In the past month and a half, the United States has seen three major hurricanes sweep over its territory. While Hurricanes Harvey and Irma both left enormous amounts of damage in their path. Hurricane Maria and the humanitarian crisis it has caused in Puerto Rico has been the most telling about the current administration.
The Trump response to the devastation in Puerto Rico has shown that Populism was not just a campaigning strategy for the President, but a tenant he plans to adhere to as he governs as well. Trump’s actions following Hurricane Maria, shows evidence of many of the tenets of Populist government Jan-Werner Müller proposed in his book.
First of all, even when populists are in power, and become ‘the elites’ they continue their anti-elitist sentiments. This can be seen President Trump’s response to the disaster following Hurricane Maria. When the Mayor of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz publically asked the administration for help and acknowledged the subpar job being done at managing the crisis, Trump attacked not only her in a barrage of tweets, but also the Democratic party. He claimed that Cruz had been complimentary of his actions until being told by Democratic leaders that she must be “nasty to Trump”.
Throughout the campaign, Trump had considered the democratic leadership to be elites, and at the core of what he considers to be the problems within our government. Instead of accepting the accusation of a less than optimal response to the disaster on Puerto Rico, Trump continued to point his finger at elites. Claiming that his administration was doing a fine job, and that Puerto Rican leaders were just being told by the elites to make him look worse. Blaming elites working outside of the public eye for failures within the government is a staple of populist leaders and allows them and Donald Trump, to deflect any responsibility for mistakes made in governing and their consequences.
Along with being anti-elitist, Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria was also anti-pluralist and therefore fulfills Müller’s second criteria of populist government. Trump still claims to be the only true representation of the people, but he has made it obvious that the people of Puerto Rico are not ‘the people’, and may in some cases even be enemies to the people despite the fact that the people of Puerto Rico are all American citizens. The most conspicuous example of this framing is within one of the President’s tweets in the aftermath of the hurricane where he claims that the people of Puerto Rico want everything done for them. This is a classic example of a populist leader separating his supporters, or ‘the people’ from what he wants them to believe to be moochers, who don’t work hard enough and just search for handouts from the government.
This divide is also evident in a statement Trump made while in Puerto Rico where he tells hurricane survivors that they have “thrown the budget out of whack”. Rather than offering sympathy to the people, Trump opted to make it obvious to both the Puerto Rican population and ‘his people’ that any financial strife created by helping those affected by the hurricane is the fault of ‘the others’, those who are still suffering in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Trump, also has had more focus on the optics of the situation than actual policy making or crisis managing. Trump has repeatedly tweeted about fake news surrounding Puerto Rico, and at one point even directly told Puerto Ricans to not believe the fake news, despite the fact that they were surrounded by the situation. From these tweets to videos of Trump throwing paper towels at Hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico, Trump’s response has been focused on making him look good, rather than helping those in need. When looking at this from a populist point of view it makes sense. Trump is more focused on looking good to the people he claims to represent than Puerto Ricans. As long as the videos and tweets he points get likes, shares, and few complaints, he is content with the job his administration is doing whether or not their actions are successful in helping the people of Puerto Rico.
Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria and its devastation does not necessarily reflect the actions of the federal government as a whole. FEMA funds, workers, and federal troops have all been sent to help Puerto Rico, but it obviously has not been enough. It is estimated that the majority of the island will be without power for months to come and the death toll has been rising. It is clear that they need more support. While not having a populist leader would not have changed the path of the hurricane, or lessened the devastation, it would have allowed the federal government to not only have a more appropriate response to the crisis on the island, but a more sympathetic one to the people as well.
Image by NOAA Satellites, “Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico”
What is Populism? – Jan-Werner Müller