As President Trump faces his first major natural disaster, he is proving once again what may be the most fundamental truth about his character: Trump is Trump. He does not change, he does not grow, he does not reflect and reconsider. You can drop Trump into any situation and he will still be Trump. He will neither adapt nor determine what is appropriate for that particular time and place. His only interest will be in himself and his own aggrandizement.
It's at times like this, with a few million of our fellow Americans facing catastrophe, that we need a president to be more. Handling an event like Hurricane Harvey is an administrative task, but the success of it will be determined in large part by the systems and personnel — federal, state, and local — that are already in place. At this moment, what the president of the United States mostly has to offer is words and images. It's a kind of media spectacle, but that doesn't mean it's trivial. And President Trump, despite his obsession with his own image, is not remotely up to the task.
Because of our fractured media, moments like these when the entire nation trains its attention on one event are rarer today than ever before. The president can use that attention to help us understand what's happening, what its context is, and how Americans are reacting. He can take it as an occasion to reinvigorate the common human and American values that ought to bind us together even in a time of political division. He can create shared purpose out of the tragedy, so we care for those who have suffered losses and work to prepare for future tragedies. When he rises to the occasion, he can be Lincoln at Gettysburg, FDR after Pearl Harbor, Reagan after the Challenger disaster, Clinton after Oklahoma City, Bush after 9/11, Obama after Charleston — times when the country looked to the president and he delivered a piece of powerful oratory that spoke to the public's emotions and pointed a way forward.
But no one, not even Trump's supporters, thinks anything he said in Texas (or anywhere else) will ever rise to that level. Trump can only be Trump.
We saw it in the last few days as he sent out one tweet after another marveling at the storm as though he were watching a Michael Bay movie, impressed with the spectacle but unconcerned with connecting the dramatic pictures to any real human cost. "HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming," he tweeted on Sunday. "Spirit of the people is incredible. Thanks!" Thanks?
Once he got to Texas on Tuesday, it was no different. He spoke from atop a fire truck to a group of hurricane victims and said, "What a crowd, what a turnout," obsessed as always about the size of his audience. I wish that were a joke, but it isn't.
"We won't say congratulations, we don't want to do that," he said at an event with the Texas governor. "We'll congratulate each other when it's all finished." That's what's on his mind — not what's happening now, but what kind of praise he'll get later.
Trump praised FEMA director Brock Long by offering him the most profound compliment he could think of, saying he's "a man who really has become very famous on television in the last couple of days." Beats "Heckuva job, Longie," I guess, but not the thing you want the president to be concerning himself with while the country's fourth-largest city is underwater.
But a man who watches Fox & Friends obsessively is not going to have something eloquent, insightful, and profound to say unless others have written the words for him. He simply does not speak the language of inclusiveness and unity. It's as foreign to him as Urdu or Icelandic. If you place a transliteration in front of him he can mouth the words, but they will hold no meaning for him and he won't be able to summon them on his own. The grandest purpose he can imagine is getting great ratings.
This president loves a big show, but he can't craft a show that transcends his own pettiness. He can move an audience, but only an audience of his supporters and only with the basest of emotions: anger, resentment, fear. He shows no evident conception of an America that includes all of us, in which we might do some things together. With a couple of brief exceptions (mostly involving places where he owns property), since becoming president he has barely set foot in a state that he didn't win in 2016; you might remember his "thank you tour" of states that he won, a pretty clear message to the rest of the country.
So when he is called to bring healing and hope and resolve to the entire nation, Trump isn't remotely up to the task. He fails not only because of who he is, but because he is incapable of being anything more. Not even for a moment.