Trump’s bizarre theatrics distract us from the real crisis

(Originally published in South China Morning Post on July 8, 2019.)

The spectacle of warplanes roaring over the Lincoln Memorial for Donald Trump’s “Salute to America” on July 4 – less than a week after the president squabbled with the United States’ strategic allies and made light of Russian election interference with his buddy Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit – could be read several ways.

The most obvious conclusion about Trump’s actions over the week, which so many of his opponents have put forward, is that he wants to undo the world order Washington has moulded over decades. But consider also that these are just another example of the brilliant obfuscation tactics that have served Trump so well.

Many US media reports of Trump’s Independence Day atmospherics lamented the militaristic display, pointing out the reasons the US doesn’t traditionally put its arms on show. Others noted that Trump refrained from attacking everyone he perceives as an enemy, giving him extra points for acting like a grown-up.

Few groused about Trump’s order to make this year’s fireworks extravaganza longer than usual, and no one could blame him for the fact that weather conditions made it difficult to see the entire show, another aspect of the festivities that got lots of coverage.

The deluge of headlines about the Fourth of July in Washington, good and bad, was good for Trump and his party. That’s because news and analysis of the celebration in Washington helped drown out the fact that an Independence Day fireworks display was cancelled in Anchorage, Alaska, where record-breaking temperatures in recent months made explosives too much of a wildfire risk.

Unfortunately for Trump and his party, extreme weather events in the US, like the heatwave in Anchorage, provide further evidence of what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But as long as Trump keeps fuelling the outrage of Democrats and many moderate Republicans, he’s safe.

Trump, one of the world’s most defiant holdouts on greenhouse gas reduction, needs to keep Americans fixated on his puzzling behaviour to at least delay a general consensus that urgent action must be taken to fight climate change.

It might seem a bad strategy, politically, for the US leader to sit so comfortably with autocrats like Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – those just as eager as Trump to dismantle the post-war order.

But his base doesn’t seem to care. Trump and the Republicans have successfully defied the critics who said their tax cuts would yield only short-term economic gains and then lead to recession. US economic indicators remain strong and that’s all that matters to Trump, his party and their supporters.

They believe the consensus among the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists – that the burning of fossil fuel is accelerating the pace of global warming – is wrong. They have bought into the scepticism about the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions that various interest groups have been able to engineer, and are cheerleading for one side of a heavily asymmetrical argument.

They don’t see that the other side of the debate is based on decades of research by thousands of scientists with no discernible political agenda, whose findings are supported by weather patterns observable to everyone.

Instead, Trump Nation supports the side which has no central thesis explaining these weather patterns and whose position rests primarily on efforts to find flaws in calculations that take thousands of factors into consideration. Nor do they acknowledge that the argument they have bought into is paid for by oil and gas industry stakeholders.

But the confluence of extreme weather events – Florida-like temperatures in Alaska, the retreat of ice on the Bering Sea and mussels along California’s coasts roasting in their own shells ­– is wearing away the ground that climate change deniers stand on.

So, when Trump sends tanks into the nation’s capital to project the aura of a strongman, when he lets his daughter Ivanka wiggle her way into the conversations of world leaders at G20, when he orders those in his administration to ignore congressional subpoenas, Trump’s detractors shouldn’t see these acts as those of a leader detached from reality.

In fact, Trump’s theatre of the bizarre keeps journalists too busy to devote enough coverage to the climate crisis we’re all facing.

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