California Knew the Carr Wildfire Could Happen. It Failed to Prevent it

Dozens of interviews and a review of records show that virtually every aspect of the blaze had been forecast and worried over for years. Every level of government understood the dangers and took few, if any, of the steps needed to prevent catastrophe.

by Keith Schneider for ProPublica

On the afternoon of July 23, a tire on a recreational trailer blew apart on the pavement of State Route 299 about 15 miles northwest of Redding, California. The couple towing the Grey Wolf Select trailer couldn’t immediately pull it out of traffic. As they dragged it to a safe turnout, sparks arced from the tire’s steel rim. Three reached the nearby grass and shrubs; two along the highway’s south shoulder, the third on the north. Each of the sparks ignited what at first seemed like commonplace brush fires.

But if the sparking of the brush fires was an unpredictable accident, what happened next was not. Fire jumped from the roadside into the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, a 42,000-acre unit of the National Park Service. There, it gained size and velocity, and took off for the outskirts of Redding. The fire burned for 39 days and charred over 229,000 acres, and when the last embers died on Aug. 30, the fight to contain it had cost $162 million, an average of $4.15 million a day. Almost 1,100 homes were lost. Eight people died, four of them first responders.

Dozens of interviews and a review of local, state and federal records show that virtually every aspect of what came to be known as the Carr Fire — where it ignited; how and where it exploded in dimension and ferocity; the toll in private property — had been forecast and worried over for years. Every level of government understood the dangers and took few, if any, of the steps needed to prevent catastrophe. This account of how much was left undone, and why, comes at a moment of serious reassessment in California about how to protect millions of people living in vulnerable areas from a new phenomenon: Firestorms whose speed and ferocity surpass any feasible evacuation plans.

The government failure that gave the Carr Fire its first, crucial foothold traces to differences in how California and the federal National Park Service manage brush along state highways. Transportation officials responsible for upgrading Route 299 had appealed to Whiskeytown officials to clear the grass, shrubs and trees lining the often superheated roadway, but to no avail.

At the federal level, the park service official responsible for fire prevention across Whiskeytown’s 39,000 acres of forest had been left to work with a fraction of the money and staffing he knew he needed to safeguard against an epic fire. What steps the local parks team managed to undertake — setting controlled fires as a hedge against uncontrollable ones — were severely limited by state and local air pollution regulations.

And both the residents and elected officials of Redding had chosen not to adopt or enforce the kind of development regulations other municipalities had in their efforts to keep homes and businesses safe even in the face of a monstrous wildfire.

The inaction in and around Redding took place as the specter of unprecedented fires grew ever more ominous, with climate change worsening droughts and heating the California landscape into a vast tinderbox.

The story of the Carr Fire — how it happened and what might have been done to limit the scope of its damage — is, of course, just one chapter in a larger narrative of peril for California. It was the third of four immense and deadly fires that ignited over a 13-month period that started in October 2017. Altogether they killed 118 people, destroyed nearly 27,000 properties and torched 700,000 acres. The Camp Fire, the last of those horrific fires, was the deadliest in California history. It roared through the Sierra foothill town of Paradise, killing 86 people.

More than a century ago, cities confronted the risk of huge fires by reimaging how they would be built: substituting brick, concrete and steel for wood. Conditions are more complicated today, to say the least. But it does seem that the latest spasm of spectacular fires has prompted some direct steps for protecting the state into the future.

In September, California lawmakers added $200 million annually to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, budget over the next five years for fire prevention, up from $84.5 million in the current fiscal year. It’s enough to finance bush clearing and lighting deliberate fires — so-called “fuels reduction” and “prescribed fire” — on 500,000 acres of open space, wildlands and forest.

The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior also are putting more emphasis and money into prevention. This year, federal and state agencies set prescribed fires to 85,000 acres of open lands, an increase of 35,000 acres over previous years and likely a record, said Barnie Gyant, the Forest Service’s deputy regional forester in California.

In Redding, city officials have agreed to rethink how they will manage the several thousand acres of open land within the city limits.

But if these sorts of solutions are well understood, they have yet to attain widespread acceptance. An examination of the Carr Fire, including interviews with climate scientists, firefighters, policymakers and residents, makes clear that the task of adequately combating the real and present danger of fires in California is immense. And it’s a task made only more urgent by a novel feature of the Carr Fire: its explosion into a rampaging tornado of heat and flames. The blaze is further evidence that the decisions made at every level of government to address the fire threat are not only not working, but they have turned wildfires into an ongoing statewide emergency.

Success will require government agencies at every level to better coordinate their resources and efforts, and to reconcile often competing missions. It will require both a strategic and budgetary shift to invest adequately in fire prevention methods, even as the cost of fighting fires that are all but inevitable in the coming years continues to soar. And it will require residents to temper their desires for their dream homes with their responsibility to the safety of their neighbors and communities.

“We repeatedly have this discussion,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University and the author of well-regarded books on wildfires in the West. “It has more relevance now. California has wildfire fighting capability unlike any place in the world. The fact they can’t control the fires suggests that continuing that model will not produce different results. It’s not working. It hasn’t worked for a long time.”

A Thin Strip of Land, but a Matchstick for Mayhem

State Route 299, where the Carr Fire began outside Redding, is owned and managed by the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans. For two decades, it has been working to straighten and widen the mountain highway where it slips past 1,000-foot ridges and curves by the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

In 2016, Caltrans spent a week on Route 299 pruning trees and clearing vegetation along the narrow state right of way. And as they typically do with highways that cross national forest and parkland, Caltrans vegetation managers let the Whiskeytown leadership know they would like to do the same thing on federal land outside the right of way. The idea was to prevent fires by removing trees that could fall onto the highway, stabilizing hillsides and building new drainage capacity to slow erosion.

“The preferred practices are a clear fire strip from the edge of the pavement to 4 feet,” said Lance Brown, a senior Caltrans engineer in Redding who oversees emergency operations, “and an aggressive brush and tree pruning, cutting and clearing from 4 feet to 30 feet.”

