It’s an article of faith in American politics that big disasters are defining moments for presidents—creating a huge stage for political theater and also posing some of the biggest risks. A New York Times headline this week informs us that “Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify.” Across social media, Melania Trump was ridiculed for walking to the flight down to Texas in a pair of stiletto heels. (By the time she got to Texas, she was sensibly clad in sneakers.) A social-media photo meme contrasts the way Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama physically embraced the victims of disaster, while the germophobic Donald Trump spent his time with officials and pumping up what looked like a quickly assembled campaign rally (“What a crowd, what a turnout!”).
Again and again, we are reminded of the self-inflicted wound Bush delivered to himself by flying high above Katrina-flattened New Orleans, symbolically distancing himself from the death and devastation, and telling Michael Brown, his underqualified Federal Emergency Management Agency head, “Heckuva job, Brownie.” By contrast, the steely, on-the-ground response of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to the attacks of September 11 earned him plaudits from even his severest critics and elevated him to the status of a major presidential contender.
So this may be a good time to raise a heretical notion: Disasters are a terrible time to judge a president.
And suppose the president was indeed photographed—as Trump so glaringly was not—embracing homeless families, offering a hug and comforting words.
— SylesteFox10 (@SylesteFox10) September 2, 2017
— Global Issues Web (@globalissuesweb) September 2, 2017
Houston children are coming up to President Trump to give him a hug. Nice to see even kids don't believe Fake News! https://t.co/vqggXOpUF6
— Trump Super PAC ?? (@TrumpSuperPAC) September 2, 2017
Trump, First Lady Hug Children, Serve Meals to Harvey Victims https://t.co/kJ6IgIDFn1
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) September 2, 2017
As for the president’s appearance in Texas: Yes, it bore the marks of a self-obsessed, egocentric boy-king who is sufficiently distanced from the rhetorical demands of his office that he was unable to offer words of compassion instead of his usual rah-rah sales pitch. (Once again, it took a teleprompter, this time in Missouri, to provide him the proper pieties.) But any semi-conscious citizen has seen this kind of behavior on display throughout the entire Trump campaign and presidency. To recoil in shock from the latest, far-from-the-worst display should be filed under the strain-at-a-gnat-swallow-a-camel category.
On the whole, response to Harvey has gone as well as any disaster response in the past decade and noticeably better than the response to Katrina or Sandy. FEMA actually seems competent, for a change. State and local officials seem to have a clue. Private efforts have meshed with official efforts in a way we rarely see. Trump has made two trips to the area–and is getting criticism for ‘grandstanding’ as opposed to being criticized for being ‘unconcerned.’
It is difficult to imagine a set of facts where the Harvey response was an utter goat rope and this same douche would be writing about the folly of blaming Republican presidents for fouled up disaster response. It is dishonest heads-I-win-tails-you-lose hackery.
This whole story basically goes back to the post by Teri Christoph earlier today on Trump Derangement Syndrome. The dislike of Trump by the left and by a non-trivial number of self-professed conservatives is to the point where no matter what Trump does it must be wrong. If he keeps DACA he’s breaking a campaign promise and his supporters are rubes. If he gets rid of DACA he’s a heartless bastard and his supporters are racists. If he interacts with families in the shelters, it is fake. If he didn’t interact, he’d be out of touch. It is mindless contrarianism that only pauses for lengthy periods of preening about the superior quality of the morality and principles of the people making the critcism.