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Wildfire lectures from America's instructor-in-chief

Wildfire lectures from America's instructor-in-chief
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“In a democracy,” Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “a leader must be the head teacher, someone eager to respond to doubts and questions and explain the need for and benefits of a new course.”

Can anyone doubt that (in addition to the power he wields) Donald Trump relishes the role of head teacher? That he does not hesitate to respond — aggressively — to doubts and questions about whether climate change, for example, is a contributing cause of the wildfires in California?

Does anyone care that on this subject — and many others — his explanations are unsullied by facts?

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In 2012, Mr. Trump tweeted that climate change “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Six years later, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE acknowledged the world was getting warmer, doubted the rise in temperatures was “man-made,” and predicted that, in any event, “it will change back again.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord; rolling back Obama-era regulations on coal-producing power plants, auto tailpipes, and oil and gas drilling sites; blocking scientists in federal agencies from publishing data or speaking about the potential harm of climate change; forcing some of them to retire and installing like-minded political appointees; removing material related to climate change from government web sites; and cancelling research projects on topics related to the environment.

As he responded to the wildfires that destroyed Paradise, Calif., the nation’s instructor-in-chief shrugged off a lengthy study in which climate scientists concluded that greenhouse gas admissions could triple the frequency of severe fires across Western states. Instead, Trump indicated that Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, had told him that Finns “spend a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have a problem, and when it is, it’s a very small problem.” Americans, Trump insisted, “have got to take care of the floors, the floors of the forest.”

Trump was probably not pleased when Finland’s president said he did not recall a discussion about leaf raking.

Last week, the president weighed in again on California wildfires, which have already burned more than three million acres and killed three dozen people. “When trees fall down after a short period of time,” he said, in a portentous statement of the obvious, “they become very dry, really like a matchstick. And they explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the flames.”

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Echoing his oft-repeated comment about the Coronavirus (“It will go away… like a miracle”), he predicted “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” When Wade Crawfoot, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources replied, “I wish science agreed with you” and begged the president not to “put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management,” Trump shot back: “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

President Trump did not respond, however, when Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomWashington, Oregon, Nevada join California plan to review COVID-19 vaccine OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Ford, GM scientists knew in 1960s that emissions caused climate change: report | Testing for oil in Arctic wildlife refuge proposed for this winter | Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races Electric vehicles see state-level gains MORE, the governor of California, pointed out that only 3 percent of public land is under state control, while 57 percent is forested land, administered by the federal government. The Trump administration, Newsom was implying, had failed in its responsibility to “make America rake again.”

It is hard to believe that when Mr. Trump delivers lectures about “the floors of the forest,” possible disinfectant injection, and a host of other urgently important issues, he actually believes what he says. Is it possible that in November a sizable majority of voters, including some once loyal supporters, will order the successor of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and John F. Kennedy, and the nation’s instructor-in-chief, to take a permanent sabbatical?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."