Oregon is on fire. Throughout the state, tens of thousands of people have been forced to take refuge. They are sleeping in their cars, in a convention center, on the floors of packed prisons. Several towns have been destroyed. Cities have been evacuated. Hundreds of homes have burned. The suburbs of Portland are threatened, and the situation might get worse: Unusually strong, dry winds and very high temperatures make the wildfires hard to fight. As across much of the West Coast, the skies are an apocalyptic orange, at least when they are not darkened by black smoke and ashes. More houses will burn, and people will die.
Two months ago, Oregon was on fire—but mostly metaphorically. Angry protesters filled the streets of Portland. Or, rather, angry protesters filled a few streets in Portland. On those few streets, armed men in camouflage, sent in by the Trump administration, battled the demonstrators, even sweeping some of them away into unmarked vans. Federal law-enforcement agents’ presence escalated the violence rather than calming it. Some demonstrators even tried to set the federal courthouse on fire. Across the internet, social-media feeds lit up with—yes—apocalyptic scenes of masked men locked in battle, as if in a video game or a Hollywood movie. A month later, real tragedy followed. Attracted by the chaos, supporters of Donald Trump arrived brandishing paintball guns and pepper spray. A self-described antifa supporter shot one of them to death.
Same state, same year, separate disasters that present a contrast—and a puzzle. The wildfires, up and down the West Coast, are a real-world catastrophe, on an unprecedented scale, with untold costs. Those who are living through them have had to make terrible decisions about when to leave their homes and what to take with them. By contrast, the conflagration in the streets was, even for the overwhelming majority of Oregonians, a virtual catastrophe. Most of them experienced the fighting in Portland the same way as other Americans did: on a television set or a smartphone screen. Whatever they “saw” was filtered through other people’s cameras. They watched the violence—and then they switched it off to mow the lawn, not to run for their lives.
And yet even though the forest fires have already harmed more people and caused more physical damage, the images of the Portland riots are far more likely to dominate the public debate in Oregon and beyond. Why? Because the forest fires do not fit neatly into the polarized, tribal narratives that will dominate all political conversation from now until November.
On the contrary, responsibility for the West Coast fires is diffuse: Perhaps climate change is at fault, perhaps overdevelopment is at fault, but if so then the culprits include all of us who drive cars, fly planes, and consume energy, not only in America but the world over. The solutions require international cooperation, scientific innovation, mass behavioral change, and long-term planning. By contrast, the Portland riots, exacerbated by Trump’s decision to send federal security officers into a city that did not want them, contributed to much simpler narratives. Some people saw dictatorial police beating up on peaceful demonstrators. Others saw legitimate agents of the state fighting left-wing extremists. In the 30-second video clips that were circulating on Facebook, all nuance disappeared. That made it easy to know what to think, what to do, and whom to fear.
The forest fires are also of lesser political consequence than the riots because the tools that we use for understanding the world effectively shrink them. A blaze covering hundreds of acres will not seem, to anyone watching it on a tiny iPhone screen, any larger or more significant than a confrontation between a policeman and a protester on a random city block. The new information world has no hierarchies: There is no way to tell, in the constant stream of incoming information—ads for hairspray, messages from your cousin, reports of genocide in Myanmar—which piece of news is more important than the next. Nor is there any way to tell whether the act of violence that has been caught on video is a single incident or part of a mass movement, whether the burning house is one of a dozen or one of ten thousand.
Even people who can smell the smoke have trouble gauging relative dangers. In the town of Mollala, Oregon, an hour south of Portland, some residents were so afraid of “antifa” and the “far left”—members of which they have never met, but whom they have seen and heard about on television and online—that they refused to leave their houses, even when authorities called for evacuation. “We’re staying put,” one resident told The New York Times, “and watching for people who aren’t supposed to be here.” He defined that category as “crowds of looters out of Portland.” And there we have it: Mythical looters and mythical anarchists are now more frightening to some people than an actual forest fire.
The president himself knows all this to be true, which is why he and his campaign have spoken repeatedly about violent protest and, until now, only rarely about fire. After weeks of silence, Trump belatedly announced plans yesterday to visit California and tweeted in support of first responders, though not in support of victims. His latest task is to twist the story of the fires into some version of the tribal narrative—good firefighters versus bad Democrats, perhaps—and away from the climate change that he denies. Above all, he needs to channel outrage against someone. Compassion for fellow citizens who have lost their homes simply does not fuel social-media traffic as much as hatred for fellow citizens who are on the other side of the political divide does, and Trump needs that social-media traffic to win.
More precisely, he needs that social-media traffic in order to create a virtual world so powerful, so emotive, and so engaging that it will be more compelling than the real world. To win reelection, he needs to convince Americans that their country, with more coronavirus deaths than any other, has somehow defeated the virus. That an economic crash was an economic success. That the climate change they can see and feel is not happening. And, of course, that they should worry more about mythical looters and mythical anarchists than the lethal threat outside their doors.
The triumph of these fictional narratives would have consequences. Before Americans can fix our very real problems, after all—before we can prevent forest fires, or stop the spread of a deadly virus—we need to agree that they exist. We need to analyze reality before we can come up with proposals for change. We won’t do any of that if, staring at our screens, we are transfixed by the flickering lights of a fantasy world.