Last week, the president of the United States stood before a cheering crowd and promised that he would restore the country to the way it used to be, get rid of the impositions that had made people’s lives so hard day in and day out. Donald Trump was talking about toilets. Again.
"Sinks, toilets, and showers: You don't get enough water," Trump said during his rally in Milwaukee. "Try buying a new faucet. You turn it on and no water comes out… You go into the shower—and I have this beautiful head of hair, I need a lot of water—you turn on the water: drip, drip." He added that dishwashers had the same problem. But never fear, he said, new dishwashers were on the way—ones that "give you more water so you can actually wash and rinse your dishes without having to do it 10 times."
All this followed comments Trump made at a White House event last month, when he said, "We're looking very strongly at sinks and showers and other elements of bathrooms." Then he claimed, "You turn the faucet on in areas where there's tremendous amounts of water where the water rushes out the sea because you could never handle it and you don't get any water. They take a shower and water comes dripping out. People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times."
This focus on flushing seemed at first blush like just another one of those weird fixations that habitually grips a president with the attention span of a TV remote. But the conservative war on toilets—or the war on behalf of the toilets of yesteryear—both predates Trump and lines up with a surprisingly large chunk of Trumpian grievance politics. Denouncing toilets, lightbulbs, and sinks as worse than they used to be is a way to both tap into a powerful strain of nostalgia and express contempt for the regulatory state.
These rants from Trump showcase what makes him different from previous Republican presidents, who endorsed the bland regulations that are now the target of totemic right-wing rage. And this rhetoric is coupled with actual action that experts say will hamstring future efforts to make appliances more efficient and fight climate change.
Days after Trump complained about dishwashers in Milwaukee, the Department of Energy announced a rule change that introduced a set of changes that will limit the government's ability to set new efficiency standards on appliances. "Existing standards are saving the typical household about $500 per year. That's an accumulation of standards developed over the past 30 years that are now resulting in more efficient appliances and devices on the market today," said Andrew deLaski, the executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "This means that it'll be much harder to keep improving those standards and adding to those savings in the future."
More efficient appliances also cut carbon emissions. "Appliance standards are the biggest climate and energy-saving program that you've never heard of," said Lauren Urbanek, an expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "Standards have been the second most impactful federal program, in terms of energy and climate savings, after only the miles-per-gallon rating for cars."
According to a Department of Energy fact sheet, efficiency standards saved consumers $63 billion on utility bills in 2015 and "helped the United States avoid emissions of 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from over 543 million automobiles."
Making appliances more efficient used to be seen as a relatively uncontroversial good. The first bill setting appliance standards was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987 after passing a Democrat-controlled Congress on bipartisan lines. In 1992, George H.W. Bush signed legislation requiring toilets to use 1.6 gallons per flush, and in 2007 George W. Bush approved a law that phased out particularly energy-inefficient lightbulbs. These regulations have made a difference: For instance, according to Appliance Standards Awareness Project data, fridges have gotten more energy efficient even as they've gotten bigger and cheaper in inflation-adjusted dollars. Consumer Reports notes that dishwashers use half the water they did 20 years ago, which also means a reduction in energy required to heat that water, though the tradeoff is they take longer to run through a cycle. And while newer energy-saving lightbulbs like LEDs are more expensive than traditional incandescent bulbs, they also last much much longer and save consumers money on their electricity bills.
Many contemporary conservatives regard this slow process of regulation with alarm, if not outright horror, and their outrage boiled over in the Obama era. Texas Congressman Joe Barton introduced a bill to repeal lightbulb standards scheduled to come into effect in 2012 by saying, "From the health insurance you’re allowed to have, to the car you can drive, to the lightbulbs you can buy, Washington is making too many decisions that are better left to you and your family." Rand Paul, the libertarian-ish Republican Senator from Kentucky, got into a heated exchange with a Department of Energy aide during a 2011 hearing in which he said, "Frankly, my toilets don’t work in my house, and I blame you and people like you who want to tell me what I can install in my house" and wound up calling appliance standards "antithetical to the American way."
Anger at appliances doesn't usually generate the same amount of heat as rhetoric over immigration or race, but it hits on the same themes. Things used to work right, and now they don't because the government got involved. (One right-winger once called appliance standards "an instance of government having forced society into a lower stage of existence.") Like many forms of right-wing populist anger, it's not always coherent—last year, the libertarian group FreedomWorks circulated a petition to "make dishwashers great again" by putting machines on the market that cleaned dishes in under an hour, even though, as Urbanek said, "Most dishwashers have that cycle already."
Trump's statements on appliances are even more muddled than the usual complaints about toilets and dishwashers, but his meaning comes across clearly: He's freeing Americans from the drudgery imposed by those hateful DC bureaucrats.
And he has quietly done a lot to sabotage efficiency standards. Urbanek noted that Trump's Department of Energy has repeatedly missed deadlines for setting new standards, and instead focused its energy on loosening the rules. Trump has even suggested eliminating the Energy Star certification program, which prompted anger from the appliance manufacturers who like being able to slap that label on their products.
Last month the administration blocked the implementation of new lightbulb standards that were written into that 2007 bill. And the Department of Energy rule change is the culmination of a process that began in 2017. That change won't roll back existing standards, or suddenly start making more water flow to your dishwasher. Nor will it affect the DOE's current practices, since as deLaski points out, under Trump the department wasn't putting out new standards anyway. But it will erect new roadblocks to future efficiency improvements, allowing, for instance, manufacturers to sue over new standards. A Democratic administration could reverse this rule, but doing so would take time.
"This policy hit a trifecta for them," deLaski said. By that he means the Trump administration did damage to a useful tool for fighting climate change, slashed regulations, and reversed progress made by the Obama administration, which did issue new standards. It's not a policy undergirded by an especially rational analyses of the costs and benefits—it's guided by a sense that appliances used to be better, along with everything else.
"It's not founded on any data—maybe it's founded on an anecdote, or it's founded on a feeling for the good old days," deLaski said of the anger at appliance efficiency standards. "Nostalgia's a very powerful feeling."
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