By Michael D’Antonio
(CNN)Finally lumbering into a devastated Puerto Rico aboard Air Force One, almost two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, President Trump came face-to-face with the kind of reality he can’t deflect with anger and derision. A world waited to see if in a crisis, an unscripted Trump would rise to the occasion. He did not.
Upon arriving, Trump sat with a group of government officials and began praising his own administration. Like Snow White’s evil stepmother who demanded the mirror remind her that she is “the fairest of them all,” he then asked Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón to join in the fawning and flattering.
“I watched the other day,” said the TV-addicted President, “and she was saying such nice things about all of the people who have worked so hard. Jenniffer, do you think you can say a little bit of what you said about us today?” He quickly added, “It’s not about me,” but of course it was.
As everyone knows, the only way to deal with the President is with praise, indulgence and political pats on the head. Thus it was that González-Colón and all those who spoke to the President gave him the verbal thumbs-up even as the 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico entered their third week of suffering as many still lacked electricity, secure supplies of food and reliable clean water.
Indeed, the only real complaint came from Trump himself, who said, “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
A narcissist’s tour de force, Trump’s arrival meeting was likely the first time any president visited a part of the country ravaged by natural disaster and complained about the cost of the emergency response. Something inside him realized he had gone too far. “That’s fine,” he quickly added, “We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Lifesaving is what the federal government is supposed to do when disaster strikes, and when hurricanes recently ravaged Texas and Florida he wasted no time getting to the scene and never complained about the cost.
In the case of Puerto Rico, he wasted time on bashing football players protesting racial inequities and took his eye off the island as he enjoyed a long weekend at a golf resort. As the Washington Post reported, for four days “Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.”
Trump was so slow to react to the tragedy in Puerto Rico that the mayor of San Juan cried out in frustration. Naturally, the President took personal offense. “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” the President said in a tweet from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
He also said, “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
The bizarre comments were just another example of the psycho-political dynamic that makes dealing with this President so difficult. In his world, problems are caused by bad people, especially his personal enemies, and if you don’t want him to blame you for causing problems then you had better make it clear that you agree with him.
As Trump established himself in Washington, his minions were challenged to live in his distortion field. At the start, Sean Spicer showed how it was done as he affirmed the President’s wildly inaccurate claims about the enormous crowds at his inauguration.
In February, adviser Sebastian Gorka said reports of White House chaos were inaccurate, even as stories of disarray poured out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By June, everyone seemed to have figured out how to make Trump happy. During a bizarre Cabinet meeting, he was praised like a god. Chief of staff Reince Priebus was typical as he said, “We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.”
Though able as toadies, Spicer, Gorka and Priebus would soon be gone from the White House because they, nevertheless, failed as mirrors for the Trump image. This is another problem when it comes to a chief executive with a brittle ego. Though he demands loyalty from others, he is stinting in his own commitments, and woe to the man or woman who makes him look bad.
Take, for example, the administration’s other recent debacle, which culminated with Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigning after spending$1 million on private and military jet travel. Trump demanded he go, not because he abused the taxpayers, but because the scandal made him, Donald Trump, look bad. “Look, I think he’s a very fine person,” Trump said of Price before adding, “I certainly don’t like the optics.”
Denying the reality everyone else can see, Trump said Price was a “fine man,” and not an arrogant bureaucrat, because to say otherwise would suggest that he had made a mistake when selecting him in the first place. Trump is so allergic to even the hint of a mistake, miscalculation or inadequacy that he’s rather confess that he was bothered by the way Price made him look than by what he actually did.
The President’s preference for his own reality is not new. Throughout his life, he has used his money, power and temper to construct his own reality. His massive business bankruptcies were not failures but brilliant bits of management. He said he was New York’s biggest builder when he wasn’t. And, as Adweek pointed out, he declared that his reality TV show “The Celebrity Apprentice” was Number 1, even when it was 41st.
His reality shows, pasted together from days of video-taped interactions, were no more real than the conspiracy Trump once claimed was responsible for the idea that asbestos was a human health hazard. However, it was the ideal expression of the mind of Donald Trump. Everyone on the program competed for his attention, and praised his acumen. On television, as in his offices, there was no percentage in piercing the fantasy.
The problem for Trump is that some realities cannot be explained away by complaints about “fake news” or by his usual methods of blaming and shaming others. In Puerto Rico, he was confronted with the immutable fact of a devastating hurricane. He failed in his initial response, made things worse by lashing out at the locals and mishandled a visit that should have been all about compassion but was instead, all about him.
Sadly, the country is also struggling to recover from another massive tragedy in Las Vegas where a gunman killed 59 people and injured hundreds more at a music festival. This crisis was so acute that the President was able to appear on TV, speak the comforting words written for him and not make things worse.
When the President arrives in Las Vegas this week on yet another mission that calls for presidential grace, in response to trauma, he will have one more opportunity to show he is more than self-centered, ego-driven and insecure. It’s another chance to occupy the same reality that brings such pain to the rest of us. His record leaves great doubt as to whether he’s up to it.