There are great titles from the seventies like P.S. Your Cat Is Dead – a novel by James Kirkwood adapted from his play and later made into a rather forgettable movie that quickly disappeared – but the title was unforgettably cool. This is about revenge. This is about laughing at the other person’s feelings – here sort of justified – but it’s not about being blithely unaware of the other person’s feelings. That’s where the title got decoupled from what Kirkwood was up to. For a few years, the words of the title were used to scoff at the clueless borderline sociopaths among us who have no idea of how their sublime unawareness of the feelings of others makes them into moral monsters, or at least walking-talking jokes. By the way, your cat is dead. That wouldn’t do, and then everyone forgot about the whole thing. There was no more talk of dead cats.
But clueless borderline sociopaths, who have no idea of how their sublime unawareness of the feelings of others makes them into moral monsters, or jokes, didn’t disappear. America elected one of those as president, and now Donald Trump has to head off to Texas, ruined by Hurricane Harvey, and show some empathy. This can’t be about him. There are dead cats floating in the flood waters.
Greg Sargent framed the problem before the trip:
When disasters strike the United States, we generally are treated to not one, but two, rituals. The first unfolds around the president’s efforts to project an empathizing, unifying, consoling, competent, stabilizing presence. The second unfolds around the press corps’ collective rumination on whether the president passed the “test” posed to him by that imperative role and what impact that will have on his political fortunes going forward.
President Trump on Tuesday is set to visit Hurricane Harvey’s devastation – “Leaving now for Texas!” he just tweeted – which means both these rituals are getting underway. Indeed, multiple articles this morning are asking not just whether Trump will rise to the occasion but also whether this will afford him the opportunity for a reset of sorts amid the tumult, scandal and racial strife of his first seven months.
Sargent wasn’t hopeful, but others were:
A number of GOP strategists tell NPR that they are hoping Trump will today resist his usual instinct toward self-aggrandizement and distracted bluster, and instead will demonstrate empathy, competence, a healing tone and a relentless focus on the disaster’s practical challenges and impact on its victims. One says this could be a “very important moment in his young presidency,” and another sees an opportunity to harness the “nation’s unity and goodwill” in a new direction. Meanwhile, Trump aides tell the New York Times that they believe the disaster has made Trump more detail-oriented and less prone to destructive outbursts and mood swings — in other words, a new, emerging Trump.
Sargent wasn’t buying that empathy, competence, a healing tone and a relentless focus on making things better:
Questions about whether this will afford Trump a “reset” opportunity seem deeply flawed. They reflect an inability to reckon with the true depths of Trump’s megalomania, disengagement from policy details and utter detachment from any sense of responsibility to the public – and with the degree to which those things are deeply intertwined with all of the racial divisiveness and abuses of power that continue to rot away at this presidency.
Sargent had already seen enough:
Consider where we are right now. Just yesterday, Trump reaffirmed his pardon of Joe Arpaio, and the details of how he did so are important. Trump effusively praised Arpaio, saying he has “done a great job” and has been “strong on illegal immigration.” This is an implicit endorsement of the very conduct for which Arpaio was held in criminal contempt of court (defying a judge’s command that he remain constrained by the Constitution from violating the rights of Latino immigrants) and for which he has been roundly criticized (the serial abuse and humiliation of inmates).
Incredibly, Trump also defended the pardon by recalling that the crowd at his rally in Arizona “went absolutely crazy” when he spoke up for Arpaio. Trump has now essentially confirmed that he pardoned Arpaio, at least in part, because he agreed with the goals of Arpaio’s abuses and flouting of the Constitution – and because his base cheered him over it.
The pardon must be seen as an effort to normalize and entrench bigotry at precisely the moment – in the aftermath of Charlottesville – when he should have done the opposite. Trump’s weak condemnation of white supremacy was steeped in megalomania, in a desire not to be seen capitulating to his “enemies,” and in his eagerness to please his base. The Arpaio pardon simply builds on those things. The impact on the rest of the nation of all of this is beside the point entirely.
