As the Republican nominee, Donald Trump is running as a presidential candidate opposed to increased government regulation. At the same time, he has marketed himself as the populist, anti-establishment alternative to Hilary Clinton and her decades operating within the current Washington power structure. On Wednesday, Donald Trump made his first trip to Flint, Michigan since the start of his bid for the presidency. Speaking at a local church, Trump claimed that Flint’s struggle with lead contaminated water, first detected in 2014, “would have never happened if I were president”.
While Trump’s narrative of himself as savior of the beleaguered American working class is suspect to begin with, his claim that his policies would prevent a tragedy such as the one in Flint is particularly dubious. The EPA, which Trump has said he plans to do away with entirely, urged the local government to take action to address corrosion in Flint’s water system. According to the testimony of EPA water office head, Joel Beauvais, to the House Oversight Committee, the agency encountered “resistance” to their water safety recommendations. A strengthened EPA, with expanded funding (and teeth), would have the necessary influence over Flint’s local officials, who were focused only on saving money.
Instead of strengthening this essential, but already weak and underfunded government agency, Trump says he intends to eliminate the EPA entirely as part of his plan to balance the budget.
Beyond his headline-grabbing bluster, outlandish statements, and overt racism, Donald Trump’s candidacy fits squarely into the recent Republican tradition of extreme deregulation and a blank check for the private sector. Only one day after his speech in Flint, Trump railed against the EPA’s Clean Water Rule while speaking in New York. During the primaries, Trump ally Chris Christie discussed Trump’s plans to replace “liberal” federal regulators with CEOs working part time. Instead of the current revolving door system, in which former CEOS with longstanding industry connections regulate their own sectors, Trump plans to literally allow working CEOs to regulate their own industries. Since, in the short term at least, the Flint water crisis was a result of cost cutting measures, surely these CEOs would be ineffective to prevent such a crisis, given their obligation to shareholders to cut costs whenever possible.
What about the longer term causes of the Flint water crisis? Would Trump’s policies be able to reverse the decline of industry and infrastructure in places like Flint and Detroit?
In the 1980s, almost all of General Motor’s plants in Flint were found to be non-compliant with EPA regulations. In order to avoid the labor and cleanup costs involved in compliance, GM simply closed its plants and moved to places with less stringent regulations. This left the Flint river badly polluted after more than a century of carelessness on the part of industry and other polluters.
One of Trump’s components of his “populist” agenda includes taking a hard line against outsourcing and industry moving abroad. While the integrity of Trump’s tirades against outsourcing is itself questionable, a plan like Trump’s would simply have allowed industry to remain in Flint in the 80s, continuing to pollute with impunity. As disastrous for the economy as the closing of plants may have been, the departure of heavy industry in Flint also actually marked the start of slight improvement for the Flint river. It may be hard to believe, but the river which was the source of the tainted water would be in even worse shape today if pollution had continued at mid-twentieth century levels.
Trump’s platform to “make America great again” seeks to return America to a time in which issues like racism and pollution were allowed to go entirely unchecked. His approach is the political equivalent of a child who makes a mess, and then stubbornly covers his hears, so he doesn’t hear his parents explain the error of his ways. The mess remains, and probably gets even worse. What Americans need is a fix for economic decline that also acknowledges the need for basic standards for infrastructure and the environment. If Trump had his way, the people of Flint would likely be even worse off than they are today, with similar crises in the rest of the country.