Context — May 2, 2017, 4:31 pm

The Moderator in Manila

What the Trumps are building in the Philippines

Photo credit: JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images

There is a Philippine legend of Lakambakod, also called Lakanbakod, a commander-in-chief, whose name means “great or noble fence.” Lakambakod is a protector of crops and a healer of diseases, but he is also known for watching over houses and, according to the historian William Henry Scott, possessing “gilded genitals as long as a rice stalk.” It is this deity, perhaps, who has been watching over the rising Trump Tower Manila, a $150 million project in a country where around 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Over the weekend, an image went viral of a billboard advertising the building; it was actually an old photograph from around the time that the Trumps broke ground, in 2012.

Trump Tower, which will reach fifty-seven stories, “really symbolizes everything that a Trump project means,” Eric Trump, Donald’s son, said a couple years ago. The Trump organization has since reported that 94 percent of the units have been presold, with one-bedroom apartments going for $750,000. (The average salary in Manila is less than $10 a day.) Construction was meant to be complete by the end of 2016; it wasn’t. Instead, while the forty-ninth floor was going up and the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, was in the midst of slaughtering as many as 8,000 of his citizens, Trump was elected to the Oval Office. The two men quickly found that they had a good rapport. As infamous instigators, they have plenty in common, including a history of vitriol against former president Barack Obama, whom Duterte called “the son of a whore” and Trump, even more damningly, declared a non-citizen.

Over the weekend, President Trump reached out to President Duterte on the phone, requesting a visit. This was not the first time he had extended the invitation. When Trump was preparing his move to the White House, Duterte told the press, “He said if I am around he wants to be notified of my presence.” This time, Trump had a specific item to discuss: North Korea’s nuclear program, and the likely possibility of imminent diplomatic crisis in Asia. Duterte politely declined. “I’m tied up,” he replied. “I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia and go to Israel.

There is always some awkwardness when an overture is rejected. Emily Post suggests that if you’re otherwise occupied, you should “accentuate the positive” and “be straight about the future.” This is tough for Duterte, however. Besides being an extrajudicial-killing enthusiast, he has lately been snubbing the United States in favor of talking to China. He also said, “Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not.” Nevertheless, he has claimed, “I can always be a friend to anybody.”

If feelings were hurt, Ivanka Trump may have been sent in to smooth things over. On the billboard, she is pictured wearing a modest black dress, appearing business-ready with her hair pulled back. Her fingers are resting in her palm as if she were a stewardess on an exotic airline. She is a professed “daddy’s girl,” after all, and says that she serves as a moderating influence in her new official role as her father’s adviser. In Ivanka’s capacity as a woman who works—her new book, Women Who Work, went on sale today—her role is tempering a man who doesn’t. When the image of her, watching like T.J. Eckleburg over the Manila skyline, was said to have been taken down some time ago, an observer might have wished, history-making corruption aside, that it wasn’t. Duterte could use some moderating, too.

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:


Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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