But the transportation agency’s proposal to clear fire fuel from a strip of federal land along the highway ran into some of the numerous environmental hurdles that complicate fire prevention in California and other states.

Whiskeytown’s mission is to protect natural resources and “scenic values,” including the natural corridor along Route 299. Clearing the roadside would have been classified as a “major federal action” subject to a lengthy review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Whiskeytown would have been obligated to conduct a thorough environmental assessment of risks, benefits and alternatives.

Public hearings also are mandated by law, and such a proposal almost certainly would have prompted opposition from residents devoted to protecting trees and natural beauty. And so the basic fire prevention strategy of clearing brush and trees along a state highway never got traction with Whiskeytown’s supervisors.

Brown said the risks of leaving the trees and brush were clear. But he said Caltrans had no way to force the park to do anything.

Whiskeytown officials are “very restrictive,” Brown said. “They don’t want us to cut anything. They like that brush. They like that beauty. Our right of way is basically in their right of way.”

Tom Garcia, the recreation area’s fire manager, disputed the view that Whiskeytown opposed any kind of brush and tree clearing. “We most likely would not agree with a clear-cut type of fuel treatment,” he said, “but most certainly would have very likely supported a thin-from-below type of treatment activity that reduced the shrub and brush undergrowth and thinned some of trees as opposed to mowing everything down to the ground level.”

The threat posed by issues such as brush along the highway had drawn the worry of a local conservation group, as well.

The Western Shasta Resource Conservation District, devoted since the 1950s to safeguarding the region’s land and water, prepared a report in 2016 that called for more than 150 urgent fire prevention projects around Redding. They included clearing roadsides of trees and flammable grass and brush, constructing wide clearings in the forest, and scrubbing brush from public and private lands.

Just two of the projects were funded, neither of them in the Carr Fire’s path.

Rich in Fire Fuel; Starved for Money

The fire fed greedily on the dry roadside fuel left along Route 299 that day in late July. In minutes, it jumped from the state right of way into the federal park’s thick stands of brush and small trees, and then up the steep ridge of chaparral, pine and oak.

It was the sort of scenario Garcia had been worrying about for years. A 28-year firefighting veteran, Garcia was known in California for being an aggressive member of the school of fire prevention. He advocated brush and tree clearing and lighting deliberate fires to keep small burns from turning into uncontrollable wildfires.

What he lacked was money. Garcia’s budget for clearing, set by senior federal officials, provided just $500,000 a year for clearing brush and small trees, enough for about 600 acres annually. It was far, far less than needed. Garcia estimated that he should be clearing 5,000 acres a year. Given the budget constraints, he decided to focus on what he viewed as the highest risk area: the park’s eastern boundary closest to Redding’s expanding subdivisions and outlying communities. Garcia took a chance; he left Whiskeytown’s northern region, the forest farthest from Redding, largely untouched.

The risk was significant. A decade earlier, a fire had burned 9,000 acres in much the same area. By July 2018, the land had recovered and supported a new fire feast: Manzanita, oak, small conifers and decaying timber, a dry mass of fuel ready to burn.

Garcia was deeply frustrated. Clearing fuels works, he said. The 600 acres of Whiskeytown that Garcia had treated on a rotating schedule easily survived the Carr Fire. Clearly visible lines ran up the ridges, like a photograph divided into black-and-white and full-color panels. On one side stood tree skeletons charred by the blaze. On the other, healthy groves of green trees.

But despite such proven effectiveness, fuels reduction has never attained mainstream acceptance or funding in Sacramento, the state capital, or in Washington, D.C. Half of Garcia’s annual $1 million fire management budget pays for a crew of firefighters and a garage full of equipment to respond to and put out fires. The other half is devoted to clearing brush and small trees.

Garcia said it would cost about $3.5 million to treat 5,000 to 6,000 acres annually. A seven-year rotation would treat the entire park, he said. The risk of fires bounding out of Whiskeytown would be substantially reduced, Garcia said, because they would be much easier to control.

In Garcia’s mind, the price paid for starving his budget was enormous: The Carr Fire incurred $120 million in federal disaster relief, $788 million in property insurance claims, $130 million in cleanup costs, $50 million in timber industry damage, $31 million in highway repair and erosion control costs, $2 million annually in lost property tax revenue and millions more in lost business revenue.

“For $3.5 million a year, you could buy a lot more opportunity to prevent a lot of heartache and a lot of destruction,” Garcia said. “You’d make inroads, that’s for sure. Prevention is absolutely where our program needs to go. It’s where California needs to go.”

Stoked by the land Garcia had been unable to clear, the Carr Fire raged, despite the grueling work of almost 1,400 firefighters, supported by 100 fire engines, 10 helicopters, 22 bulldozers and six air tankers. The firefighters were trying to set a perimeter around the angry fire, which was heading north. In two days it burned over 6,000 acres and incinerated homes in French Gulch, a Gold Rush mining town set between two steep ridges.

Late on July 25, the fire changed course. The hot Central Valley began sucking cold air from the Pacific Coast. By evening, strong gusts were pushing the fire east toward Redding at astonishing speed. By midnight, the Carr Fire, now 60 hours old, had charged across 10 miles and 20,000 acres of largely unsettled ground.

The fire raced across southwest Shasta County. By early evening on July 26, it burned through 20,000 more acres of brush and trees and reached the Sacramento River, which flows through Redding. From a rise at the edge of his Land Park subdivision, Charley Fitch saw flames 30 feet tall. A diabolical rain of red embers was pelting the brush below him, sparking new fires. He jumped into his vehicle, drove back to the house and alerted his wife, Susan, it was time to leave.

“Do You Like the Brush or Do You Want Your Home to Burn?”

On the outskirts of Redding, the Carr Fire encountered even more prodigious quantities of fuel: the homes and plastic furniture, fences, shrub and trees of exurban Shasta County.

Two hours past midnight on July 26, Jeff Coon was startled awake by his dogs. Through the curtain he saw the flashing blue lights of a passing county sheriff cruiser. He heard evacuation orders sternly issued over bullhorns. Coon, a retired investment adviser, smelled smoke. The sky east of his home on Walker Terrace, in the brush and woodlands 5 miles west of Redding, was red with wildfire.

