What Donald Trump Fails to Recognize About Hurricanes—and Leadership

Catastrophes, natural or man-made, can make or break leaders. They offer the ultimate opportunity to show the qualities that people seek in those whom they have chosen to take command: courage, empathy, serenity, fortitude, decisiveness. Under extreme circumstances, true leadership comes to the fore; if one does not possess the requisite qualities, their lack is immediately evident to all and sundry.

Few such leaders of modern times come to mind more readily than Winston Churchill, in the face of Hitler’s aerial onslaught against Great Britain, during the Second World War. As odd as it may seem to mention Rudy Giuliani in the same paragraph as Churchill, when Giuliani was the mayor of New York, he behaved well, even heroically, during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His actions earned him a measure of public respect that, his latter-day transmogrification into Donald Trump’s chortling henchman notwithstanding, has endured, at least among certain Americans.

.. Trump behaved with negligent condescension toward the disaster from the beginning. He had made two visits to Texas in the days after Hurricane Harvey hit that state, gushing fulsomely over the handling of catastrophe and “great turnout” for his visits. 

..  In a press conference, he appeared to issue a scolding for the cost of the assistance, saying, “Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” and he minimized the island’s tragedy by drawing comparisons between its reportedly low death toll and the “hundreds” of people who had died in Katrina.

.. His rosy rendition stands in direct contradiction to the opinion of most Puerto Ricans, eighty per cent of whom view his response unfavorably

.. Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT.”

.. what is more egregious, in Puerto Rico’s case, is the obviousness of the double-standard that he has applied to the island—an unincorporated U.S. territory—and the suspicion that it is racist in nature. Trump’s sign-off on his tweet denying the death toll was, “I love Puerto Rico!” That felt about as convincing as his proclamations of “I love Hispanics!”during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

.. “After the storm, it is evident that the treatment that was given, say, Florida or Texas, was very different than the treatment given in Puerto Rico. We are second-class U.S. citizens. We live in a colonial territory. It is time to eliminate that, and I implore all the elected officials, particularly now in midterm elections, to have a firm stance. You’re either for colonial territories or against them. You’re either for giving equal rights to the U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico, or you’re against it.”

.. In the past, referenda have shown Puerto Ricans to be split roughly into three groups—the smallest being in favor of independence, the next largest in favor of the current relationship, and an apparently growing majority in favor of statehood.

What about It, Mitch?

The congressional GOP is AWOL.

.. Donald Trump is on the hunt for a scapegoat, and he has settled on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump presented himself to the voters as a master negotiator and dealmaker, but that of course was the character he played on television, not the actual man. Trump cannot sit down with congressional Republicans — much less a bipartisan coalition — and negotiate a deal on health-care reform. The reasons for this are straightforward:

There is disagreement among Republicans about what policies should be forwarded, and President Trump does not know what he himself thinks about any of them, because he does not think anything about any of them, because he doesn’t know about them. Trump does not do details — he does adjectives. He wants a “terrific” health-care system. So does Bernie Sanders, but the two of them don’t agree on what that means in practice.

.. In his decades as a vocal NAFTA critic, he has never offered in any specific detail any proposal for reforming any particular provision of NAFTA, and he has on occasion made it clear that he does not know what is actually in the accord.

.. His public statements about tax reform have been all over the map, out-lefting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with his attacks on the carried-interest treatment of some financial firms’ income and then doing his best impersonation (which is a very poor one) of Larry Kudlow preaching the gospel of pro-growth tax cuts. He once reversed and then reverse-reversed himself on H-1B visas over the course of a few hours.

.. The wily McConnell and the steadfast Ryan were fine and effective opposition leaders. But they are not in the opposition any more.

.. The British dumped Winston Churchill after the war, considering him a wartime leader unsuited to the needs of peacetime. If McConnell and Ryan do not want to be considered opposition leaders — and if the Republican party does not want to be considered an opposition party incapable of government — then now is the time to give us all reason to think otherwise.

.. McConnell probably is safe for now, mainly because he has a job no one else wants. He is one of the few Republicans in the Senate not possessed by the delusion that he is fated to be president. If one of those promising young men bruised by the ugly 2016 Republican presidential primaries should ever come to his senses and decide that Senate majority leader is actually a pretty good job, things might go differently.