But wait, there’s more:
A similar situation looms in the form of Trump’s desire for a border wall. He has already threatened to force a government shutdown to compel Congress to fund his wall. This standoff was itself created by Trump’s initial folly in proposing this absurd idea and suggesting Mexico would pay for it, which he believes has saddled him with the need to save face by getting it done. Now Trump’s vow to build that wall is set to get tied up in the fight over government funding – and by extension, over the funding of Harvey disaster relief. But if Trump is truly “resetting” after Harvey, then surely he will not force this battle to a head. Right?
Don’t count on it. It’s fifty-fifty if Trump will veto all hurricane relief funds unless Congress gives him ten or twenty billion dollars to build his wall, right now. Sargent suggests that no one really knows:
Recall that while majorities oppose the building of a wall, his shutdown threat, too, was cheered by his Arizona rally crowd. And Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, privately urged Trump not to back down on the wall, because his base could not stand to see him suffer the ignominy and humiliation of not getting his way on it, after having failed to repeal Obamacare.
It’s very likely that Trump will cave on the wall once again. But it is easy to envision a lot of Trumpian ugliness unfolding before that happens. Whatever Trump achieves in the way of a reset, it will soon come under immense strain from the same old megalomaniacal and racially divisive impulses that have rotted away at his presidency all along.
Still, this was a chance for Donald Trump to prove that he wasn’t a clueless borderline sociopath with a sublime unawareness of the feelings of others. He had a chance to prove that he wasn’t a moral monster, or a walking-talking joke.
How’d he do? The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson was there. She reports that this is how he did:
As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”
“Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special… What a crowd! What a turnout!”
There he goes again:
Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.
He has talked favorably about the higher television ratings that come with hurricane coverage, predicted that he will soon be congratulating himself and used 16 exclamation points in 22 often breathless tweets about the storm. But as of late Tuesday afternoon, the president had yet to mention those killed, call on other Americans to help or directly encourage donations to relief organizations.
Yes, this was all about him:
“It is a difficult balancing act for presidents,” said Matt Latimer, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “You want to project confidence that things will get better, but at the same time you want to display empathy for people who have lost everything… The president has a knack for the first one, but so far he hasn’t displayed a lot of skill at displaying empathy. And that’s a problem.”
That’s an understatement:
Since Harvey slammed into the Texas coast Friday night, the president has made his awe of the powerful storm clear and used almost admiring terms to describe it – as if he were describing a sporting match or an action movie instead of a natural disaster.
“125 MPH winds!” the president tweeted Friday as the hurricane made landfall.
“Record setting rainfall,” he noted the next day, along with telling his FEMA director, “The world is watching!”
“Wow! Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!” he tweeted on Sunday, following tweets promoting a book written by a conservative sheriff and announcing a Wednesday trip to Missouri, a state that “I won by a lot in ’16.”
And this continued:
At a news conference Monday, Trump continued to gush over the storm. “I’ve heard the words, ‘epic.’ I’ve heard ‘historic.’ That’s what it is,” he said, adding that the hurricane will make Texas stronger and the rebuilding effort “will be something very special.”
By focusing on the historic epicness of the hurricane, Trump has repeatedly turned attention to his role in confronting the disaster – a message reinforced by comments and tweets praising members of his administration.
This, again with no mention of those killed, no call on other Americans to help, no encouraging donations to relief organizations – none of that – but he had his defenders:
At least the president is being authentic, argued Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter for then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) who is now the opinion editor at the Weekly Standard. And no matter what the president says, those opposed to Trump will interpret it in “the worst possible way,” Swaim said.
“I’ve always thought that these kinds of deals are a no-win situation for politicians,” he said. “There’s no good response. If you insert yourself, you look opportunistic. If you don’t, you look aloof and disconnected.”
There is a third option. Be human. Try a little common decency. Give a little thought to the idea that there are actually other people in the world, and they’re hurting, and you’re not.
That might be too much to ask:
While Trump’s top aides gathered with Vice President Pence at the White House over the weekend, Trump video-conferenced in. On Saturday, he wore a white campaign hat. On Sunday, he opted for a red version. As of Tuesday evening, both hats – which feature “USA” on the front, “45” on a side and “Trump” in the back – were being sold on Trump’s campaign website, prompting ethics watchdogs to accuse the president of trying to profit off the crisis.
