2019 in review: Endless Trump and the rise of radical environmental action

In terms of raising awareness, despite powerful people from the U.S. president on down denying its reality, more and more people throughout the world are taking action to force their governments to confront it.

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For the progressive left, 2019 was an exhausting year. There were many setbacks, most recently in places as far and wide as the United Kingdom and more tragically, Bolivia. These were only matched by new and exciting ideas proposed to counter the relentless rise of a populist far-right throughout the world and a climate crisis that threatens us all. As in every year since his improbable rise to power, the current occupant of the White House managed, seemingly unintentionally, to keep the attention of most of the American press on himself, often for the most trivial of reasons.
While the idea has been talked about from the moment he was elected to office, the release of the much-heralded Mueller Report on April 18th didn’t result in the long-promised impeachment. Although the 448-page report pointed to what appeared to be multiple cases of obstruction of justice on the part of the man or his administration, it failed to prove widespread claims that the U.S. president had been working with or for the Russian government, as so many television talking heads and mainstream pundits claimed long before the evidence was in.

The tail end of the year has seen an intense political and media focus on a separate scandal involving the current administration holding back weapons intended to go to Russia’s neighbor, Ukraine. This seems to have been done in the apparent hope of the U.S. president that that country’s newly elected government would investigate a rightwing conspiracy theory involving a non-existent server belonging to a group called Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC after leaks during the 2016 campaign.

In the now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s head of state, the U.S. president also asked for an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, advertised as the ‘quid pro quo’ that finally resulted in a House vote to impeach him.

At first, many on the left opposed impeachment as a strategy, seeing it as a distraction from what the current U.S. administration was doing, from massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations to behind the scenes executive orders eviscerating important agencies like the EPA, which will have unpredictable consequences in the future not only for the United States but neighboring countries as well.

However, leading American progressives, especially Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th district, made convincing arguments that impeachment was not just a political or constitutional imperative but a moral one and that although the president was unlikely to be removed from office by a Republican-controlled Senate, the fight needed to be brought to directly to him and the far-right, fake populism he represents.

In the end, actually accomplishing this would have required a more open-ended impeachment process than the one the American public got. It would have required the work multiple committees in the U.S. Congress to look at the current occupant of the White House’s lifelong pattern of seeming criminal behavior, especially alleged violations of the emoluments clause while in office and money laundering and fraud prior to his presidency, which would show Americans that he is unfit to hold the office.

Such a wide-ranging investigation, while it would certainly have hardened the attitudes of the president’s core supporters, might have changed the minds of those who may have sat out or even reluctantly voted for him in the 2016 election, ideally transferring some of the excitement of the 2018 midterms to 2020, regardless of who the Democratic nominee for president is.

As an aside, although progressives are less and less likely to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt on foreign policy matters, most would agree with his decision to withhold lethal offensive aid to a country whose Russian speaking minority was in open rebellion, no doubt covertly aided by the Kremlin, against a central government relying on rightwing, often neo-fascist militias to fight them.

Supplying offensive weapons, especially Javelin anti-tank missiles, to a country so divided with the serious possibility of sparking a wider war with a nuclear-armed Russia was a risky move on the part of the Congress who approved it and could still have unintended consequences in the future.

Having said this, what the current occupant of the White House did was impinge on the powers of a co-equal branch of the U.S. government, which resulted in the second article of impeachment he faces in the coming year, obstruction of Congress. This is obviously a very problematic case of executive overreach in the abstract, but harder to explain to Trump’s supporters fed a wildly different narrative by the administration’s allies at Fox News and other rightwing news outlets.

Although the House has delayed the process going forward in the Senate for the time being and several Democratic lawmakers have tried to argue for at least five more articles of impeachment, obstruction of Congress and abuse of power are not the bribery charges that were so amplified by CNN, MSNBC and other ‘mainstream’ news outlets, surely blunting the impeachment’s impact on many American voters, even some of those who were in favor of it.

Only time will tell if the process, gone about in such a timid way, will have the opposite of its intended effect on the all important 2020 election.

While so much of the press and public’s focus, not only in the United States but throughout the world, has been on the U.S. president, the climate emergency finally began to break through in 2019 due to the efforts of activists and newfound allies in the political sphere. Before she had even taken her oath of office, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined some 200 young protesters from the Sunrise Movement, who occupied soon to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in the country’s capital demanding action late in 2018.

Sunrise has followed up throughout 2019, not only in occupying the offices of politicians but also attention generating sit-in at the Washington headquarters of the DNC in June to demand a Democratic primary debate on climate change.

AOC, proving herself a solid ally, went on to create a House Resolution on the Green New Deal, which the group has endorsed. The New York congresswoman has also endorsed Bernie Sanders, who’s campaign for the presidency has fleshed out the initial resolution into an exciting plan to tackle climate change and create a fairer economy for the country’s working people.

Sanders has begun to evoke climate change more and more at rallies and at the recent PBS/Politico debate in Los Angeles. In doing so he has centered the issue of climate jusice and how issues associated with it impact the poor and communities of color disproportionately.

When asked a loaded question about the role of fossil fuels in the U.S. economy at the December 19th debate, Sanders was typically blunt in his response, “The issue, as you should know, what the scientists are telling us is they have underestimated the threat and severity of climate change. You’re talking about the Paris agreement, that’s fine. Ain’t enough. We have got to — and I’ve introduced legislation to do this — declare a national emergency.

The United States has got to lead the world. And maybe, just maybe, instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year globally on weapons of destruction, maybe an American president, i.e. Bernie Sanders, can lead the world, instead of spending money to kill each other, maybe we pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”

Internationally, the most important movement to combat climate change action over 2019 has been another youth-led one started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and supported by Sunrise among others. In many countries, throughout the Fall, every Friday saw student walkouts from schools growing ever larger until September 27th when Thunberg spoke here in Montreal to a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

Anecdotally, having visited the smaller park where more committed strikers protested for many months before the massive September rally, I noticed how careful these young people were to clean up after themselves, something which couldn’t be said of the crowds who showed up to listen to Thunberg and other speakers. Most depressing were the dozens of easily recycled signs I saw in garbage bins near the site the following day.

While younger generations have been taking the lead through groups like Sunrise and the international student strikes, in the UK a new group based around the principals of non-violent civil disobedience, Extinction Rebellion, rose to prominence in 2019 and spread throughout the world, especially in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

While there have been some small actions in Canada and the United States, we have yet to see anything as massive as the three major rebellions in the UK, which lasted weeks and caused such disruption to business as usual, especially in London, that British media were forced to cover them and the country’s parliament became one of the first in the world to declare a climate emergency.

While the upcoming 2020 election in the U.S. will only intensify a growing culture of cynical spectacle, groups like Sunrise, the student strikers and XR will continue to remind the left of the actual stakes of doing nothing to confront the existential threat of climate change. In terms of raising awareness, despite powerful people from the U.S. president on down denying its reality, more and more people throughout the world are taking action to force their governments to confront it.

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