One of the more grotesque manifestations of Donald Trump’s attitude toward the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is that he insists on referring to the island as a collection of “thems”, as opposed to “us”, or rather, the US. We can’t leave “our” first responders there forever; “they” have to help “themselves”; “they” should be grateful.
Obviously, there is surface-level racism at play here, but there is also a bone-deep ignorance of Puerto Rico’s status. Its people are Americans, but not “Americans”- they can’t vote in our national elections and don’t have any full members of Congress. And clearly, the bulk of American sympathies toward them have a paternalistic remove.
That’s because Puerto Rico exists in a kind of hazy borderland we want to ignore: the one between the present and a bloody past. Our occupation of Puerto Rico is part of the same colonizing energy that saw us wipe out nations to expand across a continent. Our ginned-up war with Spain was of the same era that the west was finally “won”. Indeed, while the “Frontier theory” of Frederick Jackson Turner isn’t much-regarded, his point that once America reached the Pacific it needed new areas to occupy is pretty much spot-on.