Was President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement on climate change — which was condemned by Democrats and even by some former senior Republican officials and key world leaders — at least good politics for him? Perhaps. The move could help Trump reinforce his support among GOP voters and elected officials. But even if that’s the case — and we’re not sure it is — pulling out of the Paris accords has limited upside: The best Trump can hope for is probably getting back to square one.
Trump faces huge political challenges before next year’s midterm elections. Most immediately, he is weathering a health care debate that has pulled down his approval rating and shrunk his base. The GOP is pushing unpopular legislation on an issue (health care) that most voters rate as one of their top concerns. That’s a bad combination. Anything that distracts voters and the media from the GOP health care effort is probably a win right now.
Meanwhile, Trump is also dealing with the various scandals regarding his and his allies’ alleged ties to Russia and any improper activity they may have engaged in as a result, either during the 2016 campaign or afterward. Some congressional Democrats are already floating the idea of impeaching Trump, and the idea may be gaining momentum with voters. So given the numerous Russia investigations, Trump needs the support of Republicans on Capitol Hill to remain in office and to enact his agenda. He also needs the backing of the apparatus of the Republican Party, which is made up of media outlets like Fox News and conservative-leaning groups like the Club for Growth, because GOP members of Congress are likely to be influenced by those parts of the GOP coalition. If Fox News started bashing Trump, that would likely move House Republicans away from him.
So all those challenges could have been part of the motivation to pull out of the Paris accords, a move that he may be using simply as a high-profile attempt to shore up his base. Climate change is the type of issue that unites Republicans. Only a third of Republicans rate protecting the environment from the effects of energy production as a top priority. Polling from Gallup further indicates that 85 percent of Republicans don’t think that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. Education was a major dividing line in the 2016 election, but Republicans of all education levels think the effects of global warming are exaggerated. And the members of Congress and other parts of the GOP coalition who took a public stand on the Paris agreement were largely against it. So this was the safe route for Trump — one that made his key political allies happy.
Those in favor of the Paris Agreement correctly argue that “clean energy” jobs are growing, and that the coal industry is in decline, so an economic case can be made for staying in this agreement. But I wonder if they are mistaking the coal industry itself for what “coal” means in political terms. Trump has promised to bring back coal jobs. But in 2016, he was broadly campaigning on a kind of cultural nostalgia, giving speeches about restoring the days where people without college degrees could work in factories or coal mines, in jobs that were stable and relatively well-paid.
Trump is selling his Paris move in those terms. In his speech announcing the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, he said he was making this decision for people in “Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
If Trump can successfully frame this move and others (like ending U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership) as part of his “America First” policy to defend U.S. jobs and interests, this approach could help him maintain and potentially grow his base. Trump made major gains compared to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign among white voters, particularly women, who do not have college degrees and who live in small towns and rural areas in key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As we learned in 2016, those voters are overrepresented in states that pack an Electoral College wallop.
By making a decision that angered John Kerry, Barack Obama and the leaders of France and Germany, Trump is likely to delight say, Breitbart, the conservative website that Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon used to run.
“Promise Kept: POTUS Withdraws USA From Global Warming Deal,” read a headline on the home page of that site on Thursday evening.
That’s the optimistic scenario for Trump — pulling out of Paris helps him rally the GOP behind him and changes the subject from Russia and health care. But there’s another way this could all play out.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats (87 percent) and a clear majority of independents (61 percent) wanted the U.S. to stay in the climate agreement, according to a poll that was released in April and conducted jointly by Politico and Harvard’s School of Public Health. Overall, 62 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. to remain part of the accord (among Republicans, 56 percent favored withdrawal). A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication concluded that a majority of Americans in every state wanted the U.S. to remain in the Paris agreement.
So in the simplest terms, Trump’s move was broadly unpopular. All else being equal, that tends to be bad politics.
It’s also possible that Trump gave a win to his base on an issue they don’t care that much about while angering the opposition on an issue they do care about. Gallup and Pew Research Center polls indicate that global warming and fighting climate change have become higher priorities for Democrats over the past year. (Although, considering the way that Democrats, both in Congress and at the grassroots level, are already contesting almost everything Trump does, it could be difficult for the opposition to get any more intense.) As we wrote earlier, if Trump’s voters view the Paris withdrawal as an economic move, he’ll likely reap some political benefit from it. If, however, it’s viewed as mostly having to do with climate change, perhaps Trump won’t see much gain with his base. Jobs, the economy and health care rate as top issues for Republicans, but climate change and the environment do not, so it’s hard to know how Trump voters would weigh the president doing something they don’t like on an issue they care a lot about (the GOP health care bill) against him doing something they do like on an issue they don’t care much about (withdrawing from Paris). Either way, Trump skipped an opportunity to potentially build some support or at least soften the intensity of his opponents’ anger.
A week ago, Trump’s approval rating was creeping down into the high 30s. Withdrawing from Paris might play well with Trump’s base, but a majority of Americans opposed the move, so Trump’s best-case scenario here may be that this gets him back into the low 40s. And that’s still not a great place to be.