We’re not in a normal historical moment. Congress is acting as expected under a Republican government. The assault on the environment and working people is wrong, but predictable. What’s coming from the Oval Office, though, is unprecedented. It’s less the White House than the Black Tower, sending out its Breitbartian orcs and alt-right winged harpies to poison the politics of a nation.
Two types of assaults are under way. One, instigated mostly by Congress, is painful. Last week, for instance, they managed in one morning to both end rules which sought to prevent coal companies from polluting streams and regulations which made it harder for oil companies to bribe foreign governments.
There are dozens of these changes, all of them with hideous consequences: people will suffer and die as we roll back environmental laws and prune budgets for housing and medical care. But these are, more or less, the changes we were going to see if, say, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush had gotten elected with a pliant Congress: they are straight from the Koch Brothers/Heritage Foundation wishlist (and some of them are not that far from what Bill Clinton, say, did by “ending welfare as we know it”).
All are noxious, all need vigorous opposition, and for the moment most of them we’re going to lose, because we simply don’t have the votes: these are precisely the changes the nation’s billionaires hired Congress to make.
But the Bannon/Trump administration is attacking us in a second way as well. It has audaciously targeted the main pillars of a civilized nation in a way we’ve rarely seen before, a way that would not have occurred to Lindsey Graham or Carly Fiorina. And these are the battles we dare not lose.
The immigration ban, for instance, was a calculated assault on Muslims, but also on morality, on simple kindness. It was a probe to find out if Americans would come to the defense of a minority that we’d been told to fear and hate. And it failed – not because a federal judge struck down the ban, but because Americans in their millions poured into airport baggage terminals and city squares.
As one placard said proudly: “First they came for the Muslims, and we said: not today, motherfucker.” The outpouring was not a show of Muslim strength – there really isn’t much Muslim strength in America. It was a demonstration that, for the moment, our moral commitment to the underdog still holds.
But there are no guarantees: morality can bend pretty easily in the face of fear, and you know that Bannon and Trump are counting on a real-life Bowling Green massacre to tilt things their way. And in any event, morality is the not the only pillar they’re after. Next on the list is reason: the attack on climate science is, in fact, an attack on science itself, on the enterprise that undergirds modernity.
It’s already clear that the federal government will be doing nothing to help with global warming (Trump’s cabinet choices made that evident in their confirmation hearings.) But if the administration actually withdraws from the Paris climate accords, it will turn its back on the most painstaking scientific process humans have ever undertaken, a half-century global effort to understand what we’re doing to our atmosphere and what that will do to our future.
Bannon and Trump hate reason precisely because it places limits on their actions – even Nietzchean supermen have to bow to physics. “I alone can fix it” is Trump’s narcissistic motto – but since he can’t fix the heat-trapping properties of certain gases, they must be denied.
Prepare for attacks as well on tradition and on common sense, since these too are bulwarks against the kind of personality cult that tempts Trump and Bannon.
You’ve already seen the first sorties: since the separation of powers is the longest-standing of American ideas, the tweeted hostility to a “so-called judge” crosses a line only Richard Nixon ever flirted with. The bizarre phone call to Australia’s prime minister is less bizarre if you think of it as one step towards eroding the commonsense notion that we can’t go it alone, that in an interlocked world nations need to be able to work with each other.
These assaults will be hard for progressives to handle. There’s plenty of ugly in our traditions. And modernity can be mixed blessing enough that reason is an often unappealing goddess. Still, so far we’re doing pretty well: the outpouring of resistance is unmatched in recent history. And we’ve got more weapons of our own: Solidarity, Wit, the remarkable alchemy that is Nonviolence. Also the cast of Hamilton, and a Vast Stockpile of Pink Knitted Caps. And we will need them all.
We can’t know how the battle will finish, only that it will be fought. This is, quite suddenly, the story of our time.
This article was originally published here by the Guardian. And is republished here with permission. China Dialogue is part of the Guardian Environmental Network.