Trump administration takes us back to a tribal existence

March 31, 2017

As the country gets used to the tempo, temperament, and triangulations of the Donald Trump administration, many are trying to divine or interpret what might be the “strategic intent” behind the president’s tweets, pronouncements, rallies, and executive orders. Readers “of a certain age” might be reminded of when the US security establishment engaged in “Kremlinology” to ascertain who was in, who was out, and what that might foretell about future Soviet policy.

Rather than examining Tuesday’s climate-rollback executive order in isolation, it may be more useful to view it in the larger context of the past few months. The United States appears to have embarked on a foreign and domestic policy path unlike anything we have seen since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II. There is distrust, even antipathy, toward not just regulations but the regulators too. How else can you explain the Trump administration’s proposal to cancel NOAA’s popular Sea Grant program? Or the immediate targeting of the EPA, virtually since the day Trump won last November’s election?

There are other trends as well. The keepers of the post-World War II international order appear to be despised nearly as much as the regulators. It’s difficult to otherwise interpret the nearly 30 percent cut to the Department of State, and the exceptionally low profile to date of Secretary Rex Tillerson.

There is disinterest in the future. Many of the cuts to NOAA’s budget were for future capabilities. Setting aside the satellite program, the Office of Management and Budget’s “passback” document (containing White House instructions to NOAA for drawing up a more detailed budget) cut a future NOAA ship. This ship probably would have been built along the Gulf Coast—and a NOAA ship, like a US Navy or Coast Guard vessel, projects US presence. The ship would not have come online until the mid 2020s, though, after the Trump administration. Perhaps the guidance was, “Don’t fund projects I can’t see and use now.”

Finally, there is the well-documented disinterest in, and likely hostility toward, science. There has been an intentional lack of communication with the science community, despite repeated efforts to reach out to the White House. Research and science are bearing a disproportionate share of the proposed non-defense budget cuts. With respect to climate research, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s comment that “we consider that to be a waste of your money” tells you everything you need to know.

Climate has four strikes (at least) going against it: It’s a problem most acute in the future, after the Trump administration has left office; it’s science-based; the ultimate solutions require international cooperation at a level rarely seen; and the previous administration’s approach to climate change was highly regulatory in nature. Given these factors, what’s surprising is not that Trump rolled back the Obama executive orders on climate, but that it took him and his White House staff two months to do so.

Humans are inherently tribal in nature. Tribes of several dozen people, maybe larger, were our foundational social unit. Tribal affiliations, communications, and social skills—coupled with our relatively large brains—allowed humans to overcome our weaknesses as a slow and tasty snack somewhere in the middle of the food chain. Now we are the dominant (and arguably the most lethal) species on the planet, more than 7 billion in number. We have fought two horrific wars in the past century that together killed 50 million to 100 million people. We learned, through blood and treasure, that we must work together with people well outside our tribe, and use our brains to avoid the worst of future threats.

Somehow we have thrown away those lessons. The Trump administration—as evidenced by its policies, its proposed budget, and its executive orders—is taking us back decades or even centuries to a much more tribal and isolated existence, in which the only things that matter are the here and now, and the only power understood is at the end of a rock, a spear … or a nuclear weapon. We’ve seen this movie before, and it rarely has a happy ending. There is little evidence to show that this time will be different.