I would like to believe that what fascinated Donald Trump about the floodwaters of Texas and pulled him to the state Tuesday were the scenes of human suffering.
I would also like to believe that I’m a dead ringer for Brad Pitt.
But what Trump saw in Hurricane Harvey was a mirror of his own majesty. A storm worthy of a stud like him. A meteorological complement to one of his resorts, rallies or steaks. Something really, really big.
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“Even experts have said they’ve never seen one like this!” Trump marveled on Twitter, and I read exultation into that not because I’m sour on the president but because I have eyes. Also because I have a memory. He has used almost exactly those words to describe a buffet of developments in his rise and reign, always with an air of self-impressed wonder.
I keep hoping against hope that a new challenge will tease out a new Trump and that if he malingers in the presidency long enough, he’ll meander in the direction of eloquence, slouch toward poetry and tumble into inspiration. Stranger things have happened. I’ll have to get back to you on what they were.
But Trump’s hurricane talk and hurricane tweets were like his fair-weather fare: childishly intent on superlatives, puerilely obsessed with size, laden with boasts and lavish with off-key asides.
“Thanks!” he exclaimed at the end of a tweet that was mostly about the “historic rainfall in Houston” and the “unprecedented” flooding. True, he was referring to the “spirit of the people” that he also squeezed into that 140-character space, but his chirpy gratitude had a kooky ring. It framed him not as a leader sweating the fate of his people but as a spectator watching nature’s angriest reality show.
“Wow” was how he began another tweet. Call me cranky, but I don’t think most Americans are looking for “wow” amid woe of this order.
It will be days or even weeks before we can definitively appraise how well the Trump administration addressed this crisis, along with precisely what mistakes state and local officials made.
But what we know already is that Harvey didn’t blow away the opportunism and narcissism at Trump’s core. In comments at the White House on Monday, he actually suggested that he’d timed the announcement of his pardon of Joe Arpaio to coincide with the storm’s arrival, because more people were monitoring the news.
“In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally,” he said. Thousands of Texans were losing their homes. Some had died. And Trump, per usual, was measuring his audience.
And complimenting himself. Across the past four days, he has repeatedly stressed how well his team is doing. Under normal circumstances and normal presidents, that could be interpreted as an attempt to reassure Texans. Under these circumstances and Trump, we know better.
When he and Melania in their his-and-hers, salt-and-pepper baseball caps faced the television cameras in Corpus Christi, Texas, early Tuesday afternoon, he was already itching to take a victory lap.
“We won’t say ‘congratulations,’” he told the state and federal officials arrayed around him in a firehouse, referring to their rescue and relief efforts. “We don’t want to do that. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”
Do wait a bit, Mr. President, if you can summon the willpower. And maybe temper any gloating, lest someone – oh, heck, I’ll do it – point out that your stance and inaction on climate change contradict any meaningful concern for the devastation that Harvey has wrought.
Having chosen in the past to ignore all the experts who chart changing climate patterns, Trump on Sunday tweeted: “Experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!” They have no authority when they tell him inconvenient truths, but they’re entirely credible when they describe circumstances that flatter his bloated sense of self.
“Historic.” “Biggest ever.” “Epic.” That was Trump on Harvey.
“Historic.” “Massive.” “The likes of which the world has never seen.” That was Trump on his election victory.
The weather around him changes. The weather inside him doesn’t. It’s a warm bath of self-regard – the biggest ever, I’d wager – and it overrides all else.
When he left the Corpus Christi firehouse Tuesday, he noticed that about 1,000 people had gathered outside and he heard cheering. Harvey and its victims seemed to exit his thoughts fleetly.
“What a crowd!” he boomed. “What a turnout!”
At the White House the previous day, he spoke to reporters about the hurricane. President Sauli Niinisto of Finland was with him, and that prompted Trump to recall that he had visited Finland in the 1990s.
“I was famous in the ’90s, too,” he added, perhaps to make clear that he had Harvey beat by more than 25 years.