President Trump’s attack on Puerto Rican Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is not only cruel. It’s politically suicidal.
Written by: Stephanie Stark
When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico two weeks ago, devastating homes and buildings, wiping out power and flooding streets, the mayor of the island’s biggest city, Carmen Yulín Cruz, pleaded for help. Crying on live television, she begged for more attention and aid from the federal government, citing that Puerto Ricans were drinking from creeks and lacking food.
“We’re dying here. We truly are dying here.” she said.
Her statements echoed that of Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan, who was appointed to head the response effort, and had called the damage “the worst he’s ever seen.”
President Trump, from his golf course in New Jersey, reacted to her pleas by accusing her of partisanship, poor leadership, laziness, and nastiness—and he did it in the third person.
The reaction is not only inappropriate because it is so cruel to attack someone during a time of need, nor because it is different than how other Presidents have reacted to natural disasters. It is revealing as to how the Trump Administration operates: by Mr. Trump’s whims alone. If his response was indeed planned, it could be assumed that Mr. Trump has no strategists that have his best interests in mind, or that they are grossly ill-informed of basic political strategy. The latter of course, could be true considering many of his staff are his family and people who transferred from his luxury hotel business.
Mr. Trump’s brutish response may be inspired by the fact that Puerto Rico is not entitled to electoral votes for President. But his elevation of the problem, via his targeted tweets, allows for more than just Puerto Ricans to react. And with the background of hurricanes in Louisiana and Texas just the week before, it is likely more Americans with voting rights empathize and understand the importance of a strong disaster response.
Republican or Democrat, natural disasters are ripe situations for politicians, and ones that can define an administration. President Bush’s lack of response after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was so roundly disapproved of, it has been called “the beginning of the end” of his Presidency, and it remains the deadliest and costliest hurricane in U.S. history. In contrast, in response to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie was catapulted into a national spotlight because of his quick and sustained action in dealing with the aftermath of the storm. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Boston University found that public opinion reacts favorably when Governors ask for federal help, and when Presidents react quickly, and reward money in wake of a disaster.
Natural disasters can be an easy win: decked in khakis and baseball caps, politicians show up for photo opportunities, press conferences, meetings with local officials and distribution of support and services. It’s a chance to look like a “regular person,” in tune with constituents’ problems, and one that is willing to do the dirty work. It is a perfect opportunity to show that the official is capable of solving problems under pressure and cares about their constituents. And for Mr. Trump, someone who has built thousands of luxury buildings all over the world, his ability to rebuild cities should come as muscle memory.
We have yet to see what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to the inevitable downfall of the reckless Trump Administration. But if we were to learn from the past, perhaps the straw that could be the deciding factor of this Presidency could be the territory that doesn’t even have an electoral vote.