Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.
In the past week, Donald Trump has with his cabinet choices on energy, environment, and now foreign affairs openly declared war on a stable climate and the future of humanity. The manner in which he did these now, and soon-to-be more, heinous acts has been revealing about who Donald Trump is and how he can be expected to act in the future on a whole host of issues related and unrelated to climate.
While Trump in his campaign gave almost no signs that he had any interest in climate action, calling climate change a hoax and hewing to the now-standard Republican pro-fossil fuel “drill, baby, drill” line, Trump had in the last couple weeks flirted with climate action advocates and the mainstream press by suggesting that he had “an open mind” with regard to the reality of human-caused climate change.
While no serious climate-action oriented candidates for Trump’s Cabinet were being vetted, Trump met last week with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio on the the issue of climate. DiCaprio and Terry Tamminen, the CEO of DiCaprio’s climate foundation, apparently offered a 90-minute presentation about how climate action could generate millions of good jobs. Gore, intending first to meet with the supposed liberal influencer in the Trump family, Ivanka Trump, in Trump Tower, was apparently almost on the spur of the moment scheduled then to meet with (Donald) Trump as well. Gore claimed afterwards that the meeting was “extremely interesting”.
Despite these high-profile meetings publicly draped in politesse, the kibosh was put very quickly thereafter on any hopes of change from a future Trump Administration regarding climate policy. First, in short succession Scott Pruitt was selected as Trump’s pick for EPA Administrator and then, in a somewhat mind-boggling move, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has been tapped as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. While Pruitt, a climate denier, EPA-opponent and unpaid lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry via his role as Oklahoma attorney general, was in keeping with Trump’s general campaign rhetoric on energy, the selection of Tillerson places Trump’s climate denial campaign and apparent intent to degrade the surface of the earth for future generations into a new and more central place within what might be called “Trumpism”. Furthermore, and almost as satire of anything like a serious energy, let alone climate policy, Trump then nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy. During the campaign, famously, Perry as a Republican primary contender couldn’t name the Department of Energy that he nevertheless said he wanted to disband. The DOE contains departments responsible for executing long-term public renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, as well as publishing energy information. The DOE is also caretaker of stockpiles of nuclear weapons materials.
The selection of political novice, pro-fracker and fossil fuel executive Tillerson to be put in a position of fourth in line to the Presidency and in charge of managing the foreign policy of the United States indicates that Trump and/or his advisors not only think that decisive climate action is anathema to their view of the world but that expansion of fossil fuel extraction, fossil fuel use, and trade is the top priority of the Trump Administration as regards the structure of foreign relations themselves. While now considered a moderate in a cabinet of ignoramuses and extremists, Tillerson’s in passing acknowledgement of the reality of climate change and verbal support for carbon taxation can be seen only as a PR move and distraction for Exxon to further extract and market its enormous carbon assets to the detriment of climate stability. Tillerson has lied about Exxon’s role in delaying climate action over a period of decades. Whatever the composition of Tillerson’s character and scientific understanding of the oncoming climate disaster, he has and likely will represent an industry as Secretary of State that by its nature has a de facto by its very existence, conflict of interest with the future of human life on the planet.
Furthermore, the cozy relationship of Tillerson with Vladimir Putin, indicates that exploitation of Russian oil and Arctic reserves may be one of the prime drivers of Trump energy, “environmental”, and foreign policy more generally. Exxon, the company that Tillerson now leads, has substantial investments in Russia that would be helped by the lifting of sanctions against Russia and would also benefit Vladimir Putin and his cronies in Russia. That Russia may have interfered with the close American election in favor of Trump adds further to the impression that Trump and Tillerson are united in favor of close ties with Russia and that possible treasonous acts may have occurred. In addition, Tillerson’s appointment opens up enormous new vistas in the already likely Trump Administration violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution barring payments or other favors by foreign governments to US officeholders without the consent of Congress.
The nomination of Perry for Energy Secretary can be viewed as satire of the whole notion of energy as a serious topic of government involvement and preoccupation. This is the President-elect simply “trolling”, i.e. destructive back-biting, of the long-standing mission of American government to lead forward-looking change in how energy is used or extracted/generated against the proclivities of the private energy sector, i.e. Exxon and energy using buildings and appliances.
Much coverage from other media sources will be given to the appearance and reality of possibly disqualifying foreign entanglements between a future Trump Administration and Russia but we will return for the moment to the related but much more important question of whether the United States and other nations will act effectively or not on our fossil fuel dependence and avoid climate catastrophe. Surprising given his current full on commitment to climate denial, Donald Trump once acknowledged that climate change is real and even contributed to a newspaper ad in 2009 urging climate action in the form of the Waxman-Markey bill then before Congress. Trump, unlike most of the climate deniers in the GOP, was once a Democrat and is in large part a product of New York City and environs, exposed via his real estate and media businesses to people from many walks of life, including the Democratic-leaning elites of both US coasts. On the other hand, the typical GOP climate denier, like James Inhofe or Pruitt, either originates in a much smaller state where extractive or fossil fuel industries dominate or a rural-culture dominated state where there is a strong fundamentalist religious tradition in a car-and-truck dependent lifestyle that in the current political environment contrasts itself against the culture of cities and coastal elites.
Unlike the oil or gas business, Trump’s businesses are no more or less fossil fuel dependent than any large American business, unlike, for instance, the economy of Oklahoma or Texas. In fact real estate and construction is one area where efforts have been made to green various building projects in both superficial and deeper ways. If efforts are made a path exists towards an eventual carbon neutral or even carbon negative construction process. However Trump and the Trump family have made virtually no efforts to take even some of the most minimal steps that others have taken to green buildings and construction itself. Trump has not been “forced” by his business interests to become the de facto leader of climate denial worldwide; he has chosen it.
While Trump is an intellectually incurious person in many respects and possesses apparently a very short attention span, he seems to have thought it at least politically and socially wise in the 2000’s to subscribe to the consensus among those he interacted with that climate change is an important issue. All of this despite a business leadership style that made no moves to support any idea of sustainability. Given his former support for climate action, he probably knows that the “egg-heads” or other people he knows from his social and business encounters (including the Clintons) put an emphasis on climate action as part of the portfolio of serious social issues. Before 2010, he thought it right to appear “smart” or socially-connected in that way.
However, starting in February 2010, Trump started experimenting with climate denying statements as “jokes” or put downs of people like Al Gore and climate scientists who were then fighting the smears of the climate denialist lobby, in the form of Climategate. Climategate could be considered one of the first “proofs of concept” of the political power of organized Internet trolling, i.e. destructive back-biting from often anonymous sources upon protagonists attempting to say something truthful or accomplish something positive in the world. The first public occasion for Trump’s climate-change denying remarks appeared to be the unusually cold winter of 2010 in the Northeast with the “Snowmageddon” blizzard in that month.
The jokey or put-down quality of his first utterances in this area is consistent with Trump’s lifelong opportunistic and bullying personality, as well as, perhaps a more long-term project of him experimenting with various forms of right-wing populism (racism in the form of birtherism being the most prominent example) that eventually were pieced together by him and his advisors into his 2015-2016 Presidential campaign. In 2012 and 2013, Trump tweeted out his now well-known statements about climate change being a Chinese hoax or a hoax perpetrated by scientists. Trump continued to express disbelief or doubt about climate change, though at one point in 2014 contributed $5000 to a pro-climate action “Save Our Winters” fund in honor of a Celebrity Apprentice contestant. As mentioned above, Trump 2015-2016 campaign gave no hint that at one time he had called for climate action, and it was as if, like a good method actor, he expressed during the campaign the attitudes of the climate denying, “drill, baby, drill” right-wing base of the Republican Party.
Trump’s New York City background and the above checkered record on climate denial in comparison with other GOP politicians would have led Gore and DiCaprio as they have others, including myself, to hope that Trump was ambivalent about climate change denial. However, the Trump of 2016 is on a mission, that includes both a full commitment to climate denial and, from all appearances, efforts to publicly humiliate advocates of climate action like Gore and DiCaprio. Given the point in time at which he met with them, it appears in retrospect that Trump was toying with Gore and DiCaprio while his team has been planning to fully roll back any and all commitments to stave off climate catastrophe. In a parallel situation, Trump advisor Roger Stone believes that Trump was “torturing” Mitt Romney as long as possible (as revenge) before nominating Tillerson for Secretary of State. I applaud Gore’s and DiCaprio’s efforts to try to convince Trump to act on climate, but Trump’s handling of their visits leads one to the conclusion that Trump is no longer interested in courting the good favor of those who attend to the science or are of the “liberal” milieu in which Gore and DiCaprio circulate.
