have an obligation to the six billion or so people living on this planet. We need to make life for them as good and as healthy as we can. And by a lot of measures, things do seem to be improving for people in the third world. So, that’s what I tell myself when I don’t want the world to seem quite as apocalyptic as it sometimes appears. That said, 2017 is starting to look a lot like 1984, and we’re only a week into this presidency.
This interview was conducted by Anastasia Maseychik on behalf of The Bubble. For more information, questions or updates, follow The Bubble Environmental Section on Facebook or leave a comment below.
Gage Skidmore is a pro-Trump photographer who can be found on Flickr, who has given permission for commerical use of his photos where accreditation is provided.