Skip to main content

Jared Yates Sexton is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage.

This past week in the United States has felt like a month. If natural disasters, human suffering, and unthinkable tragedies weren't bad enough, we've had to suffer Donald Trump's unparalleled incompetence. At every turn, with every new day, our President has somehow managed to make things unimaginably worse.

In Puerto Rico, as bad news compounded, Mr. Trump added insult to injury. Reports have put the death toll at 34 people, and it seems as if parts of that island will be without power or basic necessities for months, but the President has repeatedly disrespected the victims with a collection of tweets that ran the gamut from rude to racist.

When the mayor of San Juan took to the airwaves to ask for help among a disastrous relief effort, Mr. Trump claimed the officials there "want everything done for them." He called those who criticized the delay in relief "politically motivated ingrates." In his remarks he's bumbled and babbled. In an interview, he said this: "The results that we've had with respect to loss of life. People can't believe how successful that has been."

During his unfortunate trip to the U.S. territory, he tossed rolls of paper towel into the desperate crowd as if they were prizes and decried the disaster as having "thrown our budget a little out of whack."

In Las Vegas, following the worst mass shooting in modern American history, Mr. Trump visited the wounded in the hospital. It was a fine and decent thing to do, but within a few hours he had posted a video of the visit, replete with Lee Greenwood's soaring ode God Bless The U.S.A., transforming the solemn duty into a ready-made campaign ad.

There have been many missteps with this administration. The President and his supporting cast have bungled legislation, offended nearly everybody, run afoul of the judiciary for unconstitutional actions, repeatedly bilked the American taxpayer and even failed to properly denounce neo-Nazis.

But what many forget, as proposed laws have failed and the scandals pile on, is that the president is as much a figurehead of state as he/she is an executive. While leading the federal government, a president is supposed to lead the nation's heart. This particular President has failed in both regards.

Consider, for a moment, recent presidents who have taken the helm as the so-called "Consoler-In-Chief."

Bill Clinton soothed the country after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168.

George W. Bush, struggling to find his footing in the White House, grew into his role as he took to a bullhorn to address first responders in the rubble of the World Trade Center, promising to bring justice to those responsible.

Many of Barack Obama's signature moments in office took place in this capacity, as his was the unfortunate responsibility to help make sense, and heal the wounds, of a smattering of shootings, including Newtown, Charleston, and then Dallas. He cried for the victims, sang Amazing Grace, and appeared utterly heartbroken with every new tragedy.

These moments are, of course, political, but they also transcend politics. There's something much more human about these terrible events and the periods of deep mourning that follow. They rise above the usual rhetoric and posturing because most people, regardless of political persuasion, will feel something when faced with moments this large and heartbreaking.

Surely there are those who would support the President's tax plan or Republicans' continued efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Health Act who can recognize when a president is failing an important, human moment. After all, you can focus group buzzwords and messaging, hire pollsters to find the most effective argument, but you cannot fake basic human empathy, which our President has been shown to lack time and time again.

Certainly there are those who doubt Mr. Trump's supporters might ever stray, but we've already seen the effects of these failures before. In August, following the disgusting response to another tragedy, this one in Charlottesville, Va., the voting public showed its displeasure with Mr. Trump by registering its lowest approval rating of his presidency so far – 34 per cent.

There's a very real possibility that these mishandlings will result in a similar drop. Unlike the world of politics, where unfavorable stories can be blamed on "fake news" or the bluster on Capitol Hill, these embarrassments are Donald Trump's alone.

Since Richard Nixon disgraced the office, the American people have very few expectations of their presidents.

We're fully aware that they lie.

We're fully aware they'll throw anyone and everyone under the bus.

But, if there's only one thing that still remains, it's this: they have to have heart.

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania visited a disaster relief distribution centre in Puerto Rico on Tuesday where Trump threw paper towels into the crowd.


Interact with The Globe