Publisher's Note — July 11, 2017, 4:15 pm

Living with Trump

“Loathing for Trump makes people forget that, among other horrors, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats has already wasted around $3.7 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, sacrificed the lives of nearly 7,000 American soldiers, and wounded more than 52,000.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 4, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

How to act, how to live in Trump’s America? As a U.S. citizen, I’m haunted by these questions every day—every time the president makes some idiotic statement, or some violent and preposterous declaration issues forth from the White House. I’m going to be addressing these questions on July 14, in Autun, in eastern France, at the journalism festival where I’ve been invited to speak, along with Jorge Castañeda Gutman, the former secretary of foreign affairs of Mexico, and others.

I know that I have civic responsibilities. Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third president of the United States, wrote that “We are never permitted to despair of the commonwealth.” I try to take those words to heart whenever I’m confronted with the hideous reality of Trumpism. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Jefferson feared that, unless the “principle of rotation” was followed, a president elected every four years might turn into a dictator. What he was afraid of, I imagine, was a man like Donald Trump.

Jefferson believed in the idea of America as an ongoing experiment, never concluded, and he therefore accepted the text composed in Philadelphia in 1787, in the hope that it would be improved by amendments over the years. Indeed, much time had to pass, but in 1951, Congress ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment, which limited the president to no more than two elected terms in office. Defending that Constitution to the death (even though it is in constant need of reform) is the principal responsibility of a good American citizen in the era of Trump.

But Trumpism must also be dealt with in practical terms and requires engagement and analysis subtler and less rigid than simple loyalty to an eighteenth-century document. Trump’s America is an expanse of territory contaminated and deformed not only by the vulgarity of its loutish chief executive but also by its respectable enemies. I must confess that I sometimes sympathize with the criticisms of our president that border on hysteria, shouted incessantly on TV screens by commentators and comedians who are supposed to be working in the name of democracy. Dazed by anger, I find myself wishing only to be rid of Trump—without respect to the circumstances that brought him to power. The easiest method, advocated by numerous media personages, would be an impeachment triggered by business dealings between the Trump family and Russian interests, or by the obstruction of justice involved in the firing of James Comey, the former head of the FBI.

Unfortunately, this dream of a quick fix for Trumpism doesn’t address the real despair Jefferson warned of—the despair of ordinary working people suffering from industrial outsourcing, from a plague of killer drugs, from endless wars, from a pathetic minimum wage, from deteriorating schools, and from an increasingly expensive health care system. Among the obnoxious hypocrisies of the anti-Trump media—whose audiences and profits the president’s clownish behavior has caused to grow enormously—the one I find most irritating is the way that soldiers who have been killed or maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan are being exploited to demonstrate journalism’s solidarity with a working class that continues to send its children to meaningless deaths. I’m sick of listening to pious eulogies exalting the “sacrifices” made by these young people (at the moment, I’m thinking about a Marine lieutenant named Michael LiCalzi), who have been dispatched to distant quagmires for the benefit of politicians as ignorant of real war as George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Loathing for Trump makes people forget that, among other horrors, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats has already wasted around $3.7 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, sacrificed the lives of nearly 7,000 American soldiers, and wounded more than 52,000. Today, Bush is considered a practically serious portrait painter and Hillary a feminist martyr. Obama, the architect of the famous 2009 so-called surge in Afghanistan—a military intensification that accomplished nothing other than polishing up his image as commander-in-chief—is admired and missed like no other political figure.

Instead of coming to grips with the real American sickness, the media produces such special reports as The Russian Connection: Inside the Attack on Democracy, which was broadcast last month on CNN and discusses Vladimir Putin’s alleged plot to help elect Trump by hacking. Alas, the most serious attack on democracy is coming from within, promulgated by the patrons of the two political parties, the barons of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and the cynical executives of the television networks.

At the festival in Autun, my response to the menace of Trump will be to quote Jefferson on the menace of despotism, as stated in a letter he wrote while serving as the United States minister to France on the eve of the French Revolution: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people, enable them to see that it is in their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve it, and it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Maybe educating and informing the public can also provide “the only sure reliance” against despair.

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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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