Almost every other wildfire Coon experienced in Redding started far from the city and headed away from town. The Carr Fire was behaving in surprising ways. It was bearing down on Walker Terrace, which is where the ring of thickly settled development in the brush and woods outside Redding begins. Coon’s Spanish tile ranch home at the end of the street would be the first to encounter the flames.

“I jumped into my truck and caught up with the sheriff down the road,” Coon recalled. He said: ‘Evacuate immediately! Like now!’ My wife and I didn’t pack much. She grabbed the dogs and some food. I grabbed some shirts.”

In the terrible and deadly attack over the next 20 hours, the Carr Fire killed six people — four residents and two firefighters — and turned nearly 1,100 houses into smoking rubble, including all but two of the more than 100 homes in Keswick, a 19th-century mining-era town outside Redding. Two more first responders died after the fire burned through Redding.

The horrific consequences were entirely anticipated by city and county authorities. Both local governments prepared comprehensive emergency planning reports that identified wildfire as the highest public safety threat in their jurisdictions. Redding sits at the eastern edge of thousands of acres of brushy woodlands, known as the wildland urban interface, now thick with homes built over the past two decades and classified by the state and county as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” Nearly 40 percent of the city is a very high hazard severity zone.

To reduce the threat, the county plan calls for a “commitment of resources” to initiate “an aggressive hazardous fuels management program,” and “property standards that provide defensible space.” In effect, keeping residents safe demands that residents and authorities starve fires.

The Redding emergency plan noted that from 1999 to 2015, nine big fires had burned in the forests surrounding Redding and 150 small vegetation fires ignited annually in the city. The city plan called for measures nearly identical to the county’s to reduce fuel loads. And it predicted what would happen if those measures weren’t taken. “The City of Redding recently ran a fire scenario on the west side, which was derived from an actual fire occurrence in the area,” wrote the report’s authors. “As a result of the fire-scenario information, it was discovered that 17 percent of all structures in the city could be affected by this fire.”

The planning reports were mostly greeted by a big civic yawn. City and county building departments are enforcing state regulations that require contractors to “harden” homes in new subdivisions with fireproof roofs, fire-resistant siding, sprinkler systems and fire-resistant windows and eaves. But the other safety recommendations achieved scant attention. The reason is not bureaucratic mismanagement. It’s civic indifference to fire risk. In interview after interview, Redding residents expressed an astonishing tolerance to the threat of wildfires.

Despite numerous fires that regularly ignite outside the city, including one that touched Redding’s boundary in 1999, residents never expected a catastrophe like the Carr Fire. In public opinion polls and election results, county and city residents expressed a clear consensus that other issues — crime, rising housing prices, homelessness and vagrancy — were much higher priorities.

Given such attitudes, fire authorities in and outside the city treated the fire prevention rules for private homeowners as voluntary. State regulations require homeowners in the fire hazard zones to establish “defensible spaces.” The rules call for homeowners to reduce fuels within 100 feet of their houses or face fines of up to $500. Cal Fire managers say they conduct 5,000 defensible space inspections annually in Shasta County and neighboring Trinity County. Craig Wittner, Redding’s fire marshal, said he and his team also conduct regular inspections.

State records show not a single citation for violators was issued in Shasta County in 2017 or this year.

Wittner explained how public indifference works in his city. Each year his budget for brush clearing amounts to about $15,000. Yet even with his small program, residents complain when crews cut small trees and brush. “They like living close to nature,” he said. “They like the privacy. I put it to them this way: Do you like the brush or do you want your home to burn down?”

Redding owns and manages more than 2,000 acres of public open space, about a quarter of the heavily vegetated land within city boundaries. The city’s program to clear brush from public lands averages 50 acres annually. Brush and clearing on private land is virtually nonexistent. Whether or not that changes could hinge on a lawsuit filed in mid-September and a new property tax program being prepared by city officials.

Jaxon Baker, the developer of Land Park and Stanford Hills, two major residential complexes, filed the suit. In it he argued that the city anticipated the deadly consequences of a big fire in west Redding, but did not adequately follow its own directives to clear brush from city-owned open spaces. Redding’s Open Space Master Plan, completed in August, sets out goals for future land and recreational investments. It does not mention fire as a potential threat. Baker’s suit called for rescinding that plan and writing a new one that identifies fire as a higher priority in municipal open space management. “It makes sense,” Baker said. “We have a lot of city-owned land that burns. We just learned that.”

On Nov. 6, the Redding City Council acknowledged that Baker was right and rescinded the Open Space Master Plan, thereby resolving the lawsuit. Preparations for writing a new one have not yet been addressed by the council. Barry Tippin, Redding’s city manager, said that city officials are preparing a proposal to establish a citywide defensible space district and a new property tax to sharply increase public spending for fuels reduction on public and private land. “This is a city that is leery of new taxes,” Tippin said. “But after what happened here in the summer, people may be ready for this kind of program.”

Coon, who had evacuated his neighborhood as fire engulfed it, returned to find his home standing. He wasn’t surprised. Prevention, he said, works, and he invested in it, even without any local requirements that he do so.

Though his home was built in 1973 and remodeled in 1993, it met almost all of the requirements of Shasta County’s latest fire safe building codes. The mansard roof was fire resistant, as were the brick walls. Coon paid attention, too, to the eaves, which he kept protected from blowing leaves. And he didn’t have a wooden fence.

Prompted by his son, a firefighter with Cal Fire, and his own understanding of fire risk, Coon had also established a big perimeter of light vegetation around his house, a safe zone of defensible space. He worked with the Bureau of Land Management to gain a permit to clear a 100-foot zone of thick brush and small trees from the federal land that surrounded his house. He trimmed his shrubs, kept the yard clear of leaves and branches, cleaned out the gutters and discarded plastic items that could serve as fuel. On days designated for burning, he incinerated debris piles.

The project took two summers to complete. When he was finished, his home stood amid a big open space of closely cut grass, rock and small shrubs. In effect, Coon had set his home in a savanna, a fire-safe setting that looked much different from the shaded, grassy, shrub and leafy yards of neighbors who clearly liked mimicking the federal woodlands that surrounded them.

