Hank Minor: A report card for Trump

Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 4:58pm

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, destroying much of its critical infrastructure — most notably, 95 percent of the electrical grid — President Donald Trump visited the island. His statements there, which should have contained at the very least traces of empathy, were as ego-driven as usual.

Almost immediately upon arrival, he complained the territory had “thrown our budget a little out of whack” and lauded island officials for the relatively low death toll — which, at 16 deaths, was much lower than Hurricane Katrina's. 

Later, he praised Ricardo Rosselló, governor of Puerto Rico, saying, “He’s not even from my party, and he started right at the beginning, appreciating what we did … Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics. He didn't play it at all. He was saying it like it was, and he was giving us the highest grades. On behalf of our country, I wanna thank you.” 

I’m not sure what complete failure of conscience causes someone to see a natural disaster in terms of “grades” or — as he did with U.S. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, the territory's Republican non-voting representative — to request further praise, now that he and the media were there:

“Jenniffer, do you think you can say a little bit (of) what you said about us today?” Trump asked. “And it’s not about me. It’s about these incredible people, from the military to FEMA to first responders. I mean, I’ve never seen people working so hard in my life. Perhaps you could say, congresswoman?” 

I’m not sure why, at this point, I find myself freshly disgusted with each instance of cold-blooded narcissism. What else, from a former reality television star? The drive to seek attention is threaded into the deepest parts of his personality and, for Trump, there has ceased to be a line too far. Everything — even a major natural disaster that affected more than three million U.S. citizens — is a chance to capture a few more seconds of media spotlight.

For some time now, I’ve debated whether or not the media’s critique of Trump is useful in any concrete way — if it’s actually accomplishing something, or if it simply exists to validate the opinions of people who have long since come to hate him. This particular instance of ineptitude, though, leads me to believe that the media has been forced into a role it hasn’t held since the advent of 24-hour cable news: that of an educator.

Much in the same way “The Learning Channel” stopped learning quite some time ago, our major cable news networks have drifted further and further from actual news. No one wants to pay for dry analysis and Wolf Blitzer reading sleepily from a teleprompter, but they’re more than willing when it’s coverage of scandal, the horserace or political squabbles.

Even our president isn’t immune to this effect. He reportedly loves the television, with the Washington Post estimating that, on an average day, he consumes five hours' worth. Furthermore, unlike former Presidents Clinton and Obama, he watches it for current coverage of himself — not as an escape from it. Our media institutions are thus faced with the unfortunate task of educating the president through the only thing he has a sustained attention span for.

If President Trump prefers to receive intelligence briefings condensed to one page with “killer graphics,” it may be useful to take those lessons to heart when tweaking news broadcasts for one vitally important viewer. Commentators, instead of scoring unnecessary extra points with viewers who already share their political alignment, might try coaxing Trump into learning something. Fox News and CNN seem to have a united interest in ensuring that the president is minimally educated for the job, even if they have to go about it in different ways.

Cable news pundits rarely do original journalism, preferring to repackage the work of print journalists. They are thus enabled to participate in our national effort to soothe the president’s wildly unchecked ego by providing careful discussions that guide him toward more stable, researched positions. His advisers might not be able to make him read more than a page, but I certainly believe Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer and other journalists are capable of reading to him.

Whether it bruises our national pride or not, we owe it to Puerto Rico and those who will face similar and greater struggles in the future to make sure the president knows how to act in his office. With any luck, he’ll eventually internalize the ideas that people are not responsible for natural disasters, aid distribution is not a proper method of winning support and that we expect him to pursue praise through competence, not performance.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu