Weather emergencies on the scale of Hurricane Harvey ought to be about common humanity, not politics. Americans have been saddened at the losses suffered by those affected by the storm, have cheered the efforts of rescuers, and have reached into their pockets to aid relief efforts. But even as we take pride in the willingness of so many to help, the eyes of the nation are also riveted on the actions of the president, as always when events like this happen. Harvey, like other storms, will be treated as a measure of the Trump presidency’s ability to deal with crises.
More will go into that evaluation than just the facts about what FEMA is able to accomplish or whether enough aid goes to the right places in a timely fashion. Like it or not, the perception of the administration’s performance in the aftermath of Harvey will be a product of the same political biases that determine reactions to everything else it does. As in the past, weather will prove to be politics by other means.
Weather catastrophes are calamities, but they also provide opportunities for politicians. A president who can arrive at the scene, appear in command, and then be viewed as someone who is truly helping benefits enormously. Such events are, if handled properly, tailor-made to demonstrate the power and the reach of government. The federal government has the resources to deal with emergencies that no local municipality can muster.
But, as with everything else that the government touches, emergency aid is political. The mere act of handing out largesse will inevitably play out as a form of patronage — which is why all politicians, especially presidents, seek to exploit disasters in a way that lets them to pose as the benefactor of the needy.
The best recent example is, of course, the way Hurricane Sandy allowed President Obama to play the helpful hero on the eve of the 2012 election. Obama’s deft campaigning touch was on display as he visited the affected areas and assumed an air of command promising that resources would be directed where needed. But if we remember Obama’s ability to demonstrate command of the situation, it was probably more because it compared so favorably with the negative coverage that George W. Bush received for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 than because of anything he did.
Bush’s handling of Katrina was far from brilliant, but the shocking pictures and video that showed the way a flooded New Orleans fell apart were the result of failures by local and state authorities as well as the complete and often disgraceful collapse of local first responders. But all that most of us remember from that awful time is Bush’s seemingly indifferent flyover of the affected region and his foolish praise of embattled FEMA director Michael Brown (“heck of a job, Brownie”). The situation on the ground was going to be awful no matter what Bush or his appointees did. More important, the willingness of most of the mainstream press to pivot their dramatic coverage of the suffering and chaos in the devastated area to ascribing spurious racial motives for the government’s inability to provide immediate help to African Americans during the flood did more to ensure that Bush would never recover from Katrina than his actual mistakes did.
The difference between that coverage and the plaudits Obama received seven years later was partly because of smarter preparation by Bush’s successor but also because the press never tilted its coverage in such a judgmental fashion. Bad weather helped undo Bush’s presidency, but it actually helped reelect Obama, even if — once the photo-ops and the election were over — the slow flow of resources to the Northeast due to congressional stalling and federal bureaucratic inefficiency left sufferers to deal with the disaster in a way that was a scandal.
Trump’s White House was determined to avoid Bush’s mistakes and emulate Obama’s success by getting to the affected areas quickly without doing anything that would let critics accuse them of disrupting relief efforts.
Anyone in doubt about how important a role partisan sensibilities play in disaster coverage were reminded of this when President Trump visited Texas on Tuesday.
Trump’s White House was determined to avoid Bush’s mistakes and to try to emulate Obama’s success by getting to the affected areas quickly without doing anything that would allow critics to accuse them of disrupting relief efforts (the reason Bush didn’t go to New Orleans).
There would be no flyover fiasco or even, given Trump’s penchant for loose remarks, anything to compare with the “Brownie” comment. Instead Trump would make the appropriate rounds, seeing what he could and then getting briefings from Texas officials who were handling the challenge with what looked like competence.
In our bifurcated political culture, though, it was inevitable that even if Trump didn’t blunder as Bush did, he would still wind up getting negative coverage. Since, for a change, the president didn’t do anything worthy of opprobrium, his critics seized instead on his wife’s attire.
Social media exploded with comments about the fact that Melania Trump wore high heels and designer clothes while boarding the helicopter that took the first couple from the White House on their way to Texas. Nor was the “disaster Barbie” meme silenced by the fact that she emerged from Air Force One in Texas wearing sensible sneakers and a FLOTUS cap, which was also derided. Her attire generated snark from the Washington Post (“the First Lady offered up a fashion moment instead of an expression of empathy”) and the New York Times (“Mrs. Trump’s heels, after all — they appear to be classic Manolo Blahniks — are redolent of a certain clichéd kind of femininity: decorative, impractical, expensive, elitist (all adjectives often associated with the brand ‘Trump’)”).
Melania’s stilettos won’t do the same damage to Trump that Bush’s Katrina gaffes did for him; they have even produced a backlash from the president’s supporters. But no matter how unfair the attacks on the First Lady were, the kerfuffle over her shoes showed that far from producing a political cease-fire during which the country could rise above its political divisions, Hurricane Harvey will, like Katrina and Sandy, be merely another excuse for partisans to take aim at their usual targets.
Like all presidents Trump will try to take credit for the money spent on relief — though, given the hostility of the media, he won’t get the same easy plaudits that Obama received. The bad weather wasn’t Trump’s fault any more than he will deserve special recognition for federal, state and local governments doing their jobs. The effort to pay for the relief needed will also be a political stick with which the parties will beat each other, with special attention given to Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz, who correctly pointed out that the post-Sandy relief bill was a Christmas tree of political pork but who will now ask for help for Texas.
Try as we might to remove politics from our concern for the victims of Harvey, this storm, like the ones that came before it, has proved to be a battlefield in which the media and other partisans will treat it as just another venue for the same old political war.