It is hard to know what Trump is thinking at any one time, but the Trump of the last several years and perhaps longer, has been apparently motivated by carrying out a plan of revenge upon the liberal, often highly-educated elite milieu that has periodically, in his view, humiliated him (“short fingered vulgarian”, Obama’s roast of him in 2011). It is for Trump “No more Mr. Nice Guy” in relationship to the cosmopolitan New York culture in which he moved, with some awkwardness, for so many years. His tweets in response to various perceived and real slights supports this relatively “hard-line” attitude constantly and consistently. Some of those who have studied his life over a period of decades have posited that he sought the Presidency as exactly a plan of revenge upon these people who over the many years of his career and business didn’t take him as seriously as he would have liked.
Thus, before last week’s revelation of his selection of a possible “doomsday machine” of climate denial and unrestricted fossil fuel extraction within his cabinet, Trump appears to have wanted to feign “broad-mindedness” and then try to humiliate some “star” liberal advocates of climate action. To enact “revenge” on them, he would politely listen to them and then go about selecting a cabinet of “fossil fools”, as if what they presented to him didn’t make an impression on him at all.
In this context and on these issues of grave importance, Trump’s actions say “I am evil”. So caught up in revenge and his own ego, Trump is willing to destroy the world of his children and grandchildren, with likely some knowledge that he is doing so, given his personal history. At this point in history, a single person couldn’t do or act in more evil manner with the exception perhaps of triggering an all-out nuclear war, with which Trump has also toyed.
I think without understanding Trump’s motivations as specifically evil, in a way that we can unpack and understand for ourselves, we will remain puzzled and will not know how to effectively counter his (evil) actions and intent.
A Simple Definition of Evil
I would like to advance what should be a commonsensical view of evil that is, in part embedded in our legal tradition, expressed with uneven fairness, effectiveness and exactitude, in the traditional legal evaluations of the severity of various crimes by the nature of the punishments prescribed. Evil is doing harm to others or, secondarily, to oneself in full knowledge that what one is doing is destructive with no intended favorable outcome for the other person or oneself (i.e. not surgery that involves causing harm with the intention to do good). Essential to our general idea of evil is that there is malevolent ( from the Latin roots “bad-wishing”) intention (“malice aforethought”) associated with an act. You have to KNOW that it is wrong and destructive for it to be an “evil” act. There can be very significant and devastating harm done without specific intention but that isn’t then what we understand to be evil in this strict sense.
There is also a difference in the tools we have to evaluate and think about, on the one hand, evil acts or transitory evil and, on the other hand, “being” evil as a way of life. Our criminal justice system is mostly focused on the former, as it judges various acts that people do and the harms that result from those acts.
The latter “deeper” element of our concept of evil is that it is or might be a feature of a person that “inheres” in them. This doesn’t mean that that propensity to do or be evil is in reality permanent or necessarily incorrigible, only that it is expectable, habitual and very hard to “exorcise” via personal or social effort. Evil as a trait is more the province of religion, politics, psychology and personal social navigation: as a person may “be” evil but not commit illegal acts, we might attempt to cordon them off by informal means from having power over us or other people. We might, if we had a widely shared social discourse regarding evil, attempt to engage them in persuading them to recognize and give up their evil propensities, in a way independent from a particular religious tradition or other metaphysical commitments. Without recognizing that evil is a possible feature and outcome of personal development and social evolution, no meaningful discussion is possible. In an enlightened concept and discussion of evil, treating it as a pure stigma would be a reversion to a pre-Enlightenment approach.
If we accept that some people have a greater propensity to do evil and therefore “be” evil, we must then make an effort to define what goes into that evilness. A critical factor in evil as a characteristic of a person, is whether a person enjoys the destruction or harm they cause and is motivated to continually or habitually commit destructive acts. This sadism is the critical fourth element in what psychologists have recently come to call the “Dark Tetrad” of psychological traits that indicate a continual predisposition to do evil and, in essence “be” evil. They traits are:
- Psychopathy – The lacking of conscience or empathy with others (though not necessarily enjoying doing harm to others) that leads to ruthlessness in relationships, destructive acts and likely criminal activity. Psychopaths attempt to achieve satisfactions without respect for what methods they use and who they hurt. (Psychopathy is not to be confused with “psychopathology” which is the general word for all mental suffering/illness).
