We've been waiting for that first big crisis and here it is
Matt Yglesias has written a good overview of what we now know about Trump in a crisis. It's not good:
For the first nine months of his administration, observers have had occasion to wonder — and wonder, and wonder, and wonder — how exactly Donald Trump would manage to handle a real crisis imposed by external events rather than his own impulsiveness. The answer is now apparent in the blackened streets of San Juan and the villages of interior Puerto Rico that more than a week after Hurricane Maria struck remain without access to food or clean water.
To an extent, the United States of America held up surprisingly well from Inauguration Day until September 20th or so. The ongoing degradation of American civic institutions, at a minimum, did not have an immediate negative impact on the typical person’s life.
But the world is beginning to draw a straight line from the devastation in Puerto Rico straight to the White House. Trump’s instinct so far is to turn the island’s devastation into another front in culture war politics, a strategy that could help his own political career survive.
The rest of us will just have to pray for good luck.
The president watches too much TV
Hurricanes Harvey and Irene were massive cable television events that dominated coverage on all the networks. MSNBC went so all-in on storm news that they sent Chris Hayes out in a windbreaker to stand around in the wind in Naples, Florida.
But as Dhrumil Mehta has shown at 538, Maria was relatively invisible on cable.
“People on TV news shows spoke significantly fewer sentences about Hurricane Maria than about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” he writes, and “the spike in conversation about Puerto Rico right as the hurricane hit was also much smaller than the spike in mentions of Texas and Florida.”
Cable producers surely had their reasons for this. But something anyone in the media could tell you is that cable producers’ news judgment is not an infallible guide to the substantive importance of various stories. In particular, a broad range of issues — potentially including natural disasters in outlying US territories — have an asymmetrical quality to them, where if handled appropriately most people won’t care that much, but if botched it eventually becomes a big deal.
This is why traditionally presidents have relied upon staff and the massive information gathering capabilities of the American government for information rather than letting television set the agenda. Trump has a different philosophy, however, and spent the post-storm Saturday glued to his television and letting the hosts of “Fox & Friends” drag him into an ill-advised Twitter spat with NFL stars.
Because Trump wasn’t paying attention, the situation evolved into a catastrophe. And because the situation evolved into a catastrophe, it eventually ended up on television.
The Washington Post reports that by Monday, Trump “was becoming frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV.”
Trump can’t un-ring the bell of a slow response
Now that Trump’s inadequate response to Maria’s devastation has become a big issue, the Trump administration is full of excuses for why their response was so inadequate:
Trump emphasized in public remarks on Friday that Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water” which makes relief difficult.
An anonymous administration officials told the Washington Post that “the Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support.”
He goes on to discuss the fact that yes, it was a big hurricane but also that Trump is president of the United States and it's a big job.
This is also true:
Trump turns everything into a culture war
The substantive problem that Trump — and America — is now facing is that you can’t go back in time and do the preparatory work that should have been done. You can’t pre-position satellite phones, schedule timely visits from top administration officials, or quickly dispatch ships and helicopters once you’re starting with an eight-day lag. The best you can do is admit you were too slow and throw everything you’ve got at it.
But admitting wrongdoing isn’t part of Trump’s playbook.
Defensiveness and counterpunching is.
Many people will see more than a hint of racism here in the implication that Puerto Ricans are too lazy to help themselves.
And the specter of Trump once again being called a racist by liberals will once again help rally to his side the large segment of the white population which believes that anti-white discrimination is a big problem in the United States. Trump, meanwhile, portrays criticism of him, personally, as criticism of heroic soldiers and first responders.
Trump doesn’t know much about governing. But he is very good at channeling every discussion into the same handful of culture war tropes. Shifting the discussion in this direction rather than adopting a tone of humility will, of course, only make substantive recovery more difficult by polarizing the topic in congress and among the public.
There are no “adults in the room”
Actually they're there. They are just terrified and impotent. And it's because this is Trump: