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Trump's wildfire puzzler

A century ago, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung developed the word association test as a means to plumb a subject’s conscious and unconscious mind. The idea was that the therapist would toss out some common words and the subject would spout the first word that came into his or her mind. Such free association was supposed to reveal something meaningful about a person’s hidden thoughts, but eventually the technique lost popularity as a diagnostic tool. Might it be making a comeback in the White House?

We ask because it would at least be a rational explanation for part of President Donald Trump’s recent Twitter blasts regarding the California wildfires that have left at least nine people dead and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. On Sunday, he wrote: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”

This was Mr. Trump’s first tweet about the 17 major fires burning across the state that have ravaged hundreds of square miles of brush and timber, so he might well have tweeted something like: “Prayers for the thousands of firefighters risking their lives” or “Sending help to California; FEMA stands ready to assist” or “Have declared parts of California a major disaster area as Gov. Jerry Brown requested” or the various other ways a president can reach out during a disaster and offer comfort or assistance.

But no, his first instinct (and second; he tweeted about it again on Monday) was to blame environmental policy and, if this was a reference to our utter failure to respond to climate change, at least there’s some truth to that. But this doesn’t appear to be about how greenhouse gas emissions have raised global temperatures and worsened weather, aggravating flooding in some parts of the world and droughts in others. Instead, President Trump points a finger at water, which suggests either that firefighters don’t have enough to do their jobs (not true) or that had farmers been allowed to take more water out of the rivers, wilderness areas in places like Lake and Mendocino counties would never have caught on fire, which makes no sense whatsoever.

His final point is that if California got rid of more of its forests, the trees wouldn’t catch fire, which is true. It’s a nonsensical thing to point out — on par with observing that if people hadn’t built homes, they would not have lost them in the fire — but at least it’s true. Worse is to suggest river water is ever “diverted” into the Pacific Ocean. California rivers empty into the oceans naturally. In this, the president has simply adopted the kind of arch language that certain farm advocates like to use when it’s time to either keep aquatic life in the rivers alive or divert more water into the state’s almond industry where it takes about 3.2 gallons to grow a single nut, according to a recent study.

In California, water disputes are big and important, but at least the various sides can usually agree on the basics — like how their choices may impact drinking water supplies or agriculture production — but they don’t tend to blame their practices for wildfires. Above-ground rural power lines? Since the majority of fires are caused by them, that would be closer to the truth. A change in the weather pattern in the western U.S.? Absolutely, given how wildfires seem to have worsened and their season grown longer in recent years. One might even blame development policy and fire suppression (as opposed to conducting regular controlled burns) that eventually leads to greater conflagrations.

But none of those things appear to be of interest to President Trump. Hence, his apparent game of word association. Tell the president, “fire,” and he’ll say, “water.” Say, “California,” and he’ll say, “Moonbeam,” because he hates Governor Brown’s past criticisms of him. Thus, siding with Golden State farmers and against a pro-environmental governor comes naturally to a president who is far more focused on what a natural disaster means for him personally — and his political popularity — than on the people who are getting harmed by it. Say what you will about Mr. Trump’s Twitter obsession, but it’s proven to offer real insight into his character, or lack thereof.

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