Why Trump's Drought Denial Is in Sync With His 'Make America Great' Message

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Donald Trump

Unlike climate change, the fact of the California drought’s existence was never in question. Here's why a head-in-the-sand message works so well with the American psychology of nostalgia for past abundance.

With California voters heading to the polls, among the topics that have been unleashed in one of the last primary races of the political season is whether the state’s long-term drought is real. On May 27, Donald Trump asserted that “there is no drought” in California, despite some of the driest years on record by the state's emergency water regulations. “They turn the water out into the ocean,” Trump added.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee's comments were quickly mocked by Democratic contender Bernie Sanders. "You see, we don't fully appreciate the genius of Donald Trump, who knows more than all the people of California, knows more than all the scientists," the Vermont senator told a crowd of supporters two days later in Visalia, Calif. "[Trump] knows there is no drought. Not to mention, and I love this one, that Trump has concluded that climate change itself is a hoax," said Sanders. This past Saturday, meanwhile, Hilary Clinton in a campaign stop in central California steered clear of commenting on calls to increase pumping, saying generally of the drought, “We’re going to get to work on water.” She has previously said, “I’m not going to prejudge anything.”

But while it is inevitable that residents, farmers, environmentalists, regulators and other residents would battle over how to best allocate water in the state, it’s simply false to assert, as Trump has done, that there is no drought. His statement attempts to controvert more than 120 years of record-keeping, confirming that recent precipitation has dropped to record lows.

So why would a political candidate such as Trump engage in both drought — and climate — denial? There are deep psychological processes at play, asserts Renee Lertzman, an environmental consultant, expert on psychosocial studies and author of the book Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement. It should be noted that Trump has not benefited from large contributions from the oil and gas companies (which in many cases fund and support research and lobbying that denies the existence of climate change.) According to Open Secrets, Trump has received $12,833 in contributions from those sectors as of mid-May of this year, while Sanders has received $81,674 and Clinton $332,739.

On a psychological level, however, Trump’s denial of drought and climate-change science is of a piece with his overall campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.” To many Americans, environmental regulations — especially directives to use less, conserve more — are a threat to their way of life and may make them nostalgic for a time when things, whether natural resources or jobs, were felt to be in more abundance. Trump’s message speaks not only to his supporters’ sense that things they valued have been lost, but also to “anticipatory loss,” says Lertzman.

“It has to do with fear of change,” she says, “the perception that I’m going to be asked to or forced to change who I am, to let go of what is cherished and what I’ve worked very hard for.” In this framework, denial that the earth’s climate is changing is not so much a logical determination but an emotional response driven by avoidance. “How we relate to energy and water and nature is part of who we are. It’s how I dwell in my home, the way I use heat and light and water, how I get around, drive and fly, what I buy. These are all things that shape our identity. So there’s an understandable anxiety around this that includes both actual loss and what we imagine is coming down the line.

“Make America Great Again is an expression of a collective anxiety and mourning," says Lertzman. "It’s about longing for a time when there was more nature and their kids could run around until dark and not have a problem. They are longing for their childhood when they felt more free.” If that “longing doesn’t get processed, it can get co-opted [by politicians],” she says.

It also makes sense, says Lertzman, that Trump would embrace science denial given the fact that his temperament is so driven by emotion and gut reactions.

“What we see with denial is that it’s very clearly a response to managing unwanted information,” she says. “It’s an incredibly, I hate to say it, primitive level of human development. For example, if you are trying to tell your child something that they don’t want to hear, they just say, ‘No, no, no.’ And that’s exactly what we see happening. It’s really at that level of saying, ‘No, I’m choosing to not engage with this because it’s unwanted, because it challenges my worldview. I’m simply going to just reject it and it’s something that as humans we all have a capacity to do. It’s not new.

“The problem with anxiety is that it lights up the brain in very particular ways," says Lertzman. "Unfortunately, it tends to kind of short-circuit and impair our cognitive abilities, our ability to have foresight and to reason, to problem solve and have ingenuity and creativity, all of those things we need right now. These are all largely associated with the prefrontal cortex, which gets impaired when our anxiety is activated.”

Lertzman isn’t denying the effect of propaganda from the extractive industries that obfuscates and creates confusion around the reality of climate change. But she thinks that it gives too much power to politicians, doesn’t see individual responses and doesn’t recognize that it’s a social phenomenon: “The point is that we as citizens have to collude with this propaganda, we have to join in. [Propaganda] fulfill a function for people. It allows them to not have to engage.”

Even most people who believe in climate-change science — and take regular steps to conserve natural resources — engage in some form of denial at times, whether it’s the one time out of 10 they don’t recycle something, or it’s people who regularly take business trips by air while at the same time driving a hybrid car.

Many people who care about the environment fall short of their conservation goals not just because of the time commitment involved but often because they “feel powerless or overwhelmed that their impact is limited, when it’s beyond the scale of what they can do," says Lertzman. "We as humans have enormous capacity to manage distressing and difficult information in creative ways. These tend to be referred to as defense mechanisms. We all do this to cope. It’s part of being human.”

Where the environmental movement has faltered is in failing to address the psychological component of science denial and the root causes of fear and anxiety. Thinking informed largely by emotion often can’t be countered successfully with logic. “Climate change is very scary. No one wants to deal with it," says Lertzman. "We have to find a way to acknowledge this. Just using alarming facts and figures and saying, ‘Get with the program’ is going to create more resistance.”

That’s why in her work — Lertzman advises a number of governmental agencies on how to implement conservation measures — she looks at ways to engage people in conversations that take into account their emotions and their values. “It’s less about pushing information and nagging. The best way to address denial is to meet it on the same emotional level as the resistance to engage with it," says Lertzman. "We need leadership that comes out and says, ‘Yeah, you know what, these are really complicated and intense issues. And here is what we need to do about it.' We need politicians who can just say that very clearly.” 

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