Donald Trump has a strong feral instinct for how to summon America's anger and fear. But he's totally lacking in intuition about how to show America heart and decency. It's not the only part of the job for which he's shown little natural talent, knowledge or ability, but it's certainly one this country has desperately needed over the past month. In fact, according to a Fox News poll released on Tuesday, 56 percent of Americans believe that Trump is "tearing the country apart" compared to only 33 percent who say he's "bringing the country together." He's a disaster in a disaster.
We all know that his behavior after Charlottesville was divisive and callous, not to mention racist. His response to Hurricane Harvey has simply been flat, as well as oddly uninterested in the human toll. He has tweeted about the historic nature of the storm as if it were a tribute to his own importance, in between pardoning the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, knocking the media for its coverage of him and exhorting people to buy a supporter's book. He has complimented his cabinet and other political officials for their work and promised that the Trump administration's response will be remembered as the best response for years to come. And of course he flew to Texas to stage some photo-ops, miles away from the damage:
But for all Trump's tweets and photo ops, he has yet to say the name of a single victim of the storm, not even Sgt. Steve Perez, the 30-year police veteran who drowned in his police car trying to get to work on Sunday.
But for all Trump's inability to deal with real human tragedy, I must admit that his decision to go ahead with his scheduled rally for tax reform in Missouri on Tuesday really surprised me. He and his political team aren't the best, but they usually aren't quite this tin-eared. On TVs all over America yesterday, we saw the president talking about tax cuts before a cheering crowd on one side of the screen, while footage of harrowing rescues and maps with swirling storm animations showed on the other. It appeared that Trump was in campaign mode while America's fourth-largest city, and towns for hundred miles around it, were drowning before our eyes.
I heard a reporter on television say that the White House believes it can't repeat the mistake it made on Obamacare repeal, so it's important to get the president out in the country to sell tax reform. That's a legitimate political decision, although it's daft, since Trump only knows how to sell himself and his name. But to do it in the midst of an epic natural disaster while the death toll is rising daily -- honestly, what were they thinking?
Judging from the wooden speech Trump gave in Missouri (in which he mentioned the "people" of Texas as if someone had held a gun to his head), the administration thinks it can sell tax cuts for rich people as tax cuts for the middle class and call it "worker friendly." As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent pointed out even before the speech, this plan is "the death rattle of Trump’s economic populism." And that's assuming Trump's populism was ever alive in the first place.
This does bring into focus once again just how much damage the Trump administration and the GOP wrecking ball is likely to do before it's all done. We don't know whether Congress can actually pass a tax cut bill. But we do know that the spending bill the Republicans will consider when they come back from recess next week contains nearly $1 billion in cuts to disaster relief funds. Why? They want to use the money to build Trump's Folly, also known as that inane border wall.
One assumes they may be forced to reconsider that proposal in light of the worst flooding in U.S. history -- which happens to have hit Texas, where representatives who like to vote against disaster relief in the rest of the country will no doubt step up for their own constituents. But you never know.
Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations that made it easier for places like Houston to rebuild roads and bridges to withstand future disasters. Trump didn't like that it allowed states and municipalities to take climate change into account, so that was that.
But all that is nothing compared to what Republicans are likely to do in the near future. Recall that after Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush put his political strategist Karl Rove in charge of reconstruction efforts and he was quick to employ "Shock Doctrine" methods. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times:
The Heritage Foundation, which has surely been helping Karl Rove develop the administration's recovery plan, has already published a manifesto on post-Katrina policy. It calls for waivers on environmental rules, the elimination of capital gains taxes and the private ownership of public school buildings in the disaster areas. And if any of the people killed by Katrina, most of them poor, had a net worth of more than $1.5 million, Heritage wants to exempt their heirs from the estate tax."
The Republican Congress got in on the act as well, as The Wall Street Journal reported:
Congressional Republicans, backed by the White House, say they are using relief measures for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast to achieve a broad range of conservative economic and social policies, both in the storm zone and beyond. . . .
"The desire to bring conservative, free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast is white hot," says Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who leads the Republican Study Group, an influential caucus of conservative House members. "We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was."
Many of the ideas under consideration have been pushed by the 40-member study group, which is circulating a list of "free-market solutions," including proposals to eliminate regulatory barriers to awarding federal funds to religious groups housing hurricane victims, waiving the estate tax for deaths in the storm-affected states; and making the entire region a "flat-tax free-enterprise zone."
Trump is already on his way to doing many of those things administratively. And he's talking about tax cuts even before the flooding has crested. So it's not hard to imagine that the boys and girls of the Heritage Foundation are already huddling with congressional leaders and the heads of various agencies to use this new disaster to dismantle even more government protections for average citizens. The only difference is that this time everyone will call it populism, and they'll pretend it's all to benefit the forgotten American working class.