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Why Has Trump Ignored California’s Wildfires?

Why Has Trump Ignored California’s Wildfires?

Sunday, 20 September, 2020 - 07:00

President Donald Trump is now planning a visit to California after mostly ignoring the devastating fires up and down the Pacific Coast this year. Why did he fail to address the disaster for so long? One theory blames the Electoral College: Since Trump has no chance to win in California, Oregon or Washington, he has no incentive to expend resources on the problem, even if Republicans in those states are among those harmed.

That may not be entirely wrong as a political analysis, but it significantly exaggerates Trump’s incentives. Why would a president worry about what happens in a state that he’s going to lose? Other than, say, altruism or a sense of decency? For one thing, as a pure political matter, many of those in California have friends and family in other states, including many that are critical to winning the presidency. I’m from Arizona and live in Texas, but I have about a dozen family members in those coastal states, and more than a few friends. I care about what happens to them, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

For another thing, citizens have more than their vote: They can donate time and money, and those resources are transferable over state lines. If a president fails to help an area in need, or insults its residents, that’s apt to motivate opponents and deactivate supporters. It may even convince some weak supporters to switch sides and take their resources with them. California is also, of course, huge. Undermining its economy could cause national damage. It’s not unusual for parties to attempt to steer economic activity to swing states or areas where they have a majority. But just letting big states rot (or burn)? That could easily, well, backfire.

There’s more. Presidential action faced with a natural disaster (for example) can generate positive stories, including pictures and video that will play in the national press. Presidential inaction? That can generate stories that no president wants, and that people outside of the affected areas will see. And even if there are no immediate Electoral College gains to be had, presidents and their parties care about more than the presidency. California still has a number of contested House elections — and the House minority leader is from California and isn’t going to be too happy if the administration ignores his district.

So if all that is true, why has Trump ignored the fires? Probably for the same reason he has spent most of the past seven months trying to ignore the pandemic. I suspect it’s partly because he doesn’t want to associate himself with bad news. But the main reason is surely that he’s just not very good at understanding the politics of the presidency.


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