The good news is, Donald Trump, after ignoring Western fires for far too long, traveled to California yesterday. The bad news is, the president brought a decidedly Trumpian perspective to the crisis.
The first sign of trouble came when the president exited Air Force One, spoke briefly to reporters, and presented himself as an expert on a subject he knows very little about. Trump insisted, for example, that trees sometimes "just explode" after falling down, adding, "Also, leaves -- when you have years of leaves -- dried leaves -- on the ground, it just sets it up. It's really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it."
The Associated Press tried to find an actual expert who could explain what the president was talking about. The AP's report on this noted, "On Monday, University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch said it was difficult to know just what Trump meant."
The president went on to say, "I was talking to a head of a major country, and he said, 'We're a forest nation. We consider ourself a forest nation.' This was in Europe. I said, 'That's a beautiful term.' He said, 'We have trees that are far more explosive...' -- he meant 'explosive' in terms of fire -- '...but we have trees that are more explosive they have in California, and we don't have any problem because we manage our forests.' So we have to do that in California, too."
Ah yes, the fires are partially California's fault, according to the television-personality-turned-president, who cares deeply about "forest management" -- a phrase Trump appears to use to refer to the literal raking of millions of acres -- which he learned about during a not-at-all-made-up conversation with the head of "a forest nation."
What would we do without such valuable insights from our wise and erudite leader?
Soon after, as part of a briefing with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Wade Crowfoot, California's secretary for natural resources, officials tried to explain to Trump that climate change is fueling the crisis. That didn't go well.
"It'll start getting cooler, you just watch," Trump responded. "I wish science agreed with you," Crowfoot answered back. "I don't think science knows, actually," Trump said, before moving on to talk to someone else.
It was hard to know whether the president's assurance about conditions "getting cooler" referred to the upcoming winter or his belief that global warming will soon end. Or maybe both. Or neither. With Trump, it's difficult to say whether even he knows what he was trying to say.
In context, though, the Republican's insistence that science may not "know" what's coming suggested he was referring to some kind of global cooling, since science -- and calendars -- make clear that fall and winter really are on the way.
And therein lies the larger problem: Trump seems to believe the climate crisis will dissipate because he says so. This is an extension of the same problem that's plagued the president for much of the year when dealing with the coronavirus pandemic: Trump expects the problem to improve because he wants it to.
The Washington Post published a report a couple of months ago that included a sentence that continues to resonate with me: "Trump is ... predisposed to magical thinking -- an unerring belief, at an almost elemental level, that he can will his goals into existence, through sheer force of personality, according to outside advisers and former White House officials."
This "magical thinking" is on display with unnerving frequency. The president imagines something he'd like to be true, which leads him to believe it might be true, which soon after becomes an unshakable belief that whatever he concocted is, in fact, true.
COVID-19 will simply "disappear." Assorted snake oils will work as "cures." The climate crisis may appear to be contributing to disasters, but "it'll start getting cooler, you just watch."
To be sure, part of this reflects the Republican's post-policy indifference toward empiricism, but it's also emblematic of Trump's "magical thinking." He wants problems to go away, and when the president can't find someone to pay to make them go away, he tries to bend reality to his will.
Is it any wonder officials find it impossible to discuss governing problems with Trump?