When Coon returned to Walker Terrace days after the fire passed through Redding, his yard was covered in ash and charred tree limbs. But his house remained. So did the garage where he kept his prized 1968 Camaro.

“How Do You Want Your Smoke?”

A warming planet, conflicting government aims, human indifference or indolence — all are serious impediments to controlling the threat of wildfires in California. But they are not the only ones.

Add worries about air pollution and carbon emissions.

The California air quality law, enforced by county districts, requires fire managers interested in conducting controlled burns as a way of managing fire risk to submit their plans for review in order to gain the required permits. County air quality boards also set out specific temperature, moisture, wind, land, barometric, personnel and emergency response conditions for lighting prescribed fires.

The limits are so specific that Tom Garcia in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area said only about six to 10 days a year are suitable for managed burns in Shasta County.

John Waldrop, the manager of the Shasta County Air Quality District, said he’s sympathetic to Garcia’s frustration but determined to meet his obligations to protect the public’s health. Waldrop said that federal and state agencies and private timber operators lit prescribed burns on an average of 3,600 acres annually in Shasta County over the last decade. Most burns are less than 100 acres, which fits his agency’s goal of keeping the air clean and fine particulate levels below 35 micrograms per cubic meter, the limit that safeguards public health.

Waldrop said it would take 50,000 acres of prescribed fire annually to clear sufficient amounts of brush from the county’s timberlands to reduce the threat of big wildfires. That means approving burns that span thousands of acres and pour thousands of tons of smoke into the air.

“From an air quality standpoint, that is a harder pill for us to swallow,” Waldrop said.

Balancing the threat of wildfires against the risk of more smoke is a choice that Shasta residents may be more prepared to make. During and after the Carr Fire, Redding residents breathed air for almost a month with particulate concentrations over 150 micrograms per cubic meter. That is comparable to the air in Beijing.

“We’re at a point where society has to decide,” Waldrop said, “how do you want your smoke? Do you want it at 150 micrograms per cubic meter from big fires all summer long, or a little bit every now and again from prescribed burning?”

Another air pollution challenge Californians face is the troubling connection between wildfires and carbon emissions. Two years ago, California passed legislation to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 258.6 million metric tons annually by 2030. That is a 40 percent reduction from levels today of about 429 million metric tons a year.

Reaching that goal, a stretch already, will be far more difficult because of runaway wildfires. Last year, wildfires poured 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into California’s atmosphere, according to a state report made public this year. Even higher totals are anticipated for 2018.

Efforts to quell the fires with more prescribed burns will add, at least for a number of years, more carbon dioxide. Prescribed fires produce an average of 6 tons of carbon per acre, according to scientific studies. Burning half a million acres annually would produce 3 million more metric tons of greenhouse gases.

A Matter of Priorities and Focus

For now, California can seem locked in a vicious and unwinnable cycle: Surprised anew every year by the number and severity of its wildfires, the state winds up pouring escalating amounts of money into fighting them. It’s all for a good, if exhausting, cause: saving lives and property.

But such effort and expenditure drains the state’s ability to do what almost everyone agrees is required for its long-term survival: investing way more money in prevention policies and tactics.

“It’s the law of diminishing returns,” Garcia said. “The more money we put into suppression is not buying a lot more safety. We are putting our money in the wrong place. There has to be a better investment strategy.”

Just as drying Southwest conditions forced Las Vegas homeowners to switch from green lawns to desert landscaping to conserve water, fire specialists insist that Californians must quickly embrace a different landscaping aesthetic to respond to the state’s fire emergency. Defensible spaces need to become the norm for the millions of residents who live in the 40 percent of California classified as a high fire-threat zone.

Residents need to reacquaint themselves with how wicked a wildfire can be. Counties need to much more vigorously enforce defensive space regulations. Sierra foothill towns need to establish belts of heavily thinned woodland and forest 1,000 feet wide or more, where big fires can be knocked down and extinguished. Property values that now are predicated on proximity to sylvan settings need to be reset by how safe they are from wildfire as they are in San Diego and a select group of other cities.

“We solved this problem in the urban environment,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, a national wildfire research and policy group in Oregon. “Towns were all once made of wood. The Great Chicago Fire. The San Francisco fire. We figured out they can’t make cities out of flammable materials. They hardened them with brick and mortar and building codes and ordinances for maintaining properties.

“This is a really solvable problem with the technology we have today. Making homes and communities that don’t burn up is very solvable. It’s a matter of priorities and focus.”

In a select group of towns in and outside California, residents have gotten that message. Boulder, Colorado, invested in an expansive ring of open space that surrounds the city. It doubles as a popular recreation area and as a fuel break for runaway fires that head to the city.

San Diego is another example. After big and deadly fires burned in San Diego in 2003 and 2007, residents, local authorities and San Diego Electric and Gas sharply raised their fire prevention efforts. Thirty-eight volunteer community fire prevention councils were formed and now educate residents, provide yard-clearing services and hold regular drives to clear brush and trees. SDE&G has spent $1 billion over the last decade to bury 10,000 miles of transmission lines, replace wooden poles with steel poles, clear brush along its transmission corridors and establish a systemwide digital network of 177 weather stations and 15 cameras.

The system pinpoints weather and moisture conditions that lead to fire outbreaks. Firefighting agencies have been considerably quicker to respond to ignitions than a decade ago. SDE&G also operates an Erickson air tanker helicopter to assist fire agencies in quickly extinguishing blazes.

The area’s experience with wildfire improved significantly.

“We haven’t gone through anything like what we had here in 2003 and 2007,” said Sheryl Landrum, the vice president of the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County, a nonprofit fire prevention and public education group. “We’ve had to work hard here to educate people and to convince people to be proactive and clear defensible spaces. People are aware of what they need to do. Our firefighting capabilities are much more coordinated and much stronger.”


