Authoritarians love natural disasters. It’s a great way to rally the troops.
Hurricanes are a foreign threat— a common enemy to unite a divided nation. Mother Nature’s wrath provides the perfect excuse to declare an emergency, put the military in the streets, open the treasury, and make patriotic speeches about national purpose.
The bigger the storm, the greater the resolve.
The destruction left behind provides a backdrop for strongmen presidents to display leadership and defiance on the national stage. It’s an opportunity to step off a helicopter dressed in sharply a disaster-relief agency vest, survey the battlefield like a commanding general, comfort a grieving woman like the father of the nation, and then throw paper towels at people like… well, a drunken Brawny distributor at paper products convention.
But when nature brings her worst, so do authoritarian presidents. Strongmen leaders always seem to blow it when it comes to post-storm recovery and reconstruction. That’s because many authoritarian governments are inherently incompetent. And once the storm rips the roof off, their corruption and ineptitude get exposed for all to see.
Take Donald Trump’s ham-fisted response to Hurricane Maria. After getting off to an indefensibly slow start, Trump has spent more energy trying to distract people from the problem of Puerto Rico than actually dealing with it. He dug deep into his bag of Twitter tricks to downplay the level of damage—attack the mayor of San Juan, insult the people of Puerto Rico, and gaslight the world with delusional claims of a successful recovery effort.
Trump even went so far as to pick a fight with the NFL in a will-o’-the-wisp effort to cloak himself so tightly in the American flag that people wouldn’t notice his dereliction of duty as president of the United States.
After several weeks of giving a master class in authoritarian mismanagement, Trump is now threatening to quit on Puerto Rico all together.
That’s right, Trump wants to take a knee.
The Trump administration’s “see-ya-wouldn’t-wanna-be-ya” approach to Puerto Rico is a far cry from his administration’s pledge of unending support for the victims of the recent red-state hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Louisiana.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has gotten more ridicule than relief. More than 80% of the island is still without power, one-third of the 3.5 million people living there are without drinking water, and the post-storm death toll continues to climb to unknown heights. Trump’s response to the catastrophe will be most remembered for his paper-towel free throws, Twitter bullying, and mockery of the Puerto Rican accent.
Simply put, Trump is shirking his responsibilities as president of the United States. His neglectful response to the destruction of Puerto Rico is perhaps the single greatest example of why he’s unfit to president. Some have even argued that it’s an impeachable offense.
It’s not just gross incompetence, this is cruel racism. This is Trump reasserting his deeply held belief that not all Americans are created equal. That America is a country of “some very fine people” who are entitled to everything, and a large group of ingrates who are sapping the system.
Trump has a black-and-white view of a country where white folks give and black folks take.
The president’s repeated complaints about Puerto Rico’s ingratitude comes from the same place as his complaints about black football players’ ingratitude. The message is the same: these people of color don’t appreciate the United States the same way as us white folks.
Perhaps it’s naive to think that America was ever a better place than this. But before Trump, we at least had presidents who believed in the promise of America — or pretended to. By quitting on Puerto Rico, Trump is quitting on that promise and turning his back on America.
And that’s how he’ll be remembered.