Stormy weather and Trump’s further absence of leadership

The Thinker by Rodin

It is kind of stunning how tone deaf the Trump Administration has become. By this time it shouldn’t be, but it is anyhow. After all, Puerto Rico was not hit by just one hurricane, but by two hurricanes. Hurricane Irma first made a swipe at the island before moving onto Florida. Florida was quite fortunate in that ultimately Irma picked a pretty benign path to wreak its destruction, with the Florida Keys taking the worst of it. Still, it was quite bad, and it knocked out much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. I have a sister in Fort Lauderdale. Like most of south Florida, she, her husband and her dog evacuated for a week. They dealt with massive traffic jams and lack of fuel, problems that could have been mitigated. She lost a few tiles off her roof from tree damage and suffered a water main break. It could have been a lot worse.

At least she didn’t live in Puerto Rico. It’s not easy to escape Puerto Rico and few Puerto Ricans have the means to get off the island even if they wanted to. So they had to hunker down during Irma and then do the best they could to survive. FEMA for the most part had its attention elsewhere, so these American citizens were largely left to their own resources. The more powerful Hurricane Maria wiped out pretty much everything that was left including lots of its bridges and most of its power grid. This left large parts of the island effectively landlocked: no power, no communications and with residents left to fend for themselves.

With sewage systems collapsing and their water supplies damaged many residents fought off thirst by drinking contaminated water, some coming down with wholly preventable diseases like cholera in the process. Drinking the water was problematic but there was not much you could do when the food ran out. Puerto Rico seems to be evolving into the equivalent of a third world country with disease, starvation and with what’s left of their homes providing an al fresco living experience for months or years to come.

Meanwhile, what bothered our “president” was that some NFL football players were bending on one knee during the national anthem. He saw it as being unpatriotic whereas the right to protest is actually one of the amazing features of our country. Clearly the administration is tone deaf to the harassment and killing of principally black citizens by our police. I don’t believe that Trump was all that upset by these protests. Rather, he was looking for something new and shiny to distract the public and enrage his supporters. He would have found something else if necessary because otherwise the press might spend more time looking at his administration’s poor handling of these hurricanes, particularly in Puerto Rico.

It’s not like we don’t know what to do to help people when these events happen. Food and clean water can be staged in the likely path of the storm. Generators can be brought in to support hospitals along with diesel needed to keep them going. It doesn’t cost that much to provide tents and temporary awnings, and I imagine there are chamber pot suppliers still in this business. Plans could have been in place to clear landing strips. The Corp of Engineers could have been on standby to build temporary bridges.

But none of this was new or shiny. It’s not clear that Trump even knew that Puerto Rico was part of the United States. He seems to have been surprised to learn that it was in the Atlantic Ocean, although it’s more accurately in the Caribbean Sea. In any event with no path to statehood and no representatives in Congress, there was no political reason to look at or care about Puerto Rico. It’s not surprising then that Congress gave it little attention and found it convenient to cut its support to the island. When the inevitable problems emerged of too many needs chasing too few resources, it was the fault of Puerto Ricans. So more austerity was needed, to force them to lift themselves by their own bootstraps somehow. In reality though it just forced more Puerto Ricans to leave the island, principally to Florida and New York.

Puerto Ricans have known for quite a while that our country doesn’t care about them, and they’ve been voting with their feet, since they are disenfranchised at the ballot box. Irma and Maria though now prove beyond a doubt that our country, at least our federal government, doesn’t care about them. At best they are second-class citizens, even though Puerto Rican citizens disproportionately fight in our wars and serve in our military.

The implicit reason is that most Americans don’t see them as citizens. They are too brown to be real citizens, and worse speak mostly Spanish. In an openly racist administration, they are even less seen. When they are seen at all, it is with barely disguised disgust. Mostly they are simply ignored.

Some of us though don’t feel this way, including my wife and I who have been contributing heartily to Puerto Rico’s relief. Some of us think that being an American citizen should mean something. As a first world country no citizen should have to worry about drinking rainwater or coming down with cholera. They should know that someone has your back. It’s not the state of Puerto Rico since it is not a state. It can’t be entirely its territorial government whose resources can’t begin to adequately cover the needs of its people. So it has to be the federal government, except right now our government clearly doesn’t give a crap about them. Puerto Ricans have been other-ized. If anything, whatever support we supply is a demonstration of power and a clear signal: you are not first-class citizens.

If only there had been even this much thought from the Trump administration. Basically Puerto Rico was not even on their radar. They just didn’t see a problem and you certainly can’t care about what you refuse to see. Doubtless our weather service and emergency managers dutifully raised the issue of Puerto Rico’s vulnerabilities and the impact of these storms. But Trump’s complete tone deafness and his lack of empathy for anyone not like him (white) simply made it a nonissue.

All the resources we needed to mitigate this disaster could have been there; they simply weren’t utilized for the most part. So the Trump administration is playing catch up. Trump is claiming everything is going perfectly when obviously it’s the complete opposite. Not that his supporters will know or care; they too excel at being tone deaf. In Trump’s mind, that’s all that really matters. His supporters need to be kept happy, but since he is incapable of doing much to actually make them happy he has to pander to their prejudices and cause distractions instead. That’s apparently all that really matters.

