Among the very first comments Donald Trump made about the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, almost a week after Hurricane Maria made devastated the island on September 20th, was a reference to the “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.” Five days later, he responded to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz’s pleas for aid by attacking Puerto Ricans for “want[ing] everything to be done for them.” When he finally visited the island on October 2nd, he remarked that it hadn’t faced “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” chided the island for “throw[ing] our budget a little out of whack,” and parroted a hoax circulating on right-wing blogs accusing local truck drivers of refusing to distribute relief supplies.
The death toll continues to climb as much of the island suffers without adequate food, water, power, and medical care, but Trump’s grotesque attacks on the victims continued on Thursday. Again raising the specter of “a financial crisis…largely of their own making” (an insidious lie—it’s a product of Wall Street greed and colonialist exploitation by the federal government), he warned that “[w]e cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders…in P.R. forever!”
As usual, Trump is merely putting his own high-decibel spin on the quieter horror that is mainstream Republican governance. On Wednesday the White House asked Congress to approve its first aid package to Puerto Rico—not an aid package at all, but a $4.9 billion bridge loan that will only burden the island with more debt. Conservatives have for weeks been openly plotting to exploit the devastation to enact privatization schemes and other right-wing reforms. House Speaker and prissy sociopath Paul Ryan on Thursday defended Trump’s latest comments by stressing the need for Puerto Rico—where over two million hungry people are being provided only 200,000 meals per day and getting sick is currently a virtual death sentence—to “begin to stand on its own two feet.”
The language that Trump, Ryan, and other Republicans are using to talk about disaster victims in Puerto Rico should sound familiar. It’s the way conservatives have talked about the poor for generations: profess good will and a desire to help, but maintain that the cause of the problem is mostly a lack of self-reliance and that it consequently can’t be solved by direct aid. In either case, of course, the intended audience is not the afflicted at all, but the privileged upper and upper-middle classes who crave flattery and absolution for their good fortune.
But this is more than just Trump’s lizard brain trying to exculpate himself amid an ongoing (and potentially worsening) crisis and Ryan reflexively gibbering to cover for him; there is a dark logic at work here, a calculated effort by the Republican Party and the moneyed interests it exists to serve to reconstitute the conservative worldview in preparation for an imminent shift in the course of human affairs—a world in which crises like the one in Puerto Rico are more and more commonplace, and hitting closer and closer to home.
When natural disasters lead to mass suffering and death, it’s taken for granted by nearly everyone that the necessary amounts of public and private wealth should be marshaled to help victims survive, recover, and rebuild. Inevitably, of course, we fall miserably short of doing so, and the farther from our shores catastrophe strikes the less likely we are to do anything at all—but the consensus expectation, the gravitational pull towards helping those in sudden need, remains. Twelve years ago, the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the response to Hurricane Katrina became the signature domestic scandal of a scandal-rich presidency.
Whether consciously or not, capital and its partisans know the threat this expectation poses to their interests in our dawning age of permanent ecological catastrophe. You’re throwing our budget out of whack, Puerto Rico. When it’s not just Puerto Rico but the entire Gulf Coast knocked into the Middle Ages by a hurricane, when it’s not just hundreds of thousands but millions of acres being consumed by wildfires in California, when the droughts in the Southwest begin to last not just years but decades—what then? Capital mustn’t be wasted cleaning up all the horrible messes it has made. Capital must do what it’s always done: continue to accumulate upwards into the pockets and the bank accounts and the gated, sea-walled enclaves of the few.
And so conservative elites must begin to train their vicious reactionary horde to think of helpless disaster victims the way they were long ago trained to think of the merely chronically poor. As much as they’ve fucked up Puerto Rico relief through sheer unfeeling ignorance, rest assured they’re also taking notes. How little can we get away with doing? (Very little.) How effectively can we lie about it? (Very effectively.) How openly can we tell the truth, and show our contempt for the idea that we have to help at all? (To a hideous degree.)
In the neglect of Puerto Rico and other humanitarian crises around the world, we’re witnessing the first skeletal overtures of what Peter Frase, in his book Four Futures, calls “exterminism”—a global civilizational endgame in which “the rich retreat to heavily fortified enclaves where the robots do all the work, and everyone else is trapped outside in the hot, soggy hell of a rapidly warming planet.” Who’s to say, initially, where the lines will be drawn, how big the enclaves will be? Best to start convincing as many of us as you can that those suffering masses over there don’t deserve our help.
Donald Trump’s barely-disguised white nationalism is well-suited to the task. The victims of climate change will be—and, indeed, already are—disproportionately poor and disproportionately black and brown, and their dehumanization will be a core objective of future demagogues of the exterminist right. It’s no coincidence, obviously, that we are seeing boundaries of neglect being pushed this month in Puerto Rico rather than last month in Houston—and you can be sure that when it becomes expedient to treat a storm-ravaged Houston or Miami with similar parsimony and contempt, tomorrow’s Trumps will place the blame squarely on the people of color suffering within them. The grim success right-wing Islamophobes have had recently in repelling record numbers of refugees worldwide—tens of millions of innocents fleeing disasters that are not ecological but all too man-made—will be studied and repeated.
For now, Puerto Ricans will continue to die needlessly as aid arrives in trickles and the island transitions into a haphazard and privational recovery. Wall Street and its accomplices in Congress and the White House will continue to bleed its people dry. And unless we stop them, there are only going to be more and more crises like this one, and the barbarous drumbeat we can hear faintly right now will only get louder and louder.