At the end of his hourlong dialogue Monday with the Washington Post’s editorial board, Donald Trump said “our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons.” As Trumpish climate change howlers go, this was relatively informed and sober-minded. In the past, he has repeatedly called human-caused global warming a “myth” and a “hoax.” He once suggested that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” which he now says was just a joke.
Trump lives in an unreality of his own making. But what about his supporters?
On Saturday, the Republican front-runner visited my town, Tucson, Arizona, so I decided to go out and chat with folks waiting in line to see him. In a dozen or so interviews—which are obviously in no way representative of the national electorate or even of Trump supporters in general—I found many Trump fans who disagree with him on climate.
If there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it’s that you absolutely cannot guess a person’s views on climate change unless you ask him or her. About half of the respondents in my small sample size seemed to accept mainstream climate science—the climate is changing, and human activity is the primary cause. That might dismay some, but it’s more than I was expecting. This was a Trump rally, remember.
My micro-sample accords with the gradually escalating alarm with which Americans view the issue. A recent Gallup poll found 65 percent of Americans now view human activity as the primary cause of global warming, the highest in Gallup’s 16-year history of asking this question, with 40 percent of Republicans now saying they’re worried a “great deal/fair amount” about the issue.
Take the response of a man in Tucson wearing oversized Mardi Gras beads, flashing sunglasses, and an Uncle Sam hat with a turkey on it. I’d asked him, “What are your thoughts on climate change?” His quick response: “It sucks.” His companion, Karina Roberts, who was wearing a European football–style scarf with “UNITED STATES” in bold letters, went on to give a several-minute-long disquisition on why climate change deserved to be “up there” in the national conversation. “In some ways, [Trump] may not be in line with climate change, which is just so important, but we can only hope that any of the candidates would put that … on the top of the list, but there’s so many things that need to be addressed as well,” Roberts told me. “At least, at a minimum, Mr. Trump is being able to do a lot of things without being bought.” Still, if given the choice between a candidate who was in favor of climate action and one who wasn’t, Roberts allowed that it could make the difference on whom to vote for.
Another attendee, John, seemed to support Trump specifically because he might take bold action on climate change. John told me “climate change is obviously a topic we need to take incredibly seriously. If we don’t take it incredibly seriously, the human race is going to find out really quickly what can happen.” When asked where Trump fits in, he said, “Well, Trump just seems like the kind of guy that once he decides what it is that needs to be done, then he’ll put his best foot forward and try to accomplish it.”
One Trump supporter, Wayne, said climate change has “definitely been going on for a long time … we caused it” and was dismayed that the candidate is “not as informed as he should be” on climate. “The enlightenment of the whole political agenda has to happen,” he said, before we can expect leaders to break away from their connections to the oil industry that may be steering their views on climate.
One man, Eric, said he supports Trump for military reasons but seemed resigned to the issue of climate change: “I don’t really know, honestly, that there is much that we can do about that specifically—we’ve already had so much effect.”
Others were more typically in line with views you might expect to encounter at a Trump rally. One man, Craig, when asked his thoughts on climate change, said “there is none” and then launched into claims that Al Gore created the threat as a hoax—not to mention that Gore still flies on airplanes. Another man, Ted, told me he thought there was a conspiracy among those who think humans have a strong role in climate change: “It’s questionable if it’s even happening. I’m not saying it’s not, but I’ve seen some things that it looks like it might be, but I don’t know if it is or not. I like to make my own choices and see things and go from there.” But he was clear that he didn’t think humans were responsible. “God is in charge of all of this stuff. We can do anything we can, but he could have destroyed us many times around. … We have to have a balance of the environment and business.”
One woman, Nancy, dressed in a neon-yellow shirt with hand-painted letters spelling “Trump” on it, was obviously a supporter. She confirmed this to me, interjecting, “And I’m educated!” When asked for her thoughts on climate change, she sighed and said, “You really want to know? It’s BS. I don’t believe in it. I’m sorry. I just don’t. It’s been proven it’s a bunch of hooey—that’s my opinion.” Feeling adventurous, I decided to follow up, asking if she agreed with Trump’s past statements suggesting climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China to wreck our economy. “Yes, they maneuver the currency, absolutely, 100 percent—and if anyone can deal with them, he’s the guy.”
Despite these examples, most people I talked to seemed to be attending the rally out of a genuine desire to learn more about Trump’s positions, though there were some that, of course, already had their minds made up. Take two friends, Lloyd and Nick, who were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats but said they were still “on the fence” as to whether they support Trump. “We’re here to see where the Trump supporters are at, we’re middle ground right now,” said Lloyd. On climate change, though, Lloyd was more certain: “I think it’s a big money grab, personally.” His friend agreed: “There’s probably some kind of climate change that’s happening, as far as the heat numbers and everything, but I do also agree that some people are taking advantage of that. … I’m all about saving the environment and recycling and everything, but I feel like some people are really taking advantage of it.”
The responses I encountered, even the more scientifically grounded ones, all seemed to reflect some element of the Trumpish mindset. There was the paranoia and the fear that someone foreign is getting one over on America. There was also the notion that, even if Trump says now that climate change is a hoax, he’ll come around and fix everything eventually because he’s a smart guy who Gets Things Done.
Still, I came away from the experience with a gently buoyed faith in humanity. It was comforting in a weird way to find that Trump’s appeal on this issue seems mostly a matter of affect, not policy. At least some of America is still in touch with reality.