The U.S.public has grown accustomed to watching President Donald Trump surrender moral authority during times of crisis. Each time, the purported champion of the American people follows the same playbook: Faced with questions and criticisms concerning his administration’s response to a natural disaster or some other terrifying calamity, he deflects blame from himself and places it on his perceived opposition.
Last summer, he blamed Puerto Rico for his administration’s failure to adequately respond to the devastation caused to the island by Hurricane Maria. This summer, he’s doing it again in his response ― such as it is ― to the historic and deadly fires that are eating away at large chunks of California.
Let’s set aside the factual inaccuracy, the ignorance and the twisted logic of the president’s tweets; those have been aired by everyone from the state of California to journalists and university professors. What makes his claims so jarring is that he’s using an ongoing natural disaster as a cudgel against his perceived political enemies.
It appears Trump couldn’t care less about the lives tragically lost to the Carr Fire or the extremely dangerous Mendocino Complex wildfire, now the largest in California history. He seems unconcerned about firefighters risking everything to protect people and property.
And what of the California families who will lose everything to these fires, and the small businesses that might not make ends meet because tourists are staying away? To our commander in chief, they’re just collateral damage in some no-holds-barred, WWE-style political wrestling match with California Gov. Jerry Brown, Rep. Maxine Waters or any other California politician who might have the audacity to disagree with him.
This deeply cynical approach to governing is elemental to Trump’s personality and to the character of those people with whom he surrounds himself. Under the twisted logic of this worldview, the president and his administration needn’t worry about the underlying causes of any problem facing our society or our environment because it’s always someone else’s fault.
If California just diverted all of its water from rivers, doused the forests and worried less about those pesky salmon, then it wouldn’t be in this mess! It’s a view completely unmoored from reality (and, it appears, conflates the state’s mega-fires with a water diversion controversy in the Central Valley). This catastrophe wasn’t Trump’s doing, so surely he’s not responsible for solving this problem or soothing the pain of the people afflicted by it. After all, he’s only the president.
It appears Trump couldn’t care less about the lives tragically lost to the Carr Fire or the extremely dangerous Mendocino Complex wildfires.
For Trump, it’s a whole lot easier to place blame than grapple with the effects of our nation’s energy and environmental policies and the reality of a warming climate. Addressing the underlying causes of wildfire would mean having an honest conversation with the public about why they are getting bigger, hotter and more destructive.
Balancing solutions to mitigate wildfire risk is thorny and complex. Doing so would mean accepting that California, the western U.S. and the globe are becoming hotter. It requires acknowledging that wildfire is natural and healthy for many forests, and that our nation’s century-long practice of putting out even the smallest fires has put forests at risk of wildfire on an unprecedented scale.
Dealing with the issue also takes wrestling with the types of incentives we should create to direct development away from fire-prone areas and the types of danger in which we should place firefighters to protect property. It means grappling with how we can restore forests through controlled burns and fuel reduction projects to protect communities from fire.
But none of this is clean or tidy. It couldn’t possibly fit into a single tweet and it would concede that there isn’t a panacea for wildfire. So instead, Trump has resorted to victim-blaming as wildfires rage across California.
It was not that long ago that American presidents could show compassion during natural disasters, providing comfort through a unifying message to the nation. After a deadly wildfire burned through Colorado Springs in 2012, President Barack Obama visited the devastation and noted, “When natural disasters like this hit, America comes together.”
There was a code of conduct: while Americans might disagree on certain policies, we’re unified as a country and pulling for each other during times of hardship. The president used to be subject to that code, and previous presidents by and large respected it.
We’ve learned to expect almost none of that from Trump. His utter inability to show compassion and to connect with scared, suffering Americans is a dereliction of his duties.
He did it to the American citizens in Puerto Rico in the grips of an historic disaster, which inflicted untold damage and ultimately was blamed for more than 4,600 deaths. And now, as California burns, as communities are suffocated by thick smoke, as Americans are losing everything, the president only knows how to sow division through his Twitter feed.
Trump and his administration have made the unfortunate calculation that every natural disaster is an opportunity to score political points against the opposition. All the while fires burn across California and the West, we’re entering into another hurricane season. And there is not an iota of moral leadership from the White House.
Greg Zimmerman is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities in Denver, a conservation policy organization.