A comment made back in January has been on my mind ever since. At the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, Spencer Cox was asked why he pivoted from denouncing Trump before he won to supporting him after he won. Before lamenting Trump’s divisiveness, Congress’s dysfunction and Democratic policies, Cox listed three specific reasons behind his endorsement:
- I’m a Republican (and Trump’s the Republican nominee).
- I believe he’s going to be re-elected.
- The State of Utah’s going to vote for him.
I wrote off reason #1 as nonsense, because Cox and Trump were both Republicans in 2016, too. I interpreted reason #2 as prudent, given that we experience wildfires in Utah and Cox doesn’t want to be the governor who antagonized a president who ordered FEMA to withhold disaster relief from Californians. But what really struck me was reason #3. Of course, it’s a given, the State of Utah’s going to vote for Trump. Just make sure that R next to his name is big enough, send a couple surrogates out there with some freedom of religion talking points, feed the pigs their slop and then focus your energies on states with more enlightened voters. I categorically reject the presumption that Utah voters can be taken for granted. We are not political automatons. We believe, as the old hymn invites us to sing:
Freedom and reason make us men;
Take these away, what are we then?
This is an appeal to the Utah voters whose free, reasoned choices will settle which presidential candidate wins our state in November. These voters are independent and pragmatic, focused on the long view. Independence and pragmatism are voter attributes that reinforce each other. If you’re an independent voter, you may be affiliated with a political party, but you don’t vote strictly on party lines. If you’re a pragmatic voter, you may hold strong beliefs about specific principles of government, but you don’t vote strictly on ideological litmus tests. And the long view, which contemplates risks and hopes beyond immediate tribal interests, is related to both independence and pragmatism, because it’s a priority that causes independent pragmatists to cross party lines and sacrifice ideological preferences.
There’s evidence of independence and pragmatism, focused on the long view, in the actions of our congressional delegation and our state officials. When Mike Lee broke with Republicans to limit the Trump administration’s war powers; when Ben McAdams as a Democrat introduced a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution; when Gary Herbert asked Donald Trump to send more refugees to Utah; when Mitt Romney became the only member of his party with the balls to vote his conscience: these are cases of independence and pragmatism, focused on the long view. This is Utah at our best.
If you belong to this coalition of Utah voters, you may have voted for Trump in 2016, on the reasonable hypothesis that he would rise to the occasion. Or you may have objected to voting for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, so you voted for Evan McMullin or didn’t vote at all. In 2020, Joe Biden replaces Clinton on the Democratic ticket and, as always, there’s a list of write-in candidates constrained by only your imagination. Your options are, therefore, to vote for Trump, Biden or, say, Dennis Lindsey.
The options for President of the United States are reliably underwhelming. Every candidate, every cycle, is (a) flawed in a variety of ways and (b) stretched by a variety of constituent, personal and special interests. So, whenever you vote for a candidate because of a policy or attribute you admire, you’re almost unavoidably supporting some other policy or attribute you detest. And 2020 is no different. There are legitimate cases against both candidates. Notwithstanding, the question for the independent pragmatist is which candidate’s case is more (not perfectly) consistent, with the long view.
Let’s begin with the economy. Neither Trump nor Biden is an economic genius. Prior to the effects of COVID-19, U.S. economic performance didn’t change course from Obama-Biden to Trump-Pence. This is because both administrations (between 2014 and 2019) were participating in the same expansionary stage of the economic cycle, which is largely a function of prevailing credit conditions, which are, in turn, largely a function of monetary policy (which the president doesn’t control).
Let’s consider sweeping legislation. Your dream policy, if it’s remotely ambitious (e.g, a flat tax; a carbon price; social security reform; universal health coverage), is extremely unlikely to be passed into law, even if one candidate is passionately championing it. Trump ran on building a wall and repealing Obamacare, he had Republican majorities in the House and the Senate for two years, and he couldn’t fulfill either campaign pledge. He’s also extraordinarily antagonistic, maybe uniquely prone to burn every imaginable bridge, making the prospect of significant bipartisan legislation during his presidency almost inconceivable. Biden is more likely to facilitate cross-party cooperation, but the bar is very low. And the Democratic congressional delegation is less unified today than their Republican counterparts were four years ago. And banking on a change in president (even from someone as polarizing as Trump) to ease inter-party hostility enough to usher in a new era of bipartisanship will inevitably disappoint.