Democrats and riding Hurricane Donald

The Thinker by Rodin

Thursday’s White House meeting between Trump and congressional leaders was surprising, but perhaps should not have been. During a meeting in which a Republican president should be counted on to follow a plan by his Republican congressional leaders (Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), Trump went off the rails again. He let his grievances with Ryan and McConnell get the better of him. He surprised everyone by agreeing with a proposal by House Minority Leader Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer instead.

So instead of an eighteen-month extension of the debt ceiling wanted by Republicans (which conveniently kicks this can down the road past the 2018 midterms), he agreed to a three-month extension proposed by Democrats instead. Emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey was also agreed to. Oh, and that must have border wall funding? Seems to be off the table again at the moment. It was just more Trump bluster.

Republicans were flummoxed and furious. Democrats were smiling but wisely sitting on their hands. Trump had gone off the rails again. He let his petty grievances against Ryan and McConnell get the better of him, and spoke of Pelosi and Schumer like they were friends, calling them Nancy and Chuck. I doubt Nancy and Chuck expected this outcome, but perhaps it should not have come out of the blue. For when he feels grieved Trump will use whatever powers are at his disposal to wreak revenge. Typically he lashes out on Twitter, but this time he had something better: must-pass legislation. He could get vengeance against Ryan and McConnell by using a legislative approach that Democrats wanted.

Pelosi and Schumer won’t ever be Trump’s friends. Republicans in Congress though assumed that because Trump ran as a Republican that he would support their agenda. In reality Trump ran as a populist, used the Republican Party as a vehicle for getting elected and now that he is elected he feels free to wing it as he goes along. Trump will seek to support his own interests, whatever they happen to be at the moment. Since even he doesn’t know what they are and they can change on a dime, they will be whatever takes his fancy at the moment. And most likely whatever he supports will be in part aimed at punishing his foes, real or perceived because that’s what bullies and narcissists do.

However, despite Trump’s tendency to throw in his cards and demand a new hand, you can figure what breadcrumbs Trump is likely to follow. He will follow any that appear to give him greater glory and recognition and that will punish people who have fallen out of his favor. In this sense he’s predictable. So it is quite possible, in fact even probable, that if you bait him with the right breadcrumbs he will follow your trail and can thus be used to some extent.

So with a narcissist Trump as president, being in the minority is turning out to be something of an advantage. The majority (Republicans) cannot govern. They are too factionalized but they are also too at odds ideologically with much of Trump’s agenda. Moreover, they can’t possibly satisfy Trump’s desire for instant wins because they must follow a legislative process that requires actual debate and votes and that takes time.

However, at least through the 2018 elections Democrats are in the minority. They can’t be blamed for anything because they don’t set the agenda. (Yes, they can filibuster certain legislation, something Trump obviously doesn’t like, which is why many bills taken up in the Senate are written to adhere to reconciliation rules that require simple majorities.) Trump can make them temporary allies but they bear none of the responsibility for failures. In the past Trump has railed at both Pelosi and Schumer and called them nasty names. Most likely he will again the moment they obstruct his agenda of the moment. But right now he sees them as friends because it is politically convenient. Moreover, he has an incentive to keep them as friends because he literally has no political friends left in the Republican congressional leadership.

Pissing off Republicans in Congress is deeply counterproductive, not that Trump can see this. Consider whether Speaker Ryan agrees to take a resolution of impeachment against Trump to a vote. If you are in good relations with Trump, you probably won’t. If you are in bad relations, then why not take a vote? If Trump is impeached, convicted and removed then Pence is going to be better to work with. Similarly, despite his taciturn face, Senate Majority Leader McConnell probably harbors resentment against Trump now too. He’ll be required to try Trump if the House impeaches Trump, but he and many Republicans in the Senate would have plenty of reasons to vote him out of office too.

And all of this is not just possible but even likely because we have an inconsistent and severe narcissist as our president. A politically astute president of course would be building bridges with Congress because that’s how you move your agenda forward: through persuasion. Bullies perhaps can persuade, but their only real power is the power of intimidation. In Congress, intimidation works only at reelection. If in the primaries next year Trump can influence Republican voters to vote out those Republicans he disdains, these incumbents may pay a price. Given the wreck Trump is making of his presidency, it’s pretty good odds that most of these incumbents will survive their primaries.

So if you are a Democrat looking to regain power though, this horror is all good. If a Republican incumbent can be voted out in the primary for a Trump sycophant, then in a general election you’ve just increased the odds that a Democratic candidate can flip that seat by appealing to moderates. Candidates toting the line of a president with a 37% popularity rating aren’t likely to win. If a Republican incumbent survives their primary, they are still facing odds of losing in the midterms if the election framed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, which is the obvious and powerful frame Democrats doubtless will use in 2018.

Trump’s actions Thursday are thus is very good news for Democrats. Trump will find it hard to back away from his new friends Nancy and Chuck because by doing so he would lose face with people he officially dislikes, including Ryan and McConnell. Nancy and Chuck are smart to stifle their grins, but rest assured they are ebullient in private. Trump has fallen into his own trap made possible by his fixed personality and his narcissism.

Like Hurricane Irma about to hit Florida, while you can’t stop this natural disaster you can ride it for all its worth. Trump is the wrecking machine of his own agenda. Democrats need to hang on, ride it and hope that voters have had enough in 2018 to flip the House and maybe even the Senate.