Guest Opinion: Take Trump Threat Seriously

Guest Opinion: Take Trump Threat Seriously
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Many thought Donald Trump would be dumped in the GOP primary, but instead he triumphed.   Trump passed two big milestones last month as he clinched the GOP nomination and then pulled even with Hillary Clinton in national polling. We would be foolish to also underestimate the threat he presents in the general.

Give the Donald some credit (in case he didn’t do enough of that himself)—a man that few took seriously a year ago could be sitting in the Oval Office a year from now.  This would be a disaster for the country generally and the environment especially. A lot has already changed since May, but it’s still worth looking at how he reached these milestones to prepare for what might come next.

First, the nomination.  Let’s face it, for this candidate—who is historically neither a party man nor a clear conservative—to seize the party’s mantle is nothing short of a palace coup.  He held a mere plurality of support among Republican voters until the last of his opponents dropped out and faced much hostility from most of the party establishment.  He did it by exciting great intensity among those conservative supporters who did flock to him and by drawing in a segment of white working class independents and Democrats who might have gone elsewhere in a different political climate. 

It’s easy to find Democrats and independents deploring this turn of events, but it’s remarkable just how many prominent Republicans share in the shock (and awe).  Objections have come not only from compassionate conservatives such as David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, and Michael Gerson, but also from hard right figures like George Will, Glenn Beck and Erick Erickson.  Former nominee Mitt Romney has voiced all-out opposition and no living former Republican president has endorsed (OK , there are only two and they’re both Bushes; but still…).  The #NeverTrump movement didn’t prevent Trump from achieving presumptive status as the nominee, but his recent controversies have given proof to their concerns.

Now consider his recent rise in the polls.  A run of recent surveys put Trump in a statistical tie with Clinton, the long-time head-to-head poll leader.  Fox News and ABC News/Washington Post polls have even given him a small lead at one point.  An amazing accomplishment given how widely unsuited for office he is seen to be.   

Going into this election cycle most political analysts expected a close contest even without knowing who would be nominated.  Obama’s popularity is currently on the rise, but with one exception (1980-1992) no party since Truman has held the White House for three straight terms.  Furthermore, a narrowly split electorate has become the norm.  No presidential candidate has broken 53% of the popular vote in the last half a dozen elections, even though half of them did in the previous six.  We increasingly stand a nation divisible—deeply and closely. 

But the main two factors that led to a tightening of the polls in May were much more immediate.  Trump had won his party’s nomination while the Democratic race was still grinding on.  Like Trump, it was plain and simple: he was a winner and she was not.

This development permitted Trump to consolidate his standing with a previously reluctant Republican rank-and-file. Trump’s brand is above all about winning and his victory also reinforces this brand with independents, who were shifting in his direction.  It has given party leaders a chance to show their leadership by following along and squelching the #NeverTrump movement advocates.

The testy rhetoric in the Democratic contest fueled its own “not Hillary” faction.  This could change now that Clinton has clinched a historic nomination and turned her attention to the general election. Sanders this week showed signs he’s resigned to the obvious outcome of the Democratic primary, but he’s still quick to say he plans to keep fighting for delegates until the convention.  With her nomination now a virtual lock, it’s time for those who do not yet support her to decide which outcome they really want to see on Election Day and unite behind Clinton.

What does a competitive Trump-Clinton matchup mean for the fate of the environment?  It means the stakes could not be higher. Trump’s energy speech last month demonstrates clearly the coming Dark Age on environmental protection a Trump presidency would bring.  Pledging not to focus on ‘phony’ issues, he promised instead to tear up our international climate commitments, get the Keystone tar sands pipeline going, and cancel Obama’s cleanup of carbon pollution from old coal plants. 

But it’s worth turning again to a Republican to frame what Trump’s record on the environment tells us.   In an April Washington Post op-ed, long-time Republican staffer on Capitol Hill Chelsea Henderson documented her research into Trump’s claim to have won “many, many” environmental awards.  Like so much in Trump’s world, most of it seems to be going on in his own head.  Weighed against his railing against the Pope on climate change and the EPA for cleaning up air and water was an award he received from the Metropolitan Golf Association Foundation in New Jersey. 

It’s because of these tremendous stakes that the NRDC Action Fund endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.  This endorsement was based not only on the threat posed by Trump but also her long and experienced track record on environmental policy.  Now is the time to focus on the real choice ahead of us.

Wesley Warren is a guest blogger for the NRDC Action Fund.  He previously worked as senior environmental official in the White House from 1994-2001 and before that as legislative staff on energy and environmental issues in the U.S. House of Representatives. A former Director of Policy Advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, he now does private consulting.