Had President Donald Trump decided to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord, it would have been a slap in the face to the very people who put him in office, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Instead, standing in the White House Rose Garden on a hot, humid Washington day, the president said the U.S. was “getting out.” And he delivered the line that was music to the ears of his political base: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
“This got him some political capital, and it got him political capital with the folks who put him over the top,” O’Connell said.
Trump’s decision sparked a flurry of condemnation from world leaders, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, as well as from Democrats and environmental groups. The U.S. will be joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not part of the climate deal that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, ratified last October.
Many business leaders, too, including oil giants like Exxon and coal manufacturers, had urged the president to not withdraw from the accord.
Putting America first
But to those in his base, the decision will reap some political rewards, O’Connell said.
Those are the voters in the industrial Midwest, many of them lifelong Democrats, who in the past election shifted to Trump, believing he may be able to stem the hollowing-out of manufacturing jobs in their region.
And to the blue collar workers in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, a global deal calling on the U.S. to lower CO2 emissions is a job killer.
“It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” Trump said.
The president built his case against the deal, arguing that complying with the emissions-reduction targets the U.S. had set for itself under the accord and the “onerous energy restrictions” those would necessitate could cost the country 2.7 million jobs, including 440,000 in manufacturing (figures that come from a study commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and have been disputed by some).
“He made the right move politically because he said he was going to put America first, that means including those folks in the equation, in coal country in the industrial Midwest,” O’Connell said. “And he put his money where his mouth was.”
‘Red meat to the base’
Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist but a vocal critic of Trump, nevertheless felt that he made one of the more effective cases for any decision he has made as president.
“This is the president throwing out red meat to his base,” Siegfried said. “They’re very happy already on social media at this decision. It shows he’s turning to the base to buck him up during this time of scandal.”
Republicans and conservatives tend to show higher levels of skepticism about man-made influence on climate change, meaning Trump supporters will certainly be pleased by his move, said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
But no matter what decision Trump made, this won’t be an issue that will dominate the 2018 midterms, Skelley said.
Trump surely would have disappointed some conservatives had he decided to keep the U.S. in the climate deal, Skelley said. However, there are other issues that are more likely to animate Republicans, including scrapping Obamacare and taking further action on immigration.
“So, I’m not really sure just how much of a political windfall Trump will gain from leaving,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a necessarily make-or-break issue of some kind for him politically, at least in terms of his own supporters.”
While some surveys suggest that Americans by and large supported staying in the Paris accord, other polls have suggested that tackling climate change is a low priority.
However, pulling out of the Paris accord will certainly feed the growing flames of the resistance movement to Trump and his agenda, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said in an email to CBC.
“That may spell trouble for vulnerable Republican members of Congress in 2018,” he said.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said he doesn’t believe Trump cares that much what critics think of his decision and that he’s just intent on playing to his base. While agreeing that climate change is a low priority for Americans, Bannon said the decision will still hurt the president.
“It’s definitely a political liability for Trump, but it’s on the lower end of the ‘Why I hate Trump’ list.”
Skelley agreed that it’s another issue for Democrats and the political left to rally around.
“In the short term, I’m not sure if it has much of an effect. Just add it to the laundry list [of decisions] that Democrats are ticked off with the president for.”
Over on Capitol Hill, shortly after Trump had made his announcement, North Carolina tourist Joe Veedock said he believed the president’s decision hurts him and the country.
“I think there are diehard supporters who will support him no matter what,” he said.
Jo Salm, a tourist from Germany, said Trump will receive criticism from the international community. But, Salm said, many of those abroad who are criticizing Trump don’t understand the concerns of U.S. voters and the rationale for Trump’s decision.
“There’s a large voter community who voted for Trump who don’t care about climate change at all,” he said. “They care about jobs; they care about keeping money in the U.S.; they care about globalization and the way it hurts them when factories are shut.
“So, I think on the national stage, this will help [Trump].”