Partisan loathing does strange things to the brain. We are all susceptible to malicious tribalism, whether it’s praying the opposing team’s quarterback is carried out on a stretcher, or hoping that your most vilified politician implodes.
For example, there is so much schadenfreude directed at President Donald Trump right now, millions of Americans are actually hoping his response to Hurricane Harvey fails. In a rational world this would not be the case, but inside the human brain it is only a small jump from disliking a politician to hoping strangers are left stranded on their roofs, or worse.
And those who loathe Trump are growing more numerous by the day. He just set a new record for spending more time below a 40 per cent approval rating than any other first-term president. No other American leader has been this disliked, this fast. And it appears his response to Harvey will only make this worse.
As the televisions began to fill with images of a drowning city, Trump filled his Twitter feed with other news—including his upcoming rally in Missouri, complaints about the Democrats, threats to build the wall, and kudos for Sheriff David Clarke’s new book. While the National Guard and emergency crews raced to Texas, and his cabinet convened an emergency meeting in Washington, Trump opted to stay at Camp David. And, when he boarded Air Force One to fly out to Texas today, everyone noted the preposterous four-inch heels worn by the first lady.
But when the Trumps landed in Texas, Melania had swapped into running shoes. And, while his detractors have been almost triumphant in the face of the president’s embarrassing display of disinterest and distraction, (so far) Trump is responding well to his first major disaster.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was mobilized well in advance of the hurricane making landfall. Soon after it did, rescue teams moved in to help evacuate those trapped by rising waters. National Guard units from around the country deployed quickly, and convoys of civilians towing boats and jet skis arrived to help in the relief, sparking comparisons to Dunkirk.
This is all the more remarkable when you consider the biblical scale of the storm and the ensuing flood. The National Weather Service needed to create new scales to accurately map how much rain has fallen. Meteorologists report 12 trillion gallons of water have now come down on the Houston region, and another 12-16 trillion more is expected. That is the equivalent of the entire Mississippi river being poured into the city for 10 weeks straight.
Comparisons to Hurricane Katrina cannot be avoided. We are not seeing civilians abandoned to their fates. There have been no accounts of hospitals euthanizing patients. Bodies are not floating down the street. The local mayor is not feuding with the president. No one is calling the emergency response a “national disgrace”. In fact, the Trump-appointed head of FEMA is earning praise for his leadership. Three days in, Trump is weathering the first domestic crisis of his presidency remarkably well.
Of course, it is easy to exaggerate Trump’s role in all of this. The president has very little to do with how quickly the military is able to deploy, or how well prepared FEMA is. Lessons learned from Katrina would have been applied regardless of what sat in the White House. And the president was once again almost pathologically incapable of acting presidential in the face of a crisis. And many critics noted that just a few days earlier, Trump reversed regulations designed to protect infrastructure from floods like this.
Nonetheless, after possibly the worst week of his presidency, one that saw nuclear threats, Charlottesville, an unhinged press conference, an explosive rally in Phoenix, resignations, and yet more Russian revelations, Trump is having one of his best weeks. Maybe he doesn’t deserve it, but the people of Houston do.
You can support the victims of Harvey, including the 100,000 people who moved to Houston after being forced to resettle after Katrina, by donating to the St Bernard Project—a well-run charity that speeds recovery by rebuilding and preparing for future disasters.