Trump’s empathy deficit

The racism is no longer thinly disguised; it’s blatant and obvious for all to witness.

Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd during Tuesday's visit to Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd during Tuesday's visit to Puerto Rico. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

You would think that during the two weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump would have found the proper message for the people of the U.S. territory as they struggle to reassemble their homes and lives.

It’s easy to envision any of our past presidents bringing words of comfort and hope to Puerto Rico, along with a pledge of federal support to assist in the recovery. But Trump is no normal president and his overdue visit to the island on Tuesday, his first since the storm, demonstrated just how much he lacks empathy for others and selfishly craves praise for himself. At this point in both his personal history and White House tenure, the racism is no longer thinly disguised; it’s blatant and obvious for all to witness.

For example, during his meeting with island officials, Trump blamed the victims of the storm for throwing the national budget “a little out of whack,” and that argued they should be happy the hurricane wasn’t “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”

There can be no mistaking the depths of Trump’s disdain for black and brown Americans.

The litany of presidential abuse less than a year into Trump’s presidency is staggering and racially uneven: In just the past month, the administration has urged ESPN’s Jemele Hill be fired for criticizing him, yet has not showed the same venom toward white late-night television hosts such as Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel who have been far more sustained in their opposition to the president. He has provoked a fight NFL players who have knelt during the playing of the national anthem, demanding that team owners fire them for exercising their freedom of speech rights.

Trump’s response to the Puerto Rico crisis, however, is in a class by itself. In this instance, the stakes are life and death. People on the island have critical needs for food, water, electricity, medical care, and communication. Yet the president has seen fit to complain because some of the most beleaguered Americans in Puerto Rico haven’t praised his leadership.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, for example, waded through chest-high sewage to assist her constituents and appealed to Washington for more help. Trump, however, only saw ingratitude. Trump dismissed Cruz’s concerns as “politically motivated” against him and attacked Puerto Rican residents as people who “want everything to be done for them.” No such charge was leveled at the victims of Hurricane Harvey after it slammed into Texas, prompting Trump to pledge up to $180 billion in federal relief money.

By speaking so harshly about Cruz and the residents of the island, Trump tapped into the racist language of white supremacy, simultaneously belittling the people of color who live in Puerto Rico as insufficiently respectful of his white-skinned authority and equally ungrateful for his begrudging attention.

As if to drive home the point, Trump didn’t bother to interrupt his weekend retreat, issuing his dismissive derisions from his exclusive golf club. Trump’s embrace of his privilege serves as yet one more pitiful reminder of his contempt for people who, in the words of SNL comic Michael Che, are “darker than his golf pants.”

What makes Trump’s attitude all the more repellent is that he’s cheered on by a base of support, estimated at about one-third of the American public. His hard-core adorers feed his ego and allows him to ignore criticism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, relatively few Americans knew much about Puerto Rico before the storm hit, including most who had no idea that its residents were U.S. citizens. A 2016 poll conducted by YouGov found that only 43 percent of Americans knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens; a more recent Morning Consult poll showed that even after Hurricane Maria, just 54 percent of Americans knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

Such ignorance of our shared national identity makes it easy for Trump to say and do the most odious things, yet seemingly suffer no political consequence. So it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise that when Trump lowered himself to visit Puerto Rico, he would exhibit behavior that is all too common for him. He congratulated himself for a job well done, according to the Washington Post.

“I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that,” Trump told reporters before leaving the White House. “And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation.”

Once on the island, Trump showed little compassion by coldly comparing tragedies and the body counts in a previous national tragedy. “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” Trump told officials at a staged meeting in San Juan.

He then turned to one of the local leaders to ask: “What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands,” he said.

Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico mocked the seriousness of the moment and his office. How else to describe images of him casually tossing paper towels and toilet paper at people in a disaster area as if he were throwing out T-shirts at a basketball game? Or how callous is it for a president to laugh about the need for flashlights while 7 percent of the island’s population has electricity? Can anyone imagine such a thing happening in any predominantly white community in the country?

The tragedy of Puerto Rico is made worse when a racially insensitive president comes to visit and only brings rotten, red-meat comments that appeal to his political base and feed anger and resentment toward the black and brown people of this nation.