The President Plays with Matches
And the whole world burns.
“I’ve just heard that my family home near Carpenteria is literally in flames at this moment,” a friend told me recently. She was particularly worried, she said, because “my mom has MS. She and my dad got the call to evacuate after midnight last night. They were able to grab a few photos, my sister’s childhood teddy bear, and the dog. That’s it. That’s all that’s left.”
My friend’s parents are among the thousands of victims of the 240,000-acre Thomas fire, one of California’s spate of late-season wildfires. Stoked by 80-mile-an-hour Santa Ana winds, plenty of dry fuel, and 8% humidity, such fires are devouring huge swaths of southern California from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Months of dry weather and unseasonably warm temperatures have turned the southern part of the state into a tinderbox.
Once again the country watches in horror as firefighters struggle to contain blazes of historic voracity -- as we watched only a couple of months ago when at least 250 wildfires spread across the counties north of San Francisco. Even after long-awaited rains brought by an El Niño winter earlier in 2017, years of drought have left my state ready to explode in flames on an increasingly warming planet. All it takes is a spark.
Sort of like the whole world in the age of Donald Trump.
The crazy comes so fast and furious these days, it’s easy to forget some of the smaller brushfires -- like the one President Trump lit at the end of November when he retweeted three false and “inflammatory” videos about Muslims that he found on the Twitter feed of the leader of a British ultra-nationalist group.
The president’s next move in the international arena -- his “recognition” of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel -- hasn’t yet slipped from memory, in part because of the outrage it evoked around the world. As Moustafa Bayoumi, acclaimed author of How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, wrote in the Guardian, “The entire Middle East, from Palestine to Yemen, appears set to burst into flames after this week.” Not surprisingly, his prediction has already begun to come true with demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon, where U.S. flags and posters of President Trump were set alight. We’ve also seen the first rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and the predictable reprisal Israeli air attacks.
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement comes as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pursues his so-called Middle East peace initiative. Kushner's new BFF is Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne. We don’t know just what the two of them talked about during a late night tête-à-tête as October ended, but it probably involved Salman’s plans to jail hundreds of prominent Saudis, including 11 fellow princes. They undoubtedly also discussed a new, incendiary Israeli-Palestinian “peace plan” that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are reportedly quietly circulating.
Under this proposal, according to the New York Times,
“The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.”
If this is the “deal of the century” that President Trump plans to roll out, then it's no surprise that he’d prepare the way by announcing his plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
That move reveals a lot about Trump’s much vaunted deal-making skills when it comes to the international arena. Here he has made a major concession to Israel without receiving a thing in return, except words of praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and from evangelicals in this country). Given that Israel came into possession of the eastern half of Jerusalem through military conquest in 1967, a method of acquiring territory that international law views as illegal, it was quite a concession. The ultimate status of Jersalem is supposed to be a subject for the final stage of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, not a gift to one side before the talks even begin.
Behind this concession, as far as can be seen, lies no strategic intent of any sort, not in the Middle East at least. In fact, President Trump was perfectly clear about just why he was making the announcement: to distinguish himself from his predecessors. (That is, to make himself feel good.) “While previous presidents have made [moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem] a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
“Some say,” he added, that his predecessors failed because “they lacked courage.” In point of fact, Trump did not exactly “deliver” either. Just like his predecessors, he promptly signed a semi-annual waiver that once again delayed the actual embassy move for six months.
Rather than serving a larger Middle East strategy, Trump’s Jerusalem announcement served mainly his own ego. It gave him the usual warm bath of adulation from his base and another burst of the pleasure he derives from seeing his name in the headlines.
In his daily behavior, in fact, Trump acts less like a shrewd dealmaker than a child with pyromania, one who relieves anxiety and draws attention by starting fires. How else to explain his tendency every time there’s a lull in the coverage of him, to post something incendiary on Twitter? Each time, just imagine him striking another match, lighting another fuse, and then sitting back to watch the pyrotechnics.
