For the uninitiated, President Trump’s comments about wind energy at a Republican fundraising dinner Tuesday night must have seemed like a non sequitur, at best.
“Hillary wanted to put up wind. Wind!” Trump said, referring to the energy policies of his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton. “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75 percent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, okay?”
He imitated the blades of a wind turbine turning.
“And of course, it’s like a graveyard for birds,” he added. “If you love birds, you’d never want to walk under a windmill.”
There are three claims made there, but one is a real jaw-dropper: Did the president of the United States just claim that the sound of a wind turbine causes cancer?
Why yes, he did! And for those familiar with Trump’s track record in business, that claim wasn’t surprising at all.
In 2006, Trump bought 1,800 acres of land on the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the country where his mother was born. He announced plans to build a golf course on the site, a proposal that he coupled with a pledge to invest heavily in the surrounding community after locals expressed hesitation.
One farmer, Michael Forbes, refused to sell his land to Trump. That kicked off a feud between Forbes and the Trump Organization that became the subject of a documentary, “You’ve Been Trumped.” When Forbes was voted “Top Scot” in 2012 as part of a competition sponsored by Glenfiddich whisky, Trump banned Glenfiddich from Trump properties.
But that’s not the fight we’re here to talk about.
Trump was fighting a proposal, announced before he bought the property, to build an offshore wind farm near the Aberdeenshire coast. Trump’s concern? The rotating turbines would spoil the views from his course.
Trump sued, unsuccessfully, to prevent the wind farm from being built. He attacked Scottish politicians, especially then-Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, for allowing the project. Those attacks, involving nearly 100 derogatory tweets between 2012 and 2014, would be familiar to any observer of Trump. Some focused on trying to persuade Salmond not to support the wind farm proposal. Others were retweets of people disparaging Salmond. Still others tried to disparage Salmond by suggesting ethically questionable behavior and criticizing his involvement in the release of the man convicted of bombing an airplane that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland.
At the same time, Trump was waging a public-relations campaign in the media and through his Twitter account. Any negative information about wind turbines was embraced and retweeted with breathless pseudo-concern about their effects.
Take this example:
A wind turbine collapsed, so Trump forwarded it to Salmond expressing concern about those living near the machines. That collapse was an isolated incident, of course — not to mention that very few people would be living in the ocean at the base of the turbines that were to be installed near Aberdeenshire.
An ad the Trump Organization took out targeting Salmond was banned from being published in the United Kingdom for being misleading.
Trump developed a shorthand for the purported negative effects of the turbines. They killed birds — a claim for which there was a grain of truth, given that both turbines and birds took advantage of areas where there were strong wind patterns. (You know what kills far more birds? Large buildings.) The turbines were ugly and would destroy property values. The turbines demanded huge, unwelcome subsidies for their operation — something to which Trump objected fervently until a voter in Iowa in 2015 whose husband worked in the wind industry asked him about them. (“Well,” Trump said of subsidies then, “I’m okay with it.”)
And, of course, Trump embraced the idea that wind turbines were hazardous to people’s health.
In April 2012, he tweeted a story in which an epidemiologist testified before a county zoning board in Illinois, arguing that “people who live up to 2 miles away from the turbines develop such things as sleep, stress and mood disorders once wind farms go up.” That story was featured on an anti-wind-energy site that, at another point, argued that people working in the wind industry had been subjected to “numerous serious illnesses and, yes, many deaths, mainly from unusual cancers.” Perhaps needless to say, this is not grounded in any robust evidence. Any negative effects, in fact, appear to be psychosomatic.
That 2012 tweet was far from Trump’s only health warning on Twitter. He infamously hyped the debunked claim that vaccines are linked to autism. Nine months after receiving an award from the American Cancer Society, Trump claimed that environmentally friendly lightbulbs cause cancer. On the other end of the spectrum, he also claimed that fracking posed “ZERO health risks.”
Trump’s comment on Tuesday does seem to be the first time he himself has directly linked wind turbines to cancer, but his embrace of derogatory information about wind turbines is long-standing. What’s interesting is how his approach to the issue set a template for his political fights to come — and how his opposition to wind farms, in particular, quickly overlapped with the policy agenda of the Republican Party.
During the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump’s attacks on wind energy morphed into attacks on Obama, for allowing turbines to be built and kill birds, etc. He criticized Obama at one point for giving China a pass on most economic issues but then refusing to allow China to buy American wind farms. As climate change became a sharply polarized issue, Trump was prepared for the fight thanks to his battle over that wind farm near his golf course in Scotland.