By Thursday the Trump administration’s project of dismantling the public domain will burst into full bloom when Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke announces a wholesale reversal of more than a century of public lands protection through presidential designation of national monuments under Antiquities Act of 1908.
No president since the act was passed under Theodore Roosevelt has tried to eliminate national monuments – the original route through which more than half of our present parks, including Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Zion, Grand Teton and almost all of the protected parks in Alaska were first created. And most lawyers doubt the president has the power to repeal monument designation as President Trump has ordered Zinke to do. Regardless, Zinke will announce his recommendations on Aug. 24 for the potential elimination of more than two dozen monuments comprising more than 8.8 million acres of land – plus hundreds of square miles of ocean preserves. (Stripping protection from these land monuments alone would be the landscape equivalent of opening up Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smokies, Mt. Rainier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, the Everglades, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks to mining, logging and commercial exploitation).
Likely candidates for elimination or drastic amputation are the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bears Ears, Mojave Trails and Giant Sequoia.
The nature of Zinke’s process may best be illustrated by the fact that during a six month review process, he visited only 8 of 27 monuments – and while the process has been very opaque, the most important consideration being mentioned is whether local Republican politicians favored retaining or stripping protection from the area – the American people, who have filed millions of comments opposing this process, simply don’t seem to be a factor in the deliberations. Interior Sec. Zinke is acting in spite of the fact that a new major player – native American tribes – are weighing in strongly against opening these lands to mining and abuse because many of the areas at risk, like Bears Ears, were created to protect parts of their heritage, culture and religion.
Zinke was presented as a compromise candidate for Interior Secretary, one who would not want to give away or privatize the public domain – but as with many things in the Trump administration, the product turned out not to be what was advertised.
Given the huge array of controversies enveloping the Trump administration, it is not surprising that while the press has covered the assault on the public domain, of which eviscerating national monuments is only a small part, it has not paused to consider what this tells us about the Trump administration.
But it’s one of Trump’s more revealing policy misadventures.
The president has been presented as lacking in consistency and conviction – alternatively Democrat or Republican, pro- or anti-choice, both isolationist dove and interventionist hawk, populist and plutocrat. But in his view of the role of the President Trump has been starkly consistent and ferociously driven. Trump is modern America’s first patrimonial president – more Lord of the Manor than servant of the Republic. Patrimonialism – where the ruler treats the government, and indeed the land itself, as an extension of his person and his family, handing out control over and profits from it to those related to him, or supportive of his rule – was a dominant form of pre-modern government – the antithesis of the Republic the founding fathers were creating.
Patrimonialism characterized most absolutist monarchies – the world “real” in our phrase “real estate” is from the Spanish word for “royal,” real and reflects the reality that in the pre-modern world most land was owned by the king – and could be rewarded to his family and followers – or taken back.
This attitude is at the heart of President Trump’s staggering, but quite sincere claim that it is not possible for him to have a conflict of interest – because he is entitled by election as ruler to profit from the public domain and the powers of the government, which rightfully belong to him. Patrimonial political authority was regarded as a species of private property which can be handed over to relatives or retainers as part of their patrimony – so corruption is impossible. Ruler and realm are one. There is, in this vision, no such concept as a public trust or public service – there is no public, only subjects.
I said Trump was our first modern patrimonialist, because America did have, in an earlier era, a version of the philosophy – the spoils system, in which the successful party in an election awarded jobs, patronage, public contracts and public lands to members of their winning political coalition. The system was formalized by President Andrew Jackson – and an affinity for such favoritism is one of the Trump’s few genuine claims to be like Jackson. It faded with Civil Service reforms and the Progressive era at the dawn of the 20th century. Now it’s back, empowered not only by Trump, but by the Supreme Court’s consistent watering down of anti-corruption and campaign finance protections.
But what Jackson, and his 19th-century successors practiced was a weaker, successor to monarchist patrimonialism: clientalism. In clientalism the spoils of government were shared broadly with the winning electoral coalition, rather than being reserved for the ruler’s family and elite supporters. Trump, in that sense, is more medieval baron than patronage boss – there’s very little broad sharing. His opening up public lands to ruthless mining and mineral extraction is lazily reported, for the most part, as being a fulfillment of his pledge to bring back jobs in extra active industries, particularly coal mining – job creation would be clientalism But in reality Trump’s policy shifts to date have been anti-job. He has weakened health and safety requirements for mining companies on public lands, which in turn enables them to slash their work force. He’s restored subsidies to strip miners in Wyoming and Montana – thereby increasing the unfair competitive advantage these companies already enjoy over deep shaft miners in Appalachia, where the jobs are being lost and whom Trump was allegedly pledged to help. Trump practices the monarchical form of patrimonialism – which may explain why he does so badly in the polls. Only the very few are sharing any spoils.
Trump is very open about his attitude. When he had Interior Sec. Zinke call Alaska’s Senators to say that if Lisa Murkowski didn’t vote to strip health care from millions of Americans, Trump would shut down oil leasing in Alaska, the message was utterly clear – Senators are my clients, and I expect them to follow orders. But it is not just Senators. All of the government belongs to Trump – as an estate he can use to reward his followers – and of course his family.
In this vision, the very concept of national monuments is offensive, because they limit Trump’s right to reward his clients and infringe on his control of his patrimony; so, indeed, is most environmental regulation, because it restricts what the president can and can’t do with the public resources that the rest of think he holds in trust for our children, not his.
Under Trump’s instructions, his cabinet has bountifully rewarded the patron’s favorite clients with sparkling rewards: to an oil company with an almost unprecedentedly reckless record of oil spills, a new oil drilling lease in fragile Arctic waters; to chemical companies, the renewal of their license to expose farm-worker’s families to a nerve gas marketed as a pesticide; for oil companies suspension of requirements to capture and use natural gas that comes out of their wells, instead of flaring or venting huge portions into the skies.
Individually, many of these decisions seem incomprehensible except as acts of the most venial form of corruption. But corruption as a concept makes no sense applied to the Trump regime. Trump might easily paraphrase 19th-century Robber Baron E.H. Harriman: “Can’t I do what I want with my own?”
No Mr. President, you can’t, because it isn’t. But it appears the rest of us must remain vigilant to make certain we remain the citizens of a Republic, not serfs on a manor.