Presidential Representation and Donald Trump’s Reaction to the California Wildfires

In the midst of devastating wildfires in both Northern and Southern California, President Donald Trump tweeted blame at the state itself:

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

The president’s reaction was widely condemned. Yet this is not the first time the president has blamed the state of California for such disasters.

The president also reacted with hostility toward Puerto Rico a number of times in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, commenting on the infrastructure of the island and specifically attacking the mayor of San Juan.

By contrast, as the same tweet shows, Trump did not cast blame at the states of Texas and Florida in the wake of hurricanes.

The idea of presidential representation – how presidents are expected to represent a national constituency – is implicated in Trump’s reactions in two ways. To borrow some terms from Walter Bagehot, the president represents the people both by embodying them as a symbol – “the dignified” – and in actually governing – “the efficient.” (In the United Kingdom, these roles are obviously separated in the persons of the monarch and the prime minister.)

Trump’s failure of representation is twofold. First, he fails to effectively represent the nation in mourning a tragedy; the role of Consoler-in-Chief has been an uncomfortable fit for this president. Second, given the clear connection of the wildfires to a more broadly changing climate, Trump fails to marshal the capacity of the office to respond to an urgent national challenge.

 

The (Un)Dignified: The President as Consoler-in-Chief

Trump’s attack on the people and state of California in the midst of a major natural disaster clearly fails the test of being Consoler-in-Chief. But this failure would not always have been as magnified as it is now.

As Gareth Davies’s research has shown, the role of the president in being a symbol of the nation in mourning a natural disaster is a relatively new one in the grand scheme of American political development. Davies attributes the “birth of modern disaster politics” to President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, when Johnson responded to the disaster by going directly to the site, seeing the devastation firsthand and meeting with people who needed to be comforted in the wake of tragedy. Subsequently, this has become a core function of the office of president. President George W. Bush famously was photographed looking down upon the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from Air Force One, as opposed to immediately visiting the site, which was perceived as a lack of presidential attention to disaster.

To be sure, Trump has not entirely ignored this role. Even amidst his hostility toward Puerto Rico, Trump visited San Juan, somewhat bizarrely tossing out rolls of paper towels.

But Trump clearly has not embraced the role of Consoler-in-Chief with the same vigor as his predecessors. While its importance might be debatable, this symbolic form of presidential representation has been lacking compared to under previous presidents.

Moreover, Trump’s vigor to express sympathy has varied depending on where the disaster has taken place. Trump’s principal instinct was to express sympathy to residents of Texas and Florida in the wake of their recent hurricanes, while his main instinct was to attack Puerto Rico and California. To explain this difference, we should look to the Electoral College.

 

The (In)Efficient: The President and National Challenges

Beyond symbolic representation, the president, representing a national constituency and being elected by the whole people, has long been thought to have the potential to be uniquely motivated to respond to national challenges. A classic example of this, as William Howell and Terry Moe point out, is President Dwight Eisenhower pushing for legislation to build the interstate highway system – a huge project that was meant for the good of the nation as a whole.

In several respects, the California wildfires, while taking place in one state, should rise to the level of being a clear national challenge. They affect the most populous state in the country and impact the largest state economy (and, for that matter, the fifth largest economy in the world). The fires have affected citizens from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, including impacting extraordinarily affluent celebrities with homes in Malibu. Some of the fires are taking place directly within the second largest media market in the U.S. and the entertainment capital of the world.

So how is Trump comfortable with just lashing out at the state? How can a president – the representative of the people at large – so callously approach more than 10% of his constituency

Obviously, a big part of this is Trump’s personality itself. It is hard to imagine a president doing this in previous times.

But while Trump is idiosyncratic in ignoring norms of presidential decorum, the American political system is clearly a factor as well. Indeed, Trump’s response makes explicit what sometimes has previously been more hidden. Despite California’s enormous influence – its huge population, economy, and impact on culture – its political influence is obviously nowhere near equivalent. (In the Senate, of course, California has as much influence as our smallest state, Wyoming.)

The Electoral College system is clearly implicated in Trump’s reaction. Presidents may be more responsive to some natural disasters than others. As Douglas Kriner and Andrew Reeves show, while federal disaster declarations are driven primarily by need, presidents have also steered more disaster aid to states that were a part of their Electoral College coalition or would be pivotal in elections. Moreover, as Reeves has also shown, Trump clearly felt more comfortable attacking Puerto Rico because it did not affect his Electoral College calculations for 2020.

(Trump also continues to attack Puerto Rico. As Axios reported just yesterday, “President Trump doesn’t want to give Puerto Rico any more federal money for its recovery from Hurricane Maria… This is because he claims, without evidence, that the island’s government is using federal disaster relief money to pay off debt.”)

Beyond perhaps thinking of retaining or gaining House seats in 2020, Trump has little incentive to respond to California, a state he is exceedingly unlikely to win. Indeed, he holds the state responsible for him losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, making unfounded accusations of voter fraud and repeatedly attacking the state throughout his time in office.

More than just particularistic behavior, Trump’s reaction of lashing out at California reveals a failure of the president to utilize the office to respond to a national challenge. The fires signify more than a local disaster. Instead, they implicate the national – and international – challenge of climate change on a vivid and terrifying scale. As Leah Stokes has argued, California’s disasters have “a clear climate signature” and are a leading indicator of the ongoing impact of climate change in the United States.

In addition to California’s enormous influence on American life, the fact that the wealthy are also suffering from the impacts of climate change is, as Stokes points out, reason to think that the political system might be more responsive, especially given research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page that suggests the political system is more responsive to wealthier citizens.

But the potential for California to push our politics toward dealing with climate change is, at least under a Trump presidency, again hampered by the state’s lack of influence to on a Republican president under the Electoral College system. This limited political influence under our current Electoral College and partisan configuration is at the root of Trump’s profound shortcomings both to comfort the nation and to respond to the challenge.

 

The ongoing and recent wildfires in California are just the latest examples that vividly show the urgency of addressing climate change. A crisis like this should serve as a clarion call to the kind of presidential leadership the office, however imperfectly, has the potential to offer. The inability or unwillingness of the president to lead the nation in mourning tragedy and to respond with needed action amounts to a failure of representation.

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