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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

This week, a hurricane broadsided Europe — a rare event considering most of the continent is closer to the North Pole than it is to the tropics. That would have been enough to make worldwide news, but the continent was due for much more.

As the storm, named Ophelia, approached, it was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the eastern Atlantic. Although weather watchers were initially focused most closely on Ireland, where the storm made landfall, its deadliest impact occurred hundreds of miles south in Portugal and Spain.

There, strong winds stoked hundreds of wildfires, killing more than 40 people. The ghastly images from southwestern Europe looked less like real life than illustrations from a cautionary fairy tale about the end of the world. Being there, as one person wrote, was like “a nightmare world of smoke and ash.”

These fires would have been the deadliest in Portugal’s history, were it not for massive blazes in June that killed more than 60 people, trapping many in their cars, as flames advanced too quickly for them to escape.

With its vast forests and typically warm and dry summers, Portugal is already Europe’s wildfire capital. And in recent decades, its profound and unique socioeconomic vulnerability to fire has only grown. Last year, half of the fire acreage burned in all of Europe lay in Portugal — a trend attributed both to haphazard forestry practices and climate change bringing hotter and drier weather.

This year, the sheer scale of the fires has been staggering. On Sunday alone, wildfires burned at least 300,000 acres — more than is normally burned in an entire year. Smoke from the fires quickly spread as far away as London.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

This week, with the addition of Ophelia’s winds, weather conditions favorable for fire growth were extreme — and they occurred at a time of the year when farmers routinely set the ground ablaze to clear land. The mix resulted in fires so intense they created their own weather, spawning rare pyrocumulus clouds, literally a fire cloud.

“To the best of my knowledge this is new in Europe,” Paulo Fernandes, a forest ecologist at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, wrote to Grist, adding the weather was far outside what would be expected for mid-October. ”Extreme fires cannot be mitigated by a stronger firefighting force.”

What happened this week in Portugal points toward the scariest aspects of the Anthropocene: We are changing the world around us so fast that, in many cases, adaptation will be near impossible. As a hurricane, Ophelia was literally off the charts, and meteorologists have no doubt that the storm made the fires worse, rapidly transforming the smallest flames into towering infernos.

In my discussions with colleagues this week, not one weather or climate expert could think of an example of a tropical cyclone in the last 90-plus years that has sparked such a series of megafires. The closest corollaries were a 1978 storm in western Australia and a 2011 storm in Texas. Each fanned large fires, but the loss of life was relatively low. In 1923, a typhoon worsened the impact of fires sparked by a massive earthquake in Japan – but again, that required an earthquake.

Like Portugal, California has a Mediterranean climate that features a long summer dry season. In the wake of the state’s record-breaking wildfire season, which occurred under similar weather and climate conditions as the Portuguese fires, there’s a lot the West Coast can learn from what’s going wrong in Portugal. The most important lesson: Once huge fires get going, there’s not much that can stop them. The best hope, instead, is reducing risk in advance by preparing forests for the inevitable.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of Western senators proposed a reform of forestry practices that will do just that. And it’s already getting praise from firefighters, environmentalists, and industry. In 2017, the U.S. spent a record $2 billion on fighting wildfires, and the new bill would support low-cost preparedness efforts — like those shelved in Portugal — to try to prevent future fires.

In a statement accompanying the release of the bill, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, one of its sponsors said the time for action is now: “We can’t sit by and let devastating wildfires become the new normal.”

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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

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Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

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Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

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Encounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee

READ GREEN WITH E-BOOKS

Encounters with the Archdruid

John McPhee

Genre: Nature

Price: $9.99

Publish Date: October 1, 1977

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Seller: Macmillan / Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC


The narratives in this book are of journeys made in three wildernesses – on a coastal island, in a Western mountain range, and on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The four men portrayed here have different relationships to their environment, and they encounter each other on mountain trails, in forests and rapids, sometimes with reserve, sometimes with friendliness, sometimes fighting hard across a philosophical divide.