Trump sported one of the same hats again Tuesday as he ventured to Texas for a visit that some critics argue should have been delayed until the rain had stopped and the flooding had gone down.
But wait, there’s more:
He was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, who wore towering black stilettos and a green bomber jacket as she departed Washington but changed into bright-white sneakers and a black cap labeled “FLOTUS” before stepping off the plane in Texas. An aide carried two Louis Vuitton suitcases aboard for the day trip.
“Leaving now for Texas!” the president tweeted.
What an adventure it would be!
That was the problem:
The president’s comments, which lasted mere minutes, angered many of those who served in President Barack Obama’s administration and could not imagine their former boss ever acting like this.
“It’s not a time for crowing about crowds,” said Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former deputy chief of staff of operations for Obama. “This weather event isn’t even over yet. They have no idea the damage that’s been incurred and how many people will need a place to live when this is over. It’s catastrophic, not epic.”
But the adventure continued:
Before Trump traveled to Austin for another briefing, he addressed supporters gathered outside, climbing a ladder positioned between two emergency vehicles and behind a black SUV. With his wife at his side, he sounded as if he were addressing a political rally instead of a state struggling to start to recover – but it was a tone that matched the screaming crowd. Some there carried pro-Trump signs and flags.
“I will tell you, this is historic – it’s epic, what happened,” Trump told them. “But you know what? It happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
Before he departed, he picked up a Texas flag and waved it slowly in the air.
And that proved… what?
And then, as the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman notes, there were those shoes:
When is a shoe not just a shoe?
When it is a pair of very high, needle-thin heels worn by the first lady of the United States on her way to the site of a natural disaster. Then it becomes a symbol for what many see as the disconnect between the Trump administration and reality; another example of the way in which this president and his family continue to define “appropriate” their own way; and an excuse for partisan name-calling.
Or so became apparent Tuesday morning when President Trump and his wife left the White House to fly to Texas for a briefing on the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, and Mrs. Trump appeared on the lawn in black pegged trousers, black shades, an olive green bomber jacket – and her stilettos, now a trademark. Very much the same kind of shoes, in other words, she has been wearing since long before she joined her husband on the campaign trail.
Though by the time the plane had landed Mrs. Trump looked altogether more grounded, in white sneakers and crisp white shirt, with a ponytail pulled through a black baseball cap emblazoned with the word “FLOTUS,” during her time in the air the original shoes went from being mere footwear to objects of vilification thanks to social media’s specific kind of alchemy.
There were a lot of tweets – Friedman reviews those – and something like a defense of the woman:
In response to the critical reaction, Stephanie Grisham, Mrs. Trump’s communications director, emailed the following statement: “It’s sad that we have an active and ongoing natural disaster in Texas, and people are worried about her shoes.”
Friedman says that misses the point:
To dismiss all this as merely much ado about heels, or an example of the pettiness of our divided electorate, is to ignore the reality of the current conversation around the president – to pretend not to notice how sensitized everyone has become to his unpredictable reactions to major events, and to deny the power of the telling detail to invite applause, condemnation or misinterpretation.
It is precisely the superficial nature of clothing – the fact that garments are immediately accessible to all – that makes them the go-to stand-in for more nuanced, complicated emotions and issues.
Mrs. Trump’s heels, after all – they appear to be classic Manolo Blahniks – are redolent of a certain clichéd kind of femininity: decorative, impractical, expensive, elitist (all adjectives often associated with the brand “Trump”).
That they also are part of the identity the first lady brought to Washington – that her comfort level and ability to walk in exactly the kind of shoes that cause other women, wearing more solid shoes, to wince and crunch their toes in imaginary pain was part of her narrative and image from the start – does not obviate the fact that they have also come to represent her remove, for both good and ill.
Still, Melania Trump doesn’t seem like a clueless borderline sociopath with a sublime unawareness of the feelings of others. She seems to be a quiet pleasant person. She’s just clueless, without the pathology.
