If you've watched any reality competition TV programs like The Bachelor, Survivor, or Top Chef — or a certain show starring an over-inflated real estate developer — you're familiar with the climax of nearly every episode. The contestants gather, facing the judges (or whoever is rendering a decision on who will be eliminated). Foreboding music plays, ratcheting up the tension. There's an unnecessarily drawn-out moment of silence as the camera pans across their anxious faces, each hoping desperately that they'll survive to play another day. Finally, the unlucky loser is announced, then sent off to wallow in their shame.
That's basically what President Trump staged on Thursday: an announcement in the White House Rose Garden of whether he'd be pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, a historic agreement in which every country in the world save two (Nicaragua and Syria) joined together to chart a path toward lower carbon emissions. And in the days leading up to the event, Trump did what he could to ratchet up the suspense, providing a running countdown on Twitter, presumably in the hopes that people would tune in.
Rose Garden ceremonies usually have a celebratory aspect to them. It's where you announce the signing of a popular bill or the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, a beautiful site where the sun shines down on the flowers. Richard Nixon's daughter and Hillary Clinton's brother had their weddings there. It's a happy place.
Which is why it was so incongruous for it to be the location of this particular exercise in governing-as-reality-television. The cameras were summoned on a lovely spring day to watch Donald Trump give the Earth the finger. They even brought a jazz band.
And it was a fair encapsulation of this president's style of governing. The outcome was both predetermined and irrelevant, at least to him. On the campaign trail Trump had promised to pull out of the Paris Agreement, on the assumption that doing so would help him bring America's coal jobs back — which anyone who knows anything about energy in America could tell you will never happen. Yet in recent weeks we've seen one story after another about the competing factions within the White House attempting to persuade his fickle mind. "I'm hearing from a lot of people, both ways," he said, though he wouldn't reveal which way he was leaning. What's the fun if you ruin the surprise?
No, the theater was itself the point. It maximized the tension and the attention. It allowed Trump to command the media's gaze, then look decisive and commanding. And in the end, he did the stupidest and most short-sighted thing he could.
It's difficult to tell how deep Trump's actual feelings about climate change run (probably not very), though he has said in the past that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive" (they're so wily and shrewd, you know). The truth is that while coal jobs were mostly lost to automation and aren't coming back, clean energy is a booming industry. Already more than twice as many Americans work in solar energy than in coal, and the former is going up while the latter goes down.
And naturally, Trump displayed a complete ignorance of what the Paris Agreement involves. He said that while he was dropping out of the agreement, he might negotiate a new "transaction" later. "So we're getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that's fair," he said. Nobody is stupid enough to believe that the Trump administration is going to negotiate with all of the world's nearly 200 countries for a new agreement when everyone is already party to this one.
Trump sounded displeased that the agreement does not somehow play to the advantage of the United States in our competition with other countries; he even claimed that the real reason other countries entered into it was that they thought it would hobble the U.S. economy. But the agreement isn't about gaining advantage, it's about saving the planet. For everyone. Furthermore, the emissions targets in the agreement are voluntary. There's no punishment if we don't meet ours. So why drop out? Well, it would be a stick in Barack Obama's eye, so there's that. And of course, Trump's obsession with who's laughing at us (and him) came out: "We don't want other countries laughing at us anymore."
So in sum, Trump's decision to back out of the Paris Agreement: 1) was presented as though it were a crappy reality show, 2) is based on bogus rationales, distortions, and outright lies, 3) supposedly will help Trump's base get jobs, but will in fact harm their ability to do so, 4) harms America's leadership in the world, 5) involved a paranoid rant about how everyone in the world is out to get us, and 6) was motivated in large part by the mindless impulse to do the opposite of whatever Obama did.
If that's not the Trump presidency in a nutshell, what is?