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Encounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee

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The GOP Health Bill Would Make Zika the Newest Preexisting Condition

Mother Jones

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The controversial GOP health care bill that narrowly passed the House of Representatives this month could have devastating consequences for mothers and children infected with Zika, experts say. The mosquito-borne virus is just one on a nearly endless list of preexisting medical conditions—cancer, asthma, pregnancy—for which insurers could potentially charge higher premiums if Republicans get their way.

One of the most popular features of Obamacare is a provision known as “community rating,” which bars insurance from charging more for people with preexisting conditions. This was a common practice before Obamacare was enacted in 2010; stories of sick people being unable to find affordable coverage were one of the main arguments used by the legislation’s supporters. Of course, the public health crisis surrounding Zika—and the birth defects it can cause—wasn’t an issue at the time; no one in the United States had yet contracted the virus. But if the House’s Obamacare repeal bill becomes law, people with Zika could end up paying far more for their health care—and could even end up priced out of insurance entirely.

Multiple health care experts told Mother Jones that the GOP bill would almost certainly mean a host of insurance problems for both pregnant women who have had Zika and infants born with microcephaly, a condition where a child has a smaller brain and other health defects. Zika can cause a host of other birth defects and in rare cases has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis in adults. What’s more, the GOP bill cuts funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency on the front lines of the battle against the disease.

The Republican bill includes an amendment that allows states to opt out of the Obamacare community rating protection. Under the GOP plan, if a person’s health coverage were to lapse longer than 63 days in a state that opts out, that person could be charged a prohibitive cost on the private market. Short lapses in coverage are incredibly common. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 27.4 million nonelderly adults had a several-month gap in coverage in 2015. For the 6.3 million of these adults who have preexisting conditions, the costs could be significant. The liberal Center for American Progress estimated that under the GOP bill, people with even mild preexisting conditions would pay thousands more per year—a 40-year-old, for example, would likely be charged an extra $4,340 in premiums if she had asthma, or $17,320 extra if she were pregnant.

Zika was first identified in 1947 in Uganda. It didn’t emerge in Brazil until 2015, when researchers began to notice the link to a spike in birth defects. Since then, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been found in almost every country in the Western Hemisphere. Zika is particularly prevalent in Latin American, but it has also appeared in the United States. There have been more than 30,000 cases confirmed in Puerto Rico, including 3,300 pregnant woman, and more than 1,000 cases in Florida. The spread of Zika has varied wildly from year to year, with cases this year down sharply from 2016.

Yet our understanding of the Zika virus and its related health problems is still evolving. In most people, the virus shows no visible symptoms or just mild problems such as aches and a fever. But it does raise the risk of microcephaly, a rare brain defect in which a child develops with an abnormally small head and brain. Microcephaly is incredibly rare in a normal pregnancy, but a Zika infection in the first trimester raises the risk to 1 to 13 percent.

Zika is linked to various health problems in infants, but microcephaly itself is an expensive medical condition. The CDC estimates it would cost an additional $1 million to $10 million in medical care over the child’s lifetime. Zika-associated microcephaly would probably cost somewhere in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in premium surcharges, according to the Center for American Progress health policy team.

Experts say that, under the Republican plan, insurers would almost certainly treat Zika as a reason to charge higher premiums.

“If it’s documented in your medical records that you had this infection and you have it now, they might well act on it,” Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Mother Jones. And if an infant was born with microcephaly, Pollitz added, “you’d have to be very careful as the parent of a child to never have a break in coverage.” Pollitz also added that the total number of Zika cases is small, but the issue could come up in medical records and be cause for insurers to “jump on that and possibly charge you a higher premium.”

In other words, insurers would be tempted to charge more based on the expensive medical costs sometimes associated with Zika, and there would be nothing preventing them from doing it. “There’s no rule about what can or cannot qualify” as a preexisting condition, New York University health care expert Sherry Glied said in an email, “and Zika will certainly raise later costs, so would count.”

