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Where Is the Cavalry?

September 9, 2019
Where Is the Cavalry?
This matters. Being wrong in a stupid tweet does not. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Surely one of history’s great jokes is Donald Trump’s use of the “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump is a blowhard ignoramus who seemed not to know who Frederick Douglass was; a failed casino magnate whose idea of debate was exchanging playground insults about TV ratings with other c-list celebrities; a serial fraudster who boasted of avoiding taxes, having extramarital affairs, and being a “very stable genius.” That such a tabloid bobble-head should be in any position to understand, far less shepherd us to “greatness” is ludicrous.

The truth is that Donald Trump’s presidency has diminished America in almost every way. The face we present to the world with his America First truculence is that of a tin-pot duchy. Trump once railed that China was “raping” our country. Not that Trump is averse to such conduct. On the contrary, he admires it. (See, for example, his responses to Tiananmen Square, the Khashoggi murder, Duterte’s extrajudicial killings, Putin’s subversion, and so on.) See his oft-stated view that “we should have taken the oil” from Iraq.

Trump and his minions like to claim that America is respected again in the world, thanks to his leadership. That is deranged. The big question world leaders ask themselves is how not to laugh in his face.

His leadership is unstable and ignorant. He manages to be both whiny and cruel. The Trump administration’s approach to the world is one of grievance. We’re being bled white by our allies. We’re being cheated on trade. We haven’t focused enough on ourselves. We’ve been chumps.

Even if you think there is merit in some of those complaints (the Europeans should spend more on defense), the poor-mouthing doesn’t present an image of strength, but the opposite.

The response to natural disasters—which ought to be the least-complicated task of any president—is the latest demonstration of his smallness. Which, sadly, has now become our smallness.

In the past when natural disasters struck around the globe, the United States was among the first nations to send in the cavalry. When Haiti was hit by an earthquake in 2011, the USS Carl Vinson was there almost immediately, along with Marines who cleared debris and helped restore infrastructure. The Navy provided food and water, and also dispatched the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital. The Air Force handled air traffic control.

Pakistan suffered massive floods in 2010. Within days, U.S. flagged C-17s and C-130s airlifted 5 million tons of supplies, a down payment on the eventual delivery of 20 million tons.

When a tsunami crashed into Indonesia in 2004, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving many more homeless, the USS Abraham Lincoln was deployed to dispense food, water, and medical supplies. America followed up with a flotilla of 30 more ships, including the hospital ship USNS Mercy, whose 1,000-bed capacity helped critically injured survivors. President Bush asked former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to coordinate relief efforts and asked that all flags be flown at half-staff. Here’s Bush at the time noting the spontaneous outpouring of generosity from Americans of all stripes:

Over the past week, we have seen some of the innovative ways Americans are helping people in need.

A coffee roaster in California is handing out bags of coffee for a $10 donation to the Red Cross. In Virginia Beach, the owner of a tax assistance firm is making a donation for every tax return he prepares. Worshipers at a Buddhist temple in Houston collected thousands of dollars in cash to send to their sister temple in Sri Lanka. Some people are selling personal items on the Internet and donating the cash to the charities. Many corporations are matching contributions by their employees. And several have shown exceptional generosity by donating large amounts of cash and products to the relief efforts.

Such responses were routine. America responded to Japan’s terrible 2011 earthquake, a 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, droughts in the Horn of Africa, and hundreds of other humanitarian crises around the globe. As Americans, we expected to be on the scene. That was part of our might—the capacity and eagerness to be rescuers. That is greatness.

The United States is not unique in this regard. Many nations respond similarly to disasters, though America does rank among the top three most generous nations in the world, according to Gallup’s measure of time and money donations. (Indonesia and Australia were the top two.)

The Trump administration’s limp response to the devastation Puerto Rico suffered in 2017 has never been adequately tallied.

The initial death toll of 17 was later revised to nearly 3,000. Puerto Ricans were without power for 11 months following the storm. Thousands fled to the mainland United States, and a suicide crisis engulfed the island. FEMA did eventually deliver billions in aid, and in fairness, it should be noted that resources were stretched thin that year due to back-to-back storms.

But it wasn’t just the inadequate delivery of relief that characterized the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis—it was the puerile, petty tone. Trump feuded with the mayor of San Juan on Twitter, even as she coped with massive power outages, physical destruction, and shortages of basic medicines. And, of course, he praised himself: “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico.” He also advised Puerto Ricans that they had not suffered that much. Hurricane Maria, he said, wasn’t “a real catastrophe, like Katrina.”

Hurricane Dorian has reduced much of our neighbor, the Bahamas, to matchsticks. Thousands are without the essentials of life. It’s a desperate situation. The president’s response: “We are sending crews to help.” Where is the flotilla? Where are the hospital ships and the fresh food and water?

One thing that made America great was our immediate response to global disasters. Whether a nation was a friend or a foe, Muslim or Christian, black or white—if a humanitarian crisis loomed, we used to step up handsomely. That’s no small thing. Generosity of spirit is a mark of character.

But our leader is such a small-minded boor that he has devoted the lion’s share of the past week not to helping our desperate neighbors in the Bahamas or to managing the disaster response at home, but to perseverating about his mistaken tweet saying that Alabama was likely to be hit by the storm.

His peccadillos are not necessarily the nation’s—but this leadership is the opposite of making America great again.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].