Fake News, Aluminium Cans, and a Dedicated American

Most schools are pretty liberal places, so in one where most students are immigrants, it would be pretty surprising to find many people sporting Make America Great Again hats and retweeting the US President’s 3 am tweets.

I think it’s fair to say that not many ZIS students have even talked with a Trump supporter – especially one that personally helped win him his POTUS position.

US Ambassador Edward McMullen walks into our Coreway – half an hour late – with half a dozen suit-clad bodyguards behind him. “When Washington calls, you’ve gotta drop everything,” he explains. The mood in the room became a little more intense, and my friends realized that this might not be the best time to roast the “Cheeto-In-Chief”.

US Ambassador shares his worldviews with ZIS students

McMullen ran an advertising and public relations firms before he jumped on the Trump Train back in 2015 when he became the chairman of the South Carolina campaign. He went on to serve in the President’s transition team and was the vice chair of the inaugural committee. So what brought McMullen to the Alps?

Donald Trump personally appointed him as the Ambassador of Switzerland and Liechtenstein in November 2017 after almost a year of having only three ambassadors for the entirety of Europe, with 30 vacancies.

McMullen started his speech off by giving some background on the international relations system in the US. He emphasized that he was never involved in diplomacy but had instead always run a business. According to McMullen, Trump wanted Ambassadors in Europe to fit the mold of “someone who’s had to sign a paycheck; someone who actually understands economic development, investment, taxes.”

McMullen continued, saying that it was a huge advantage that Ambassadors are all close friends to Trump, as they know exactly where his priorities are. He added that currently, the biggest challenge is to get people to understand Mr. Trump, to get people to see him as he does – “a compassionate and bright, convicted American devoted to everything he ran on”.

After the speech, there were many questions about the Iran Deal, Swiss-US relations, and America’s shifting role in the UN. The most heated topic, however, was how decisions made by the administration were affecting the environment.

“How does an administration that says they care about the environment put someone in place that evidently cares so little?”

An awkward silence fills the room as the girl next to me starts chugging her water bottle to keep from laughing at the brazen question a junior sitting in the front row had asked.

What he was talking about was the fact that shortly after Scott Pruitt resigned from the position of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator amidst a series of scandals, Trump appointed Andrew Wheeler for the position. What’s the catch? Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist who, like his predecessor, is set on deregulating the hell out of current environmental laws.

After a slight pause, McMullen starts his defense: “Well, the first thing I would advise you to do is not just use the media as your source of information, okay? Do a little research… I’ve never met the guy, or the woman, who wants to see their baby gagging on smog or drinking dirty water. Never. Both of those men have very serious convictions of how best to get a clean environment.”

The Ambassador explained how the administration is placing high value in incentives instead of regulations, as they believe it is the most efficient way for both the economy and the environment to thrive. He used an example of how putting 5 cents on every aluminum can is more effective for getting people to recycle them than the threat of a $100 fine if they get caught littering.

As skeptical as I was, he did have a point. After the conference, many students I talked to also said this was one of McMullen’s strongest points; one that many were surprised to agree with after he laid it out.

However, as articulate as the Ambassador might’ve been – in this era of fake news, I wanted to check the facts myself.

So far, the US has overturned 46 environmental regulations covering issues from oil drilling to endangered animals to emissions. What about the incentives that are supposed to support the free market while making sure we don’t have to use gas masks in a few decades? Well, that’s the thing, the Trump administration hasn’t actually brought any around yet. Although the container deposit legislation previously mentioned has increased recycling rates in states it’s implemented in, it isn’t a novel, Trump-era idea – it’s been around since the 1970s.  

So, yes, I am sure that McMullen has never met someone who “wants to see their baby gagging on smog”, but it’s also safe to say that, as he mentioned before, the politicians making these decisions are people that have “had to sign a paycheck”. The type of people signing off on these laws can afford to avoid the situation where their children get sick from drinking dirty water. Not everyone in their country has that luxury. The kids drinking lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan don’t; the 137,000 people suffering from illnesses caused by air pollution in Bakersfield, California don’t; the 80,000 people that might die in the next decade because of the EPA’s new environmental policies don’t.

After an hour of answering passive-aggressive questions, defending his old friend, and convincing us of how similar Switzerland is to the US, the bodyguards gathered round and McMullen left. Reading the room – everyone seemed to be in a state of curiosity.

“I expected to be listening to a psydo-Trump who wouldn’t be able to make two coherent sentences,” a classmate says on our way out, “but some of the things he said actually made sense.”

Listening around, this was a pretty common attitude towards the event. Now, I don’t think the Ambassador inspired us to sign up for any Trump rallies anytime soon, but he did bring up a point: things are less black and white when you delve into them.

In the grand scheme of things, none of us really know much about anything, so we should be careful when making up our opinions. Throughout the whole conference, the thing that McMullens said which we should keep in the back of our heads is this: “Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal or a libertarian or a, you know, anarchist: don’t listen to what the media is saying. Because we live in a world where you can never get the truth by not digging deep.”

Growing up in a polarized political environment, we have the responsibility to see things multidimensionally; with a world of information at our fingertips, that’s the best that we can do.

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