Trump Time Capsule #6: There Is No California Drought

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The intensifying California drought, via Wunderground.

Daily Trump #6: May 27, 2016. Drought? What drought?

The rains of the past El Nino season have slightly offset the disastrous multi-year drought in California, which is the worst in the state’s recorded history. Just in case you skipped through that previous sentence too quickly: for as far back as weather records have been kept, there has never before been as long or severe a shortage of rainfall as what California has endured since 2012. (Tree-ring records show prolonged droughts in much earlier eras, some lasting for centuries.) Some reservoirs in northern California have been partly refilled by the recent rains; most in the south are still very dry. The water supply is nowhere close to back to normal, and what the new “normal” might be no one can say.

Everything about life in California has been affected by the drought. Governor Jerry Brown has turned to it in all of his recent State of the State messages, both as an emergency to confront and as a parable for the state’s future. For instance, here is the way he spoke about it in this year’s address (emphasis added):

One of the bright spots in our contentious politics is the joining together of both parties and the people themselves to secure passage of Proposition 1, the Water Bond. That, together with our California Water Action Plan, establishes a solid program to deal with the drought and the longer-term challenge of using our water wisely.

Our goal must be to preserve California’s natural beauty and ensure a vibrant economy – on our farms, in our cities and for all the people who live here. There is no magic bullet but a series of actions must be taken. We have to recharge our aquifers, manage the groundwater, recycle, capture stormwater, build storage and reliable conveyance, improve efficiency everywhere, invest in new technologies – including desalination – and all the while recognize that there are some limits.

Achieving balance between all the conflicting interests is not easy but I pledge to you that I will listen and work patiently to achieve results that will stand the test of time. Water goes to the heart of what California is and what it has been over centuries. Pitting fish against farmer misses the point and grossly distorts reality. Every one of us and every creature that dwells here form a complex system which must be understood and respected.

***

This is the way a leader sounds if he has invested the time to understand an issue; if he recognizes the stakes in dealing with it seriously; if he is willing to take on the complex work of finding areas of agreement, including among groups with deeply conflicting interests; and if he is willing to begin a process that cannot possibly be completed on his watch but which his state cannot afford to delay. You can agree or disagree with Jerry Brown’s water policies or other aspects of his leadership. (I’m generally an admirer.) Either way, no one can doubt that he is giving this his all.

Here, by contrast, is the way a shallow narcissist sounds if he knows nothing about the issue, doesn’t care to learn, and is just shooting off his mouth with the latest thing he heard:

AP story, in Time

As Jerry Brown pointed out in his speech, there is a tradeoff between environmental and immediate economic interests, when it comes to managing water or other natural resources. (To provide enough river flow for fish to survive, some water is sent straight to the sea, in streams and rivers, rather than being diverted for irrigation or residential/commercial use.) But as Brown also pointed out, the farmer-vs-fisherman tension isn’t the real problem — very much as immigration is not the real problem when we wrestle with the rich-vs-poor economy or the stagnation of median incomes.

That’s something a real leader has the intelligence and discipline to understand, and the backbone to try to explain. The way Trump has approached this issue is beneath contempt.

***

Again my purpose is to lay down a real-time record, at a point when none of us can be sure that the man capable of saying such things will not be president, of the kind of person he is. This is the man more and more of the Republican party is deciding they can accept — including, today, Senator “Little Marco” Rubio, who not long ago was promising to pay any price and bear any burden to keep what he called a “con man” away from the presidency.

You can never tell which of these lies, vulgarities, or oversimplifications will hit you particularly hard. I’m surprised by how much this “no drought!” claim infuriates me. That’s probably because I have known all my life the role water plays in the West, and have recently seen how hard people there, from Governor Brown on down, have been wrestling with these sere new realities. And then to have some showboat ignoramus blow in and say: No, the answer’s simple! Someone’s cheating you!  … I won’t complete that thought but will just say: this is the man who could be the next president. And, to any future readers checking in after the world knows who’s won, this is how it looked in real time.