When the big quake hit Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, the common people of the capital came in droves — quickly, spontaneously. courageously — to help rescue countless of their fellow citizens trapped under the rubble of office buildings, schools, and apartments.
Hour after hour, they worked tirelessly, along with first responders and soldiers who arrived a later, and together managed to save the lives of about 50 people. It was an awe-inspiring display of the best in human nature and in the Mexican character, an example of courage, heroism, human solidarity, national pride, and civic responsibility.
Compare that with Donald Trump’s slanderous characterization of Mexicans in the United States as criminals, rapists and murderers. Trump kicked off his campaign with a vicious broadside at Mexicans. It is no surprise that his message of condolence to Mexico came very late.
Donald Trump insults of Mexicans during and after the campaign were damnable lies. But truth wasn’t the point. This was a message not only to those mad and afraid over what they see as the “Latino takeover” and the “browning of America.” It was a signal that Donald Trump was the man who would put a screeching halt to all that and much more. It was an implicit campaign promise to a larger number of people who despise “political correctness” and yearned for a return to a time when you could openly express your prejudices or contempt for blacks, Latinos, women, gays and all the “others.” By mocking a disabled reporter, Trump provided a model for just how low you could go in breaking the bonds of political correctness.
Making the whole nation a safe space for bigotry was part of what Trump meant by making America great again. This is one campaign promise he has been trying to fulfill with a vengeance and through actual policies. The list is long. Here are a few examples:
- The deportation crusade.
- Throwing the Dreamers under the bus.
- The anti-Muslim ban.
- Prohibiting the military from recruiting LGBT people.
- The trumped-up attack on protesting NFL players, mostly black.
- And, possibly worse of all, appointing Jeff Sessions, who talks and acts like a racist, as Attorney General in charge of justice, immigration, and civil rights. Typical of the Sessions take on rights is this recent headline in the Miami Herald: “Sessions Directive Protects Religious Objectors to LGBT Rights.” In the upside-down America of Trump and Sessions, the prejudiced are protected when they discriminate.
The beauty of all this for Trump is that, while making America safe to hate again is part of a deliberate political calculus, it works so well because it is also mostly sincere. Prejudice and an alien-like absence of empathy is part of Trump’s DNA. A case in point is Trump’s reaction to the devastation wrought by hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The emergency response was perhaps more pathetic than George W. Bush’s response to Katrina. The speed and scope of the campaign of assistance was, way, way short of what was minimally needed.
The contrast in the federal response to Harvey in Texas is enormous. Far from showing any sympathy or apologizing for the sorry performance, he could have broken his arm from patting himself on the back, chided Puerto Ricans for “messing a little bit with our budgets” as if Puerto Rico had called the disaster on itself, denigrated and humiliated Puerto Ricans by saying they wanted everything done for them and instead had to do more for themselves. It was a bravura performance of miserliness, prejudice and contempt, complete with the tossing out by the president of rolls of paper towels in the context in a city without power or water and little food. Let them eat paper! Vintage Trump.
Puerto Rico was, unlike what President Trump said, a real disaster and not a good news story as one of his aides said. But there was good news too. There was excellent reporting that showed the awful realities which exposed Trump’s lies. And then, best of all, was the emergence of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as a figure of pluck, fearlessness, and defiance in the face of the biggest bully in the world.