Midterm Time Capsule, 54 Days to Go: ‘Making Me Look Bad’

General Joseph Joffre, in the center, around the time of his successful command of French troops at the First Battle of the Marne in World War I. Behind him is General Philippe Pétain, revered for his service during that war, later reviled for his figurehead leadership of France's 1940s Vichy regime. Marshal Pétain is the guiding spirit of this Midterm Time Capsule series. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As I write, the national news is dominated by the arrival of Hurricane Florence, and the political news has emphasized Donald Trump’s reaction to this event and last year’s Hurricane Maria. Other Atlantic pieces lay out some of the problems with Trump’s response: for instance, one by David Graham here and others by Vann Newkirk here and here. My purpose this evening is to contrast the way this president is reacting to a natural-disaster challenge with what his predecessors have done.

Let’s review the chronology:

  • On Tuesday, September 12, Donald Trump awarded himself “A pluses” for his administration’s hurricane-response efforts in Florida and Texas. In a tweet he also said that his team “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” That big one is of course Hurricane Florence, which as of this writing is beginning its landfall on the Carolina coast.
    Via Twitter
  • This morning, September 13, Trump sent out Tweets asserting that reports of large-scale casualties in Puerto Rico were hype and faked—and that the fakery was part of a scheme to “make me look as bad as possible.”
    Via Twitter

What this shows about Trump is familiar. He is unbounded by fact. He is incapable of understanding any event except through the prism of how it makes him look. He cannot even feign the sober selflessness expected of leaders of any organization. He …. well, he is himself.

But this is worth noting for the record as it underscores two points. One involves Trump’s further departure from the norms of all previous presidents. The other involves the response of the supposedly co-equal legislative branch.

The office: Like it or not, consciously or by instinct, all previous presidents have tried to do two things after taking office. The first is to expand the base. Or at least to try.

Through all of America’s presidential elections, only once has the winning candidate received as much as 61 percent of the popular vote. That was Lyndon Johnson, who got that 61 percent against Barry Goldwater, in 1964. FDR against Alf Landon in 1936, Richard Nixon against George McGovern in 1972, and Warren Harding against James Cox in 1920—these were landslide elections that still fell short of LBJ’s record, at just around 60 percent of the vote.

All the other winning candidates got less. This seems obvious, but focus on what it means: Every new president takes office knowing that 40+ percent of the public wishes he hadn’t won. In response, every one of them has at least tried to court some people from the other side.

The long litany of inaugural addresses, which you can peruse at the invaluable UC Santa Barbara American Presidency Project site, contains one example after another of new presidents trying to expand their support. For instance: Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address, which I helped work on, devoted its very first line to thanking Carter’s vanquished opponent, Gerald Ford, “for all he has done to heal our land.” This was controversial at the time, because the “healing” included Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon for Watergate offenses, rather than expose a former president to possible trial. The extra edge was Carter’s awareness that the pardon had hurt Ford politically, and increased the chances it would be Carter rather than Ford taking the oath that day.

There are countless other examples, but the main point is: out of decency, out of political calculation, out of the primal political-psychology impulse to be liked, and perhaps too because they have been sobered by the responsibilities of office, nearly all presidents start out trying to be unifiers. On the campaign trail, they spoke about the opponents as them. Once in office, they try to talk about us.

The language of us is foreign to Trump. When applied to the U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico. When applied to traditional U.S. allies who are part of NATO. When applied to the elected officials of another party who share governing responsibility. When applied to anything. In all these cases, it’s simpler: me, and them. The theme of the reprises of his campaign rallies, 20 months into his time in office, is: I won! Those losers lost!

Does this seem unusual? That’s because it is.

The other duty that previous presidents recognize as falling to them involves the emotional, ceremonial, inspirational, and even parental responsibilities of being the symbolic head of the national family. At moments of national stress or tragedy, most previous presidents have risen to this responsibility without even being told that they should do so.

After the space shuttle Challenger blew up, Ronald Reagan gave a brief, moving speech what this meant for the country as a whole. (“Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.”) Bill Clinton did something similar after the terrorist bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City. George W. Bush did so in his address to Congress nine days after the 9/11 attacks. Barack Obama, after the Charleston church shooting. You name a president, and a historian can locate some example of that person trying to act as head of state (not party), and as leader of the national family.

Every president, except this one.

The absence of that instinct—to unify, to heal, to reassure, to embolden—is the most notable aspect of Trump’s response to anyone else’s suffering.

Checks and balances: One of Congress’s supposed powers and obligations involves “oversight” of this executive branch. That is: hearings, investigations, and other ways of determining how members of the Executive Branch are carrying out their jobs.

At their highest level, these have involved public sessions like those that Senator J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas, held about the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Or that Senator Frank Church, of Idaho, held about excesses of U.S. intelligence agencies in the 1970s. Or that Senator William Proxmire, of Wisconsin, held about defense contractors in the same period. Or that Senators Sam Ervin, of North Carolina, and Howard Baker, of Tennessee, held about the Watergate scandal.

At their most tendentious, they have included spectacles like those of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early Cold War era, under Representative Martin Dies of Texas. Or the two-year-long proceedings of the Select Committee on Benghazi, under Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. Or the multi-year probe of the Obama administration’s “Fast and Furious” program, under Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

In short: Congress likes to hold hearings. Right at this moment it has a situation in which many thousands of U.S. citizens died after a natural disaster; in which a similar disaster is in prospect; in which news reports have highlighted possible fraud or mismanagement in relief efforts. After the Hurricane Katrina disaster under George W. Bush, a then-Republican-controlled Congress authorized a set of bipartisan hearings into what had gone wrong.

This time?

Here is a list of House or Senate committee chairs who have announced this year that their committees will launch investigations of what happened in Puerto Rico (to spell it out, with GOP majorities, all committee chairs are Republicans):

(One Senate committee held a day of hearings about Puerto Rico ten months ago. Remember: “Fast and Furious” hearings and investigations went on for more than five years.)

And here is a list of GOP senators who are not committee chairs but have called for such hearings in response to Trump’s comments, or for public explanations from the president:


Fifty-four days to go.