David Anderson, a Duke University health policy researcher who has worked in the health insurance industry, added that another part of the GOP’s health bill—massive cuts to Medicaid spending—would add more strain to state budgets in the case of a Zika outbreak. The bill reduces Medicaid expenditures by $834 billion over the next decade, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Trump’s 2018 budget released Tuesday proposes even deeper cuts than the GOP bill. If passed, the budget would reduce Medicaid spending by $1.4 trillion over 10 years.

Anything affecting babies is a big deal for Medicaid, which covers nearly half of all births in the United States. That would cause a significant problem if Zika leads to an unexpected spike in microcephaly. “If it’s not that common, states can handle one or two isolated events,” Anderson says. “If it’s very common and there are hundreds of babies born with microcephaly under high-cost conditions, then states can’t handle it.”

The House bill would have other impacts on Zika prevention efforts. It cuts nearly $1 billion from the CDC’s budget. The CDC funds testing and research and deploys emergency teams to provide extra medical assistance and to control the spread of Zika-infected mosquitoes. The CDC fights Zika by monitoring mosquitoes that transmit the virus, and it collects data about how Zika affects pregnancies. Trump’s budget doesn’t help the situation either. Although it sets up a CDC emergency response fund to deal with outbreaks like Zika, the budget weakens prevention efforts by seeking a 17 percent cut to the CDC and an 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health.

The confluence of Zika and the GOP health care bill could have political consequences in places like Florida, where the virus has already proved to be a potent electoral issue. Two South Florida congressmen—GOP Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart—championed a bill last year that sent $1.1 billion to the CDC and the NIH to combat Zika. Both also voted for the Obamacare repeal bill. Neither of their offices responded to requests for comment.

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The GOP Health Bill Would Make Zika the Newest Preexisting Condition

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4 in 10 Americans Live in Places Where It Is Unhealthy for Them to Breathe

Mother Jones

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In his America First Energy Plan, President Donald Trump boasts that “protecting clean air” will “remain a high priority” during his presidency. But just a few months into his term, Trump proposed cutting funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and signed an executive order to roll back the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation central to the enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Bad timing. According to a new report published today by the American Lung Association, nearly 4 in 10 Americans live in places where it is unhealthy for them to breathe.

The ALA’s “State of the Air 2017” report analyzed air pollution data collected by the EPA from 2013 to 2015 and found that 125 million people live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone (smog) or particle pollution. Though this represents a “major improvement” from the 2016 report, which placed the number at 166 million, or more than half of all Americans, the ALA is concerned that the recent progress could reverse. “Implementing and enforcing the Clean Air Act is responsible for the progress that we’ve seen so far, and it’s the tool to continue progress,” says Paul Billings, ALA’s national senior vice president.

The installation of modern pollution controls on power plants and retirement of old plants, the increasing reliance on renewable energy sources and natural gas over coal, and the creation of more stringent fuel emission standards have all contributed to the pollution declines, he says. Trump’s proposed cuts “would not only eviscerate programs at the EPA and at regional offices, but also dramatically cut the grants that pass through EPA to state and local environmental agencies”—a big chunk of which is used for air pollution control work.

The report also found an increase in dangerous short-term spikes in particle pollution, or the tiny solid and liquid particles mixed into the air we breathe. Breathing in smog and particle pollution can cause serious health problems, increasing the risk of asthma and infections and cancers of the lungs, and also possibly contributing to heart disease, obesity, and more terrifyingly, degenerative brain diseases.

Many of the cities that reported the worst number of unhealthy days are concentrated in the Western states, including California, Oregon, and Nevada, and experienced wildfire smoke. Given the strong link between climate change and the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts and wildfires, the report concluded that the data “adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health.”

Air pollution control is “a multifaceted problem, and it requires a comprehensive solution with many different strategies,” says Billings. “So we need to make sure things like the Clean Power Plan are implemented. If you don’t have strict enforcement, companies cheat and the consequences are dire.”

Look up the air quality of your city and county here.

