In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, it’s a good time to think about the important role the president plays as the nation’s chief emergency manager.
Americans today no longer live between disasters, we live in a disastrous age — from natural and technological hazards to pandemics and terrorism. The reasons are many, including housing in flood- and fire-prone terrains, deferred maintenance on aging infrastructure, and climate change. Legislators with a local and short-term perspective are often unwilling to learn much from disaster or plan ahead for the inevitable. The result is disaster amnesia, with Americans perpetually surprised that the worst can happen.
In this context, strong and informed presidential leadership is critical. Some presidents have failed the test, like the Bush administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Others have risen to the occasion, as Lyndon B. Johnson did with his widely praised response to Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
Hillary Clinton’s experience as first lady, senator from New York on Sept. 11, and secretary of state shows she has compassion for victims and the political talent to craft fact-based strategies for disaster preparedness. Two key examples: Clinton was instrumental in revising the funding structure for counterterrorism after Sept. 11, allocating funds rationally, according to risk, rather than traditional pork-barrel politics. Clinton also led in the early efforts to launch a federal investigation into the collapse of the World Trade towers — a years-long study at the National Institute of Standards and Technology that led to key reforms in high-rise construction.
How would Donald Trump perform as the commander-in-chief during a disaster?
The first issue to consider is governance — how presidents shape the lumbering federal bureaucracy to address the gravest threats. Rather than weighing in on his plans for federal disaster policymaking, though, Trump has worked to undermine public faith in government. Case in point, as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012, Trump took to Twitter to claim that President Obama would cynically “buy the election handing out billions of dollars,” in disaster relief funds, and to renew his call for the president to release his college transcripts — a badly timed continuation of his “birther” campaign to undermine Obama’s legitimacy.
Perhaps more disturbing is the ideological company Trump keeps. Unlike any previous nominee for president, he has aligned himself with the fringe-critics of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He is an enthusiastic fan of purveyors of the long-standing myth that this is a shadow agency with black helicopters, stockpiled weapons, and secret plans to round up citizens under the guise of disaster relief and move them into concentration camps. This crowd was pushing an absurdist “hurricane truther” line by arguing that the government was hyping Hurricane Matthew (a measurable reality of nature) in order to push an extreme climate change agenda.
Trump has claimed that human-induced climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He goes a step further by dismissing the threat of sea level rise, an irony considering the fact that he owns properties in Florida that are directly threatened.
Were he to be elected, Trump may be surprised to find that the executive branch and armed forces he wishes to lead are focused on science-informed disaster risk reduction, and have been busily working to address the costly and real impacts of climate change. Will he reverse his stated positions, will he dismantle the climate change mitigation work underway, or will he simply leave the matter to appointees while he tweets?
Presidents also play a crucial role in rallying the nation and providing empathic leadership in the aftermath of disaster. Here, Trump fails even more profoundly. He has sought to use disasters as media opportunities, moments to draw attention away from victims and toward himself.
As the Ebola crisis played out in 2014, Trump argued that American public health workers abroad who were exposed to the disease “must suffer the consequences,” and should not be allowed to return home for medical care. After terror attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino, Trump was quick to take credit for predicting the attacks, without offering much by way of consolation or national unity. In the most egregious example, Trump has revived the lie that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the World Trade towers, and laid fault for the attacks at the feet of George W. Bush.
Trump’s simplifications and outright fabrications should raise alarm over his fitness to lead the nation through the disasters to come. Given the almost certain prospect that hurricanes and earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and industrial accidents will occur, voters should closely scrutinize Trump and his proven record of divisiveness, disinterest in governance, and outright hostility to the life-saving science of disaster preparedness.
Scott Gabriel Knowles, an associate professor of history at Drexel University, is the author of “The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.” Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.