The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Taj Mahal Lie: Why Donald Trump Isn’t Our Problem

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If you ask a random person on the street “who built the Taj Mahal,” I suspect you’ll get either of two interestingly wrong answers.

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Some prince in India

Different buildings, of course. The one in India is my concern at the moment, though we’ll get back to Mr. Trump later. Whenever I’ve heard the original Taj Mahal brought up in casual contexts (as seems to happen about once a decade, for whatever reason), the description has been something like “the Taj Mahal is a beautiful building complex built by an Indian prince for his beloved.”

Really? He built the whole thing himself?

The standard description is more or less accurate. According the the website of The History Channel, in 1632, the Muhgul emperor, Shah Jahan, ordered the design and construction of a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who had died in childbirth (on her 14th child). She was known as Mumtaz Mahal, or “The Chosen One of the Palace,” so her tomb complex was named the Taj Mahal. The remains of both her and Shah Jahan rest at the site, although he had intended to have a separate, equally magnificent complex built for himself. He was deposed by one of their sons before he could have it built.

Of course, everybody knows that the Shah did not literally build the Taj Mahal himself (the labor required over 2000 humans and roughly 1000 elephants and took 20 years). It is an easy guess he didn’t design it himself, either. Sometimes you do hear more accurate verbs in the story, like “commissioned,” or “had built.” It’s not like the truth is being hidden in any way, here. But the convention of speaking as if people who give orders accomplish things all by themselves–as if everyone else involved were simply an extension of the Great One’s body–is so ingrained that we seldom notice we’re doing it.

Who, for example, built the first mass-produced car? Henry Ford did.

Who defeated the army of Robert E Lee? Ulysses S Grant did.

Who burnt Atlanta during the Civil War? William Tecumseh Sherman did.

These answers are such common knowledge that I’m not bothering to cite any of them with links–you know they’re all true. Who were the other people involved in any of these endeavors and what were their contributions? I have no idea. And I doubt you have any idea, either. We don’t know because we don’t care–it is the action of the real person, the one who gave the orders, that matters.

All this is not simply semantic play. Proper attribution of who does what matters. Consider the statement “Hitler killed six million Jews.” It’s true as far as it goes, I’m not trying to say that people who give orders are less responsible, though focusing on the Fuhrer does tend to let thousands of co-conspirators and trigger-men off the hook in the popular imagination. But the phrasing consistently inspires people to fantasize about killing Hitler, as if doing so would avert all those other murders. And the fact of matter is, since Hitler didn’t kill those people alone, it is very possible that, without him, those others would have gone on to have the Holocaust anyway.

And this is where President Trump comes back in the story, not because he’s being compared to Hitler (he has been, but so has virtually every other public figure with at least one naysayer), but because he’s being compared to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon was, of course the one US president who was most unequivocally a crook. He was crude, paranoid, and corrupt. But he also created the EPA and signed more landmark environmental legislation than almost anybody else.

Unlike our other stand-out environmentalist presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama, President Nixon was not an environmentalist personally. Aside from some largely empty rhetoric, he provided no real leadership on the subject, and in some cases he actively threw up roadblocks. He thought tree-huggers were stupid at best.

But the anti-environment campaign had not yet begun, so signing those laws carried no political cost. A lot of the young people who were angry about the Vietnam War also cared about trees and whales, and so forth. The President threw them a couple of bones so he could get back to matters that really mattered. And those “bones” have formed the backbone of environmental protection for the past 50 years.

So much of the Anti-Trump sentiment I hear sounds a bit like the kill-Hitler fantasies in that they rest on the assumption that Mr Trump personally is the problem. As though, were he removed (impeachment, resignation, tragic accident), all the problems and threats associated with his presidency would be removed. And they wouldn’t be. Because we already know what a crude, paranoid, and crooked man does when installed in the presidency and confronted with a functional environmental movement–he creates the Environmental Protection Agency, he doesn’t muzzle it. He enables environmental regulations, he doesn’t undermine it. Richard Nixon didn’t care any more about the planet than Donald Trump does, but he acted like he did because the public made him do it.

I’m not saying that the individuality of leaders is irrelevant. There are occasions when the course of history turns on a single person, for good or for ill. Arguably, Adolph Hitler was such a person. So was Abraham Lincoln. So might Donald Trump be, though it’s too early to tell.

But leaders do what they do because others help him, or because others force them, or because others let them. They never act, nor fail to act, alone.

Donald Trump is part of a movement, both of popular sentiment and of political machinations. I don’t mean he’s popular, I mean that he isn’t alone. He is being helped, forced, or at least allowed to do as he is doing. And that help, force, or permission will continue even if he’s removed. It will continue until it meets a countervailing force.

Why do we keep hearing that Americans, when polled, support environmental protections, including climate action, by a solid majority, yet we keep watching ant-environmentalists and climate deniers taking office? If we forced Mr. Nixon to do the right thing on these issues, why can’t we force anyone else?

Why does the opposition continue to virtually ignore environmental issues and why has it been so ineffective on the topics that it does care about?

Donald Trump could not have become a bother to anyone other than his immediate circle without a lot of help–and an absence of true, effective opposition. Whether the Trump presidency lasts eight years or one year, that is the problem we have to solve.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “The Taj Mahal Lie: Why Donald Trump Isn’t Our Problem

  1. Pingback: BOO! | The Climate in Emergency

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