On my last appearance on the late, lamented Got Your Attention podcast (did I mention I make a charming and erudite podcast guest?) I mentioned that the drama in the White House mattered because it reflected the Trump administration’s ability to handle a crisis.
If President Trump couldn’t keep his own organization free of personnel churn, leaks, and factional warfare; how could he handle something truly dangerous like a pandemic, sudden foreign war, or natural disaster.
Well, we’re getting the answer to that question, because Hurricane Harvey is unquestionably the biggest event of the Trump era so far.
I’ve always felt that George W. Bush was an easy scapegoat for Hurricane Katrina. Yes, he was slow to react and seemed generally disinterested in the first few days.
But the rescue of New Orleans was hampered by a fundamental lack of coordination between federal, state, and city governments and non-state actors. As an academic analysis of the failure of the response found,
New Orleans lacks an understood agenda; it depends on issue-based coalitions rather than more permanent governing arrangements; and it ineffectively targets resources in the absence of a scheme of cooperation.
Houston, thankfully, has had few of these problems so far. Trump has mostly stayed out of the way, while using his Twitter feed to spew his usual tennis ball fusillade of nonsense, insults, self-congratulations, and tributes to the huge bigness of the hurricane.
Crucially, while Bush praised then-FEMA head Michael Brown, Brown was at the center of a storm of failures that would cost hundreds of lives. But Trump’s praise current FEMA boss Brock Long appears to be earned. Unlike Brown, Long has extensive experience in disaster management (Brown had none) and FEMA so far seems to be on the ball with their response and relief efforts.
So what has Trump done? What we should have expected him to do: leave the work to others while sucking up the news cycle.
It’s true that Trump’s stunning lack of empathy has been fully laid bare. His bizarre appearance in Corpus Christie was a golden idol to optics, where Trump praised the size of the (tiny) crowd that came out to see him, wore his stupid USA hat, and put on a decisive display of looking like a leader. He didn’t meet one victim, didn’t see one inch of damage, and barely even got wet.
But Donald Trump has always been cold, unfeeling, and un-phased by the suffering of those lesser than him. Why would anyone expect him to start being someone else now? Did we really think he was going to head to Houston and start giving hugs to refugees? He’s a germaphobe, remember?
Remember, Trump is the “fuck your feelings” president. That’s what his base loves, and that’s what his Harvey response has been.
Where Trump truly could make a heroic or disastrous impact is not in moral leadership, because he’s totally incapable of it, but in the funding of disaster relief.
If you haven’t noticed, our government is a shell of itself, a barely functioning going-out-of-business company that’s responsible for the biggest economy and military in the world.
Harvey is a chance for Trump to do what he said only he was capable of doing: make great deals. Imagine Trump working the phones to use his unique combination of bully pulpit and magnetism to drive the costs of the relief effort down. “You’re charging us half a billion for water? Fuck you! Give it to us for a hundred million or I’ll tweet you into non-existence!”
He could declare price gouging a felony crime, freeze gas prices to prevent a post-disaster spike, immediately order massive infrastructure repairs in disaster-prone areas, and recommit to the Paris Climate Accords. He could do all of that today.
Imagine Trump laying down a line in the sand for Congress: “forget everything else, and send me a Harvey relief bill as soon as you can, with no pork, and enough money for everyone to get everything they need. And if you vote against it, I’ll make your life living hell!”
This is Trump’s big moment to be the CEO of the Harvey Recovery Organization. He could twist arms, kick ass, threaten, wheedle, cajole, and Make Houston Great Again – on time and under budget.
Instead, he flew from Texas to Missouri to babble about his mostly non-existent tax plan.
There’s still time for Trump to truly make his mark on the recovery of the Gulf Coast. But the window is closing. Every day that passes without decisive leadership is a day closer to Harvey becoming the millstone that Katrina was for Bush and Republicans.