Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Trump’s obsession with building big things fast doesn’t seem unrelated to his defense of white supremacists.
Most observers won’t remember the original purpose of Donald Trump’s press conference on Tuesday afternoon. That’s because the President spent most of his 23-minute appearance with reporters digging his heels into his first reaction to the deadly violence in Charlottesville this past weekend, defending the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members who marched and terrorized anti-fascist protesters there. “I think there is blame on both sides,” he told reporters from the lobby of his gilded Manhattan tower. Things went much further downhill from there.
But the ostensible reason for Trump’s appearance was to talk about infrastructure projects—specifically, speeding them up. The conference began with a typical stunt: Standing amid cabinet officials Elaine Chao, Steven Mnuchin, and Mick Mulvaney, Trump unfurled a “long, beautiful chart” purporting to show a 17-year environmental permitting process for an unnamed highway project. He then announced an executive order chopping that process down to as little as two years. The order also calls for “one lead agency” to be responsible for every major project subject to federal review. Additionally, it rolls back a widely admired flood standard that required new federal constructions to account for climate change’s effect on storms and flooding.
“We're going to get infrastructure built quickly, inexpensively, relatively speaking and the permitting process will go very, very quickly,” Trump said. “No longer will we accept a broken system that benefits consultants and lobbyists at the expense of hard-working Americans.”
There is bipartisan agreement that environmental permitting can be unnecessarily arduous. It is complicated even in normal circumstances, and drawn-out decisions can waste tax dollars. In this way they can benefit “consultants” more than the ecosystems they are supposed to protect. President Obama passed his own orders aimed to streamline the process for economically sensitive projects. President George W. Bush initiated a large-scale review of (some would say attack on) the National Environmental Policy Act.
But if protecting taxpayers was the real aim of Trump’s order, the floodplain regulation would not come anywhere near it. It is a measure of common sense, designed to prevent wasteful government spending. Federal agencies have long required that their own construction projects avoid building in flood-prone areas so that tax dollars are not lost, every year, to storms. With sea levels rising and storms worsening, the regulation that Trump called to eliminate Tuesday—which was created by the Obama administration in 2015—required federal projects that could not help but be situated in low-lying areas to take additional mitigations in response to the flood-exacerbating effects of climate change.
To roll back that policy flies in the face of climate science and the common-sense recommendations of flood control engineers. It is to fling tax dollars into the rising tide.
Trump’s infrastructure plan remains largely conceptual, given that no legislation has emerged from the administration fleshing out its details. But if there is a core philosophy behind the ideas the White House has offered on infrastructure—in draft budgets and fact sheets—it is this: Profit-minded, private interests should guide federal investment.
To add up to Trump’s long-promised $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, the White House has called to leverage $800 billion in private capital with $200 billion in federal funds. This is a formula that could only account for projects guaranteed to yield steady returns to investors, such as new toll roads, pipelines, and remodeled airports. Maintaining crumbling roads, bridges, water pipes and transit systems—the kind of investments experts say is needed most—tends not to be so lucrative. Trump’s overarching strategy implicitly ignores them.
As he often does, the president also stated on Tuesday that his infrastructure plan will generate massive employment gains, invoking nationalistic pride and the country’s largely vanished metal-making jobs. “We will rebuild our country with American workers, American iron, American aluminum, American steel,” the president said. “We will create millions of new jobs and make millions of American dreams come true.” And “quickly”—he said so four times.
After a few more sentences reminding listeners that America’s infrastructure looks like that of a “third world country,” Trump took questions from reporters, who inevitably asked about Charlottesville; his appearance then turned into the spectacle that shocked even members of his party and a normally friendly conservative media.
Maybe they shouldn’t have been so surprised. The president’s sympathies for those who marched in the name of white supremacy and Nazism do not appear unrelated to his obsession with building big things fast. Behind them both lies a certain authoritarian zeal.
It’s worth remembering that Mussolini, whose words Trump has openly admired, built the world’s first high-speed toll road designed for cars. His Fascists also constructed a slew of airports and a network of passenger trains as part of a national leisure campaign “designed to keep the working class happily distracted (and indoctrinate their children),” my colleague David Dudley wrote in 2016. In 1930s Germany, Hitler himself broke ground on the Autobahn, the “perfect demonstration … that his government could get things done in a way the Weimar government had not,” my former colleague Eric Jaffe wrote in 2014. This helped the Fuhrer consolidate power in key voting blocs connected to the new roads.
“There are two sides to the country,” Trump said on Tuesday. Which side does his infrastructure hope to connect?