A wildfire burns the hillside behind homes on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, Azusa, California
Photo by Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock.com
As I start writing this column on Wednesday afternoon, it’s well over 100 degrees in Sacramento, as it has been every day since the end of last week.
Normally when it gets this hot, we wait until the evening brings relief, and then we open the doors and windows. We won’t be able to do that this evening, however, since an apocalyptic burst of wildfires, triggered by more than 10,000 lightning strikes generated by this superheated weather system, have converted Northern California into a massive fire zone.
Those fires are this week’s Signal.
The air outside is a smoky soup of particles drifting in from fires to the west, the east, the north, and the south. The air quality varies, depending on which way the wind is blowing; currently, the index for particulate matter here is 157—putting it deep in the “unhealthy” zone, though not yet in the you’re-at-imminent-risk-of-death purple zone that we saw in Sacramento during the wildfires two summers ago.
That purple zone is, however, approaching in cities just to the west: in Vacaville, where a fire came out of nowhere on Tuesday and is now consuming significant chunks of property on the edge of the city, and in Fairfield, where a converging series of fires has resulted in sudden evacuation orders for several neighborhoods and has closed I-80, the freeway that runs from San Francisco to New York.
The air quality over the Bay Area now compares unfavorably to that of Delhi, India. Such a comparison is now, alas, an annual sport: Come August, will the air of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley; of California’s fabled wine country; of the wondrous beach towns to the north and south rank among the most dangerous places on earth? Meanwhile, Highway 1, California’s fabled scenic coastal route, was closed to traffic on Wednesday because of huge fires in the Big Sur region.
For the third straight year, as California and nearby states struggles to cope with the fires, Trump is failing to respond to our climate catastrophe. In 2018, he dismissively claimed that California’s environmental policies and water management systems were responsible for the out-of-control fires. In 2019, he threatened to withhold FEMA dollars from the state unless it removed tinder-dry underbrush from forest floors. And this year, a former Trump official says the president wants to withhold federal firefighting aid from California because it wasn’t part of his political base.
Three days after the blazes began, Trump himself has still not said a word about the people whose homes are threatened or the firefighters who are risking life and limb to try to control the fires. He hasn’t talked about coordinating a federal response to help the Western states as they battle these blazes—although he has lobbed insults at California’s green-energy policies, blaming renewable energy commitments and an alleged Democratic Party conspiracy for the state’s series of rolling blackouts this week.
That’s been the extent of Trump’s involvement: Noise, Noise, and still more Noise. Unlike the Democrats, who have at their virtual convention this week talked about climate change and how to rebuild the economy in a greener, more sustainable way, he hasn’t deigned to address global warming. Unlike Biden, who in his powerful, focused acceptance speech on Thursday argued that it was a moral imperative to provide young people with hope for a cleaner, greener, less environmentally degraded future, Trump does nothing but carp about, insult, and mock those who take environmental policy seriously. Just as he has shown himself to be inept in handling the Covid-19 crisis, so he is now showing himself to be uncaring—and in the smallness of his policy vision, irrelevant—in handling the fire-and-climate crisis.
To the contrary, with the West aflame and with countries around the world increasingly worried about how to head off catastrophic global warming, Trump’s administration finalized plans this week to overturn 60 years of environmental protections and open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
That contempt for global norms is in keeping with Trump’s broader modus operandi. If you’re looking for other Signals in this same vein, you can focus on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bombshell report this week—signed on to by GOP senators such as Richard Burr and Marco Rubio—detailing just how extensively the Russians cozied up to Trump’s campaign (and vice versa) back in 2016.
In any other year or month, this report, so damning of Trump and his motivations, of the danger that his team has posed from the get-go to national security, and of his anything-goes political methods, would have dominated the news—and would have led to a chorus of demands for Trump’s resignation or second impeachment. Now, with so many catastrophes unfolding simultaneously, and with the Democratic convention building to a crescendo, it barely registered.
If you cut through the din, however, the message is clear: Trump’s people are—as Barack Obama warned in his compelling convention speech Wednesday night—willing to do anything for power, and are willing to sabotage all democratic norms and institutions to hold on to it.
That opportunism explains their appetite for confrontation with Iran—and their willingness to foment an international crisis in the run-up to the election. At the start of the year, the administration assassinated Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, risking a full-on conflagration in order to score cheap political points. Now, they’re at it again. After all, if you can’t run for reelection on the economy or the pandemic response, why not manufacture a conflict overseas? On Wednesday evening, to the astonishment of European allies as well as Russia and China, Secretary of State Pompeo and Trump demanded that the UN Security Council reimpose tough sanctions on Iran, ostensibly because Iran is no longer complying with the nuclear agreement that Trump himself withdrew from two years ago!
I ordinarily dislike using exclamation points, but if anything merits one, Trump’s demand that Iran comply with the terms of an agreement that America has flouted does. It gives new dimension to the term chutzpah. As do the stunning goings-on of Steve Bannon, Trump’s nationalist Svengali from 2016, whom prosecutors from the Southern District of New York arrested Thursday morning on charges of defrauding investors in his absurd GoFundMe project to use citizens’ donations to speed construction of a border wall that Congress refused to authorize.
Those “criminals” Trump and Bannon wanted to keep out with a border wall? Well, apparently the real criminals were the demagogues on our side of the border who used fear of immigrants to convince gullible Americans to part with their hard-earned dollars so that Bannon and his cronies could skim money from their donations to pad their lavish lifestyles.
That, for me, is the Signal right now. Everything about this moment is bizarre, twisted, and dangerous. And each day Trump, who sought to distract viewers from the Democratic convention Wednesday by telling the world that followers of the QAnon cult were very good people—patriots, in fact—seems determined to make it even more dangerous.
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, Breadline USA, American Furies, The American Way of Poverty, The House of 20,000 Books, and, most recently, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.