By Tom Woodman
What to do when as a nation we are preparing to inaugurate as president a divisive figure whose campaign behavior has invigorated the kind of bigotry and intolerance that we should have put to rest long ago? Whose policies are hard to discern amid a torrent of tweets, threats, and campaign-promise reversals?
Given the protean nature of his positions, it’s possible that Donald Trump will govern in a more responsible manner than he ran for office. More likely, leadership on social issues and key domestic policies, like environmental protection, will have to be found not in Washington but closer to home.
First, we can all demonstrate as we go about our lives in small communities of the Adirondacks that we are better and stronger when we don’t fear or shun those who don’t look like us.
And as our local and regional representatives deliberate Park policies they can be governed by knowledge that environmental protection relies on setting aside parochial interests in order to benefit a broad range of people, including generations not yet born.
In Albany, the governor, his administrators, and state legislators can exercise their significant power to pursue enlightened environmental and social policies even if they face opposition on the federal level.
Following Trump’s election, national leaders, including President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, emphasized the need for an unequivocal and smooth transfer of power. That’s a fundamental and indisputable principle of our democracy. We all must recognize the results of the election. But that is not to say that we must overlook the damage the president-elect’s words have already done to this country or to turn our backs on social-justice, environmental, and civil-rights goals, even if the White House tries to roll back progress in these areas.
And in doing this, our dissent makes us no less patriotic. To quote a notable president with Adirondack credentials, Theodore Roosevelt:
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
In the course of the campaign, Trump adopted the language of bigotry in a way that was dangerously reckless. Questioning a judge’s competence based on his Mexican heritage; belittling Muslim Gold Star parents; failing for too long to disavow the white supremacists who championed his cause; repeatedly making sexist comments—these actions empowered those who see permission to express, even act on, intolerance.
This is a trend that ordinary people living ordinary lives in the Adirondacks, as anywhere, can resist. The Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council began its work to encourage dialogue and understanding even before Trump’s political rise. Its message is more compelling and urgent now.
Small schools in Newcomb, Keene, and elsewhere have welcomed foreign-exchange students and made international understanding a living part of their curriculum. They can be models for others. Adirondack schools can make a name for themselves as places of multicultural education. Learning can be a vaccine against intolerance.
In the face of nativist rhetoric we can point to the French Canadian, Irish, Italian, and other immigrants who labored in our mines and our logging camps and helped build the Adirondack economy of the nineteenth century. We can see in John Brown’s Farm the Adirondacks as sanctuary. We can draw on this legacy to counter the voices of xenophobia.
When it comes to protecting our environment and preserving our natural wonders, lack of leadership in Washington will be difficult to overcome. Effective regulation of threats that cross state lines are best confronted by federal authority.
But that’s cause for redoubled effort, not resignation. If the Trump administration eliminates the Clean Power Plan and eviscerates other emission regulations, state and regional action become even more important. His choice of a climate-change skeptic to head the Environmental Protection Agency is a dismal sign.
Far better to persuade the White House and Congress of the value of enlightened environmental and energy policies. Failing that, Albany can lead by example on climate change and energy conservation. It can explore the possibility of regional compacts with other states and Canada to work on cross-border problems.
Regional cooperation on some issues, like combating invasives species, should be politically feasible. Continuing the fight against cross-state emissions of mercury and acid-rain- causing compounds—something of vital importance to the Adirondacks—will be far more difficult. It’s an area in which the federal government’s power to overcome state self-interests may be irreplaceable. But state action could turn out to be the only option. (Regional compacts are not a fantasy. New York is part of the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through a cap-and trade program.)
What’s needed is the resolve to work for a decent, responsible society. That should, by all means, include efforts to persuade Washington to follow a more enlightened path than Trump-the-candidate espoused. It will surely mean working at home to accomplish at least some of what Washington will not.