Here is the grim reality of this American moment: whoever has access to the president also has a good shot at pointing this human flamethrower wherever he or she chooses, whether at “Little Rocket Man” in North Korea or Doug Jones in Alabama (although that flame turned out to be, as they British say, a damp squib).
The Middle East has hardly been the only part of the world our president has taken visible pleasure in threatening to send up in flames. Consider the situation on the Korean peninsula, which remains the greatest danger the world faces today. Who could forget the way he stoked the already glowing embers of the Korean crisis in August by threatening to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” -- an obvious nuclear reference -- on North Korea? And ever since it’s only gotten worse. In recent weeks, for instance, not only Trump but his coterie have continued to ramp up the rhetoric against that country. Earlier this month, for instance, National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster renewed the threat of military action, saying ominously, “There are ways to address this problem short of armed conflict, but it is a race because [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un]’s getting closer and closer [to having a nuclear capacity to hit the United States], and there’s not much time left.”
In September, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, reinforced this message in an interview with CNN. “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed.”
Indeed, Vipin Narang, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at MIT, thinks the Trump administration may already have accepted the inevitability of such a war and the near-guarantee that South Korea and Japan will be devastated as well -- as long as it comes before North Korea can effectively launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland. “There are a lot of people who argue that there’s still a window to stop North Korea from getting an ICBM with a nuclear warhead to use against the United States,” he commented to the Washington Post. “They’re telling themselves that if they strike now, worst-case scenario: only Japan and South Korea will eat a nuclear weapon.”
You don’t exactly have to be an admirer of Kim Jong-un and his sad outcast regime to imagine why he might be reluctant to relinquish his nuclear arsenal. North Korea remains the designated U.S. enemy in a war that, almost seven decades later, has never officially ended. It’s situated on a peninsula where the most powerful nation in the world holds military exercises twice a year. And Kim has had ample opportunity to observe how Washington has treated other leaders (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi) who gave up their nuclear programs. Certainly, threats of fire and fury are not going to make him surrender his arsenal, but they may still make Donald Trump feel like a real commander-in-chief.
Home Fires Burning
It’s not only in the international arena that Trump’s been burning things up. He’s failed -- for now -- to destroy the Affordable Care Act (though not for lack of striking matches), but the GOP has successfully aimed the Trump flamethrower at any vestiges of progressive taxation at the federal level. And now that the House and Senate are close to reconciling their versions of tax legislation, the Republicans have made it clear just why they’re so delighted to pass a bill that will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars. It gives them a “reason” to put to flames what still remains of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a vivid sense of where that presidential flamethrower could be aimed soon when he told radio host Ross Kaminsky, “We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.” The goal? Cutting appropriations for Medicare and Medicaid, programs shepherded through Congress in the mid-1960s by Lyndon Johnson. These achievements helped realize his vision of the United States as a Great Society, one that provides for the basic needs of all its citizens.
Meanwhile, when it comes to setting the American social environment on fire, President Trump has already announced his post-tax-bill target du jour: welfare "reform."
Welfare reform? Not a subject he even mentioned on the campaign trail in 2016, but different people are aiming that flamethrower now. The Hill reports the scene as Trump talked to a group of lawmakers in the Capitol basement:
“Ticking through a number of upcoming legislative priorities, Trump briefly mentioned welfare reform, sources in the room said.
“‘We need to do that. I want to do that,’ Trump told rank-and-file lawmakers in a conference room in the basement of the Capitol. The welfare line got a big applause, with one lawmaker describing it as an ‘off-the-charts’ reception.”
We know that getting “big applause” guarantees that a Trump line will also get repeated.
At a time when “entitlement” has become a dirty word, we’d do well to remember that not so long ago it wasn’t crazy to think that the government existed to help people do collectively what they couldn’t do as individuals. As a friend said to me recently, taxes are a more organized way of crowd-funding human needs.
Who even remembers that ancient time when candidate Trump, not yet an arsonist on the home front, promised to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? President Trump is a different matter.
It seems likely, however, that at least for now the Republicans won’t push him on Social Security because, as Paul Ryan told the Washington Post’s "Wonkblog," the Republicans don’t have enough votes to overcome a Senate filibuster and the program is too popular back home for a super-majority of Republicans to go after it.