She leaves that to her husband, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin explains here:
The problem is not that President Trump does not realize that Harvey is huge; a number of his tweets on the storm have contained the word “Wow,” and he called it “epic” and “historic,” adding that “Texas can handle anything!” But the enormity of the situation does not seem to have organized his thoughts beyond declarations of how it will be matched by the greatness of his Administration and its allies.
That does seem to be the case:
On the flight to Texas, on Tuesday morning, he had retweeted a message from Brazoria County, which consisted of a red box containing the words “Notice: The Levee at Columbia Lakes has been breached!! Get out now!!” Get out to where? What are the practical consequences of a breach? Trump didn’t say.
In Corpus Christie, speaking to Governor Abbott, Trump began by acknowledging that it wasn’t time for congratulations, but offered a prediction that Houston would soon be better than ever: “We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” Later in the day, at a briefing at a control center in Austin, he said that his team’s coordination had been “incredible – everybody’s talking about it,” then offered this observation on the challenge that they faced: “Nobody has ever seen this much water. The water has never been seen like this, to this, to the extent. And it’s, uh, maybe someday going to disappear. We keep waiting!”
That’s curiously passive. He’s only a spectator, and that’s the problem:
The group did not go to Houston, citing the logistical needs of the city. Trump might have had a better view of the flood waters on television, but, Governor Abbott said, “We want him to see and understand.”
What will be harder is persuading not only Trump but the Republican Party that Harvey has a reality that reaches beyond the borders of this storm, and involves major policy issues. Both Senators Cruz and Cornyn voted against a major emergency-relief bill allocating funds for rebuilding and recovery after Superstorm Sandy. Cruz, in particular, has misrepresented that bill’s contents and its purpose, saying that two-thirds of the money in it wasn’t really related to Sandy but was rather pork and other wasteful government spending. (Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, gave Cruz three Pinocchios for that.) Cruz and others, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, also complained that the bill wasn’t really for emergency spending because it covered things like improving forecasts and repairing damaged infrastructure in a way that protected it against the next storm. This time, for the congressional Republicans, as much as for Trump, the emergency can’t stop when the rain does.
Donald Trump may or may not realize that, if this is all about him, which it isn’t, and he is also the problem:
The federal government, as it exists beyond the White House, has been busy in its response to the immediate disaster. It undoubtedly helps that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, worked on the response to Hurricane Katrina, and has had a sense of how badly things can be mismanaged. (On Tuesday, the twelfth anniversary of that storm, Harvey was turning toward the Louisiana coast and New Orleans.) The local authorities have also been indefatigable, though the decision that Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner (a Democrat), made to discourage a mass evacuation of the city before the storm will be debated, and criticized, for years.
But part of the legacy of Katrina was more regulations about, for example, building standards, which are precisely the sort of rules that Trump has pledged to roll back; indeed, he revoked some requirements related to flood controls on federal projects just weeks ago. Ben Carson has also disparaged the role of government in providing aid, and of his own department in housing those in need. How will that ideological insistence on limited government translate into practical help for Houston’s homeless and dispossessed? The challenge that Harvey presents is not simply logistical; it is political.
And there’s this:
Is there a chance that sitting in a control center in Austin is going to persuade Trump that climate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? Or that it will make him rethink pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement?
Here the problem is not just Trump, or his tweets, or his seriousness. The leaders of the Republican Party – along with too many other Americans – continue to deny what has become obvious: that, although it is hard to connect climate change to any one storm, climate change has increased, and will continue to increase, the number of extreme weather events. As the storm approached, Trump tweeted repeatedly about what a surprise it was.
The only logic by which the devastation of Houston is a surprise is the logic of reality television, with twists that come out of nowhere and serve no human purpose but to move the plot along. Such twists are not meant to provide a basis for changing behavior. As for whether they will change Donald Trump – we’re still waiting.
We will continue to wait. America really did elect either a moral monster or a walking-talking joke. There’s no third option, and by the way, your cat is dead. Deal with it.