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4 in 10 Americans Live in Places Where It Is Unhealthy for Them to Breathe

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American Carrier Still Not Headed For North Korea

Mother Jones

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From the Washington Post:

As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula, Adm. Harry Harris made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore on April 8 toward the Western Pacific. A spokesman for the Pacific Command linked the deployment directly to the “number one threat in the region,” North Korea, and its “reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on April 11 that the Carl Vinson was “on her way up there.” Asked about the deployment in an interview with Fox Business Network that aired April 12, President Trump said: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.” The U.S. media went into overdrive and Fox reported on April 14 that the armada was “steaming” toward North Korea.

Sending a carrier somewhere is a standard way of huffing and puffing without really doing anything of substance. Every president has done it. Trump, however, has brought it to new levels of irrelevant theater. Defense News tells us where the carrier and its strike group were really headed:

Rather, the ships were actually operating several hundred miles south of Singapore, taking part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday — according to photographs released by the U.S. Navy — the carrier passed north through the Sunda Strait, the passage between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. It’s about 3,500 miles from Korea.

For the geographically challenged among us, here is the Sunda Strait:

As you can see, the Sunda Strait is south of Singapore. North Korea is north of Singapore. In fairness, neither Trump nor the Navy said when the Carl Vinson was going to head north, so technically no one lied here. Our “very powerful” armada will make its way to the Korean Peninsula eventually, but apparently no one’s in any rush.

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American Carrier Still Not Headed For North Korea

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NSC Aide Fired, Now Owes Us Account of Trump Call to Mexico’s President

Mother Jones

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Now is the winter of our discontent:

The White House abruptly dismissed a senior National Security Council aide on Friday….The aide, Craig Deare, was serving as the NSC’s senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Earlier in the week, at a private, off-the-record roundtable hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for a group of about two dozen scholars, Deare harshly criticized the president and his chief strategist Steve Bannon and railed against the dysfunction paralyzing the Trump White House, according to a source familiar with the situation.

He complained in particular that senior national security aides do not have access to the president — and gave a detailed and embarrassing readout of Trump’s call with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.

I can’t fault Trump for firing Deare. Then again, I also can’t fault Deare for going berserk. Sometimes a marriage just doesn’t work.

However, now that Deare is out of a job, perhaps he’d like to share his detailed and embarrassing readout of that Mexico conversation? My email address is below.

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NSC Aide Fired, Now Owes Us Account of Trump Call to Mexico’s President

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Conflict Minerals Are About to Get a Reprieve

Mother Jones

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most war-torn places on earth. Much of the money to keep the war going comes from mining operations in the eastern part of the country that are are effectively controlled not by the distant central government, but by militias and warlords that enslave workers and smuggle ore out through the DRC’s eastern border. In an effort to cut off their source of funding, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill includes a provision that discourages companies from buying the so-called 3TG metals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold) from conflict areas. So how has that worked out?

That depends on who you ask, of course. But a surprising number of neutral and lefty sources think the policy has been a failure. For example, here is Lauren Wolfe of Women Under Siege:

Barnard College political science professor Séverine Autesserre has…estimated that only 8 percent of the country’s ongoing conflict has anything to do with natural resources. Moreover, in the September 2014 letter, the signatories noted that “armed groups are not dependent on mineral revenue for their existence.” Many groups can easily turn from minerals to palm oil, charcoal, timber, or cannabis to make money — not to mention extortion, illegal taxes, and other means.

….When Dodd-Frank passed, Congolese President Joseph Kabila put a ban on all mining and mineral exports in North and South Kivu and Maniema provinces. Though the ban was officially lifted in 2011…its ripple effects have persisted: Many artisanal mines have remained closed, and countless livelihoods have been destroyed, according to academics and activists. Laura Seay estimated in 2012 that between five and 12 million Congolese had been “inadvertently and directly negatively affected” by the loss of employment created by the ban and its aftershocks.

