At the blog, we like to poke fun at our President from time to time, and point out that his language is “colorful” and “eccentric” and “the pure distilled sound of deranged dishonesty” and “a madman’s bark that is warping and distorting the institutions and assumptions on which democracy and a functioning society are based.” But there are times when the costs of his pathologies become even more clear.
There was a lot going on in this low, dumb, dishonest week, but this is what should matter most:
A new study in TheNew England Journal of Medicine, conducted in part by researchers at Harvard University, sheds new light on what’s really happened on the island. The team found that there were over 4,600 deaths potentially attributable to the hurricane, a 70-fold increase over official estimates. The survey also measured high rates of migration among people displaced by the storm and, after it passed, long periods where residents faced a loss of basic services.
I don’t really want to talk about how this got lost in Rosanne and Sam Bee and D’Szouza and all that. We know we have cracked priorities (I’m as guilty as anyone). But it is clear that these priorities, this inward gazing, redolent of self-obsessed decline, is part and parcel of why we didn’t care about Puerto Rico, and that this truth could go relatively (though obviously and thankfully not entirely) unmentioned, is tied up in Trump’s wild dishonesty.
Our disregard for Puerto Rico didn’t start with Trump, of course. It is a colonial legacy of a country that somehow doesn’t believe itself to be a colonizer (an assumption that can be disproven by: all of America). Most Americans probably didn’t know, or at least fully understand, that by dint of law and ties of culture, Puerto Ricans are Americans. That makes this the greatest natural disaster in modern American history, but of course, it wasn’t just natural.
This disaster was exacerbated by the administration’s flagrant disregard for non-white lives, and by Trump’s all-encompassing need to protect himself. These sicknesses met in how he talked about Puerto Rico, which again, is part of America. As I said then:
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.
Part of this was self-preservation. It was clearly a disaster, but disasters can’t happen under Trump, because he is the ultimate leader, and can never take responsibility for anything. Obviously, nothing bad can happen under his watch (unless he is betrayed), so he had to distance himself from “them”.
This also, obviously, can’t be separated from racism, both Trump’s personal racism and the kind baked into every American institution. I’m not going to pretend that any other American President would be able or willing to tearfully rally the country around a protectorate we’d rather forget.
But Trump’s essential dishonesty about the situation allowed us to ignore it, changed the topic, pushed the grim fate of modern American citizens into a malarial and nightblack cesspool. Trump didn’t care about “them”, and wanted us not to care about it, so he threw some paper towels, bragged about how good he did and how he did so much better than Bush and Katrina, bragged to Puerto Ricans about their very low death toll and how Katrina was a real disaster, declared victory, and brought “our” responders home. This all really happened!
I mean, that’s not all that happened, of course. This being the Trump administration, the aftermath was wracked with corruption and incompetence, with friends of Ryan Zinke getting absurd contracts to fail to repair the electricity (which costs lives and livelihoods). That’s par for the Trumpian course, but it was born from his essential dishonesty about himself, about what happened, and about Puerto Rico.
And so thousands died needlessly. Of course there was corruption and bad leadership on the island; there is everywhere in the country. But through the lens of Trump’s racism and need to insulate himself from anything that reflects poorly, that was shluffed off as brownish third-world nonsense, and distanced further from America. Trump was able to blame Puerto Rico on Puerto Ricans, pretending they weren’t American, and shifting the conversation to how good he did.
And people died. Our modern dishonesty kills. You want another example? Watch this video.
This is a viral video claiming to show Muslims rioting in Birmingham in order to eat in the streets during Ramadan, which is a weird thing since Muslims know about sidewalks and “inside”. But of course this isn’t a Muslim riot, but rather soccer fans in Switzerland celebrating a win or mourning a loss or just embracing soccer or something.
Needless to say, the “look at these Muslims” has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, and will certainly be used to reinforce prejudice, exacerbate tension, stir up violence, and continue to fray the slight bonds that keep Western civilization together. It’s a smallish sort of thing in the grand scheme, but its virality and complete dishonesty makes it perfect for our times.
And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of your imagination to consider the President, cranky and sleepy, retweeting it and saying “Donald J Trump was RIGHT and liberal Obama/Crooked H judges WRONG about security. Need STRONG AND SMART “travel” ban (won’t say Muslim) now! Good President!”
Our days are dishonest, and falseness is their currency. It is a weapon. It is a cudgel and a scalpel, capable of huge hammering deadly blows, as in Puerto Rico, and a million tiny daily incisions, until we’re baffled and worn out and unable to process. Trump didn’t start it, and it won’t end with him. But he is the snarling, bloated culmination of these times, both embodying and enlarging them. He’s every dumb, terrible thing we’ve done wrapped up in an empty package, and his legacy will be death and discord and misery. It’s a vulgar and tacky way to reconcile empire, but it is hard to say it is undeserved.