Outrage over the Obvious: Trump’s Swipe at India’s Air Quality

POLITICS & POLICY
A man walks in front of the India Gate shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India, October 29, 2018. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

Donald Trump didn’t call them “sh-thole” countries — but to the outrage-prone ear, he came close.

A moment from last night’s debate being treated by some in the media as (1) a diplomatic blunder, (2) a politically disastrous turnoff for the very Indian-American voters he’s courting, and/or (3) a racist dog siren came when he inartfully referred to India (and China and Russia) as “filthy.”

Rebuffing a climate question, Trump said: “Look at China, how filthy it is. Look at Russia. Look at India. It’s filthy — the air is filthy.”

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Let’s just presume that the caveat at the end — he was talking about the air — will be granted far less consideration than the Biden campaign’s caveat that their candidate was referring only to subsidies when he vowed to transition away from oil.

It’s a safe presumption:

Trump hasn’t exactly been at the tip of the spear on addressing climate change, being concerned more about the economy than environment in his decision to break from the Paris climate accord. He what-abouts the issue to put the onus on India and China to improve. Scrutiny of his own environmental record is fair.

But as a statement of fact, Trump’s remark is on mostly solid ground. If you’ve traveled around Delhi, you’re well aware of how the stifling smog affects everyday life.

This report notes India was the fifth-most polluted country last year. Air pollution decreased from the year prior, but the country’s cities compose an inordinate share of the 50 most-polluted in the world.

This WHO database puts India (and to a lesser extent, China) in the ignominious top tier for air pollution.

The U.S. joins them in that same tier of carbon emitters, to be sure. But it’s not in the same league on the issue of measurable air pollution. Ironically, the only country Trump did erroneously smear on air quality was . . . wait for it . . . Russia, which according to the WHO listing is more on par with the U.S.

Of course, Trump (as he so often does) phrased his defense poorly.

No, India is not filthy. (Full disclosure, and my own caveat: I adore the country, my wife’s birthplace.) But its air is not pristine, either.

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