A major weather emergency like Hurricane Michael should be a great opportunity for President Trump to shine. After all, nothing makes a president look more presidential than receiving an on-camera briefing from emergency officials — it's a chance to furrow one's brow and demonstrate command even in the face of chaos. If bombing other countries is the best way to "become president" in the eyes of the public, merely appearing competent during the nation's dire moments is probably a close second.
So naturally, Trump failed the test again this week.
When hurricanes strike, we should think about the people most directly affected: the residents in the path of the storm, the first responders and utility crews that will rescue endangered citizens and begin the arduous task of restoring services as the storm passes. In these moments, presidents should be seen — indeed, we demand it of them — but not really heard.
Remember "Heckuva job, Brownie?" Former President George W. Bush infamously muttered those words to former FEMA chief Michael Brown as they surveyed the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. Of course, the federal response to Katrina was far from sufficient, and Brown resigned in disgrace shortly thereafter. The "heckuva job" line is probably the most (and perhaps the only) well-known hurricane-related presidential quote, and it's not one a smart president wants to top. But on Wednesday, Trump gave it his best shot during a Hurricane Michael briefing in the Oval Office.
"It's like a big tornado, a massive tornado," Trump warned reporters.
As silly as that comment sounds, it isn't entirely wrong. Nevertheless, the moment immediately entered internet lore. But the biggest problem with the briefing was that the president was once again making a national crisis about him, using it as a chance to prove to the world that he has a "very, very large brain." Trump needs to be seen, and he'll use any and every opportunity made available to him, no matter how inappropriate it may seem.
As with many of our political problems, this isn't entirely Trump's fault. But he is certainly making a bad thing worse.
Hurricanes are political events. This is legitimate: People expect their government to come to their aid in a natural disaster. But it may also be a bit unfair: A big storm can spread destruction, flooding, and death for hundreds of miles in every direction. Even the best-managed hurricanes are a huge challenge to the officials in charge, and it is horrifically easy for the government to fall short of expectations.
The list of criticisms of Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina has been extensively litigated in public during the 13 years since; the most important point, for our purposes, is that Bush's presidency — already hobbled by a faltering effort in Iraq — never really recovered.
The result? When hurricanes happen now, the White House and its occupants know the whole world is watching. The presidency has long been adjunct to the television industry, and that only becomes more true during times of crisis: John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, in part because he was more telegenic than Nixon during history's first televised debates. Ronald Reagan, who made his name in movies and then on TV, brought a well-honed sense of stagecraft to the Oval Office. Even Barack Obama, supposedly above it all, knew the value of a well-placed cameo on late-night television. In some ways, Trump is merely heir to the ongoing showbizification of the White House.
Those men might have been every bit as narcissistic as Trump — you don't run for president because you lack self-regard. But they mostly used their ability to manage pop culture to serve or at least convey a larger vision. To the contrary, Trump seems to think it is the performance that matters most, that the point of being on TV is to be on TV. He's not really playing at being the president; he's playing at being himself playing at being the president. The effect is something like looking at a copy of a copy of a copy.
The results of this approach were most evident in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Trump was more interested in being seen responding to the storm than in actually responding to the storm. Thus, he made himself more ridiculous, tossing paper towels at survivors even as the death toll began to rise and rise and rise on the island. Since then, the president has apparently spent more energy battling critics of his storm response than he has improving his government's response to it.
We can expect more of the same, if not after Hurricane Michael, than after the next big storm. Our need for good government will only become more urgent with every increasingly devastating, climate-fueled disaster. Our realistic expectations of the person leading that government, however, have never been lower.