The contrast is shaping up to be a key theme of the 2020 presidential race as Trump bets that his pitch to a bygone era will sway voters turned off by calls from some Democrats on the left for a transformative Green New Deal.
Democrats respond by arguing that the president’s comments on climate — which are often false and frequently veer into the bizarre — are out of step with science and modern-day voters who want to protect the planet.
Trump’s anti-environmentalism message was encapsulated in a weekend speech to a conservative group in South Florida that included a diatribe against wind-powered turbines — arguing that building them produces “a tremendous amount of fumes” and that the “windmills,” as he calls them, are noisy, unattractive and kill too many birds.
“I’ve seen the most beautiful fields, farms, fields — most gorgeous things you’ve ever seen, and then you have these ugly things going up,” he said of the wind turbines. “And you know what they don’t tell you about windmills? After 10 years, they look like hell.”
The broad nostalgia encapsulated in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has become increasingly specific as he has zeroed in on consumer issues such as energy-efficient appliances, carbon-reducing fuel standards and plastic straw bans. Often operating from his own feelings rather than scientific evidence, the president has castigated Democrats’ environmental agenda as unworkable and counterproductive.
Trump has made the same nostalgic appeal on other issues — ranging from his mocking of the #MeToo movement to his unfounded claim that his election allowed people to say “Merry Christmas” again. But when it comes to energy-related issues, the regulatory moves of Trump’s administration have easily merged with his campaign messaging.
On Friday, the Energy Department announced it would keep incandescent and halogen bulbs on the market rather than phasing them out on Jan. 1. The reprieve for old-fashioned lightbulbs affects roughly 3 billion — nearly half — of the bulbs in sockets in U.S. homes.
“If you like your lightbulbs, you can keep your lightbulbs!” the official White House Twitter account posted Saturday. “The Obama Admin tried to limit Americans to buying more-expensive LED bulbs for their homes — but thanks to President @realDonaldTrump, go ahead and decorate your house with whatever lights you want.”
Trump has said he wants to campaign heavily against the liberal Green New Deal proposal, pledging to “rip that sucker” just two months before the election. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates do not support the most ambitious version of the Green New Deal plan, which lost momentum after the concept was introduced by a small group of lawmakers earlier this year.
By focusing on convenience issues such as cheaper lightbulbs and plastic straws — which the Trump campaign began selling this summer to protest bans in some cities — the president is appealing directly to a segment of voters who say they want government to leave them alone, said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
“For his base, especially, it hits on something that’s tangible, that’s tactile and that voters like,” he said. “It also hits on those broad themes of freedom and liberty and government encroachment on people’s daily lives.”
Democrats and environmental activists have said Trump is selling out the long-term health of the planet in an attempt to secure short-term political gain. Trump’s lightbulb decision, for example, will boost energy costs by $14 billion a year and generate 38 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to consumer group estimates.
While the White House criticized the Obama administration for the previous lightbulb regulation, saving energy used by lightbulbs was a goal Congress set in 2007 when it adopted bipartisan legislation later signed by President George W. Bush.
During the Obama administration, conservatives made the lightbulb standards a rallying point for complaints about government interference — and Trump has channeled those complaints from the Oval Office.
“The Trump administration’s repeated attacks defy the common-sense, bipartisan support that energy efficiency has long enjoyed,” said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “They will cost consumers and businesses money, create uncertainty for businesses as rollbacks are contested in courts, add to harmful pollution, and undermine our efforts to address the climate crisis.”
At the Democratic presidential debate last week, several candidates described climate change as an existential threat to the planet, pledging to make it a top priority if elected. Several criticized Trump for not focusing enough on combating global warming.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has used his presidential campaign to mock Trump’s comments about wind turbines, often sarcastically referring to him as a “great” or “profound” scientist for his unfounded claims linking wind energy to cancer. Sanders has also labeled Trump an “idiot” for calling climate change a “hoax.”
Trump’s defenders point to his economic record and say the president’s focus on reducing regulations has helped spur job growth without harming the quality of the nation’s air or water.
“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump believes you can grow the economy and protect the environment,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “While eliminating harmful and unnecessary regulations, this President has unleashed the American economy, provided greater regulatory certainty, achieved energy independence, and continued to safeguard the water supply and improve air quality.”
While the administration has spent three years working to roll back nearly 100 federal rules governing energy and the environment, Trump has taken a particular interest in those affecting the coal industry, the auto sector and appliances, according to several top administration officials.
The administration is also working to scale back national gas-mileage standards, even though several major automakers have pledged to meet the more ambitious targets established under Barack Obama. Early next year, the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to finalize a rule that would increase mileage targets for cars and light trucks each year by between 1 and 1.5 miles per gallon through 2026.
Trump has said the rollback will help bolster America’s auto industry. He has criticized car manufacturers who have agreed to meet tighter standards adopted by California and more than a dozen other states as “foolish” and “politically correct.”
Without evidence, Trump has claimed that electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient cars are less safe and less smooth-running than traditional vehicles. In fact, EPA experts have privately warned that the administration’s rollback could lead to a small uptick in highway deaths.
In a tweet in August, Trump said that “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators.”
Trump has also complained about modern plane navigation systems and electromagnetic aircraft catapult systems that new aircraft carriers are using instead of steam-based systems. In both cases, he said he favored the old-fashioned technology. He has regularly claimed to have extensive knowledge about scientific issues he hasn’t studied professionally.
“I know windmills very much,” Trump said in his Saturday speech. “I’ve studied it better than anybody I know.”
He also opined: “You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything.”
The president has taken a keen interest in a slew of energy-efficiency rules affecting appliances and lighting, which experts describe as the most cost-effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. Trump regularly cites his personal experience rather than science.
At a White House meeting this month, Trump complained that consumers were struggling to make more-efficient toilets, showers and other appliances work.
“People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times as opposed to once,” the president asserted, adding that he had asked the EPA to study the issue.
He has also previously complained that energy-efficient bulbs make him look orange.
And at a rally in Michigan last week, the president said that “women tell me” they have to run their dishwashers repeatedly to get them to work.
Trump has asked top officials at the EPA and the Energy Department, which oversees appliance efficiency standards, repeatedly about weakening Obama-era requirements. He has specifically asked for the chance to weigh in on a change to dishwasher standards that will be finalized next year, according to one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations.
In an interview last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said his agency was looking at how it could ensure that consumers could keep buying appliances even if they were less efficient.
“He has asked us to look into that, and we are looking into it,” Wheeler said, adding that the Energy Department has authority over mandatory energy-efficiency rules.
The EPA runs the WaterSense program, which provides voluntary labeling on fixtures. The agency estimates that the typical American family can save $380 in annual water costs and save more than 17 gallons of water each day by buying appliances that meet those standards.
Wheeler said the EPA wants “to make sure that there’s enough flexibility that people have, that they can purchase the equipment that they want. And if they want to have more-efficient equipment, then they can purchase that as well.”
Eilperin reported from Washington. Sean Sullivan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.