The climate of Political Nihilism

In September 2018, the Trump administration produced a realistic environmental impact report that reflected current scientific estimates of emerging climate chaos. That alone was a bit shocking given Trumpist rhetoric claiming that climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” But the political misuse of that information was shockingly brazen, if not exactly surprising.

After all, presidential prevarication is the “new normal” in American politics. The ill logic in this particular case is tremendously twisted. The administration wants to roll back fuel efficiency standards in the transportation industry. The latest scientific estimates of anthropogenic heating of the planet if present emissions continue, predict as much as 4 degrees additional average heating of the Earth within the next few decades if the global economy continues on its current path.

That alone is shocking enough. The near-term consequences of that predicted heating will be devastating in several ways. Greater destruction from more frequent and intense super storms, sea rise that will threaten the world’s major coastal cities, the death of most of the world’s coral reefs, longer more intense droughts and more powerful floods, etc., etc. However, in Trumplandia the “logic” goes like this: The emissions from trucks and cars add up to such a small part of the total that we really need not bother restricting carbon emissions from them.

International Hypocrisy

Of course, the rapidly accelerating carbon emissions from human activity energized by the burning of fossil fuel since around 1950 has been so great that scientists have labeled it “the Great Acceleration.” Scientists expect total global emissions to continue rising next year since most nations are doing so little to curtail even more carbon spewing into the atmosphere. Despite the international agreements signed by almost every nation at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, no nation has taken serious steps to control their emissions since then. The scope of the necessary response is daunting at best. Every nation seems to be waiting for someone else to take the first step. Yet, the problem is now, with no time to delay to avoid global catastrophe.

So, as with several other treaty obligations, such as the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. You might argue that the withdrawal doesn’t really matter since the agreement has no teeth. The agreed reductions are not mandatory, just vague intentions.

No nation’s leaders want to jeopardize economic growth or bear the costs of complying with the agreements. However, the costs of failure to do so will be so great to the human condition that such concerns appear to be somewhere on the far side of foolish. Besides, the process of converting to clean (solar and wind) sources of energy production will create more jobs than so-called leaders can imagine. So will programs to insulate existing buildings, which contribute a lot of the energy waste worldwide. So, why do the world’s leaders balk at doing the right thing?

Nihilist Power Elites Overpower the Public Interest

The problem, of course, is that such major economic transformations threaten existing financial interests of the world’s power elites. The most powerful financial interests in the world are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. The further enrichment of the richest of the rich is also good for business at various Trump Towers around the world. The petulant president is enriching himself by enriching the ultra-rich elites of the world.

For the nihilist, nothing is forbidden. The only value is to exercise more and more power to satisfy the endless narcissistic demands of the sociopath. Of course, when such practices become a central feature of government, the threat of rising fascism grows with every moral transgression. Every act of demagoguery attempting to incite mass fear and anger in support of the self-imagined authoritarian ruler is another step on the road to fascist dictatorship. Do not believe those who say, “It can’t happen here.”

Overcoming the Trumping of Democracy to Restore the Commonwealth

Trump is not merely rolling back countless federal programs that attempt to protect society from the ravages of unrestrained extractive corporate capital and industrial consumerism. He is going one worse. Think of the premise of his actions and the way he frames those actions in claiming to “make America great again.” That premise is that The Great Leader knows best. Ignore and deny facts; abandon democratic process; submit to his will alone. Just have faith in The Great Leader.

EPA programs and operations Suppressed; Military energy-star efficiency trashed; national parks plundered for mining and drilling; safety, pollution, and worker protections in industry rolled back; plunder the nation’s public lands. These are some of the president’s ‘practical’ goals. We must ask, “Who benefits?” Certainly not the public.

In all of these actions and more, especially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the premise is that the maximal leader is the only legitimate source of power and correct action.

As Thomas Snyder, Yale historian has so powerfully explained in his recent small eloquent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the twentieth Century, “the president” has embarked on actions that parallel those used by various demagogues to destroy democracies in Europe. Every American should read this brief but powerful essay on how fascism overcomes democracy. We tend to think our democratic institutions are inviable, but they are not. They are now at high and growing risk.

Every executive order by this president is an attack on some public value, from due process to environmental protection, from plunder of the nation’s natural resources to escalating military adventurism. Corruption of public values in service to private plunder is elevated to the status of an unassailable new normal. The greatest danger now is that it is easier to acquiesce than to resist.

Underlying it all is the triumph of the ego over the human instinct for civility, altruism, reason, confirmed fact, and the public good. Lies are elevated to the status of faith in the decisions of a real estate swindler indebted to Russian oligarchs, whose misogynistic narcissism and corrupt business practices we must not question.

In all this, the stock market provides an interesting indicator of the ‘state of mind’ of the investor class, including institutional investors and wealthy individuals. Shiller’s indexes of stock market confidence are now at remarkably high levels. One interpretation is that investors believe the Trumping of democracy will offer expanded opportunity for plunder capital to ravage the social and natural environments for fun and profit, even though market valuations appear much higher than underlying fundamental business value. The U.S. One-Year Stock Market Confidence Index numbers have shot up since Trump’s inauguration, reaching well beyond those seen just before historical “corrections” in market valuation preceding recessions.

Schiller one-year investor confidence index


As one ‘contrarian,’ Eric Parnell, a registered investment advisor, put it, “All of this implies a toxic combination. Nearly everyone is bullish, thus leaving nobody new to join the game to take on the hot potato of already expensive stock prices.” But in today’s environment, greed knows no bounds, from the offices of predatory purchasers of bad debt to the oval office, plunder is the new normal – well, not so new, but radically more normal than ever.

During the Katrina catastrophe, minor looting got all the media attention; cooperative behavior, was not sensational enough to garner media attention. However, many made personal efforts to help others. Around the world, communities are rising to protect the land, water, air, and ecosystems upon which they depend for survival. The enemy of living Earth systems, including humanity, is the endless economic growth machine that Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere.” The new president is the most ‘visible hand’ in perpetuating the plunder of the biosphere by the technosphere.

Resist the oppression. Replace the destruction. Restore the Earth. These choices we the people must make by learning the lessons of failed democracies of the twentieth century. These difficult actions are the only choices left to achieve the societal resilience necessary for survival. Overcoming Trumpery is a necessity in that process.