Here is the conclusion of a study by Dominic Parker and Bryan Vadheim:

Using geo-referenced data, we find the legislation increased looting of civilians, and shifted militia battles towards unregulated gold mining territories. These findings are a cautionary tale about the possible unintended consequences of imposing boycotts, trade embargoes, and resource certification schemes on war-torn regions.

The GAO says that most Western companies have no way of telling whether the minerals they buy come from conflict zones:

Ben Radly, one of the researchers behind We Will Win Peace, a documentary about the brutal warfare in the eastern DRC, says he has learned to be cautious about well-meaning movements:

There are three shortcomings to the “conflict minerals” campaign that came out of this work. It misrepresents the causal drivers of rape and conflict in the eastern DRC. It assumes the dependence of armed groups on mineral revenue for their survival. It underestimates the importance of artisanal mining to employment, local economies and therefore, ironically, security.

….The relationship between advocacy organizations headquartered in Western cities and their marketed constituency of marginalized and disadvantaged African groups is…tenuous. One of the most striking elements during the making of the film was the difficulty of finding Congolese groups in rural and peri-urban areas who knew about and supported the “conflict minerals” campaign. This suggests a lack of engagement with the people who stand to be most directly affected by campaign outcomes.

There are, of course, lots of advocates who continue to favor the ban on conflict minerals. They say that one of biggest militias in the conflict area has been put out of business by the ban, and that more progress can be made by strengthening the hold of the central government in the eastern DRC and tightening the programs designed to trace the source of minerals. For the most part, though, their evidence of success tends to be very anecdotal.

Beyond all this, there’s another reason it’s difficult to know for sure what the ban is and isn’t responsible for. The UN has been spending a billion dollars a year on peacekeeping operations in the conflict area for over a decade, and it’s all but impossible to know how much of the recent success—if success there’s been—is due to the Dodd-Frank ban and how much is due to the UN.

Bottom line: it’s not easy to know whether the conflict mineral ban—which Europe joined in 2015—has been successful. The whole issue is also highly politicized, since large corporations that buy 3TG minerals have fought against the ban since the start.

Why bring this up now? Because a leaked memo suggests that President Trump plans to sign a memorandum suspending the conflict mineral ban for two years. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not. However, I sure wish I had more confidence that it wasn’t just a bit of payback to companies like Intel, which have lobbied for a long time to get the ban rescinded. Trump is hoping that these companies will play ball with his continued PR campaign to take credit for every new factory built in America—as Intel did today—and this sure seems like the kind of reward that will help keep his gong show going.

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Conflict Minerals Are About to Get a Reprieve

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Trump Didn’t Invent “Make America Great Again”

Mother Jones

Did you ever wonder why Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan took such root among the Republican base? Did it symbolize a return to an age when wages were higher and jobs more secure? Or was it coded racial language designed to signal a rollback to a time when people of color (and women) knew their place? In the soul-searching and recrimination among Democrats after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, both theories have their champions.

But a closer look at conservative rhetoric in recent years reveals that “Make America Great Again” was not Trump’s invention. It evolved from a phrase that became central to the Republican establishment during the Obama years: “American exceptionalism.” People often equate the expression with the notion that God made America “a city upon a hill,” in the words of the Puritan colonist John Winthrop. However, as University of California-Berkeley sociology professor Jerome Karabel noted in a 2011 article, this usage only came into vogue after Barack Obama became president. Previously it was mainly used by academics to mean that America is an exception compared with other Western democracies, for better or worse, as illustrated by its top-notch universities or its bare-bones gun control.

Prior to 2008, “American exceptionalism” appeared in news articles a handful of times a year, but after Obama was elected the references skyrocketed, largely because of a drumbeat from Republicans. Once the tea party wave made John Boehner speaker of the House in 2010, for example, he summarized the growing consensus among Republicans: Obama had turned his back on the Founding Fathers to the point where he “refused to talk about American exceptionalism.” (In fact, in 2009 the president had stated, “I believe in American exceptionalism.”) The phrase’s popularity in GOP talking points—often in attacks on Obama’s “socialist” policies—paralleled the spread of conspiracy theories about his citizenship and supposed jihadi sympathies.

