Orange and red skies filled with smoke have cascaded down our social media feeds as America's West Coast grapples with historic wildfires. The images have been called “apocalyptic” and reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner 2049. Around 5 million acres of land have burned, at least 35 people have died; dozens are missing. According to a study from Columbia University, California’s annual burned area has increased by over five times since 1972. And while this crisis highlights the devastating effects of climate change — which Trump has called a “hoax" in the past — it also showcases a problem caused by a mechanism of the Constitution's own making: the electoral college.
Today, Trump finally visited California after largely ignoring the fires for weeks and blaming "forest management,” not climate change. His administration has moved to block California's ability to set emission standards and has rolled back 100 federal environmental regulations. Indeed, during past wildfires, Trump has openly attacked California, even going as far as to threaten to withdraw federal aid in November 2019 and November 2018.
Former DHS Chief of Staff Miles Taylor alleged that Trump’s stance is guided by political grievance: “[Trump] told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him and that politically it wasn’t a base for him."
Fires don’t first check voter registration rolls to see if these are Republican or Democratic homes before they burn them down. In fact, isolated, Republican-voting towns are also getting hit very hard right now. Why would the President of the United States take such an adversarial stance against his own citizens in the middle of a climate crisis? Because states like California, Oregon, and Washington don't give him electoral votes — simple as that.
The archaic system of the electoral college has created a recipe for minority rule. The Founding Fathers initially created the electoral college to prevent the centralization of voting power among non-slave states and to prevent demagogues from manipulating low-info voters. The result has been the election of a demagogue who preys on low-info voters and the over-representation of rural states in federal power.
After losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, President Trump won the electoral college because of less than 80,000 voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The lack of a national popular vote has split this country more distinctly into red and blue states, in spite of the fact both Democrats and Republicans live in all states. It's cultivated an environment in which presidents can focus on pushing policies that benefit states that vote for them and where they campaign primarily in the few states that swing the election in either direction.
This issue has been called out by people ranging from left-leaning journalist Matthew Chapman to conservative lawyer George Conway. It's a real problem that needs to be addressed, or it will continue to be exploited by future presidents. There has been no president in modern history who has more overtly conducted himself as only the President of the Republican States of America than Donald Trump. This adversarial stance towards California is not an anomaly; it's Trump's modus operandi.
When Puerto Rico was being ravaged by Hurricane Maria, Trump's response lagged behind his attentive responses to hurricanes in Florida and Texas. In fact, the president repeatedly attacked the officials and residents of Puerto Rico (these are American citizens) as being “freeloaders”. Puerto Rico has no electoral voting power. Trump did not do the same to red states.
And while Trump's botched early response to Covid-19 can largely be attributed to him not wanting to spook the stock market, there's also evidence indicating his lack of urgency was due to the fact the pandemic first hit blue states the hardest. He repeatedly beefed with Democratic governors like Washington’s Jay Inslee and New York’s Andrew Cuomo and attacked proposals to fund states, calling them "blue state bailouts." He did not do the same to red states when outbreaks surged during the summer.
In July, The Washington Post reported that Trump was "bored" with the pandemic response and did not start re-engaging again until advisors told him that it was affecting "our people" and impacting swing states: "Senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among 'our people' in Republican states, a senior administration official said. They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the official said."
“Our people"? When you are President of the United States, all people are your people. Unfortunately, it seems that Donald Trump sees everything through a transactional lens. If you don't vote for him, why should he care about you? What's in it for him? The president’s character matters, and right now, we have a president who sees Americans as electoral votes and not human lives.
Until the electoral college is reformed or replaced with a national popular vote via constitutional amendment, future presidents elected by a minority of voters in certain states won't be properly incentivized to care about all Americans in every state equally. In the meantime, maybe we can try not to elect any more ignorant, selfish, amoral charlatans to the most powerful office on Earth.