There’s a strain of thinking in some Washington political circles that goes like this: Donald Trump isn’t going to get re-elected and may not even last out his entire first term. Given that, he’s rightly seen as a bump in a much longer road – and one that will be forgotten soon after he leaves office.
That logic is flawed. And Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord, which has not yet been announced but is being widely reported, shows why.
Simply put: Decisions he makes – every day – change the course of the country on everything from climate to immigration to trade. The idea that all of this can be undone the second Trump leaves office – whether in four or eight years – is a massive misjudgment of not only how difficult it is to turn the ship of state but also of the ways in which the world perceives the U.S. will have changed in that time.
Let’s go back to the beginning on the Paris deal.
Trump railed against the climate deal – agreed to by then President Obama in 2015 – during the 2016 campaign and held it up as a prime example of how the US makes bad deals.
“We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of United States tax dollars to UN global warming programs,” Trump promised during a major energy speech in late May 2016. “This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land, in our country. No way.”
(Worth noting: The 195 signatories the climate accord, which proposes goals for lowering carbon emissions, did so voluntarily. There is no ability of one country in the accord to dictate the emissions policies of another country.)
Many people assumed Trump’s harsh language on climate was simply campaign posturing – designed to prop up his “America First” messaging to the Democratic base. Even after Trump won, there was doubt he would make good on his pledge – especially given that the likes of Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were advocating for the country to remain in the accord.
Trump appears to be ready to do just that, however. And, it’s the latest in a series of statements and decisions he has made – his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his tough talk on immigration, his views on NATO – that not only reverse course from the previous administration but also break with the broader post-World War II ideas of what America is and will be on the world stage.
Trump’s performance during last week’s foreign trip provides further evidence. He got along famously with Saudi Arabian leaders, for example, and clashed with the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
Need more examples? His ongoing unwillingness to condemn Russia. His praise for Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. And so on.
To dismiss Trump as ineffectual or anomalous is to miss the broader point. Trump may not get all or even most or even a majority of his agenda passed through Congress. But, the simple act of being president every day – and the decisions, big and small, that Trump is making – has a profound effect.
Pulling out of the Paris accord doesn’t mean the US will never, ever again deal with the issue of climate change on the world stage. Just as pulling out of TPP or green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t mean the next president won’t be able to reverse some of the effects of those decisions – if he or she so chose.
But, there’s no doubt that the direction Trump steers the ship of state matters. Bigly. And is not something that will be easily undone.