- Narcissism – Extreme or disordered narcissism describes people that have an inflated sense of self-importance and a persistent confusion of an ideal self, a grandiose self, with that person’s real self and real accomplishments. Narcissists tend to impose emotional and other tolls on others via continual demands to boost their self-esteem while often devaluing the self-esteem of those around them. Alternatively, narcissists can create communities of unrealistically inflated self-worth with certain others and devalue “outsiders” to that group. To make matters more complicated there is healthy narcissism, which Freud thought was necessary for healthy functioning, and what is popularly called “narcissism” which is the disordered or more extreme version. A further complication is that there are many subtypes of disordered or extreme narcissism.
- Machiavellianism – This is a concept introduced by social and personality psychologists to describe a manipulative view of social relationships. Someone high on the Machiavellian trait is always “engineering” their social world for good or ill, seeing others and relationships as means to some other end.
- Sadism – The latest addition to what was the “Dark Triad” to become now the “Dark Tetrad”, sadism is the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others, not necessarily associated with sexual acts, as has been stereotyped in the past. If someone enjoys doing destructive acts with or without a specifically sexual component, they are more likely to become ensconced in a world of doing such acts and committing themselves to destruction as a way of life.
In contemporary psychological terms, then someone who has the combination of strong sadistic, narcissistic, psychopathic/sociopathic, and Machiavellian traits is most likely to have the strong tendency to repeatedly do evil, i.e. “be” evil. Alternatively, we can imagine that through some recovery or conversion process with very sophisticated self-understanding and reflection, that a person with these tendencies could effectively rein them in, though this would be a Herculean task.
The Climate Emergency Lowers the Bar for Evil
With life as we know it now hanging in the balance due to our dependence on fossil fuels and related emissions, the distinction between good and evil becomes ever narrower, as what we do as a generation will have resounding impacts on the viability and even existence of all human future generations. What was “good innocent fun” a few decades ago, is no longer innocent and carries with it a heightened risk of death to those in the future. We as individuals have responsibilities to improve and transform our own use of the earth but most important are our collective political responsibilities in organizing a new and sustainable way of life, so the earth can be inherited by future human generations.
These considerations couldn’t be further from the intentions of Donald Trump and the Administration team he has assembled and they appear to be utterly unprepared to face the reality of the climate emergency and lead society to make hard but necessary choices in the area of energy and land use. However, at the same time, perversely, almost in a “paint by numbers” manner, Trump and his advisors seems to want to structure his Administration around pushing as hard as they possibly can against the hope that such a climate transition could ever be attempted. It seems perversely and evilly, they are trying to erase awareness of climate change as almost the top priority of the Trump Administration. Even more than the Obama Administration and the majority of the Democratic Party that attempt to straddle climate virtue and fossil fuel extraction, indulging in soft climate denial, Trump seems utterly preoccupied by climate action as its negation and wannabe destroyer.
It seems that Trump is so offended by the suggestion that such a thing as climate action and a future sustainable society could exist that he is trying to expunge it from popular and even scientific understanding (by among other things threatening to ban government climate science).
Trump is Using Evil to Immobilize Opponents
Trump from all appearances seems to possess the “Dark Tetrad” as personality traits, which is pretty obvious by simply reading news accounts and his own utterances and viewing his actions. Even if one doesn’t accept my contention that we must lower the bar for understanding what evil is in the age of human-caused climate destabilization, Trump easily qualifies as person that at least draws from a deep well of evil personality traits and action propensities. Trump engages in gratuitous cruelty, as documented above, for reasons largely of personal gratification in areas unrelated to the climate denialism he has made a centerpiece of his new Administration.
That people are still shocked and immobilized by his evil, should be an occasion for us to reconceptualize evil as I have hoped to do above, so we can deploy our understanding of him and a secular understanding of evil to curtail his influence and short-circuit his plans to do evil. Trump seems to be aware of his own evil and deploys it, as a committed Machiavellian. We need to become aware of his evil propensities in order that by our subsequent actions, good be preserved and strengthened.