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Opinion: American Isolationism From the League of Nations to Trump

President’s climate change decision effectively makes U.S. a rogue nation

President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement at the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement at the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On November 19, 1919, the Senate failed to muster a two-thirds majority to ratify the Versailles Treaty ending World War I and establishing the League of Nations. As a banner headline in The (New York) Sun shouted, “PEACE TREATY DEFEATED … SECOND BALLOT KILLS ALL HOPE OF LEAGUE.”

The Senate’s refusal to join the League of Nations ushered in two decades of isolationism culminating in an America First movement that argued that Hitler’s takeover of Europe was of no concern to us. At the heart of the America First mindset was a belief that Pittsburgh mattered infinitely more than Nazi-occupied Paris.

Ninety-eight years later, history repeated itself in the White House Rose Garden on a sunny June afternoon with temperatures about six degrees warmer than normal for the entire month. In withdrawing from the Paris accord, Donald Trump even repeatedly invoked the slogan “America First.”

Take a deep breath

With Trump’s decision to go it alone on climate change, America, in effect, became a rogue nation. Since the U.S. has historically pumped more excess CO2 into the atmosphere than any other nation, Trump might as well have passed out red baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan “Make America an Ingrate Again.”

There are, of course, limits to historical analogies. Give the feckless response of the League of Nations to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, it is hard to argue that American participation would have deterred Hitler and Mussolini. In similar fashion, it is dangerously glib to suggest that Trump’s unilateral action means that New York will be under water in 50 years and the Midwest will be a giant Dust Bowl.

Like Brexit, the exit from the Paris accord (maybe we can call it “Parexit”) will drag on for years, with formal severing impossible before November 2019. And since the agreement was entirely voluntary, the Trump administration’s policies on energy and environmental regulation had already signaled that the federal government would be taking a four-year timeout from the battle against global warming.

What “Parexit” guarantees, though, is that climate change will be a central issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. If the Democrats win back the White House, it seems inevitable that one of the Day One pledges of the next president would be to eagerly rejoin the Paris agreement.

What is equally certain is that the 2018 congressional campaigns will be drowning in apocalyptic TV spots about rising seas, melting ice caps and a dying planet. At first glance, it seems like Trump has again jeopardized a GOP House majority in his quest to make good on his most extreme campaign promises.

It is difficult to specifically poll on the Paris agreement since many voters have no idea what it is. But two months ago, a Quinnipiac University national survey asked a revealing series of questions about climate change and environmental regulation.

For example, only 28 percent of voters believed that “Donald Trump should remove specific regulations intended to combat climate change.” And just 19 percent described climate change as a hoax. The demographic breakdowns in the Quinnipiac poll suggest that about as many younger voters share Trump’s views on global warming as emulate his wardrobe choices of bulky suits and extra-long ties.

But there is a danger in overreacting to the political implications of America’s environmental isolationism. The “Parexit” may just represent another reason for passionate Democratic voters to scorn Trump and his Republican enablers. If you’re already voting Democratic because of health care and Russia, you may not need a third issue to propel you to the polls in 2018.

That same early April Quinnipiac poll asked voters to name — without prompting — the “most important problem facing the country today.” Despite the steady drumbeat of dire news about the disappearing Arctic and record temperatures, only 4 percent of Americans named the environment or pollution as their top issue. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll in early January found that voters did not rank either the environment or global warming among their top 10 issues for Trump and Congress.

In his Rose Garden rejection of the global community, Trump was politically clever in framing the issue in economic terms. Wildly exaggerating the burdens from the Paris agreement, the president declared, “Our businesses will come to a halt in many cases. And the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished way of life.”

Scared to the right

Caught up in the fervor of environmental righteousness, Democrats should not cavalierly dismiss the power of these economic arguments. Again and again in American life, scared workers have been willing to risk permanent environmental damage in the quest for a secure paycheck. This is the tragic history of American coal mining, to cite the outmoded industry that Trump claims to revere.

Thursday afternoon, in a comic lack of self-awareness, Trump declared, “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be.”

Given the president’s tragic decision to go rogue, it is safe to say that Trump doesn’t get the joke. 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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