Hurricane Florence approaches the eastern seaboard of the United States. Significant parts of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia have been under mandatory evacuation. And millions of citizens brace for the coming storm, with its storm surges and destructive winds, and its possible tornadoes, and the deluges of rain and the flooding that will invariably follow.
A disaster looms.
I watched with interest this morning as FEMA leaders warned people to take cover from the storm and reassured people that FEMA is fully resourced and fully prepared. And I noted with particular interest that FEMA Associate Director Jeff Byard went out of his way to thank the media for sharing news and warning about Florence, and for assisting FEMA in its efforts.
FEMA does important work, typically under the most challenging and dangerous circumstances. I am certain that its staff, and even most of its leaders, are dedicated professionals seriously committed to this work. At the same time, FEMA is an agency of the U.S. government, and we know that FEMA has often failed miserably, in New Orleans with Katrina, and in Puerto Rico with Maria. And so as I watch the events unfold, and hope for the best, in a simple human sense. Yet, it is impossible for me to avoid connecting the looming catastrophe confronting Carolinians and Virginians with the existing catastrophe that arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue almost 18 months ago.
Three thoughts spring instantly to mind.
One: the discrepancy between FEMA’s “appreciation” of the responsibility of the media and Trump’s vicious and relentless attacks on the media, the press, and the very idea of truth.
Two: Trump’s outrageous and despicable lie about his administration’s response to the Hurricane Maria disaster in Puerto Rico last year. True to form, he stated that it was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” In fact it was an atrocious job, made more atrocious by Trump’s own cavalier behavior when he eventually deigned to visit the island.
Three: at today’s press conference, FEMA’s Byard was asked an awkward question: was it true — indeed it is true — that the Trump administration recently diverted $9.8 million from the FEMA budget to ICE to pay for Trump’s massively upgraded program of immigrant detention?
Byard evaded the question. But the question remains: what is the Trump administration doing, to what extent is it both “deconstructing the administrative state” (Bannon) and completely reconfiguring this state so that instead of serving a broad conception of public welfare, it is serving an equally broad conception of policing and authoritarian political closure?
The “neoliberal” state of Clinton, Bush, and Obama surely deserved and deserves critical scrutiny and political reform.
All the same, as Hurricane Florence looms, it is worth confronting the quite obvious fact that the ills of this “neoliberal” state pale in comparison to the current efforts of Trump and his minions and enablers to replace it with an authoritarian state.
Do you think there is an important difference between a President who publicly speaks about criminal justice and police reform, and one who publicly suggests that “breaking heads” is a good idea? Between one who consistently denounces racism and xenophobia and articulates broad democratic values, and one who cannot tell the difference between white supremacist and neo-Nazi marchers, and anti-racist counter-protesters?
Do you think there is an important difference between a Justice Department that investigates police abuse and one that greenlights police abuse? Between one that takes seriously civil rights and voting rights law enforcement, and one that proudly declares that it is scaling back on these things?
Do you think there is an important difference between an EPA that perhaps halfheartedly enforces environmental regulations, and one that boldly declares that it will permit the release of poisonous methane gases into the air we all breathe?
Do you think there is an important difference between an administration that perhaps halfheartedly speaks of immigration reform, and practices detention but also institutes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and supports a DREAM Act, and one that lionized Joe Arpaio and engages in a massive, indiscriminate, and cruel policy of immigrant detentions and deportations and family separations?
We have endured hurricanes for decades and indeed centuries. At the same time, it is very well known that the hurricanes that now regularly cause havoc and destruction cannot be understood without attention to global warming and the rising sea levels it causes; the haphazard and irresponsible politics of coastal economic development that causes new disasters waiting to happen; and the extraordinary deterioration of our public infrastructure, a deterioration that mirrors the decay of our public life more generally.
Hurricane Florence will cause disaster. FEMA will do what it can do. We all hope for the best.
At the same time, whatever happens, Trump will claim credit, and once again declare, i.e., lie, that he is the greatest President ever, and that his administration has performed the greatest disaster relief operation ever, and that Americans have never been happier and better and richer and more empowered.
And millions upon millions of people will believe him.
And we will know that he is lying about everything, and that his assertions are false.
We are in the midst of a political disaster.
Let us do our part to generate a Blue Wave in November, and another in 2020.
Perhaps this can be our slogan: “The Disaster Relief We Really Need.”
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bllomington.