That leaves us with the most critical function the president performs: executive decision-making. The president has discretion over (a) how our laws are enforced and adjudicated and (b) how our relationships with foreign allies and enemies are managed. The consequences of bad decisions in these domains are colossal and, in some cases, literally existential. The Cuban missile crisis, for example, wasn’t destined to end peacefully. The non-catastrophic resolution of that crisis required an extraordinary degree of patient, critical, strategic deliberation from President Kennedy, as would have been required of any president facing a complex problem with everything at stake. Our highest priority as American voters should be to not allow a bad decision-maker to be the president. And this matchless criterion should be the decisive reason for independent pragmatists to not vote for Donald Trump.
Let’s consider four attributes of a presidential decision-maker:
- The interests they want their decisions to promote
- The ethical commitments that constrain their pursuit of those interests
- The knowledge they bring to the process of making those decisions
- The judgment with which they apply that knowledge
What makes Donald Trump’s presidential decision-making attributes worth voting out is not so much the list of those attributes in itself as it is the way those attributes work together. Specifically, in a vacuum, self-absorption can lead to good public policy in the interest of legacy-building. Ethical nihilism should theoretically be checked by the Justice Department, the Congress and the electorate. Ignorance is tolerable if judgment is deferred to competent advisors. And a high opinion of one’s abilities may actually match one’s abilities. But an absence of ethical commitments to constrain brazen self-interest and supreme confidence to pursue that self-interest, despite ignorance of the nuanced matters in question, is a lethal combination.
The interests Trump wants his decisions to promote
First, considering the interests Trump wants his decisions to promote, perhaps no man in the history of American public life has been more transparently egotistical than Donald Trump. He so unpretentiously operates in his exclusive self-interest that I almost admire him for it. This works for his base, because it’s in his self-interest to do what they elected him to do. For example, if he’s re-elected, he’ll continue to obediently and indiscriminately appoint conservative-leaning judges. And, for some voters, the test of Trump’s decision-making begins and ends with that statement.
Tax policy is also representative of Trump as a blunt instrument for his supporters’ short-term interests. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that Republican majorities in both the House and Senate passed and Trump signed into law has enriched millions of Americans. This outcome, in itself, is fantastic. And lowering our corporate tax rate makes us more economically competitive, which is also fantastic. But we didn’t sufficiently provide for these tax cuts, through spending reductions or entitlement reforms or otherwise. Consequently, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that these tax cuts would add $1.9 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, so long as $400 billion of macroeconomic feedback effects materialize. In the context of a structural deficit, cutting taxes without neutralizing the fiscal impact is as lazy and irresponsible as adding spending without neutralizing the deficit impact. It isn’t representative of fiscal conservatism or a sustainable way to operate. It makes how we have to respond to an economic crisis, such as this one, that much harder for the next generation of taxpayers to absorb. This is in direct conflict with taking the long view.
Trump’s environmental policy decisions reinforce a disposition to act as a blunt instrument on behalf of those who will support his personal interests. Since taking office, Trump has reversed 68 rules designed to protect the environment. And more than 30 further rule reversals are in motion. These include longstanding protections for our air, our water, our wildlife, our climate, our safety and our health.
Beginning in 2016, among other changes, Trump weakened a rule to limit mercury emissions from coal power plants, canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions, lifted a ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, proposed amending the Clean Water Act to make it easier to issue federal permits over state objections if projects don’t meet local water quality standards, scaled back pollution protections for tributaries and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, revoked a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris into local streams, proposed doubling the time allowed to remove lead pipes from water systems with high levels of lead, rejected a proposed ban on a pesticide linked to developmental disabilities in children, withdrew a proposed rule requiring groundwater protections for uranium mines, rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal lands, proposed opening up 1,500 acres outside the Grand Canyon to nuclear production, revoked a state’s right to set stricter tailpipe emission standards, softened a rule limiting methane emissions from intentional flaring from drilling operations, revoked a directive for federal agencies to minimize impacts on water, wildlife, land and other natural resources when approving development projects, lifted a freeze on new coal leases on public lands, weakened safety assessments for air and water contamination from dry-cleaning solvents, revoked an executive order to protect ocean and lake waters from energy production, opened nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the imperiled sage grouse, proposed relaxing requirements that companies monitor and repair methane leaks at oil and gas facilities, withdrew a proposed rule to reduce pollutants from sewage treatment plants, proposed streamlining the approval process for drilling for oil and gas in national forests, amended rules that govern how refineries monitor pollution in surrounding communities, replaced a plan to set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants and relaxed air pollution standards for power plants that burn waste-coal for electricity.
The implication is that making America great again means, at least in part, restoring a bygone era when greenhouse gases flowed more freely into our atmosphere, mercury and lead poisoned our water systems in harmony and drilling companies pursuing the American Dream in our national forests were trusted with self-governance. How can you not be nostalgic for the incremental operating margin one could achieve in those days, before Nixon, Reagan, Bush and other presidents stepped in? Those were simpler times.