Why can they pass a tax “reform” bill with only a simple majority, but not Social Security cuts? The tax bill is being rushed through Congress using the “reconciliation” process by which differences in the Senate and House versions are smoothed over to produce a single bill. This only requires a simple majority to pass in each house. The Senate's “Byrd Rule,” adopted in 1974, prohibits the use of the reconciliation process to make changes to Social Security. Thank you, former West Virginia senator Robert Byrd!
In addition to the programs that made up Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” he also signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is already hard at work setting fire to the latter, as the president continues to demand evidence for his absurd claim that he won the popular vote in the 2016 election. He must be having an effect. At least half of all Republicans now seem to believe that he indeed did win that vote.
And before we leave the subject, just a couple of final notes on literal fires in the Trump era. His Department of Transportation has been quietly at work making those more likely, too. In a move supported by fans of train fires everywhere, that department has quietly reversed an Obama-era rule requiring that trains carrying crude oil deploy, as Reuters reports, “an advanced braking system designed to prevent fiery derailments... The requirement to install so-called electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes was included in a package of safety reforms unveiled by the Obama administration in 2015 in response to a series of deadly derailments that grew out of the U.S. shale boom.”
Government data shows there have been 17 such derailments of trains carrying crude oil or ethanol in the U.S. since 2006.
Then there’s the fire that has probably destroyed my friend’s house in southern California even as I wrote this. Donald Trump can hardly be blamed for that one. The climate in this part of the world has already grown hotter and drier. We can certainly blame him, however, for turning up the heat on planet Earth by announcing plans to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, overseeing the slashing of tax incentives for alternative energy (amid a bonanza of favors for the fossil fuel industry), and working to assert an oil, gas, and coal version of American “energy dominance” globally. From the world’s leading economic power, there may be no larger “match” on the planet.
A Flame of Hope
What hope is there of quenching the Trumpian fires?
There is the fact that much of the world is standing up to him. At this month’s climate accord follow-up meeting in Paris, billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson announced “a dozen international projects emerging from the summit that will inject money into efforts to curb climate change.” The head of the World Bank insisted that the institution would stop funding fossil fuel programs within the next two years. Former American officials spoke up, too, as U.S. News & World Report observed:
“One by one, officials including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, billionaire [and former New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg, and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the world will shift to cleaner fuels and reduce emissions regardless of whether the Trump administration pitches in.”
I take comfort, too, in the extraordinary achievements of international civil society. Consider, for example, the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This summer, as a result of a campaign it led, two-thirds of the world’s nations -- 122 of them -- signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which outlaws the use, production, and possession of nuclear arms. That treaty -- and the Nobel that rewarded its organizers -- didn’t get a lot of coverage in the United States, perhaps because, predictably, we didn’t sign it.
In fact, none of the existing nuclear powers signed it, but the treaty remains significant nonetheless. We should not underestimate the moral power of international agreements like this one. Few of us remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed recourse to war for the resolution of international disputes. Nevertheless, that treaty formed the basis for the conviction of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg for their crimes against peace. By implication, the Kellogg-Briand treaty also legalized a whole set of non-military actions nations can now take, including the use of economic sanctions against countries that violate international norms or laws.
ICAN leaders Beatrice Fihn and Setsuko Thurlow (herself a Hiroshima survivor) believe that, over time, the treaty will change how the world thinks about nuclear weapons, transforming them from a necessary evil to an unthinkable one, and so will ultimately lead to their elimination. As Fihn told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, “If you’re uncomfortable with nuclear weapons under Donald Trump, you’re probably uncomfortable with nuclear weapons” in general. In other words, the idea of Trump’s tiny fingers on the nuclear trigger is enough to start a person wondering whether anybody’s fingers should be on that trigger.
The world’s reaction in Paris and ICAN’s passionate, rational belief in the moral power of international law are like a cool drink of water on a very hot day.
Copyright 2017 Rebecca Gordon