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8 Jun, 2019 05:27

Making America Great Again... on paper: Anything's a victory if you tweak the rules enough

Making America Great Again... on paper: Anything's a victory if you tweak the rules enough

US President Donald Trump has once again opted to change the rules of the game he's playing – this time, nuclear waste disposal – in order to guarantee the American people really do get sick of winning.

Trump has shown himself the master at redefining problems to seem like solutions, a skill he's honed since becoming president – to the questionable benefit of the country itself.

The Department of Energy is reclassifying highly radioactive waste material from nuclear weapons development as "low-risk" at three nuclear storage facilities, jettisoning decades-old safety standards in a time- and money-saving move that will allow energy officials to ditch the reprocessed fuel rods and toxic sludge in shallow pits instead of digging deep underground to protect the surrounding environment from contamination.

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After all, what's a little strontium, plutonium, uranium, and americium among friends? Millions of gallons of waste stored at sites in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho will be "upgraded" to "safe," based on the level of radioactivity – though experts say this is not the deciding factor in how harmful a substance is. The decision nullifies states' existing cleanup agreements – construction of a massive nuclear waste treatment complex in Washington, stalled in 2012, is unlikely to start back up if the government can just bury its nuclear waste in a shallow grave – and puts locals and the environment at risk. Already, the underground tanks holding much of the waste from weapons-grade plutonium extraction are leaky and their future precarious.

The Energy Department insists lowering the risk level is required for faster, cheaper cleanup – an argument that makes sense in an Energy Department in which saving money for the government outweighs preventing toxic waste spills, but "flies in the face of sound science and judgment" according to Columbia Riverkeeper, a Washington conservation group. Still, one can imagine Trump saying, the Energy Department spends $6 billion every year cleaning up previous generation's nuclear messes. Wouldn't the American people rather buy themselves something nice?

It's hardly the first time salesman Trump has made the American people a questionable deal. Last month, the White House Office of Management and Budget proposed changing the formulas used in calculating its "official poverty measure," which determines who qualifies for federal benefits and programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing. By tweaking the way in which inflation is calculated, this statistical trickery could boot millions of people off the welfare rolls.

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But surely getting people off food stamps is considered a victory? Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, actually floated a similar proposal in 2014, only to be torn to shreds by his own party; Republicans, however, have thus far gone along with Trump's attacks on what remains of the social safety net. With the official poverty level for a family of four set at just $25,900 last year, it's hard to see how welfare recipients could survive on less – but then, that's Trump's point.

"Millions of able-bodied working-age adults continue to collect food stamps without working or even looking for work," he complained in December as he signed an executive order mandating strict enforcement of work requirements for welfare recipients and suggesting a raft of possible reforms, which included encouraging private sector involvement and promoting marriage as a way to escape poverty.

Trump has long boasted of his deal-making prowess, nowhere more than in the realm of foreign policy. His most effective strategy so far has been to antagonize his opponent, seemingly to the brink of war – a Twitter exchange with "Rocket Man" Kim Jong-un, trading insults over the size of their respective nuclear buttons. Relying on the press to work itself into a lather over his hair-trigger "Twitter diplomacy," Trump then dials the rhetoric back to '1' and extends a carefully-camouflaged olive branch.

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And sometimes, it works. Trump brought Kim to the negotiating table when none of his predecessors had for decades, and even seemed to be hitting it off with the Hermit Kingdom's leader – only to have National Security Advisor John Bolton torpedo any chance for an agreement by demanding unconditional denuclearization before any hint of sanctions relief and bloviating about the "Libya option" – i.e. disarmament and death at the point of a rectally-inserted bayonet. Bolton, deemed a "defective human product," is no longer welcome in Pyongyang, and Trump is on thin ice as well – but even the failed Hanoi summit looks like success compared to 2017's saber-rattling.

Trump's entire reputation is built on this kind of conceptual sleight-of-hand, whereby a builder whose poor business decisions have led him to file for bankruptcy more than once made his name so synonymous with "rich and successful" that other builders paid to license it for their buildings. The idea of running a country by simply shouting "WE'RE WINNING" loud enough to drown out any objections seems laughable – but so far, Trump has been frighteningly successful in rallying his base to that cry.

Helen Buyniski

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.