Defending “American exceptionalism” was a theme of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign; he blasted Obama for supposedly thinking that “America’s just another nation” destined to become “a European-style entitlement society.” Romney’s campaign co-chair John Sununu added that Obama should “learn how to be an American.” (He later apologized.)

The 2016 Republican presidential candidates and their surrogates sang the same tune. When Fox News pundit Sean Hannity asked Jeb Bush for his thoughts on exceptionalism, Bush replied, “I do believe in American exceptionalism,” unlike Obama, who “is disrespecting our history and the extraordinary nature of our country.” Rudy Giuliani was more explicit. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” he asserted, suggesting Obama did not think “we’re the most exceptional country in the world.” During a speech a month later in Selma, Alabama, the president pointed out that the ongoing fight for civil rights is a cornerstone of what makes America exceptional.

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To get more of a quantitative sense of the phrase’s evolution, I analyzed the Republican Party platform. All party platforms typically emphasize faith in American greatness, but between 1856 and 2008, the GOP never used the expression “American exceptionalism” or even the adjective “exceptional” to describe the country. By contrast, the final section of the 2012 Republican platform lambasting the Obama presidency was titled “American exceptionalism.” The 2016 platform put the phrase into the first line of its preamble: “We believe in American exceptionalism.” The evolution of “American exceptionalism” into an anti-Obama rallying cry with nativist overtones evoked earlier appeals to “states’ rights” to rouse whites resenting the end of segregation.

In his book Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again, Trump, too, framed his agenda as a defense of “American exceptionalism.” “Maybe my biggest beef with Obama is his view that there’s nothing special or exceptional about America—that we’re no different than any other country.” Trump later adopted a catchier slogan, “Make America Great Again,” but it retained the nativist overtones and racial dog whistles of the first. Paired with Trump’s open conspiracy-mongering about Obama’s forged birth certificate and supposed Muslim faith, it amplified and dramatized the Republican establishment’s slyer assertions about Obama’s un-American values.

Trump would eventually abandon dog whistles in favor of blunter race-baiting. What remains to be seen is whether he and the Republican establishment will continue flashing the “exceptionalism” signal in the post-Obama years—to paint new opponents as un-American—or whether that language was uniquely deployed to delegitimize the nation’s first black president. At the very least, it provided fertile ground for Trumpism.

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Trump Didn’t Invent “Make America Great Again”

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Charts of the Day: Income Inequality Doesn’t Have to Spiral Out of Control

Mother Jones

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Over at Equitable Growth, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman provide a look at the latest numbers on income inequality in the United States:

The authors comment:

For the 117 million U.S. adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong….In the bottom half of the distribution, only the income of the elderly is rising….To understand how unequal the United States is today, consider the following fact. In 1980, adults in the top 1 percent earned on average 27 times more than bottom 50 percent of adults. Today they earn 81 times more.

Well, that’s the modern world for you, right? It’s all about skills and education and greater returns to rock stars. There’s really not much we can do about—oh wait. Here’s another chart:

Huh. Apparently you can run a thriving modern economy that benefits the working class as well as the rich. And note that this is pre-tax income. If social welfare benefits were included, the working class in France would be doing even better compared to the US:

The diverging trends in the distribution of pre-tax income across France and the United States—two advanced economies subject to the same forces of technological progress and globalization—show that working-class incomes are not bound to stagnate in Western countries. In the United States, the stagnation of bottom 50 percent of incomes and the upsurge in the top 1 percent coincided with drastically reduced progressive taxation, widespread deregulation of industries and services, particularly the financial services industry, weakened unions, and an eroding minimum wage.

We could do better for the working class and still maintain our economic dynamism if we wanted to. The only thing stopping us is that, apparently, we1 don’t want to.

1For a certain definition of “we,” that is.

Originally posted here – 

Charts of the Day: Income Inequality Doesn’t Have to Spiral Out of Control

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