For some reason, watching President Trump's visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday brought to mind the scene in Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" in which the Marquis St. Evrémonde runs over a child with his carriage and without remorse or compassion declares, “It is extraordinary to me that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children!" He throws a coin at the grieving father and another into the crowd, and as he moves on, one of the peasants on the street throws a coin back in the carriage, at which point the Marquis turns in anger and threatens to "exterminate" them all. The peasants hang their heads and say not a word, knowing what power the man has to destroy them.
Donald Trump didn't throw coins into the crowd in Puerto Rico, but he did throw Bounty paper towels. And he didn't scold the island's people to their faces for failing to take care of their children, but he didn't need to. He'd made it clear in his tweets that he thought Puerto Ricans had refused to help themselves because "they want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
Officials on the ground wisely behaved much as Dickens' peasants did. They kept their eyes down and parroted the president as he complimented his own leadership over and over again. This was more like an audience with the king, not a visit from a democratically elected leader who had come to forge a personal connection to what had happened.
Trump first insisted that the hurricane had hit exactly a week earlier, which wasn't even close. It made landfall two weeks ago today. Maybe he'd lost track of time, but it's more likely that this was a conscious lie to cover up the fact that his administration's response has been so slow and so inadequate.
It only got worse from there. Trump unctuously lauded his administration, starting with himself, of course. Then he went down the list, starting with FEMA director Brock Long, whom he gave an A-plus. He thanked Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and DHS adviser Tom Bossert and praised his "fantastic general," Jeffrey Buchanan, saying, "No doubt about it. You are a general. No games."
He thanked Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's nonvoting congressional representative, for "saying such nice things" about him. (She is also the state chair of Puerto Rico's Republican Party.) He lavished praise on Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, because he "did not play politics" when "he was giving us the highest grades."
He thanked all the branches of the military in florid terms, although when he got to the Coast Guard there was this weird moment:
Trump: What a job the Coast Guard has done throughout this whole — [inaudible] They would go right into the middle of it. I want to thank the Coast Guard.
They are special people. A lot of people got to see the real Coast Guard in this trouble. In Texas was incredible for what they did. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. We would like to say something on behalf of your men and women.
Unidentified: I'm representing the Air Force.
Trump: I know that.
I'm going to guess that that Air Force representative received a tongue-lashing for that impudent remark.
Trump also celebrated the fact that, according to him, the Category 5 Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico wasn't a "real disaster" like Hurricane Katrina. He asked the governor, "What's your death count?" When Rosselló told him 16 people have been confirmed dead so far, the president smugly replied, "Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be . . . very proud of what's taken place."
We know Trump is very proud of the whole effort. He tells anyone who will listen what a great job he's done and was happy to listen to local officials as they told him the same thing. And they did. One after the other expressed their deepest gratitude for his tremendous efforts.
He didn't ask the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, to say anything, needless to say. She doesn't understand that the peasants must flatter and fawn if they wish to have bread and water. (He did shake Cruz's hand earlier in the visit and she told him "It's not about politics," at which point he reared up and haughtily turned away.)
The president is clearly annoyed that this relief effort is going to cost money. In fact, he can't stop talking about that. He has mentioned the island's debt and the cost every time he's addressed the disaster, and he didn't forget to do it on this occasion, saying, "I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, you've thrown our budget a little out of whack. We've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico." He generously added that it was "fine" because they were saving lives, which is mighty big of him.
I don't recall Trump complaining about the money it cost for hurricane relief in Texas and Florida. In fact, Trump wanted it so much he was even willing to make a deal with "Chuck and Nancy" to get it done. This one seems to be a bit less urgent for some reason.
He finished the self-congratulatory photo-op and ring kissing ceremony and traveled around San Juan for a short tour, ending up in a church where they were delivering some supplies. He took selfies with the locals and then started throwing those paper towels into the crowd as if he were Elvis tossing one of his sweat-soaked scarves to the swooning ladies in the audience.
Afterwards, he actually said, "There was a lot of love in that room."
I'm sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody's ever seen. And yet I represent the workers of the world. And they love me and I love them. I think people aspire to do things. And they aspire to watch people. I don't think they want to see the president carrying his luggage out of Air Force One. And that's pretty much the way it is.
He believes people want to admire him from a distance, see him as bigger than life, as one anointed to leadership by dint of genetic destiny and special talent. But once in a while an ingrate will toss the coin he generously sent their way back in his carriage and he gets angry. If you need something from the king, you'd better tell him how great he is and then ask very, very nicely.