The painting style of Jackson Pollock is called “gestural abstraction,” but before last night’s debate, I never knew that it was also a governing philosophy. The debate featured many decisions from President Donald Trump that were puzzling, to put it mildly. The president constantly interrupted the moderator, Chris Wallace, and he all but jeered his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, even as Biden discussed the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a loud, shabby, obnoxious evening—one of the few civic rituals I can remember that, the morning after, seems to have left viewers with a televisual hangover.
Yet a few of the president’s strangest political decisions came in the debate’s quietest moments: the part devoted to climate change. It was one of the few instances of the debate where Trump did not constantly interrupt Biden, even occasionally allowing the former vice president to finish his paragraphs. That there even was a climate-change section was notable: A moderator had not asked a question about climate change in a general-election debate in 12 years. Even during the 2016 campaign, when Trump was threatening to revoke many environmental policies and withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, the only climate-change question was asked by an undecided voter, Ken Bone. The climate discussion, a historical novelty, somehow became the most historically normal part of last night’s debate.
That the climate section was so comparatively tranquil also made it among the most revealing. For years, Democrats and some centrists have argued that Trump is so in thrall to falsehood that he is incapable of governing effectively. The argument was convincing, but there was periodically room for doubt: Did Trump actually believe the mistruths about climate change—or health care, or hurricane forecasting—that he mouthed? Or was he more savvy than he let on, and simply an effective messenger for partisan distortions? His administration’s ruinous response to Hurricane Maria spoke to his incompetence. Its muscular initial response to the coronavirus recession (if not to the virus itself) suggested his capability.
But in this moment the truth managed to show through: The president is so tangled in falsehood that he struggles to even campaign effectively. Most politicians lie only when it helps them politically, but Trump lied, remarkably, to his own disadvantage. He defended unpopular rollbacks using arguments that his own administration has discredited. He falsely overstated Biden’s climate policies, allowing Biden to appear moderate by comparison. And he barely managed to explain his administration’s climate policy, even though polls show that environmental policy is among his most unpopular issues.
The first lapse came early in the climate section, when Wallace asked him to explain his deregulatory spree, specifically his decision to freeze the fuel-economy standards, which govern the gas mileage of all new cars and trucks sold in the United States. “If you believe in the science of climate change …” Wallace asked, “why have you relaxed fuel-economy standards that are gonna create more pollution from cars and trucks?”
“Well, not really,” Trump replied. “Because what’s happening is that the car is much less expensive, and it’s a much safer car, and you’re talking about a tiny difference.” In other words, Trump did not rebut that the rollback will increase pollution, but claimed that his policy will make up for that pollution by reducing the cost of new cars to consumers: You might hate the dirtier air, but you’ll love your new car. He went on to claim that his rollback would “at least double or triple the number of cars purchased.”
But this argument—Trump’s argument—is completely untrue, according to his own administration. It was based, as I wrote earlier this year, on massively flawed math, including a broken computer program that mixed up supply and demand. When that math was fixed, the White House admitted that the gas-mileage rollback will eliminate as many as 13,500 jobs and deal as much as $22 billion in damage to the American economy. It will make consumers pay more for gas. For this reason, among others, several automakers—such as Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen—chose to strike a separate deal with California and ignore the rollback entirely.
The rules that Trump gutted have also saved Americans nearly $500 billion at the pump, according to the nonpartisan Consumer Federation of America. His administration no longer argues that the rollback will save much money for anyone but oil companies and some carmakers. But Trump’s relationship with the truth is so casual that he defended the policy to the public anyway, citing arguments that were discredited by experts who at least nominally serve under him.
His other lapse happened a few minutes later. As Biden explained his own approach to climate policy, Trump cut in, accusing Biden of supporting the Green New Deal. Such a policy, Trump alleged, would cost $100 trillion.
It was a ham-handed attack. Biden does not support the Green New Deal, though he has praised it in limited terms since the primary, saying that he admires its link between the climate and the economy. But the truth is that no Democrat has ever supported a $100 trillion Green New Deal: Even Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who popularized the idea, has only ever sought a $10 trillion package. The sole person who has ever claimed that a Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion is Brian Riedl, a Republican and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
Biden slightly muffled his reply, saying that the Green New Deal would not cost $100 trillion before clarifying that the Green New Deal was “not my plan.” But Trump ignored the opening, announcing to the room that Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal had just lost him the left. The president reiterated the point on Twitter earlier today.
To actual leftists, Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal is no surprise: The Democratic Party just had a whole primary about it, and the more moderate candidate won. It’s been clear for months that Biden has been desperate to distance himself from any policy such as the Green New Deal that could be construed as anti-fracking, considering the large fracking industry in Pennslyvania, a key swing state. But Trump seemed so captured by a falsehood regularly repeated in the conservative media—that Biden has been commandeered by his party’s left wing—that he seemed to have forgotten about Biden’s actual positions.
But Trump got Biden to reject such a policy, publicly, on prime-time television, then celebrated it as some kind of coalition-dividing masterstroke. Meanwhile, Biden’s actual climate policy—a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure and investment package, which would be by far the most ambitious and expensive climate bill ever passed in the United States—looked like the picture of moderation.
As a topic, climate change encapsulates Trump’s failures. He struggles to understand that facts exist independent of whether they help or hurt him politically. Asked whether he “believes” human pollution contributes to climate change, Trump replied: “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes—I think to an extent, yes, but I also think we have to do better management of our forest.” He could not address the deeper question—do humans cause climate change?—without immediately bickering about the cause of the California wildfires. In the meantime, he showed that he does not understand climate science. Virtually all scientists say that human activity, such as greenhouse-gas pollution, causes the modern warming that we’ve observed.
The president made other mistakes last night, and they will likely loom larger in the historical record than anything he said about the climate. There were many other abnormal moments: As my colleagues have written, he refused to condemn white supremacists, and he undermined trust in the election results. But if Trump loses in November, it will not be solely because of his failure to understand and evoke America’s civic patriotism. It will be his normal failures as a leader, as an administrator, and as a rhetorician that count. They were on gleaming display last night.
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