State of the Union: The Values that Can Stop a Wrecking Ball Presidency

January 31, 2018 | 11:11 am
State of the Union 2018Win McNamee/Pool via AP
Ken Kimmell
Former President

In his first State of the Union address last night, President Trump boasted about building sustained progress at home and abroad. His presidency is more accurately characterized as a wrecking ball, swinging at long-revered and essential norms and safeguards, widening the divide between Americans, and separating our country from the rest of the world.

President Trump spent his first year in office hawking false “solutions” that don’t address the real problems, and spewing outrageous and sometimes hateful tweets that divert our attention, allowing Congress or federal agencies to muscle through unpopular initiatives.

His plan to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack?  Ban all immigration from seven countries.

Cut health care costs?  Repeal Obamacare, with nothing to replace it.

Boost the economy? Eliminate safeguards that protect public health and safety while giving large tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.

Ensure lawful immigration? Build a wall.

The president opted for a loftier tone at times in last night’s State of the Union, and he offered to compromise on issues such as immigration and infrastructure.  But for the most part, the substance was more of the same.  It was particularly disappointing that he said not a single word about climate change, the most pressing challenge of our time.  And the scapegoating was still there; for example, when he seemed to equate gang violence and immigrants.

Our country deserves better. But how do we get there? So far, strategies and tactics of resistance (such as marches, town hall meetings, and lawsuits) have proven successful in thwarting some of the worst excesses of the Trump administration.  What has been painfully missing, however, is a vision of what we are for, a vision resonant and powerful enough to prevail over the ugly and destructive policies the Trump administration has foisted upon us this year.

What does such a vision look like? And how does it connect to the issues we at UCS care deeply about? These are questions I expect to revisit over the year to come. But let me suggest some elements here that seem clear and essential.

A litmus test of kindness and decency

We all deserve a government that aligns with our values, including basic kindness and decency.  Kindness and decency have been critically missing this year.  Witness how vulnerable members of our community have been branded, or used as political footballs, or threatened with harm, or simply ignored.

How can we restore an emphasis on kindness and decency in our public policy choices?  A starting point is for our leaders to take this litmus test before they make important decisions: Would I vote “yes” on this policy if I knew that it would harm a close friend or neighbor?  For example, would I vote to cut supplemental nutrition assistance payments (as this administration has sought to do), or to take away health insurance, if I personally knew someone who would directly suffer as a result?

Second, our leaders must affirm that it is always—always—wrong to harm innocent people. That is exactly what we do when we threaten to deport “the dreamers,” kids who were brought here through no choice of their own, who have lived here peaceably and productively ever since, and have no other home than in the United States.

Third, our leaders must recognize moral limits on the exercise of power.  All of us understand that our ability to inflict harm on others can act as a deterrent to them harming us, but we cross a moral line when we amass power beyond what is needed for deterrence and threaten to use that power for other ends. This is the moral line that President Trump seems ready to cross on nuclear weapons, when he proposes to expand the range of reasons for which would we use them. Is it not indecent to threaten nuclear immolation against those who set off a cyber attack against us, as a leaked draft of a “Nuclear Posture Review” suggests?

Respect facts and expertise

When making important life decisions, most of us recognize that we make the soundest ones when we gather the best information we can and seek out expert advice when needed. That’s why we rely upon doctors when we are sick, hire experienced contractors for home renovations, or take our car to a trusted mechanic when it breaks down.

Our government should follow these same best practices.  Right now, it doesn’t.  An overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists are convinced that the earth is warming dangerously, that global warming is caused primarily by fossil fuel combustion, and that we are running out of time to address it. When President Trump called for pulling our country out of the Paris climate agreement, he signaled that he simply does not care what the scientific community thinks. Most of us would not ignore such dire warnings if they were directed at risks we were taking personally; we must similarly demand a government that listens to such warnings and acts upon them.

And to make sure we continue to have the vital information we need to make good decisions, we must have a government that invests in our scientific capacity, rather than trying to gut it.  This means boosting, rather than eviscerating, the budgets for scientists who can show us how to grow food more sustainably, or run an electric grid on renewable energy.  It means nominating individuals for scientific positions who are qualified for those positions, whose knowledge and experience can enlighten us.  It means welcoming the input of scientists from academia rather than excluding them on bogus conflict of interest grounds.  And it means allowing scientific information to be readily accessible to the public, instead of scrubbing it from government websites.

Think long-term for the next generation

Entrepreneurs who plow revenues back into their businesses, parents who sets aside funds for a child’s college, people who volunteer for the PTA or their places of worship are all doing the same thing– investing time, energy, and resources now to make life better in the future.  We must demand the same from our government.

Right now, it is falling far short.  Massively cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations may give a short-term adrenaline boost to the economy (we shall see), but it also robs the government of the revenue it needs to address pressing problems from the opioid epidemic, to the need to rebuild communities devastated by the floods, hurricanes, fires and mudslides that plagued us this year, to preparing our workforce to overcome the disrupting effects of automation, among many other vital priorities.   Trump’s tax cut is like raiding your child’s college fund to pay for a new sports car.

Investing properly also means taking a careful look at positive emerging trends and aligning our investments to them.  It is clear, for example, that the world is transitioning away from fossil fuels (though not nearly rapidly enough).  Yet when President Trump speaks of “energy dominance,” he means propping up yesterday’s energy sources (coal, oil and gas), while simultaneously undermining the energy sources that are growing the most rapidly, such as solar power, with tariffs that will destroy jobs in the US. The prudent strategy is precisely the opposite; invest in those areas that can help lead the world toward where it is going and needs to go faster, such as energy storage and electric cars, buses, and trucks.

Long-term thinking also means paying for the costs we incur ourselves, not imposing them on our children and grandchildren. Here again, we are falling short.  When President Trump cuts regulations that protect our health and safety, he is not cutting costs, but rather shifting them from businesses to taxpayers, or from the current generation to future ones.  We should always be prepared to prune unnecessary or outdated regulations (yes, there are some), but we should support regulations that prevent polluters from shifting their costs onto others, or that will save us more money over time.   From my days as Commissioner at MassDEP, I know that it is far cheaper to require companies to reduce and carefully manage their use of toxic chemicals than it is to clean them up after they have been released into the environment. The old adage— an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—applies to government protections and safeguards, and we need to embrace this principle to counter those who inaccurately claim that regulations stifle economic growth.

Our task for the coming year

The values of kindness and decency, reverence for facts and expertise, and long-term thinking were not present in most of Mr. Trump’s speech last night.  This is unfortunate.  But it gives those of us who would like to take the country in a different direction an opportunity: embrace those values even more forcefully, connect them to the policies that we seek to secure, and mobilize around them.  Last night’s State of the Union reminds us of just how much work we need to do.