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The Donald and the Fake News Media: An Affair to Remember

By Tom Engelhardt

Face it: it’s been an abusive time, to use a word he likes to wield. In his telling, of course, it’s he or his people who are always the abused ones and they — the “fake news media” — are the abusers. But let’s be honest. You’ve been abused, too, and so have I. All of us have and by that same fake news media.

It isn’t complicated, really. Thanks to them, to those cable news talking heads who never stop yammering about him, to the reporters who clamor over his every word or twitch, he’s always there, 24/7. I know that it’s still called covering the news, but it’s a phrase that no longer faintly fits the situation. Yes, a near majority of Americans voted for him as president, but no one voted to make him a living (and living-room) icon, a never-ending presence not just in our world, but in all our private worlds, too.

Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.

And if that isn’t really almost too obvious to write down, then what is? Still, just briefly, let’s try to take in the obvious. Let me put it this way: never, not since Adam or certainly Nebuchadnezzar, not to speak of Eve or Cleopatra, has anyone in history been so unrelentingly focused upon or mercilessly covered — so, in a sense, fawned upon (and, of course, “abused”). In the past, I’ve labeled what we’re living through “the white Ford Bronco presidency” because, for the last nearly three years, the media has covered him as if he were indeed O.J. Simpson in that car fleeing the police over his wife’s murder, as if, that is, there were nothing else on Earth worth gluing our eyeballs to, and not as in O.J.’s case for a relatively few hours, but for what already seems like an eternity.

In a way, this is the simplest piece I’ve ever written, because whoever you are, wherever you live in this country (or possibly on the planet), whatever you think of him, positive or negative, you already know all of this. You’ve already discussed it with your friends. You’ve certainly wondered what would happen if the mainstream media suddenly stopped attending to Donald Trump — and oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned his name until now, because why bother? You never had a doubt, did you?

My guess on the effect of such a withdrawal of coverage: he’d shrivel up and die. Your guess may be different, but it doesn’t matter because we’re clearly never going to find out. Even the recent presidential decision to take away CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass — doctored video of his behavior and all — after a distinctly abusive press conference (“I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN”), was only the cause for yet another deluge of coverage. None of Acosta’s media compatriots, not even at CNN, decided, for instance, to protest by refusing to cover another White House event until he got that pass back (though CNN is suing the Trump administration). None of them evidently even seriously considered closing the door, shutting the gate, turning their backs on you-know-who. That clearly is the twenty-first-century media version of thinking about the unthinkable.

Honestly, who doesn’t talk about all this in the face of a presidency that’s in your face, all our faces, in a way that no other president, emperor, king, autocrat, dictator, movie star, celebrity, or [feel free to fill in whatever I haven’t thought of here] has ever before been. His every phrase, tweet, complaint, bit of praise, parenthetical comment, angry snit, insult, or even policy decision is reported, discussed, gnawed on, considered, reconsidered, yakked about nonstop, hour after hour after endless hour, reshown in clip after repetitive clip. This is, in short, a unique historical experience of ours and ours alone. How could we not talk about it all the time?

The Media Critic-in-Chief

Oh wait! Oddly enough, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s one place where it’s barely talked about at all, where silence largely reigns, and to my mind that couldn’t be stranger.

Here’s the only catch in the non-stop coverage of Donald J. Trump (2015 to 2018 and beyond): that same mainstream media that can’t get enough of him, that eats up and gnaws on his every odd phrase, gesture, act, or passing thought, is essentially silent on only one thing: the coverage itself. The most obvious subject in the world — not him, but the thing that keeps him going, that keeps the whole ship of state more or less afloat at this point — the unprecedented focus on him just doesn’t seem to be a subject fit for significant coverage, even though it’s a commonplace in our conversations out here in what still passes for the real world. We may regularly roll our eyes, but the mainstream media programmatically never does. Not in public anyway. And as was true from the beginning of the Trump era, from the New York Times and Politico to the Atlantic magazine, media outfits have hired yet more people to cover… well, Donald Trump (and not just from Washington either) and ploughed right on.

But do they cover themselves? Hardly. Media critics inside those mainstream companies have become an ever rarer species. The New York Times, for instance, let go of its “public editor” in May 2017 and left it to perhaps random tweeters to handle how the paper was covering anything. And that’s been typical. Or put another way: there’s really only one media critic left in the mainstream world — and you know just who he is! (A typical tweeted comment of his: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”) And sometimes that criticism couldn’t be more personal. (“Loser,” he recently called White House reporter April Ryan. “What a stupid question that is,” he said to CNN’s Abby Phillip. “What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) I’m referring, of course, to America’s media-critic-in-chief now in residence in Washington, D.C., when, of course, he isn’t out in the provinces getting a little love from his adoring “base” in those endless rallies for the midterm elections and, of course, the ones for the 2020 campaign, which began long ago.

And naturally enough, the “fake news” reporters can’t cover those rallies enough or discuss them and what he says at them more often. But again, there’s one catch, one lacuna, in all this. They almost never cover Donald J. Trump’s rally of rallies in that same analytical and dissecting fashion. I’m thinking, of course, of the rallies that truly keep him going — and by that I mean his endless set of interactions with… yep, the media. After all, without being eternally in their glowing spotlight, without that endless coverage of everything him, what would he be?

In a sense, those hordes of reporters crowding into his world are his most adoring fans (even if many of them may loathe him personally). They may not literally bathe him in love (as his fans in those stadiums do), but they certainly bathe him in what he loves most, what clearly keeps him up and running: attention.  And from each of those media “rallies” of his, however small, however impromptu, however angry or insulting, no matter the nature of the words exchanged, he clearly comes away feeling clean as a new-born babe (though they perhaps feel dirty as… well, who knows what).

It may not be a love affair, but it certainly is an affair to remember. And despite the fact that his official news conferences may be rare, he manages to meet the press (to use a thoroughly outmoded phrase) constantly and in ways too numerous to mention. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s taken more questions from reporters — even if he’s regularly mangled and shredded them — than all our recent presidents (except that other classic narcissist, Bill Clinton).

