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Opinion writer

Let it never be said that the Trump administration lacks ambition or creativity. Fresh off announcing its intention to gut the Endangered Species Act, it now wants to move aggressively to make the air Americans breathe not so annoyingly clean, no matter what it takes. Bloomberg News reports:

The Trump administration will seek to revoke California’s authority to regulate automobile greenhouse gas emissions — including its mandate for electric car sales — in a proposed revision of Obama-era standards, according to three people familiar with the plan.

The proposal, expected to be released this week, amounts to a frontal assault on one of former President Barack Obama’s signature regulatory programs to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It also sets up a high-stakes battle over California’s unique ability to combat air pollution and, if finalized, is sure to set off a protracted courtroom battle.

The proposed revamp would also put the brakes on federal rules to boost fuel efficiency into the next decade, said the people, who asked to not be identified discussing the proposals before they are public. Instead it will cap federal fuel economy requirements at the 2020 level, which under federal law must be at least a 35-mile-per-gallon fleet average, rather than letting them rise to roughly 50 mpg by 2025 as envisioned in the plan left behind by Obama, according to the people.

As part of the effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose revoking the Clean Air Act waiver granted to California that has allowed the state to regulate carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes and force carmakers to sell electric vehicles in the state in higher numbers, according to three people familiar with the plan.

In case it isn’t clear, under current rules California is allowed to impose stricter pollution controls than what the federal government requires; under this proposal, the state wouldn’t be allowed to go any further than the federal government does. Interestingly, the car companies themselves support keeping the Obama-era emissions targets, in part because they don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of years of lawsuits; they’d rather just know what they’re required to do and get on with it.

So how many Republicans who profess their commitment to “state’s rights,” the ability of each state to make their own laws and chart their own path whenever possible, will rise up to announce their vehement opposition to this proposal on the basis of their unwavering commitment to the 10th Amendment? Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong, but I’m guessing … zero.

That’s because this supposed commitment is basically a sham and always had been. Just like Democrats, Republicans are happy for states to have power when the states are doing things they like, and happy for the federal government to have power when it’s doing things they like. If a state wants to force transgender people to use the wrong bathroom, well that’s just what the framers intended. But regulating carbon emissions? No dice.

This works further down as well. States that are run by Republicans but include liberal cities have passed a broad array of “preemption” laws, which forbid municipalities from making their own rules on things such as guns, increasing the minimum wage and gay rights. “Local control” is good, unless the locality does things we disagree with.

So that’s part of what’s going on here. The other part is that the Trump administration is being unusually aggressive in checking items off the right-wing wish list, perhaps even more than a different Republican president would have been. That may seem ironic given how much suspicion conservatives had about whether Trump would be committed to their ideological cause, but there’s a good reason why it’s happening.

As I’ve argued before, one of the effects of having a president who neither knows nor cares about policy, and who thinks that his personal magnetism is the solution to any political problem, is that in many areas the ideologues are given free rein to indulge their most lurid fantasies. In a different Republican administration, the president might not approve something like this, not necessarily because he wouldn’t be as committed to despoiling the air and water as anyone else, but because he’d know that environmental issues play quite well for Democrats. While he’d certainly be deregulating and working for the interests of corporations, it would be kept within certain limits so as to be able to claim that he’s achieving balance between the concerns of business and the concerns of the environment. That way you achieve much of your ideological goals while limiting the political risk.

But in the Trump administration, those considerations don’t operate in the same way. Trump himself doesn’t care, and the people he has installed at agencies such as the EPA are unapologetic about their desire to dismantle every environmental protection on the books. They know by now that as long as they don’t embarrass the president with misbehavior, he’ll let them go as far as they want on policy.

So they are going to use every minute of their time in power, even if it’s only another two and half years. Who knows what they’ll be able to accomplish, and how much damage they’ll be able to do.