It is understandable that people laugh at this. There is an inherent hilarity in the doctored map alone, its black Sharpie-d bubble emerging from just north of Jacksonville and curving around the Florida panhandle only to ensure that some slice of Alabama would be jeopardized by this newly enhanced path of Hurricane Dorian. Watching a sitting president display this, proudly and like a school project, on top of the Resolute Desk inside the Oval Office on Wednesday was one of the more surreal moments I’ve experienced observing American politics — and not just as a journalist. It is difficult to consider anything quite so ridiculous, in the literal sense of the word.
After the online mockery commenced, the late-night hosts got to work. It is difficult to fault them for doing their jobs, especially since so much truth is found in comedy. “Erratic, slow, powerful and destructive. It’s like looking in a mirror,” Stephen Colbert said, imitating Trump while also noting that his Sharpie stunt was actually a federal crime. “He really must think we’re a bunch of idiots,” Jimmy Kimmel remarked. “I bet he thinks, ‘Hey, they let me be president. Let’s see what other dumb crap they’ll go for.’” Trevor Noah asked a more existential question: “Did he draw with a Sharpie? What is life right now?”
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Noah feigned surprise that Trump could even find Alabama on a map. But as we learned with George W. Bush, mocking the president’s stupidity and intellectual laziness has a different resonance when the hurricane comes. This isn’t Trump trying to get away with one of his personal fictions or bits of braggadocio. It is simply not funny when anyone, let alone the president, lies about something this serious.
Dorian, now a Category 1 hurricane, had already hit the U.S. Virgin Islands last week and lashed Puerto Rico a bit as it went by. On Wednesday, it made landfall Thursday on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Winds of up to 100 miles per hour hit the tourist destination before Dorian moved back out to sea. South Carolina also had to contend with two tornadoes that spun off from the hurricane. As Charleston’s streets flooded, its police department felt compelled to post on Twitter, “Remember, TURN AROUND, DON’T DROWN.” We have yet to get any confirmation on American casualties outside of the six Florida deaths already reported. But government officials in the Bahamas — which were hit when Dorian was a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest there is — are now reporting at least 30 deaths and expect the final totals will be “staggering.”
People have died and remain under threat, here in the United States and in allied nations that need our help and resources. Yet this cretin of a president remains fixated not merely on having media battles with his enemies in the press and wherever else while lives are at stake.
It may sound old-fashioned or even quaint, but Americans have to be able to believe what the president says. Yes, just about every politician traffics in fiction. But this is a time of national crisis for many Americans, when the water is flooding in or the winds threaten to blow them to kingdom come. And they cannot trust Trump to prioritize their lives over his lie.
This time, it’s unclear whether this began with a deliberate lie or Trump merely getting it wrong.
Perhaps Trump saw “all of the Bahamas” was in jeopardy on a briefing page and his brain read “Alabama.” Perhaps he saw an early map predicting lighter winds barely reaching the state and genuinely, idiotically thought that meant that the state would be hit with major damage and decided saying that out loud without any investigation was a good idea. Or perhaps he just wanted to take a tragic event and make it all about himself, even if it makes him look insane in the process. It wouldn’t be the first time (this year). No matter why he is continuing to lie about this, it is evident that no one is willing to stop him.
I understand Republicans don’t seem to give much of a damn about governance. Well, at least they oppose heavy regulations on business or want laissez-faire approaches to everything government does that doesn’t relate to civil rights for anyone who is marginalized in America. However, this has become a party that doesn’t care whether or not people die. Because that’s what it is when they sit idly by as their president whines and wails like a colicky child for a week, not only tweeting madly but inducing his White House to lie for him about Alabama supposedly being in danger when it never was.
The federal crime he committed in doctoring the map, as confirmed by a White House official to the Washington Post Thursday night, may have been one of his more minor offenses overall. But it was clear and unmistakable. Title 18 U.S. Code 2074 states that “Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather conditions falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the Government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both.” Trump did that, and proudly, on national television.
But the more insidious offense is what Trump is evidencing in his actions. He has shown us previously, through his various authoritarian impulses, that he believes that he does not represent the state or govern the state so much that he is the state. This Alabama mess, contrary to what Al Roker insisted Thursday, is not a distraction. It is part of the whole. We see, in Trump’s relentless focus on his own misbegotten truth, an unbreakable grip on a reality that does not exist. It stems from his strange idea of manhood, the idea that a lack of vulnerability and an unwillingness to admit error equals strength — when just the opposite is true.
It may not feel as though we have a president right now, what with this one golfing all weekend in Florida as Dorian was bearing down on the nation. But we need one. This union has remained tethered together and functional these past few years in spite of his impulses, not because of them. It is in times of natural disaster, when hurricanes strike, that we see his most glaring weaknesses as a leader.
I realize that writing what I am about to write is futile, which is why I haven’t done it in a column before. But Trump should resign over this. If he doesn’t do so willingly, he should be pressured to do so or impeached immediately. Over this, yes. But he won’t leave, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likely won’t act. Even if she did, Republicans have made clear they’ll shield Trump regardless. So we rely upon the plentiful primary field.
That is why we need someone who tells the truth unreservedly to oppose this president. It would befit the current frontrunner, Joe Biden, to remember that as he continues to cover up for his own lies and misstatements (about his past Iraq position, most notably). Insisting that the “details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making,” as the former vice-president asserted recently to NPR, is a curious approach for someone preparing to run against a serial fabricator. He argues that he is the most “electable,” but Biden is playing a game that Trump already knows how to win. I guess he truly is a Democrat.
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