The Donald’s Earned Media World

Being the canny self-promoter that he is, Donald Trump knows the value of those exchanges, no matter their nature. He knows that the specifics of what the media may write or say about him matter remarkably little, as long as they cover him in this totalistic fashion, as long as they never stop bathing him in his own ultimate form of glory. They are, as he would be the first to tell you, his “earned media.” In fact, just the other day at his post-election news conference, he had this little exchange with a reporter:

“Q: Mr. President, first off, I personally think it’s very good to have you here because a free press and this type of engagement —

“The President: I do, too. Actually? I do, too.

“Q: Yes. It’s vital to democracy.

“The President: It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions. Go ahead.”

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no fool. He knows that he’s got not just a knack but the knack for accruing “earned media” — that is, unpaid for publicity and advertising. Estimates were that he got a staggering $5.6 billion of it during his 2015-2016 election campaign and, exactly as he implied in that knowing aside, it’s never ended. And yes, it is “vital” to him, if not to “democracy.” Think of him, in fact, as President Earned Media.

Since we are talking about a mutual affair, however, the opposite is also true: Donald Trump is the media’s version of… at the risk of being completely repetitious, earned media. No one’s put it better than former CBS head Leslie Moonves — recently taken down by the #MeToo moment — during the 2016 election campaign. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” And, as we all know, Donald did.

Keep in mind that the media had been thrown into chaos and confusion by the growth of the online world of the Internet, as many news businesses faltered and staff cuts were widespread. How convenient, then, to stumble upon such genuine human clickbait, someone on whom you could focus your attention so relatively cheaply and profitably. So much for covering the world, a distinctly expensive proposition! Talk about bargain basement candidacies and presidencies!

From the moment he descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, Donald Trump became the media equivalent of a freebie — someone viewers and readers just couldn’t help watching, hearing about, reading about. It was like stumbling on a gold mine in the desert. As it turned out, Americans were indeed ready to have the talking heads of CNN (now the president’s eternal punching bag), MSNBC, and Fox News yammer on hour after hour, day after day, about him and only him. It was, in its own way, a genuine miracle for news companies that had found themselves up against the wall and it couldn’t have been more real, or — as, at some level, Donald Trump himself grasped — more fake.

Put it all together and you can understand how a major Trump rally — oops, I mean that post-election news conference of his — actually worked. But first let me take a moment, in truly Trumpian fashion, to thank myself on your behalf. Like you, I watched clips of that news conference. Then I did all of you a favor and actually read the whole 17,000-plus words of it, one hour and 26 minutes worth of his and their words, so you wouldn’t have to.

And believe me, it was quite a performance as the president called on/ignored reporters desperate to get his attention, insulted them, spoke with them, spoke against them, spoke over them (“We are a hot country. This is a hot White House…”), spoke around them, described them (“I come in here as a nice person wanting to answer questions and I have people jumping out of their — their seats, screaming questions at me…”), wandered away from them, wandered away from himself, ignored or didn’t answer their questions, was incoherent for significant stretches of time, or couldn’t even hold onto a thought. And by the way, the reporters there more than matched him (“One, I was tempted to ask you why you like Oprah so much, but I think I’ll go on to the question that…”), blow for blowhard (“Based off of that, how would you say, over the last two years, God plays — what kind of a factor He plays in the day-to-day execution of the Office of the Presidency?…”).

Read the whole thing and you’d have to be struck — even by the less-than-soaring standards of past presidential news conferences — by how little (with a bow to Gertrude Stein) there there actually was there. The president’s incoherence was remarkably well matched by the dreariness of the generally expectable, largely thought-free questions he was asked on a limited set of topics.

As always, though, there were those Trumpian moments that aren’t likely to leave your head soon thereafter. There was, for instance, the exchange in which the president called on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, a relatively rare black reporter in that room. She began her question this way, “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying…”

At that point, the president promptly interrupted to respond: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” (Something he’d then repeat twice more.) The pure chutzpah of that response should have taken anyone’s breath away, but it was also a reminder of the strange sense of freedom Trump feels to say anything in the presence of the media, including mocking or insulting three black female reporters at that news conference.

And this can only happen again and again and again. It’s hard not to feel that we are all now eternally watching two sets of addicts who simply can’t exist without or get enough of each other.

Toward the end of that news conference, one of the reporters began a question (also focused on white nationalism) this way: “Thank you, sir. And I think we’d all love to have more of these, if you’re willing…”

It tells us so much about our twenty-first-century Trumpian world that anyone in that press corps would wish for more of the same. I have a feeling that somewhere in all of this someone, maybe Bob Mueller, should indict all of them for fraud. In the meantime, the rest of us remain in a world wallpapered with Donald Trump, a world in which the fake news media, which is his truest “base,” just can’t get enough of him.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands,Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt

Midterm America: A Blue Wave From Another Universe

By Ben Fountain
Reprinted from TomDispatch.Com

Evil days.

The midterms were bearing down on us like a runaway train with Donald Trump in the driver’s seat and the throttle wide open, the Presidential Special hell-bent for the bottom. “Go Trump Go!” tweeted David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as if the president needed anyone’s encouragement. There had been no slacking after pipe bombs were sent to a number of his critics; nor after two black people were killed in Kentucky by a white man who, minutes before, had tried to enter a predominantly black church; nor after 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh were murdered at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue by a man who’d expressed special loathing for HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement and advocacy organization. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Robert Bowers posted on his Gab account hours before the massacre. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Trump, relentless Trump, went right on raging about “invasions,” left-wing “mobs,” globalists, MS-13, and “caravan after caravan [of] illegal immigrants” invited in by Democrats to murder Americans, vote illegally, and mooch off our health care system. “Hate speech leads to hate crimes,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told the president in Pittsburgh several days after the murders. The FBI had previously reported a large spike in hate crimes over the previous two years, and the Anti-Defamation League noted a 60% rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017. Then there was this, reported in the New York Times on the day before the election: “Advisers to the president said his foes take his campaign rally language too literally; as outrageous as it might seem, it is more entertainment, intended to generate a crowd reaction.” And Trump himself, when asked why he wasn’t campaigning on the strong economy, responded: “Sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”

Not as exciting as, say, hate and xenophobia. And so one was led to wonder: Do countries have souls — with all the moral consequence implied by the concept of soul? If the answer is yes, then it follows that the collective soul can be corrupted and damned just as surely as that of a flesh-and-blood human being. In this election, as in all others, grave matters of policy were at stake, but we sensed something even bigger on the line in 2018 — nothing less than whether the country was past redeeming.

