January 20, 2017; Silver Spring, Maryland
Donald Trump was sworn in today in as the 45th president of the United States. Many of us wonder if he’ll be the last.
I won’t belabor the reasons for our collective angst – they’re familiar, and have been beaten to death. Suffice to say that I thought him an appalling candidate, and am unlikely to forgive the Democratic Party establishment and corporate media for inflicting him and his Republican friends on the world. And I keep “remembering” how the Roman Republic and the Athenian democracy and the Weimar Republic gave way to oligarchy and fascism, each such catastrophe contained by the relatively small populations involved and their inability either to totally screw the environment or unleash weapons of mass destruction. I fear for my grandchildren, and apologize to them, for what little that’s worth.
But I am also not entirely without hope.
The first president on whose campaign I worked was John F. Kennedy, and I was devastated when he was assassinated. Not only because of his tragic loss but because it meant we were stuck with Lyndon B. Johnson, who seemed pretty much the opposite of Kennedy and was, as some columnist or other pointed out the other day, not unlike Trump in a lot of ways – coarse, vulgar, narcissistic, ready and willing to play fast and loose with law, ethics, and propriety.
And yet, with respect to civil rights, the interests of ordinary citizens, and – especially relevant to me, as it turned out, environmental protection – Johnson turned out to be a fine, important, perhaps even great president.
Can Trump be something similar? Is it sheer Pollyannaism to imagine the possibility?
Much of our public life has become constipated. I was reminded of this yesterday as I composed comments to send the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about scoping the environmental impact statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline. I spent a good deal of time on the comments, all the while being quite certain that they’d be ignored, be meaningless. Why? Not because the Corps is made up of great villains intent on destroying the environment or abusing Indian tribes, but simply because they’re part of a system that can no longer even acknowledge citizen concerns, that’s gone beyond being influenced by those it’s supposed to serve. Which, along with the arrogance of a lot of people in power, was (I think) pretty much the basis for Trump’s rise.
Part of this, I think, is the legacy of the Johnson years and those that followed – the vesting of faith in the regulatory state, its experts, and its lawyers. It began innocently, as a means of serving the public, protecting the weak, undoing the damage done by untrammeled industrialism and racism, avoiding further destruction and abuse. But depending as it did on experts, on regulations, on bureaucracies, it pretty quickly grew into an impassable thicket, impenetrable to and contemptuous of the ordinary citizen. In which – to pick a tiny example close to my heart (or some organ), we can have two mutually contradictory regulations and about twoscore pieces of theoretically authoritative government guidance about how to determine places eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, some of which contradict each other and most of which utterly ignore the concerns of those who live, work, or recreate in and around historic places. And a system for implementing those regulations, applying that guidance, in which local people trying to get their cultural values considered have to engage pricy consultants – like me – to put their views into terms that bureaucrats can’t too easily ignore.
This is nuts. It’s an absurd situation, it’s anti-democratic, and it badly needs to be fixed. I’ve pretty much come to believe that it can’t be fixed without doing a whole lot of demolition first, and perhaps, just perhaps, the Trump administration will set the necessary forces in motion at least to do the demolition, if not to encourage building something better.
We need to rethink the regulatory state model; see if we can come up with something more responsive to reality, less prone to abuse. I have no reason to think that Trump and his pals are at all motivated to accomplish any such thing, but I didn’t expect much of Johnson, either.