The Mendocino Complex Wildfire is the largest fire in California’s history. It has burned more than 300,000 acres in Northern California to date and is one of 19 wildfires currently active in the state. The fire was big enough that, on Monday, President Donald Trump saw fit to briefly depart from his schedule of executive television-monitoring to comment on it. As a fan of The Biggest as a general concept, Trump has done this sort of thing before, generally by issuing some weirdly value-neutral tweets in which he seems almost to be gloating about the tremendous weather that many have said is happening more and more since he defeated Crooked Hillary and became your president.
Monday’s effort was not that, and fits more cleanly into a different and more interesting corner of Trump’s Twitter approach. This is not to say that the two tweets, which were made four hours apart and sandwiched around some idiosyncratically capitalized endorsements of various Republican congressional candidates, were good tweets. They were stupendously bad tweets, in fact, and misidentified both ... actually, you know what, here you go. Do your best:
The initial response to these priceless presidential thought jewels, across a wide spectrum of public opinion, was a horrified and faintly nauseated bafflement, which is in itself nothing new where the Big Boy In Chief is concerned. Trump is many things, but as a general rule he is not much of a mystery. We know who he is and what he’s about, which are, respectively, “a great wet loaf of a man whose mind has been stewed into a chunky beige paste by the internet and his own stupefying vanity” and “being noticed.” As a result, most of his tweets—most of his communications in general—wind up being about that. Trump is either complaining about something he has just seen or remembered seeing on television, or he is crowing about it. He is shitting on someone else—Bette Midler, Chuck Schumer, Chuck Todd, whoever—as part of some opaque beef or other, or he is oafishly suggesting that people pay more attention to Donald Trump. This is one of the chief reasons why he can’t tweet about a hurricane bearing down on a major American city without sounding like he somehow wants to be praised for that hurricane’s historic destructive power.
But the wildfire tweets belong to another Trumpian tweetway, in which he peevishly offers commonsense solutions to major problems that people less intelligent than him would otherwise be incapable of discovering. This style of Trump tweet—it’s a scaled-up version of his past dedication to keeping Robert Pattinson apprised of his opinions re: Kristen Stewart—reflect a different aspect of his world-historic impatience. In the case of these tweets, though, he enters some truly forbidden mind-zones.
There is a lot of very confusing shit in those two brief tweets—water being directed into the ocean for reasons unknown but probably having to do with the state’s Democratic governor, trees conspiring with a wildfire to take attention away from Trump and the super job he’s been doing. All these things are confusing not just because they’re bad/dumb thoughts badly phrased, but because they were bad/dumb thoughts that had never before been spotted in the wild. Journalists asked experts, as journalists do, why Trump was wrong, and they struggled not so much at debunking his argument as figuring out what it even was. “There’s just nothing in his tweet that makes any sense,” the environmental scientist Peter Gleick told Mother Jones, “except maybe the very last line.” Gleick believes that last bit—the Steve Brule–ian argument that the fires should be fought by removing their accomplices the trees—was a sop to logging interests.
I think I can help. Whereas usually Trump is wrong in the exact same way as whatever it was he just saw on television, he is instead wrong here in a way that reflects both his own belief that every damp thought pellet he extrudes is a gleaming golden truth and an older style of American political wrongness. Ronald Reagan, like Trump, was not an especially keen reader or terribly astute in his news judgment. Reagan’s statement, in 1980, that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” was criticized at the time and has been parsed and re-argued in the years since—trees actually do release compounds that have similar effects to emission-driven air pollution, perhaps Reagan was actually talking about isoprene, and so on. But the most striking similarity between that statement and Trump’s the-dummies-are-putting-too-much-water-in-the-ocean riff, beyond both statements being extremely wrong, is that they are wrong in ways that are extremely convenient—it turns out there’s nothing to worry about after all—and effectively impossible to reverse-engineer. They’re both statements that, until the literal President of the United States expressed them, had never been uttered aloud.
In both cases, the bad idea in question has the telltale sogginess of something that had spent years soaking in the sous vide machine of a lazy man’s decaying mind. In Reagan’s case, the trees-cause-pollution bit probably originated with some backslapping logging industry goof and got flipped into a home truth that No One Talks About because it was convenient in that moment. The source of Trump’s misperception is much easier to figure, because he’s been saying this same weird thing since before he was elected. In a May 2016 speech in Fresno, Trump debuted the idea that California, which was then in the grip of a historic drought, was in fact not in the grip of a historic drought. “When I just left, 50 or 60 farmers in the back and they can’t get water,” Trump maundered. “And I say, ‘How tough is it; how bad is the drought?’ ‘There is no drought, they turn the water out into the ocean.’ And I said I’ve been hearing it and I spent a half an hour with them, it’s hard to believe.”
Trump promised his audience that, when he won, “we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.” We can probably assume that Trump doesn’t understand the confusing specifics of California’s water policy any better than I do, which is to say not even a little bit. But it seems clear that what Trump heard or thought he heard from the 50 Or 60 Farmers In The Back that he spent an unbelievable half hour with has somehow both stayed with him and metastasized as his miraculous brain ran it through an endless game of telephone. Whatever it was that someone who was maybe a farmer maybe once said to Trump has now become this—a state dying of thirst and burning to a crisp while the loony libs idiotically direct its roaring rivers out to sea.
But, again, this is only the proximate explanation. Yes, Trump is taking some idiotic tossed-off falsehood that he was only barely paying attention to at the time and repeating it years down the line as a bit of Trump-branded expertise. This is not great, but I do the same thing with Dan Pasqua and everyone does this, to a certain extent, although most of us are not the fucking President of the United States of America. The other thing that Trump is doing here, though, and the part that makes it more confusing, is presenting all this expired store-brand bullshit as a powerful and forbidden truth that no one else dares speak.
Trump doesn’t know any more about what’s going with the wildfires in California than his television tells him, and all his television tells him is that they’re big. The rest he confidently fills in himself—that it wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for Bad Environmental Laws and loony libs doing things the wrong way, that the problem with stopping a fire that has already scorched hundreds of square miles is that there isn’t enough water to dump on it and also no one remembered to chop down the damn trees, which are highly flammable. This is all both dumb and weird, but as a general rule he is not big on reconsidering things, especially once his majestic condor of a brain has alighted on a solution.
He doesn’t want to know more, not just because he is not really super into learning things but because it would never occur to him that there would be more to learn beyond the (impossibly childish) answers that his wise gut furnishes. This is his strength, and it is a powerful one—a willed ignorance and willful stupidity so unbelievably thick as to be bulletproof. Trump can’t be wrong, in a way that is meaningful to him, because he will never believe that he is wrong, or even think to ask.
Trump already knows everything that he will ever know, and he will spend the rest of his life peevishly spraying his wisdom on whatever problem presents itself. If he hadn’t been elected president, this would just be Robert Pattinson’s problem, but that’s not the world we live in. We live, instead, in a world in which one of the dumbest and worst men of his generation gets things psychedelically wrong in ways that cause a great many people to suffer a great deal, and then moves on. He writes, “Think of California with plenty of water-Nice!” and then there it is, glorious and green. He has a lot of great friends there. And then he’s gone, and everyone goes back to trying to put out the fires.