Donald Trump’s habit of wanting to please “everyone” by saying different things to different people has been treated with deserved skepticism; after all, his cabinet and advisory positions have all been filled with people who were early supporters of his extremist rhetoric—people with credentials as bigots and nativists that may excite the darker humors of the white working class, but who in fact are pushing agendas that serve the interests of the “elite” classes, mainly whites in position of power and wealth. Trump’s tax plan (which is almost certainly DOA) so blatantly favors the rich (like himself) that it is clear that his frame of reference is whatever makes life easier for him.
So it should be no surprise that he intends to expand offshore drilling, increase coal leases and reduce safety regulations on fracking. Since Trump is less clear on policy issues in which he has little expertise or has given prior thought to, he relies on the positions thrust upon him by people who supposedly are more “knowledgeable” than he is, but whose “facts” are questionable at best. What we have seen from his advisory picks is that they are more “expert” on expressing an opinion than actual expertise in the positions they have been put in. For example, there is Trump’s “current” choice for Secretary of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, whose prior “experience” for the post was that of Navy Seal, and since Montana is “wide open” country, he must know something about land. Or maybe like many residents there, he is more “expert” at “space”—as in between them and the “others”—rather than the responsibilities one would expext of the Interior Secretary.
There seems to be a mixed bag of opinions about Zinke. He has in the past opposed both the sale of federal lands, or its “transfer” to the states. This has been going on for several decades under Republican administrations, during which 1/3 of federally owned land has been “sold” or “transferred” since the Reagan administration. “Personal” opposition is “nice,” but what it means in practical terms is open to debate.
And in fact, Zinke has been a bit of a flip-flopper on environmental and conservation issues. While he did oppose the transfer of 2 million acres of national forest land, just six weeks later he voted for an even bigger transfer, 4 million acres to Republican-controlled state “management”—and we know what that means. Zinke also seems to be giving suspect signals concerning greenhouse gas emissions efforts, and eviscerating the Antiquities Act, a law pushed by Theodore Roosevelt to protect vital natural and historic sites. Zinke also supports a measure to build roads, dams and allow commercial logging in federal wilderness areas in the name of “improving access” for the “public.” Zinke also supported a bill that supposedly was aimed at creating “resilient” forests—not by improving environmental law or providing sufficient funds for the under-budgeted Forest Service, but by calling for more (what else) commercial timber harvesting.
Are going to see another James Watt? Certainly some of Trump’s other cabinet and advisory picks have the potential of Watt-like outages. For those unfamiliar with Watt and his time as Reagan’s Interior Secretary, perhaps no high government official ever was as continuously the subject of ridicule (particularly by the media), which nevertheless did not prevent him from causing great damage to environmental safety that continues to this day. No one could merely accuse Watt of being a narrow-minded bigot; he just was. Some infamous Wattisms: “If you want to see an example of the failures of socialism, don’t go to Russia, go to an Indian reservation.” Or how the Beach Boys attracted “the wrong element”—which happened to include Reagan and wife Nancy, for which Watt received a foot-in-mouth “award” from the president. Then there was “There are two sorts of people in this country—liberals and Americans.” Watt tried to “laugh” this off by saying “Liberals don’t know how to laugh at themselves anymore,” which is “funny” given the kind vitriol one hears on far-right talk radio. And finally there was the one that ultimately caused his early “resignation,” concerning the make-up of an advisory group: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” Republican support for Watt promptly in Congress disappeared, and he was out less than three weeks later.
But this was not before the damage had already been done. Such massive land sales and leasing of coal and oil reserves occurred that ABC News Nightline declared after Watt’s resignation that “he sounded more like a salesman than a custodian,” asserting that “unneeded” federal land should be sold to help reduce the federal debt. Nightline reminded viewers of Watt’s outrageous assertion that “The second coming of Christ obviated any long-term environment policy,” and this was the attitude of a man tasked with authority over almost one-third of the country’s land with all its natural resources, the trustee of 735,000 Native Americans, the “guardian” of almost 200 species of endangered fauna, and the custodian of the national parks. In short, he was the most powerful un-elected man in the country, and made him among the most irresponsible and dangerous.
Far from seeing himself as a “custodian” of the nation’s natural environment, Watt falsely claimed that no endangered species had ever successfully recovered by way of the Endangered Species Act. He called his own department scientists “blind preservationists.” He referred to environmentalists as “Nazis.” He placed an absolute ban on the establishment of new parks. His biggest supporter in all of this (besides Reagan himself), was the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, which called environmentalists “subversives,” “tree-huggers” and “prairie-fairies.” But Watt failed to take into consideration public opposition to his actions, choosing to make environmentalism a “partisan” political issue, for which even Republican lawmakers had their limits.
Zinke is probably no Watt, and it is highly unlikely that someone as controversial as Watt can be stomached again, given the already controversial personality of his “boss.” However, with people like far-right mercenaries like Steve Bannon having Trump’s ear, there seems to be plenty of opportunities for “misspoken” gaffes that will cause the new administration embarrassment. The question is just how “well” Trump takes criticism, and to what extent his policy decisions are based on his fickleness; he may well be the biggest source of “Wattage” this country has ever seen.