Is the Fire and Fury between factions in Donald Trump's White House costing us the earth?

| 25th January 2018
Donald Trump being Donald Trump

Donald Trump does not are about climate change or the Paris Agreement - but it has become a key totem in the faction fight in the White House. 

The future of the planet - as protected by the Paris Agreement - appears to have been victim to a vicious power struggle within the White House, according to Michael Wolff’s new insider account of the Trump White House. But, argues ALEX RANDELL suggests there is far more in play

So while Wolff’s account tells us the details of how the Trump administration exited the Paris Accord, it doesn’t really tell us why. 

It is a mistake to think of Donald Trump as a climate change sceptic. If we believe Michael Wolff’s new insider account of the Trump White House, it is a mistake to think that Trump has any fixed view on climate change at all. 

In Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Wolff paints a picture of a man who cannot or does not absorb information of any kind. A man who is too irritable and bored to talk about policy. And a man who is happy to leave complex decisions to anyone who seems able to take them off his hands. 

If we believe Wolff’s gossipy and salacious account, Trump is not a man on a mission to wreck climate policy. Rather, he’s a man who refuses to engage with it. A man who is happy to delegate ‘dealing’ with climate change to any of the bitter rivals surrounding him who will take the issue away. 

Reactionary populism

Wolff’s account leads us to believe that Trump is not a man with deeply held political views. Instead he argues we should understand Trump as a man with gut reactions that are as reactionary as they are random.

They are often - according to Wolff's sources - not even in line with some of the most basic tenets of Republican thinking. Apparently during a meeting about how to repeal ObamaCare, Trump blurted out that free health care should be extended to everyone. 

Understanding the Trump administration's approach to climate change is not about understanding Trump’s views on climate change. Instead it is about understanding how the power battles inside Trump’s White House shaped the administration’s decisions. 

Forming one part of the power battle around Trump is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter, Ivanka Trump.

Kushner was part of the campaign team, and then appointed senior advisor when Trump entered the White House. Kushner is a man with liberal political views and is an ex-Democrat supporter. Kushner disliked Trump's reactionary populism. But the post was a chance for Kushner to propel himself to the highest levels of  global politics and business.

Protest at airports

According to Wolff, it was Kushner and Ivanka who choreographed Trump's more presidential moments. Their goal was to present a more moderate, restrained globally acceptable version of Trump.

This put him on a conflict course with Steve Bannon, Trump’s now departed chief stategist. Bannon’s goal was the exact opposite. He wanted to make sure that the heart and soul of the Trump White House was fully bought into his vision of Trumpism.

For Banon, Trumpism meant nationalist, identitarian and populist. He believed that Trump supporters had voted for the absolute disruption of Washington elites.  Bannon wanted to show them this by creating as much chaos and disruption as possible. 

Bannon was not just interested in pushing through policies. He wanted to do so in a way that would antagonise American liberals as much as possible. Wolff claims that Bannon deliberately carried out no consultation the first ‘travel ban’.

So while Wolff’s account tells us the details of how the Trump administration exited the Paris Accord, it doesn’t really tell us why. 

This was a deliberate attempt to maximise chaos at airports. The ban came in on a Friday to make sure that its opponents would be able to protest at airports over the weekend.

Angry and losing

The aim was to create chaos and to draw out Trump’s opponents into angry demonstrations. This was all for the benefit of what Bannon saw as Trump’s core supporters. 

It is in this context that we have to see the US exit from the Paris Accord. Trump didn’t decide to take the US out of the agreement because of deeply held climate scepticism.

Nor did he do it because he believed it was what his supporters wanted. Or because he believed it was holding back the US economy. Wolff discourages us from thinking that Trump himself did it at all. 

Rather, it was an instance in which Bannon won out over Kushner in their bitter rivalry. Leaving the Paris Accord was something that would send "Social Justice Warriors" into protest and outrage.

This was exactly what Bannon was hoping for. News coverage of protesting liberals would speak powerfully to Trump’s supporters. They would see liberals angry and losing, and Trump fighting their corner and winning. 

Object of hate

For Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the Paris climate agreement had been something they wanted to protect.  For them it was a chance to present the administration as more responsible and less reactionary.

It was a chance for them to present an acceptable face of the administration to the world on an important international issue. The fact that Kushner saw it as such only fuelled Bannon’s desire to make sure the US left the agreement.

Bannon pushed to leave the agreement partly to enrage liberals, but also partly to enrage Kushner and Ivanka Trump. 

In the aftermath of the US exit from the Paris Accord, Elon Musk - CEO of solar power company Tesla - resigned from Trump’s business advisory committee. According to Wolff this was exactly the kind of reaction Bannon was hoping for.

Musk represented the wealthy, liberal, coastal elites that had become an object of hate for Trump supporters. To see this kind of person offended, protesting and walking away was a key part of Bannon’s motivation. 

Fighting for power

We need to be careful with Wolff’s account of how all this happened. Most of the sources of the book are unnamed. The book has also been written to maximise intrigue and drama.

Wolff’s inside sources are extensive, but we shouldn’t imagine that the Bannon-Kushner war was the only thing driving the exit from the Paris Accord.

We know little - for example - about the rest the Republican establishment in this debate. Or about the involvement of any lobbyists in the decision. This version of events is compelling, it may be true but it probably isn’t the entire story of why the US left the climate change agreement.   

Fire and Fury gives some insight into how the Paris exit unfolded. But it doesn’t provide much insight into the underlying reasons climate change has become so polarised.

The focus of the book is dysfunction in the White House, rather than the political landscape of the rest of the US. 

Wolff’s account tells us little about the political shifts of the last few years that landed an Alt-Right nationalist (Bannon), and a Democrat (Kushner) fighting for power around a disinterested President.

Wolff’s focus on rivalries leaves little space for understanding how this assortment of people ended up fighting each other inside the world’s most powerful office.

So while Wolff’s account tells us the details of how the Trump administration exited the Paris Accord, it doesn’t really tell us why. 

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Michael Wolff
Henry Holt and Co
January 2018

This Author

Alex Randall is the programme coordinator at the Climate and Migration Coalition.


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