Rallying Tuesday night in Tennessee, President Trump displayed the genuinely skillful demagoguery that won him the GOP nomination by leading his audience in a call-and-response routine centered on calling MS-13 members “animals” and insisting (contrary to all fact and reason) that anyone who was troubled by his original ambiguous comments on the inhuman nature of migrants from Central America is soft on the notorious gang. This rhetoric is bad crime-fighting policy, but the demagogue’s art is about wielding emotions and symbolism for political gain, not solving problems.
Earlier on Tuesday, a highly credible new study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the ultimate fallout from Hurricane Maria was 4,600 “excess deaths” — more than twice the mortality of Hurricane Katrina and the deadliest natural disaster on US soil in more than a century.
Suspicion will, of course, linger for years that there’s a connection between Trump’s habit of weaponizing anti-Latino hysteria as the centerpiece of his politics and the unfolding of an essentially unprecedented human tragedy in a Spanish-speaking US territory. The possibility that Trump and his team simply have no idea what they’re doing should not, however, be dismissed out of hand. The fact of the matter is this is the only real crisis we’ve had occasion to see Trump try to wrestle with, and it’s been a total fiasco — with a high human cost.
Trump turns everything into a culture war
The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has a threefold origin. It starts with the fact that the situation is objectively difficult — it was a large storm, the island’s infrastructure was rickety pre-storm, and the background economic conditions were unfavorable. It continues with the fact that under Trump’s leadership, the federal government was underprepared for the storm and failed to properly position supplies in advance and make provision for the full use of military assets. Last but by no means least, Trump was never willing to admit that the initial response went poorly and try to improve.
After all, admitting wrongdoing isn’t part of Trump’s playbook. Defensiveness and counterpunching is.
So last fall, he rapidly turned disaster response into a culture war food fight, pitting heroic first responders against indolent Puerto Rican political officials.
The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
...Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
...want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
This was not a brilliant success by any means — certainly, it didn’t do anything to convince a skeptical person that Trump was handling disaster response well. But it did do what Trump is good at doing when cornered: driving politics back to the baseline question of how one feels about Donald Trump overall. Soon enough, the news cycle moves on.
The recovery itself did not move particularly quickly, and on average, Puerto Ricans went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellphone coverage after the storm. That long-term persistence of lethal conditions is how we ended up with thousands of deaths from a storm that, by the official count, killed “only” 64 people through direct storm damage. But it wasn’t on television, so Trump didn’t really care.
America — and Trump — has mostly been lucky
Unlike his predecessor, Trump had the good fortune to inherit a stable and improving economic situation — circumstances under which competent, conventional policymaking from the Federal Reserve has produced decent outcomes. There have been no domestic terrorist attacks or major wars, and the baseline conditions of peace and prosperity are something we should all be thankful for.
But where Trump has been tested, he’s failed utterly.
In the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Trump’s decision-making (such as it is) seems to have been driven largely by the personal financial interests of his various corrupt associates. On Iran, he’s left the United States isolated while gaining nothing. On Korea, he’s focused on the atmospherics of a potential summit with Kim Jong Un while leaving US allies baffled as to who is making decisions or why. The drug overdose problem appears to have gotten even worse in 2017 (final data is not yet available) and shows no sign of abating in 2018.
The carnage in Puerto Rico is the most severe manifestation of Trump’s basic unfitness for the job he currently occupies, but it’s far from the only one. And the focus on his various antics has an unfortunate tendency to detract from the basic reality that he doesn’t put in the time or the work to solve problems, when really that’s the core of the issue. If you put a telegenic demagogue in office, you will get some choice moments of televised demagoguery. You won’t get an adequate response to a hurricane, and that means you will get a sky-high death toll. The rest of us can only hope our luck holds up.