Yesterday, I attended Indianapolis’ March on Washington–one of the “sister” marches held all over the world. As anyone who listens to the news or has seen the photographs already knows, turnout was massive everywhere. At the Statehouse in deep-red Indiana, the crowd was huge; I’m told it was easily the largest demonstration in Indiana in the past twenty years.
There were lots of clever and poignant signs, but the one that summed up America’s situation for me read “Left or Right, We Know He’s Wrong.”
This was not a normal partisan election. It wasn’t a contest between candidates with different policy preferences, a contest between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It was a battle between White Supremacists led by a dangerously unstable demagogue and time-honored, inclusive American values.
Trump has no political philosophy–he isn’t remotely like the Republicans I served with “back in the day.” But then, most of those who call themselves Republicans today have nothing in common with the Grand Old Party I grew up with.
These rabid ideologues aren’t conservatives; they are a collection of reactionaries, oligarchs and bigots. Whenever I hear one of them piously intoning “I want my country back,” I want to respond “Well, I want the real Republican Party back!”
The article was about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the EPA, but it began by harking back to Bill Ruckelshaus, the first EPA Director. He was from Indianapolis, he was admirable, and he was typical of the GOP of which I was then a part.
In the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.
Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.
Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.”
Science-driven policy. How quaint!
When I consider the Republicans I knew, like Ruckelshaus and Dick Lugar, and those I worked with, like Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut and Indiana Governor Robert Orr, I can’t help thinking that it isn’t just Trump. Appalling as he is, he’s the consequence of a party that has been transformed by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the pathetic group of bigots and know-nothings who comprise what has been called the “lunatic caucus.”
We aren’t going to get our real country back–the America of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the America that welcomed “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”–unless we get a reasonable, respectable Republican party back.
The sign said it all: it isn’t left versus right. It’s right versus wrong. It’s the America I thought I inhabited versus a bleak and unfamiliar dystopia–and I want my America back.