Ever so briefly, Northern California was green. Years of drought yellowed the land, but last winter’s rains turned the hills of Napa and Sonoma lush again. Then came last week’s fires, which have killed dozens and cost millions of dollars. Now the land is ominous and black.
As the fires burned, President Trump flew to Northern California, comforting the displaced residents of Santa Rosa and promising the fullest emergency response possible. Wait, sorry, that was fake news. Trump played golf. The same man who eagerly monitored the Florida and Texas hurricanes had only this to say about the California fires: “We have FEMA there. We have military there. We have first responders there. It’s a tragic situation.” Also: “We’re doing a good job.”
Since the fires began, Trump has used his Twitter account to malign “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, the media in general, the “failing” New York Times in particular and to celebrate the condition of the stock market. He tweeted nothing germane until Wednesday: “Our hearts are with all affected by the wildfires in California,” he said, in a show of compassion worthy of a Russian bot.
I’ve asked communications officials in the White House twice whether Trump will visit Northern California. The lack of response is far more telling than any answer could be. The president doesn’t care about our state.
California is an eerily perfect microcosm of the nation, with coastal redoubts of Democratic influence giving way to vast stretches of Republican country.
Perhaps Trump has a New Yorker’s view of California, borrowed wholesale from “Annie Hall”: slick Hollywood producers in shades driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, a state full of vegans who live in stark modernist houses, drink wheatgrass martinis and consider Bruce Willis films high culture.
That’s an outdated stereotype, sure. But even if Los Angeles is “the new new Brooklyn,” as the Guardian maintains, Trump is a Queens guy. And since this is a family newspaper, we can’t print what Queens guys think of Brooklyn, old or new or new-new. Many presidents past have stayed at the modernist estate known as Sunnylands, near Palm Springs. Trump prefers South Florida to Southern California.
Trump’s apparent disdain for California has more immediate causes too. After he won the election but lost the popular vote, Trump blamed “millions” in California (and elsewhere) for electoral fraud.
Granted, there’s not much love for Trump among prominent Californians. Gov. Jerry Brown once said he’d wall off the state if the reality star were to prevail on election day. After Trump did prevail, the state’s politicians eagerly designated themselves as leaders of the “Resistance.” There was serious talk of secession — or at least half-serious.
But Trump is the president — of the whole country. While first responders don’t need a tweet from Trump to spring into action, it would be nice to know that the president is paying attention. And if he were to tour, say, the charred remains of a trailer home park in Santa Rosa, he might discover that while Clinton handily won the state, there are plenty of “real Americans” here who voted to Make America Great Again, and that many of them feel forgotten by the wealthy liberals of San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are opioids here, and despair. There are hollows that resemble something out of rural Kentucky.
In that way, the state is an eerily perfect microcosm of the nation, with coastal redoubts of Democratic influence giving way to vast stretches of Republican country. Yes, Clinton won both Napa and Sonoma. But the nearby counties of Colusa, Sutter and Yuba went for Trump, and rather handily so.
For the past half-century, my in-laws have owned a cabin in the part of Sonoma known as West County. It is dramatically beautiful, redwood groves giving way to ocean vistas. There are old roadhouses like Negri’s and Dinucci’s. There are bikers inside these roadhouses, the kind who wear leather instead of Lycra. There are men who work with their hands, who drink Bud Light and do not care to know the difference between a cabernet and a nebbiolo.
The people who drive up from San Francisco have “Billionaires Can’t Buy Bernie” bumper stickers. But if Trump were to travel along the Russian River, he’d find a Trump-Pence campaign sign affixed high on a redwood. It has been there for months, on a curve of road where it can’t be missed, a stark blue rectangle in a landscape otherwise green and brown.
But we don’t mete out compassion based on voter registration, do we? When the fires come, it shouldn’t matter whether your bumper stickers extol the 2nd Amendment or the American Civil Liberties Union. Most Americans know as much. Does President Trump?
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national affairs.