President Trump has an interesting habit that’s revealed when he’s speaking off the cuff or tweeting. Over the years, he’s built up a core set of beliefs that inform his decision-making process, each packed tight like a snowball. As he moves forward in business and politics, he stumbles across new things that reinforce those beliefs, and he tamps more snow onto them, first awkwardly and then, after being rolled in his mind for a while, until they’re just smooth new patches on a growing central core.
The net effect is that he’ll occasionally introduce weird little phrases or words into things he’s saying that make little sense in context. But if you understand the snowball and understand the way it was built up, and how, you can easily figure out exactly what he’s talking about, and why.
Consider this line, from his rally in Iowa on Wednesday night:
“As the birds fall to the ground!”
Confused? Here’s a hint: He was talking about energy production.
Perhaps you’re familiar enough with Trump to suss out what he was talking about from that line alone, or perhaps something else tipped you off. Congratulations if you figured it out. But if you didn’t, let’s unpack the snowball.
The full context for Trump’s quote is this:
We’re going to have all forms of energy. But coal is something we have a tremendous advantage at. But we’re going to have all, whether it’s natural gas, whether it’s alternative sources. We’re going to have everything.
But a power, it’s called, it’s a power for our electric different plants and for our furnaces. It’s a power. We use electric. We use wind. We use solar. We use coal. We use natural gas. We will use nuclear if the right opportunity presents itself.
We’re going to be strong for the future. We’re going to be strong for the future. I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factory. As the birds fall to the ground.
Let’s start with the core of the snowball.
In 2006, Trump announced that he would be building a golf course in Scotland, near Aberdeen. Locals were a bit puzzled, given how often the area was shrouded in fog, but Trump pressed forward anyway. Construction began in 2008.
Three years before Trump started talking about the course, though, another project kicked off. It was an offshore wind farm, originally slated to be composed of 33 turbines but eventually slashed by two-thirds. In 2012, Trump turned his attention to the project, which, he claimed, would ruin the views for his golfers.
The method Trump used to try to block the project is now familiar to anyone who has been conscious for a few hours over the past two years. Lawsuits. Political pressure. And, of course, tweets touting questionable arguments.
One of the things about wind turbines is that they are generally placed in regions with a specific type of air current, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, birds also use those wind currents, and they can strike or be struck by a turbine’s turning blades. Trump seized on this.
Wind turbines threaten the migration of birds http://t.co/gs0KKvlK Where’s the outcry?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2012
Terrible. Wind farms are provided permits by the US government, which causes the “programmatic” killing of bald eagles.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 11, 2012
And so on.
Over time, “windmills kill birds” got smoothed into that particular snowball, so that Trump, instead of explaining why wind turbines might be a threat to birds, simply blurts out “as the birds fall to the ground” in the middle of a campaign rally.
Incidentally, another thing that kills birds is buildings. The Audubon Society estimates that hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by turbines each year. Nearly a billion die from striking windows. Ninety-nine percent of those deaths involve buildings of 11 stories or lower. Buildings like Trump Tower make up the rest.
So that’s a few hundred words on why Trump said that thing about birds. But now we point out another weird side effect of Trump’s manner of speaking: It’s extremely hard for him not to default to those core beliefs even when doing so is not politically advisable.
In November 2015, Trump visited Iowa as part of the Republican primary process. He was challenged by a woman whose husband worked in one of the state’s growing industries: wind power. She asked if Trump supported federal subsidies for wind energy, aimed at encouraging cleaner power sources. Trump’s endorsement was tepid, but it was an endorsement — despite tweets such as this:
Nobody wants wind turbines, they are failing all over the world and need massive subsidy–a disaster for taxpayers.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2012
But he recognized the political value in agreeing with the woman. What he may not have realized while in Iowa this week is how important the industry is to the state.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa has the second-most installed wind capacity of any state — including much, much larger ones. More than a third of its energy comes from wind power, enough to power 1.85 million households. In 2016, 9,000 people worked directly or indirectly in the wind energy industry, with 11 manufacturing facilities across the state. The state has nearly 4,000 turbines.
By comparison, 4,000 people work directly or indirectly in wind in California, which has only 12 manufacturing facilities. In liberal California!
Weirdly, Trump transitioned from disparaging wind energy to praising ethanol, a gasoline additive made from corn. In 2015 and 2016, the Iowa Corn Growers Association estimated that 41 percent of the state’s corn went to ethanol production. Ethanol has been a much more prominent part of the political conversation, in part because of the state’s position in the primary process but also because agriculture is embraced by Republican politicians while green energy isn’t. (Ethanol isn’t really considered “green energy,” even though reducing fossil fuel emissions is a main reason it’s included in gasoline.) So Trump knows that you Praise Ethanol in Iowa, even though it’s strange to do so right after disparaging another industry with a growing footprint in the state.
But we go back to our original point. “Wind power is bad” is a core Trump belief, with all sorts of ancillary data points slapped onto it. “Ethanol is good” is, too, with Trump having picked it up along the campaign trail. And so we end up with that speech Wednesday night, mocking one Iowa industry and then promising to protect another one.
This is Trump.