TUCSON, Arizona – Down here in the borderlands, Donald Trump’s fantasy world takes on stark reality far beyond the human suffering and senseless political drama that is rapidly isolating America from a world on which it is visiting wide-scale calamity.
Of course, the United States must protect its borders. This is a complex, long-term job for experts who understand the real problems, not a vainglorious plunge into idiocy by a cornered faux-president desperate to bamboozle a clueless cult he hopes can keep him in office.
It is now clear, even before Robert Mueller weighs in, that the Watergate cover-up amounts to a parking violation compared to Trump’s abuse of the presidency. Less obvious is the global impact of his obsession to wall off America from a world he is destabilizing fast.
To kick off a lecture series, “Keeping Up With a Mad World,” I wrote a tweet-sized summary:
“Earth boiling over, figuratively and literally; China eats our lunch, hungry an hour later. Moscow plays Russian roulette with nukes. 100 million refugees and migrants. Many die with whimper, others go out with bang. Allies shun America. Tyrants muzzle truth. Economic forecasts harrowing. Basically, we’re screwed.”
Those first three words are crucial since none of the rest matter if humans exit the scene. And Arizona makes the point with distressing clarity.
My best source on climate collapse has been Emiliano the olive tree by my terrace in Provence. Now I see signs of stress in Spike the saguaro out my front door in Tucson. As water tables drop, temperatures climb and the desert’s intricate ecology shifts, noble old cacti fight for their lives.
This may sound alarmist, but I’ve been watching the evidence and interviewing climate scientists since an alarming cruise to Antarctica in the 1970s. I am not an environmentalist, or any other kind of ist – just a reporter who takes note of what he sees with his own eyes.
There is plenty of doubt about time frames. But the pace of climate shift is directly linked to what actions governments take, which is nowhere near enough. I’ll make it, most likely, with air conditioning and a hat, but I don’t want to be of the generation that turned out the lights.
The story today is about migrants and refugees. But that, of course, is largely about climate catastrophe. Wars are fought over water and arable land. Fields and fisheries no longer sustain communities that depended on them for millennia. Deserts advance as fast as forests vanish.
And it is more than that, which brings us back to Trump, who not only denies global warming and the worsening of freak storms but also cuts back humanitarian aid for victims. When desperate people are left in the lurch, they go to desperate extremes.
Past presidents are remembered for soaring words, such as John F. Kennedy’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” We all know the rest. Trump’s will likely be his petulant answer when Democrats leaders, seeking compromise, refused his ultimatum: “I said bye-bye.”
Americans responded in now-typical polarized division. For the rest of the world, that underscored what they have come to expect from a fact-free wannabe dictator. He gives authoritarians free rein and leaves democratic leaders without their most crucial ally.
In an offhand remark, Trump gave Recep Tayyib Erdogan license to thump on the Kurds who did so much to cripple the Islamic State in Syria. Abandoned yet again by Washington, the Kurds veer toward Russia despite Trump’s later attempt to reassure them. One example among many.
A New York Times editorial titled, “Borderline Insanity,” caught this know-nothing approach exactly: “The situation is an especially rich example of the Trump Doctrine: Break something, then demand credit – and in this case a lot of money – for promising to fix it.”
Upon taking office, Trump taunted Kim Jong-un, saying he could never reach the United States with a missile. “Little Rocket Man” sped up his nuclear program and picked a date to prove Trump wrong: July 4. Then he achieved coveted status with a showy summit. Now talks are back at square one, and Pyongyang is a bigger problem than ever. Again, just one example.
We need to worry about those unique Sonoran-desert saguaros, along with so much of our other natural resources and splendor. But we do the opposite, gouging up treasured landscape for copper and coal, and poisoning or drawing down dwindling aquifers as our forests blaze.
Now fixated on his wall, like an infant in a shopping cart wailing for M&Ms, Trump threatens to declare a national emergency and divert funds from disaster relief to pay for it. Mexico, he keeps insisting, will be forced to cough up reimbursement.
I have the power to do it, he repeatedly asserts. Of course, he does. American voters lent it to him, and they can take it back if he flouts their laws, weakens their nation and condemns their children’s future.
We are all at stake in Trump’s gamble. He gives his hardcore free rein to be selfish, racist and ignorant. He commands support from a Senate that relies on funding from rich donors who pile up wealth. And the trauma-drama he creates to divert attention distracts us from real crises.
The New York Times reports that the FBI investigated a previously unthinkable question is 2017. Is the American president a tool of Russia? And that begs the obvious follow-up: If he is not, why is he fighting so hard to keep facts from emerging? Obstruction amounts to collusion.
Trump’s denials ring hollow on such occasions as the Armistice Day summit in Paris. He sat sullenly among America’s oldest and closet allies until Vladimir Putin walked in, and he stood up with a shit-eating grin.
The Washington Post reveals that Trump snatched the official translator’s notes from his two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki. U.S. intelligence had to monitor Russian traffic to find out what they talked about. History will have only Trump’s word, a highly dubious source.
This seems to take us some distance from Spike the saguaro and Emiliano the olive tree. But not really. Just take the border. Studies show a wall would bisect the habitats of hundreds of wildlife species, from pygmy owls to the last jaguars that still roam north of Mexico.
A veteran U.S. Geological Survey scientist fumed when I asked him about the wall. “The only things that wouldn’t affect,” he said, “would be worms and birds.”
Stepping back, we ignore the future that saguaros and olive trees foreshadow at our own peril. If they go, we’re all next. Exactly when? Does it really matter?