Peter Johnston: A choice about whether to have a future

(Susan Walsh | AP file photo) In this June 1, 2017, photo, protesters gather outside the White House in Washington to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

The media is abuzz with hot takes on the dumpster fire of Tuesday’s presidential debate.

Yet there was a less-noticed moment in the debate that crystallized the existential gravity of this election. It was moderator Chris Wallace’s question to Donald Trump: “What is your opinion on climate change?”

Think about that. Trump was essentially asked, “What is your opinion on the sum of two and two?” or, “Do you really believe the sky is blue?” These are matters of fact, not opinion, and to argue otherwise is to put oneself in the company of flat-earthers and conspiracy theorists.

But this case is much, much more dangerous than an opinion about sky color for younger Americans, myself included. I am 23 years old, and Trump is 74. He might be dead and buried by the time scientists predict climate change is irreversible (seven years from now). I will hopefully be alive then.

Trump and his party’s policies show a clear disregard for the lives of America’s rising generation. In a simpler time, Barack Obama placed halfhearted safeguards on corporations that externalize costs by pumping toxic waste into the air and water of states like Utah. Now, Trump has rolled back the protections Obama made for everyday Americans. Those rollbacks are estimated to increase U.S. emissions by 1.8 billion tons by 2035.

Whatever his reasons, the outcome of these policies remains horrifyingly lethal for the young, who will inherit the earth sooner or later. Trump and his Republican enablers, such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, will enjoy rich retirements with only occasional brown smog in Salt Lake City. By contrast, I will inherit acid rain and an exponentially increasing number of extinct species.

Romney and Lee have occasionally huffed and puffed about the ignobility Trump has displayed, but that has not stopped either senator from turning a blind eye to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s forced hysterectomies of unsuspecting migrants at the Mexican border — an act considered a war crime by international law.

Beyond ignoring a report of forced sterilizations, these two pro-life senators have flexed Republican Party power in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Trump has nominated a woman with both impressive credentials and worrisome judicial history — Amy Coney Barrett — who has taken a speaking gig from the pro-conversion therapy Alliance Defending Freedom and criticized Chief Justice John Roberts' ruling that upheld Obamacare in 2012. Now, in the middle of a pandemic and within days of an election, Romney has whispered that he would support a conservative nominee — and presumably one with anti-choice plaudits.

They know better. But they don’t care, because like those aforementioned corporations, the cost of their actions is externalized to my generation. These costs affect fetuses: In anti-abortion Utah, mothers along the Wasatch Front have a 16% higher chance of miscarriage because of heavy air pollution. These costs also affect adults: People protesting the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor now have to consider whether they will face federal troops armed with an Orwellian “heat ray” and live munitions.

At the end of the day, Trump was not elected because of high-minded rhetoric or soaring ideals. In the words of Steve Bannon, his jailed chief strategist, Trump is “an armor-piercing shell” for aging right-wing values. He will own the libs, ostracize brown people, put women in their place, and destroy norms that get in his way.

Joe Biden’s hands are filthy, too. He took part in overseeing the first family separations and increased the sale of U.S. armaments to a genocidal Saudi Arabia. But the difference is that while Trump has refused to stop committing war crimes in the face of massive public pressure, Biden and Obama did. The choice here is not between left and right, Democrat and Republican. It is a choice about whether we want to have any choices at all in the future.

I hope and pray and work to ensure that 2020 is an inflection point away from the denial of existential problems like climate change and American white supremacy. But if Tuesday’s debate proved anything, it’s that the path to justice and right may run through the fires of an old generation’s self-loathing and fear.

Peter Johnston

Peter Johnston is a University of Utah student studying political science. He briefly volunteered on Mitt Romney’s campaign for Senate but now wishes he had supported Democratic opponent Jenny Wilson.