Lower, Smaller, Meaner

“I’m on the ballot,” Trump declared at a rally in Mississippi, and so he was. For the first time in two years, the country would render its verdict on the garish aggressions of his politics, though it bore noting that many members of his party had already voted with their feet. In the preceding months, more than 40 House Republicans had resigned outright or announced that they would not seek reelection, among them the relatively moderate chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and, most significantly, House Speaker Paul Ryan. It was an extraordinary exodus by any measure, especially for a party holding both chambers of Congress and the White House — a party possessed, that is, of the kind of power that pols dream of. Yet here were Republicans bailing out in droves.

The usual reasons were given: the desire to spend more time with family, to confront new challenges, and so forth, but the party’s scorched-earth politics of the past 30 years, the ones that had put Donald Trump in the White House, undoubtedly had something to do with it. The hyper-partisanship championed by Newt Gingrich when he was speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, the embrace of fringe elements like the birther crowd and the alt-right, the systematic trashing of longstanding institutions and traditions (like the weaponizing of the filibuster, to name just one) and now the ultimate scorched-earther in the White House: it’s easy to imagine how the more self-aware members of the Republican caucus could see no viable future for themselves in politics.

Ryan, in particular, furnished food for thought. Like John Boehner before him, he couldn’t tame the far-right beast that was the Freedom Caucus and he had Trump to deal with too. How many nights had the Speaker tossed and turned in his bed secretly pining for rational Obama? And then there was the massive contradiction of Ryan’s own politics. Eager for Republicans to get credit for the economic expansion that began in June 2009 and was now in its 100th month, Ryan studiously ignored the fact that — predicting rampant inflation and worse — he’d opposed Obama’s program of fiscal stimulus and easy monetary policy that had produced the longest expansion in the country’s history. But Ryan’s contradiction cut even deeper. As House Speaker, at the very pinnacle of his career as a supply-side disciple and deficit hawk, he had shepherded into law a legislative agenda that was projected to start producing trillion-dollar-a-year deficits by 2020.

Paul Ryan had played out his political string. To proceed further could only monsterize his psyche, twist it into a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style schizophrenia, a form of madness not unknown among twenty-first-century American politicians. With Trump as their leader, Republicans had no place to go but lower, smaller, meaner — and so they went.

Trump praised and reenacted a Montana congressman’s criminal assault on a reporter, and suggested that U.S. troops open fire on any aspiring immigrant so bold as to throw a rock at them. In Georgia, robocalls described Stacey Abrams, a black woman and the Democratic nominee for governor, as a “poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” Congressman Duncan Hunter put out an ad characterizing his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as a terrorist sympathizer. Ron DeSantis urged Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Andrew Gillum, a black man, as their governor, while in Kansas, a Republican official called congressional candidate Sharice Davids (a Native American and graduate of Cornell Law School) a “radical socialist kickboxing lesbian” who should be “sent back packing to the reservation.”

Antonio Delgado, who is black, a Rhodes scholar, and a Harvard Law School graduate, was repeatedly characterized as “a big-city rapper” in ads supporting his opponent for a congressional seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. Representative Kevin McCarthy, jockeying to replace Paul Ryan as leader of the House Republicans, loudly revived the push to fund Trump’s border wall, and Representative Steve King fantasized at a rally that Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor “will elope to Cuba.” Pro-GOP flyers featuring anti-Semitic caricatures were distributed in opposition to Jewish Democratic candidates in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington, and elsewhere.

The loudest hysterics were reserved for the bedraggled, footsore “caravan of invaders” inching its way north through Mexico, several thousand desperate souls bringing, according to Trump, crime and terrorists. On Fox Business, Chris Farrell, a conservative activist, promoted the ongoing right-wing allegation that George Soros, who is Jewish, was paying migrants to come to the U.S. Kris Kobach, GOP candidate for governor of Kansas, declared that Democrats had “open-border psychosis.” Ted Cruz, fighting for his political life in Texas, led chants of “Build that wall!” at his rallies.

The final TV ad for Scott Wagner, the GOP nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, asserted that “a dangerous caravan of illegals careens to the border”; this same Scott Wagner had previously urged his Democratic opponent to wear a catcher’s mask because “I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.” Trump deployed some 5,600 active-duty troops south “to secure the border,” at a cost projected to be as high as $200 million, and his final campaign ad — deemed so blatantly racist that Facebook and major TV networks, including Fox, refused to air it — featured scary music, images of brown-skinned people, and a cop-killing undocumented immigrant with no known link to the caravan. The ad’s final image urged: “Stop the Caravan. Vote Republican.”

It was crude. It was dumb. It was all basically nuts. The question was: how much of America would buy it?

Record Numbers

The day after the election, Trump appeared before the media to proclaim “very close to a complete victory.” Then he proceeded to riff on the size of his crowds.

It would take days — a week and then some — to measure properly the scale of the electorate’s repudiation of Trump. Despite surgical gerrymandering and voter-suppression measures that strongly favored the GOP, Democrats took control of the House by flipping 43 seats, for a net gain of 40. It was the biggest Democratic gain since the Watergate midterm of 1974, when Democrats picked up 49 seats, and the Democrats’ 9.4 million lead (and counting) in raw votes this year was the largest margin ever by a party in a midterm.

Overall turnout was the highest in 50 years: 116 million, or 49.4% of the voting-eligible population, compared to 83 million in 2014. Democrats won women — who are not only the majority of voters but the most reliable of them — by 19 percentage points. Particularly in the suburbs, where 50% of voters now live, white women with college degrees broke hard for Democrats, but House Democratic candidates also increased their national vote margin among white working-class women by 13 points.