The ethical commitments constraining Trump’s pursuit of his interests
Second, the absence of ethical commitments to constrain Trump’s pursuit of his interests compounds the decision-making risk from his brazen self-interest. A lot was made of the leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about his license as a celebrity to grab women’s genitals and otherwise sexually assault them at will. Less was made of the campaign rally in which Trump contorted his arms and face in an imitation of a disabled reporter who suffers from a congenital joint condition that limits movements in his arms. Framing these episodes as matters of political incorrectness completely misses the point. Anyone who says and does what Trump said and did in those two forums will say and do anything, if it suits them. If he’ll sexually assault a woman because his power enables him to do it, what wouldn’t he do, so long as his extremely powerful office will enable him to do it? If he’ll mock a disabled person because his base allows him to do it, what wouldn’t he do, so long as his extremely committed base will allow him to do it? If it suits him to, say, ignore mass detention camps in China for religious minorities in the interest of ongoing trade negotiations, abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria on the request of the Turkish President, who proceeded to slaughter them, or to deliberately undermine public confidence in the scientific community, the free press, the coming election or any another critical institution, so be it.
The knowledge Trump brings to the process of making decisions
Third, the knowledge Trump brings to the process of making his decisions further compounds the decision-making risk from his ethically-unconstrained self-interest. Trump didn’t enter the presidency with any subject-matter expertise in national security, trade policy, environmental regulation or other domains under executive authority. That’s not a disqualifying condition, though. The White House organizational design has evolved through history to neutralize a given president’s shortcomings with the intelligence, analysis and advice that should theoretically enable the president to make good decisions. But this decision-making apparatus is futile if the president doesn’t read written briefings or listen to verbal briefings. Trump’s former National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn, said: “Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” Returning to what might be commendable candor in another context, Trump makes no bones about his aversion to reading. On his learning style, Trump said: “I like bullets or I like as little as possible.” His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said Trump prefers “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings. And other officials who’ve participated in his verbal briefings describe holding his attention as a herculean task and challenging his viewpoints as a professional risk.
The judgment with which Trump applies his knowledge
Fourth, the judgment with which Trump applies his knowledge decisively compounds the decision-making risk from his under-informed ethically-unconstrained self-interest. Trump is supremely self-confident. Donald Trump has expressed his personal belief in Donald Trump’s expansive greatness for decades, which is obnoxious, but — again — not disqualifying. The problem is that he behaves, as president, as though he genuinely holds this belief. When asked whom he consults on foreign policy, Trump said: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things…My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” And Trump hasn’t hesitated to throw the weight of the presidency around on the basis of those self-consultations, whether that means violating international treaties, assassinating foreign military leaders, dismantling environmental protections, restructuring our global economic relationship or abandoning vulnerable allies. Consider the abandonment of our Kurdish allies specifically. In 2014, the Obama administration asked the Kurds to help us defeat ISIS in Syria. Through eleven thousand Kurdish casualties and 86 of our own, we succeeded. The Turkish president, Erdogan, is hostile toward the Kurds. In order to appease President Erdogan, we persuaded the Kurds to destroy their own military posts along sixty miles of the Turkey-Syria border, promising them that we would protect them with peacekeeping soldiers. Then, after a Sunday night call with Erdogan, without consulting his advisors in the Pentagon or State Department or warning the Kurds, Trump ordered the withdrawal of our Special Forces. Erdogan began bombing the Kurds within hours. Our withdrawal was so abrupt and unexpected that we had to bomb our own physical assets in the area in order to prevent the Russians and others from taking advantage of them. Following near-universal bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s decision, what finally changed his mind was retired General Jack Keane and Senator Lindsey Graham showing Trump maps of oil fields in Syria that Iran would secure if we proceeded. Trump reversed course and, after having explained that allowing the Turks to move on the Kurds was “like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart,” he tweeted: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” He then wrote a short letter to Erdogan with these concluding remarks: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later. Sincerely, Donald J. Trump.”
In the broader context of these decision channels under presidential discretion, there’s no issue more central to the long view than climate change. Trump calls climate change a hoax. More importantly, though, again, he governs as though he believes climate change is a hoax. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration governs the capacity for life. Without carbon dioxide, Earth’s atmosphere would be minus 25°C, reducing the planet to a frozen (and, consequently, lifeless) object. For at least the past 800,000 years, the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration ranged between 180 and 300 parts per million. That nadir (180 parts per million) is consistent with ice ages (which represented the state of affairs for at least 75% of that time-frame). The historical implication (from the carbon cycles that transpired over those 800,000 years) is that breaching the 250 parts per million threshold and approaching 300 parts per million (the record peak) signals an impending contractionary stage. In 1950, when carbon dioxide concentration reached 280 parts per million, that signal was glaring. What happened next was unprecedented. Against the previous (again, 800,000-year) high of 300 parts per million, between 1950 and 2020, the atmosphere accumulated another 134 parts per million (to 414 parts per million), representing a nearly 40% rise over less than 70 years.
The sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration include natural forces, such as changes in the sun’s intensity, volcanic eruptions and heat-trapping gases. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is another source. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, when studied, reveals its specific source. The so-called signature of carbon from fossil fuels is its low ratio of heavier to lighter carbon atoms. A continuously record-breaking trajectory of carbon concentration, denominated by an increasingly light proportion of carbon atoms, exhibits the introduction of fossil fuel combustion into the atmosphere beginning in the Industrial Age. The innovation of fossil fuel combustion not only catalyzed economic development (through the coal-powered steam engine), but also averted environmental destruction (given that timber was the next best alternative). Fossil fuel combustion was among the finest humanitarian achievements ever. But it’s not sustainable in perpetuity. So, we have to innovate again. And how the sitting president allocates his or her political capital to this necessary transition is critical.
So, consider, again, the four presidential decision-making attributes: Will allocating any of his political capital to climate change materially contribute to Donald Trump’s immediate interest? No. Is he ethically constrained by the longer-term influence of his actions on topsoil erosion, insect extinction, ocean acidification and geopolitical destabilization? No. Is he completely out of his depth on this issue, through his own willful ignorance? Yes. Does he have the audacity to throw the weight of his office around anyway? Yes. Are the answers to these questions representative of Donald Trump’s general approach to governance? Yes. Utah voters, focused on the long view, shouldn’t allow someone who operates like this to be the president.
In the summer of 1772, Joseph Priestley, an English scientist, wrote a letter to his friend, Benjamin Franklin, soliciting advice on a big decision. In reply, Franklin didn’t recommend a specific course of action. Instead, he taught his friend how to make a good decision. The framework was simple and familiar. Divide a sheet of paper into two columns. Over one column, write Pro. Over the other column, write Con. Take your time, over multiple days, to draft your lists. When your lists are complete, assign a value to each item. Then, begin canceling out opposing items of equal value. In Franklin’s words: “Where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly. And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step.”
I invite independent and pragmatic Utah voters to apply Franklin’s advice to your long-view decision-making process ahead of the presidential election in November. If, for example, you assign a value to the 191,000 jobs created per month during Trump-Pence’s first three years in office, then also assign a value to the 220,000 jobs created per month during Obama-Biden’s last three years in office. If you assign a value to the probability that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees will overturn Roe v Wade, then also assign a value to the probability that his impetuosity will result in a catastrophic foreign policy decision. If you assign a value to Joe Biden’s inelegant, gaffe-prone press conferences, then also assign a value to Donald Trump’s refusal to read briefings or listen to advisors. If you assign a value to the risk that Joe Biden will include left-wing extremists in his cabinet, then also assign a value to the risk that Donald Trump will make Ivanka Trump his Secretary of State and Donald Trump Jr his National Security Advisor. If you assign a value to Tucker Carlson’s suggestion that Joe Biden has lost it, then also assign a value to the consensus assessment of over 6,000 mental health professionals that Donald Trump’s rage reactions, paranoia, impulsiveness, indifference to consequences, interpersonal belligerence, propensity to taunt dangerous adversaries, recklessness, encouragement of violence and lack of empathy jointly manifest a “serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.” If you assign a value to the higher internal rates of return available to developers through lower water quality standards, then also assign a value to the communities who are drinking and bathing their children in that water. If you assign a value to the strong working relationship Spencer Cox claims our state leadership has with Donald Trump, then also assign a value to the risk that Trump will one day do to us what he did to California by ordering FEMA to withhold wildfire disaster relief out of spite toward Mitt Romney or Donovan Mitchell or other prominent members of our community who stand up to him. If you assign a value to the extra dividends and share repurchases you got from the corporate tax cut, then also assign a value to your future self, your children or your grandchildren who will have to absorb its fiscal impact. If you assign a value to ending the violent riots that have destroyed livelihoods, then also assign a value to replacing the president under whose watch that destruction has occurred. If you assign a value to the economic opportunities from proceeding with plans to open 28,000 wild Utah acres to drilling, then also assign a value to the loss of 28,000 wild Utah acres.
Please, Utah voters, take the long view.