I once tried to watch a documentary about the political status of Puerto Ricans. With all its myriad details of unincorporation vs statehood vs self-determination, it was considerably less entertaining than ‘West Side Story’. Now, for more than three million people, such issues may be a matter of life and death.
Donald Trump doesn’t know much about Puerto Rico either. He’s been told that it’s an island, and sort-of foreign and sort-of not, but he also knows that the people there can’t vote. He’d really rather just tell people things are going great and go and play golf. It doesn’t matter to him what happens to the people there. It’s an island, for Christ’s sake. Trump wouldn’t have the capacity to help even if he wanted to. He just has no intrinsic motivation to care about people who can’t do anything for him in return. (EDIT: The US has brought back Trump’s five predecessors to coordinate the reconstruction, due to the fact that the current office-holder so obviously does not give a shit.)
Trump also has no impulse control. Since he became president, he’s spent more than two months on the golf course. Although (as I wrote shortly after the inauguration) he’s the kind of leader that the US has imposed on so many other countries, it’s not so much that (as some claim) he’s following an authoritarian playbook; he’s too stupid, arrogant and lazy to read. Instead he’s an instinctive tyrant, his instincts conditioned by the crudest imaginable form of Social Darwinism. The notion that life is all about competition is a suitable ideology for someone who’d already been awarded the gold medal before they’d even drawn their first breath. This is not story he tells himself, of course. He just knows he’s entitled to go and play golf whenever he feels like it. His ideology, then, is Neoliberalism at its most basic: the market works for me, so it must work for everyone else. More competition is always good, because I’m the guy who owns all the starting pistols and the finishing tape. Now kneel before me – or, rather, stay on your feet or I’ll use the starting pistol on you.
Now, such a person has an instinctive understanding of threat posed by climate change. To people like Trump, the idea that society might – indeed, must – become more cooperative is worse than the reality that our habitat is collapsing. As Naomi Klein has cogently argued over the last few years, capitalism (particularly in its turbocharged, scorched earth variety) is simply incompatible with the continued existence of our species.
Of course, it’s easy to blame our leaders for our plight. There’s also the question of our own responsibility. We, as a ‘civilisation’, long ago collectively decided to ignore the implications. That is, after all why Trump was elected: there’s nothing less real than reality TV, so one way to escape from a frightening reality was to elect a reality TV star, someone who plays the role of a tycoon for the cameras. Facebook, Twitter have happened along, not quite by chance, at just the right moment to enable us to screen out those aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable. It’s no accident that Trump once declared that “All I know is what’s on the internet“. While Obama was the first black president, Trump is the first internet one. (Not to mention the “first white president“.)
Puerto Rico is an instructive case. It’s not like parts of Bangladesh, Houston, or Miami, i.e. part of a larger territory into which our perception of its suffering can be subsumed. It’s isolated, so presents a very stark test case of whether or not we actually give a flying fuck about our future. If we don’t respond to calls like that of the Mayor of San Juan, and not just with donations but with political action, we are truly lost. Every city on earth will face similar existential crises,often part of bigger ones, like the coming wave of crop failures. The market – the rising price of food and energy, which some are lucky to be able to afford – will only protect us so far. Its not just that our current leaders will let us starve or drown, they will actively ignore our plight just as they denied the circumstances that made it inevitable. We have to recognise that what is happening in Puerto Rico is a climate catastrophe, part of a much larger and even deadlier global transformation, and act accordingly by making sacrifices on behalf of those already suffering and by getting rid of political leaders who refuse to even acknowledge the nature of the crisis. We must build local and international solidarity networks and demand that those we elect to govern our cities develop infrastructure to withstand the inevitable. If we don’t do these things, there will be no one left to speak up for us.