Hurricane Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico on September 20 was an entirely predictable crisis. For a week, meteorologists charted the path of Maria as it moved through the northeastern Caribbean and devastated Dominica before smashing into Puerto Rico, which had been hit hard by Hurricane Irma two weeks before.
There are moments when it feels as if advanced global technology–smartphones with cameras, social media networks that transcend borders–developed just in time to render us helpless voyeurs to the world’s demise. As the hurricane hit, Facebook and Twitter filled with warnings from Puerto Rican officials telling residents to evacuate or die, videos of palm trees snapping, and homes collapsing, and then an agonizing drop in live reports as the island’s power grid and many transmission lines were destroyed. More anguish followed: Many Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland are still wondering if their loved ones are alive, and the mayor of San Juan wept as she declared a humanitarian crisis amid “apocalyptic” conditions. U.S. politicians ranging from Hillary Clinton to John McCain urged the federal government to send aid, while Latinx celebrities like Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez pledged money and asked for help.
As this disaster played out on U.S. soil, President Trump said nothing. When he finally tweeted on September 25, it was seemingly to cast blame: “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he tweeted, adding that “Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
That is what Donald Trump thought was sad about Puerto Rico, not the hospitals in rubble and the patients near death, not the shortage of food and water, not the millions of American citizens who lost their jobs and homes. Wall Street, not Puerto Ricans, won his pity. As president, he put this philosophy into practice, initially refusing to waive the Jones Act and allow supplies to be shipped to Puerto Rico unimpeded. The Jones Act was finally lifted on September 28. His rationale for the delay? “We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted,” he explained. Heaven forbid millions of desperate U.S. citizens disturb them.
Much as Hurricane Maria was a predictable catastrophe, so is Trump’s cruel reaction. It is what one would expect from a narcissist unable to detach an external crisis from his own reputation. Much as Trump invents fake threats–voter fraud, soaring crime, “The Bowling Green Massacre”–he denies real crises, often while fabricating fake triumphs. Even when dealing with a disaster that is, for once, not caused by him, Trump cannot fathom the suffering others experience as anything other than a potential blight on his image, and it appears that he attempts to remove that suffering from public view. On September 27, the White House announced that all U.S. lawmakers would be prohibited from visiting the island, thereby reducing oversight and official complaints about the botched recovery.
Under Trump logic, if Puerto Rico is somehow to blame for getting damaged by a hurricane–as he implied on Twitter–then Trump is not at fault. But if Trump, as president, must grudgingly acknowledge the aftermath, then that aftermath must be presented as a success. On the same day Trump castigated the island for its debt crisis, he tweeted, “Food, water, and medical are top priorities–and doing well”–despite considerable evidence to the contrary. It took a week of public outcry for supplies to be sent. Trump’s alternative facts are not merely annoying: They kill.
Puerto Rico is devastated. Phone system, electric grid many roads, gone. FEMA and First Responders are amazing. Governor said "great job!"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2017
Some have deemed Maria “Trump’s Katrina”–a comparison that holds in terms of disastrous relief efforts, but falters when it comes to expectation of accountability. President George W. Bush’s indifference to Katrina victims and applause for failed FEMA efforts (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job“) shocked Americans because they still expected a baseline level of competence. Footage of black New Orleans residents begging for relief jolted many white Americans into recognition of environmental racism. Bush’s approval ratings plunged as Americans realized his recklessness was not limited to foreign wars, and that beneath the shimmering surface of his bubble economy lurked devastating race-based poverty.
Under Trump, Americans have lost a lot–civil rights, environment protections, perhaps our sovereignty–but what we have lost most is our expectation of what is normal. Trump, a president who is applauded for feats like reading off a teleprompter without being egregiously racist, is held to the lowest standard possible, yet still manages to not meet it, so the standard is continually moved to accommodate his mounting failures. After months of fending off Trump-made disasters–TrumpCare, unconstitutional executive orders, flirtations with nuclear war–few Americans expected him to handle a natural disaster or express empathy for those hurt by it. Fewer expected that Trump would grant Puerto Rico, a territory of mostly non-white, Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens, the same respect as a U.S. state.
Trump’s heartlessness still has the capacity to shock, but it does not surprise. Hurricane Maria is not Trump’s Katrina: It’s just Trump being Trump, the presidency its own existential threat. That it is reasonable to expect so little from a president is its own tragedy, but that should not stop people from demanding more.
Some have posited that perhaps Trump does not realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. This is the kind of take that seems insulting but is actually generous. Trump knows Puerto Rico well: He ran a golf course there that defaulted in 2011, leaving Puerto Rican taxpayers on the hook for $32.7 million. The Puerto Rican debt Trump complained about in his tweet is, in fact, due in part to Trump. He is cognizant of the island, but appears to view it only as a burdensome investment and an irrelevant voter pool. His apathy toward Puerto Rico’s crisis resembles his cavalier attitude toward fellow territory Guam, which was threatened in August with North Korean nuclear strikes. The notoriety will be good for tourism, Trump told Guam’s governor.
The waive of the Jones Act lasts for only 10 days, but it will take years for Puerto Rico to rebuild, if it can at all. The island is expected to be without power for at least half a year; its agriculture is decimated; its already battered economy is on the verge of collapse. We are in the early stages of what will likely be one of the worst U.S. humanitarian crises of the 21st century, with a self-serving president whose fear of admitting failure leads to a denial of problems, and, in turn, to a denial of resources for citizens.
Trump knew Hurricane Maria was coming, and did nothing. Americans saw Trump’s response coming, and begged for Puerto Rico to be saved. But social media screams cannot move ships; instead, we are left staring helplessly at our screens as the reality-TV president changes the channel.
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Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly referred to the musician Pit Bull as Puerto Rican. He is Cuban-American.