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Leader: Trump and America's Tragedy

Donald Trump was the least qualified presidential candidate in US history. His election is the darkest moment yet in our turbulent times.

Donald Trump was the least qualified presidential candidate in US history. He had no record of public or military service and was ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a bully and a narcissist. Rather than seek to mask these defects, he gloried in them. Many of the Republican Party’s most senior figures refused to endorse him.

And yet he won. Mr Trump, a disliked candidate, was able to defeat an even more loathed opponent: Hillary Clinton. The Democrat showed resilience and tenacity as well as grace under pressure. In an anti-establishment age, however, her familiarity and background counted against her. As a former first lady, she was hindered not only by her own flaws but those of her husband, Bill Clinton.

Mrs Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state reinforced her untrustworthy image. Her closeness to Wall Street undermined her promise to support the economically marginalised. The lack of enthusiasm that some of her party’s voters – the so-called Obama Democrats – felt for her candidacy testified to her weaknesses. After Barack Obama, the election of the first female president would have been a cheering, momentous occasion. Yet Mrs Clinton simply lacked the popular appeal to win.

Mr Trump overcame his lack of support among women overall, ethnic minorities and students by winning the support of the white working class. His economic populism and vow to “make America great again” resonated with those long alienated by both of the main parties. His triumph was enabled by many of the same forces that carried the Leave campaign to victory in the UK’s EU referendum.

The US faces the most unexpected and dangerous presidency in its history. Mr Trump’s victory will embolden ­misogynists, racists and Islamophobes. The free world will soon be led by a man who rejects many of its essential tenets. Liberals’ faith in progress has been undermined, stunningly. As in the 1930s after the Great Depression, the 2008 ­financial crisis has resurrected the forces of reaction. History is not linear, but cyclical and discontinuous.

Unlike Mrs Clinton, Mr Trump lacks any foreign ­affairs experience. He is an isolationist and protectionist. If the president-elect fulfils his campaign rhetoric, the US will retreat from its role as guarantor of the post-Cold War
liberal order. Mr Trump’s disavowal of Nato’s doctrine of ­collective defence will empower a revanchist Russia. Many in the world will tremble at his victory – the Baltic states and Poland have more reason than most. Vladimir Putin, whom Mr Trump admires, now has every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires.

The next US president has little interest in achieving a peaceful settlement in Syria, the site of the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Throughout President Bashar al-Assad’s bombardment of Aleppo, he has voiced no criticism of the regime. Syria’s wretched masses will find no welcome in Mr Trump’s America.

Many of the hopeful advances that were made under President Obama will be reversed. His successor, a climate-change denier, has threatened to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and to end funding for UN global warming programmes. He rejects the international prohibition of torture and derides human rights.

Mr Trump’s influence on domestic policy will be no less deleterious. Aided by a Republican Congress, he will repeal President Obama’s health-care reforms, deport the 11 million undocumented migrants in the US and, he claims, construct a wall along the Mexican border.

Donald Trump’s victory will gladden the hearts of many reactionaries. In France, Marine Le Pen will seek to emulate his achievement in next year’s presidential election. Against the forces of populism, liberalism has too often proved feeble. If they are to recover, Mr Trump’s vanquished opponents must not merely condemn his rise, but understand it.

In the US, as elsewhere, the centre left has become disconnected from the working-class voters whom it purports to champion. History shows that populists and authoritarians invariably fail, the victim of their own hubris and contradictions. Yet they can do profound damage. In these turbulent new times, Mr Trump’s election is the darkest moment yet. There may be many more to follow. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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