Young voters and minorities (think: the future) turned out in unprecedented numbers and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. The Democrats also won independents by 12%, and voters who had opted for a third-party candidate in 2016 by 13%. Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia helped elect a new House majority that will be nearly half women, a third people of color, and include more Muslim Americans, Native Americans, and LGBTQ members than ever before.

Republicans increased their razor-thin majority in the Senate by two, but even there evidence of the Trump repudiation was strong. Democrats were defending 26 of the 35 seats in play and, in almost every race, the Democratic candidate outperformed the state’s partisan lean (the average difference between how a state votes and how the overall country votes) while racking up a nationwide total of 50.5 million votes, to the GOP’s 34.5 million.

Yeah, Beto lost. He also came within 2.6 points of knocking off a well-financed, highly disciplined incumbent in a deep-red state and was instrumental in making Texas newly competitive at both the statewide and local levels. In governors’ races, Democrats flipped seven states to the Republicans’ one and achieved a net gain of more than 300 legislative seats.

State ballot measures on politically charged issues also trended blue. Arkansas and Missouri voted to raise their minimum wage. Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho voted to expand Medicaid and, with the election of a Democratic governor, Maine will follow through on last year’s winning referendum to expand Medicaid. Florida voters approved a referendum to restore voting rights to former felons. Arizona defeated a Koch brothers-backed measure to privatize public education by a two to one margin.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — states crucial to Trump’s Electoral College success in 2016 — swung dramatically back toward the Democrats in 2018.

Putting Real Issues Front and Center

This thing Trump was selling, this white-nationalist-freak-out-throwback special, played well enough to the base to flip Senate seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states Trump won by big margins in 2016, as well as Florida’s closely contested Senate seat. But here’s the real shocker, the development that made this midterm “transformational,” as reported by Stanley Greenberg in the New York Times, based on a Democracy Corpselection night survey: the Democrats’ biggest gains in 2018 came in rural America. Greenberg also relied on an Edison exit poll for CNN that showed the Republican margin in rural areas shrinking by double digits and a Catalist poll indicating a seven-point shrinkage.

“Exciting” the base seems to have come at a cost: a 13-point swing by white working-class women, a 14-point swing by white working-class men, and a 7-point swing among all men. While Trump’s Twitter account was acting like the social media equivalent of a spastic colon, Democrats were pushing a decidedly non-hysterical message focused on health care (coverage for preexisting conditions, preserving Obamacare, and protecting Medicare and Medicaid) and basic economic fairness. As for Trump’s manifest unfitness for office, smart Democrats assumed the president himself would pound home that message.

Yes, there was a blue wave in 2018, and the “centrist” establishment Democrats who have steered the party for the past 30 years are trying to claim it for themselves. Don’t believe them. These establishment centrists — the ideological heirs of the defunct Democratic Leadership Council who now ply their trade at the Third Way think tank in the capital, along with the big-donor class, the top-dollar Washington consultants, and the data mills that comprise the Democratic election industrial complex — stand for something far different than the blue-wave centrists who powered the party in 2018.

For more than 30 years — ever since the rise of the “New Democrats” and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s — establishment centrists have practiced the top-down politics of neoliberalism, a politics founded on the free-market gospel: deregulation of banking and finance, friendliness toward corporate monopolies, limited support (at best) for labor unions and workers, the endless “liberalization” of global trade, and reflexive antagonism for the social safety net. As all the numbers show, corporate America and the One Percent reaped the lion’s share of neoliberalism’s benefits, while the Democratic Party’s once-traditional constituencies — poor people, and the working and middle classes — fell further and further behind. The party itself — once the dominant force in national politics, and in the majority of states — gradually slid into minority status, culminating in the wipeout of 2016.

2018’s blue-wave centrists are made of different stuff. This year’s energy came from the bottom up, thanks to widespread local activism and grassroots organizing, much of it led by women newly politicized in the wake of 2016. The party’s small-donor base became increasingly powerful, enabling candidates like Beto O’Rourke to run robustly financed campaigns while refusing PAC money and the strings that come with it.

This same small-donor and activist groundswell made Democrats competitive in regions long ago written off by establishment centrists who have long been less focused on the concerns of working people than on cherry-picking just enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency every four years. In 2018, however, we saw Democratic candidates running and winning in deep-red areas while talking up labor unions (Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania), slamming the “rigged system” that neoliberalism produced (Max Rose on New York’s Staten Island), and pushing for common-sense gun control (Lucy McBath in Georgia).

Democrats interested in taking back the Midwest should look to the example of Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, one of Bernie Sanders’s closest allies in the Senate. A strong voice for labor and the middle class and a longtime skeptic of international trade deals, Brown won reelection by seven percentage points in a state otherwise trending Republican. The same was true for Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has prioritized the interests of working people her entire career. She won reelection by 24 points in Minnesota, a state Trump almost won in 2016.

The blue-wave centrists put real issues front and center: housing, wages, access to health care, basic fairness and opportunity for working people. Whatever name you want to put to these issues — centrist, progressive, populist, lunch bucket, kitchen table — these haven’t been the priorities of the establishment centrists of the past 30 years. For a clue, look no farther than the Third Way’s close ties to K Street, the epicenter of corporate lobbying in Washington, and to the investment banking industry.

Trump lost in 2018, but he remains nearly as powerful as ever. He’s a sitting president with a ferociously loyal base, a Senate majority that’s about to get bigger, and a federal judiciary that hews further to the right with each new raft of appointments. In the days since the election he’s shown no moderating tendencies, instead threatening the incoming House Democratic majority with a “warlike posture,” firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, illegally“appointing” a sketchy acting attorney general, further defying the Refugee Act of 1980, banning a CNN reporter from the White House, and defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the state-sponsored murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump is still Trump, and America is still America. In the days after the election, wildfires raged through northern California, leaving scores dead and many thousands homeless, and in the country’s 307th mass shooting in the first 313 days of 2018, a gunman killed 13 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.

Welcome to the struggle for the country’s soul. We haven’t seen anything yet.


Ben Fountain’s Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution has just been published by Ecco/HarperCollins. He is the author of a novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for Fiction. He lives in Dallas.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 Ben Fountain

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