.. Marco Rubio actually has the political skills and personal ability to be a real leader in the Senate, but he doesn’t seem quite convinced that’s worth doing.

How Would Churchill Tweet?

If Churchill tweeted, we’d be reading very different tweets from those we read from the president and other political leaders today. I don’t suggest what he would say. No one can know that. But I do know how he would go about it — and I suggest that his methods offer an excellent example for today’s leaders.

.. First, Churchill avoided repaying vilification in kind. Instead he used humor, irony, plays on words. This lowered the temperature and took the sting out of debate.

.. Blunting insults with humor let Churchill off the hook. In the ensuing laughter, people forgot that he’d never responded to the accusation. “I have to measure the length of the response to any question by the worth, meaning, and significance of that question,” he said to an angry inquisitor — which avoided any answer at all.

.. Second, Churchill rarely attacked someone personally in public, though he didn’t hesitate to lampoon their well-known traits. During a loquacious speech by an MP who questioned his veracity, judgment, and even morals, Churchill interrupted: “I can well understand the honorable member speaking for practice, which he badly needs.”

.. in avoiding jibes, he did not even defend himself. The defense would come later, in a carefully worded statement at a time of his choosing. This was much more gratifying than outbursts in the Twitterverse.

.. Third, Churchill would often use interesting allegories or images rather than vicious barbs when confronted by opponents.

.. Lastly — and perhaps most important — even though the political divide was as wide in his time as in ours, Churchill fostered respect and collegiality. Intrinsic to his methods was an underlying respect for opponents. To him they were not enemies, merely honorable people who were mistaken. 

Rome, Reformation, & Right Now

  • Ted Cruz is cold, dark, calculating, intelligent, ideological to the fingertips — and therefore very troubling. I cannot shake the image of him trolling suffering Middle Eastern Christians for the sake of boosting his appeal to Evangelicals. I see him and an insult Churchill directed to a rival comes to mind: “He would make a drum out of the skin of his mother to sing his own praises.”
  • And Cruz’s line about how he’s going to carpet bomb the Mideast to rid it of ISIS — really? You’re going to wipe out tens of thousands of innocent people for this cause? Cruz’s lines attempting to link ISIS’s success to the material decline of the US military was outrageous — as if ISIS succeeded because the US wasn’t spending enough money on defense. But it tells us that a Cruz administration will mean a windfall for defense contractors.

That doesn’t make the Reformation right, of course, but one does see how it was all but inevitable. Once the break happened, it proved impossible to contain the forces unleashed. “Sola scriptura” proved an impossible standard for building a new church, because various Reformation leaders had their own ideas about what the Bible “clearly” said.

.. At the same time, the rise of science, and the blind obstinacy of the Roman church in unnecessarily holding on to Aristotelian categories for understanding the natural world, created the false belief that religion is opposed to science.

.. He also makes it clear that the secular liberal narrative of uncomplicated Progress because of this is hopelessly naive. The Enlightenment tried to build a binding public ethic around Reason, but ran into the same problem that the Reformation did: who decides what counts as “reasonable”?

.. As Kierkegaard says, the trouble with life is it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.

..Dostoevsky wrote that a person “cannot live without worshipping something.” Anyone who denies God must worship an idol—which is not necessarily a wooden or metal figure. In our time we have seen ideologies, groups, and leaders receive divine honors. People proud of their critical and discerning spirit have rejected Christ and bowed down before Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or some other secular savior.

.. Liberty, too, is likely to vanish; it becomes a heavy personal and social burden when no God justifies and sanctifies the individual in spite of all personal deficiencies and failures.

.. To what extent are we now living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished? To what extent are those savings already severely depleted?

.. Even idealists whose good intentions for the human race are pure and strong are still vulnerable to fate because of the pride that causes them to act ambitiously and recklessly in history.

.. They identify as religious, even if they are backslidden. They support the traditional family, even if they come from and create broken homes. In other words, they are people who aspire to be more like social conservatives, though they lack the material and spiritual resources to become like them.

.. The crisis of authority and decay is by no means a top-down phenomenon. The institutions of American life — government, law, academia, religion, business, the market, the family and so forth — are in a crisis more severe than many of us have understood till now.