President Trump unleashed so many distortions during Monday’s so-called “environmental leadership” remarks that the White House propaganda machine makes Orwell’s Ministry of Truth look like the Library of Congress. Trump proclaimed that the United States is number one in “access to clean water.” (It’s tied for the top spot with 9 other countries.). He said that the administration is a good steward of public lands. (It has reduced the size of two Utah national moments and continues to threaten the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with oil drilling). He claimed the Paris Climate Accord is “unfair, ineffective, and very, very expensive” (Trump has mischaracterized the agreement on numerous occasions).
It was, as Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones described it, “a rare and strange speech.” Climate change has no place in the president’s lexicon, so those words never passed his lips in remarks about the environment.
But the most curious aspect of this 45-minute exercise in self-congratulation was not the hypocrisy that regular observers of Trumplandia have come to expect. It was the unveiling of a fresh 2020 campaign PR tactic: Trump’s deployment of ordinary Americans as props in an official setting, in the White House no less, to buttress his otherwise questionable decisionmaking.
Presidents often use the stories of ordinary Americans to bring a real-world appeal to their policy prescriptions. Ronald Reagan was actually the first to incorporate anecdotes like this into political messaging. The State of the Union has become the de rigueur setting for these displays. Trump took this political show and tell a step further, bringing people to the White House, once off limits to blatant election-season campaigning. And his two guests delivered before an audience of adoring mandarins, offering their own testimonials to add a veneer of credibility to his dubious remarks.
The president invited Bruce Hrobak of Billy Bones Bait 'N Tackle in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Colleen Roberts, a county commissioner from southern Oregon. Roberts, of Jackson County, saluted an executive order on forest management which changes the way officials manage trees and forest floor debris on federal lands to minimize wildfires. Trump has repeatedly heaped scorn on how California officials have dealt with forest management during its spate of wildfires.
However, Scientific American noted that the president was wrong on both the causes of wildfires and the administration’s response—allowing timber companies to cut down more trees, including older ones that are more fire-resistant.
Hrobak commented that he was grateful for the reconstruction work on the Herbert Hoover Dike, an earthen dam that protects local communities from flooding from Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest fresh water lake, during heavy rains and hurricanes—work which the Trump administration has expedited. Clearly pleased with his star turn, Hrobak heaped so much praise on the president that Trump sent him offstage with the ad-lib, “That’s better than any speechwriter I could get, right?”
This story has a caveat, too: Reporting on Hrobak’s comments, The Treasure Coast Palm noted: “Col. Jason Kirk, former Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander, told the TCPalm in 2017, ‘Completion of rehabilitation doesn't necessarily enable additional capacity to hold water in the lake, but it should give some additional flexibility in our operations.’”
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent opined that the event was an attempt to lure millennials and suburban women to the Republican fold next year, while, in The New Yorker, Bill McKibben of the environmental grassroots advocacy group 350.org, countered that Trump was going after independents. None of these groups are especially easy gets as fears about climate change grow.
But inviting small business owners and local officials to the White House to serve as props for the president’s ego-stroking opens up a new front in this administration’s disinformation effort. Don’t take it from me, Trump telegraphs: Listen to these just plain folks just like you in communities where my policies are making a difference. It’s a potent election-season tactic that the eventual Democratic presidential nominee must craft a strategy to deal with, one that shoots down the falsehoods and tells the truth about Trump’s environmental rollback campaign, without taking out the telegenic messengers from battleground states and rural enclaves.