Paul Krugman: Donald Trump’s deadly narcissism

Survivors receive food and water from volunteers and municipal police in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Picture: Getty Images
Survivors receive food and water from volunteers and municipal police in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Picture: Getty Images
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While the President strokes his fragile ego, the U.S. suffers through neglect and lack of leadership says Paul Krugman

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Americans believe that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. That’s pretty remarkable. But you have to wonder how much higher the number would be if people really knew what’s going on.

For the trouble with Trump isn’t just what he’s doing, but what he isn’t. In his mind, it’s all about him – and while he’s stroking his fragile ego, basic functions of government are being neglected or worse.

Let’s talk about two stories that might seem separate: the deadly neglect of Puerto Rico, and the ongoing sabotage of American health care. What these stories have in common is that millions of Americans are going to suffer, and hundreds if not thousands die, because Trump and his officials are too self-centered to do their jobs.

Start with the disaster in Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands.

When Hurricane Maria struck, more than a week ago, it knocked out power to the whole of Puerto Rico, and it will be months before the electricity comes back. Lack of power can be deadly in itself, but what’s even worse is that, thanks largely to the blackout, much of the population still lacks access to drinkable water. How many will die because hospitals can’t function, or because of diseases spread by unsafe water? Nobody knows.

But the situation is terrible, and time is not on Puerto Rico’s side: The longer this goes on, the worse the humanitarian crisis will get. Surely, then, you’d expect bringing in and distributing aid to be the U.S. government’s top priority. After all, we’re talking about the lives of 3.5 million of our fellow citizens – more than the population of Iowa or metro San Diego.

So have we seen the kind of full-court, all-out relief effort such a catastrophe demands? No.

Admittedly, it’s hard to quantify the federal response. But none of the extraordinary measures you’d expect to see have materialised.

The deployment of military resources seems to have been smaller and slower than it was in Texas after Harvey or Florida after Irma, even though Puerto Rico’s condition is far more dire. Until Thursday the Trump administration had refused to lift restrictions on foreign shipping to Puerto Rico, even though it had waived those rules for Texas and Florida.

Why? According to the president, “people who work in the shipping industry” don’t like the idea.

Furthermore, although it’s more than a week since Maria made landfall, the Trump administration has yet to submit a request for aid to Congress.

And where’s the leadership? There’s a reason we expect visible focus by the president on major national disasters, including a visit to the affected area as soon as possible (Trump doesn’t plan to visit Puerto Rico until next week). It’s not just theatre; it’s a signal about urgent priorities to the rest of the government, and to some extent to the nation at large.

But Trump spent days after Maria’s strike tweeting about football players. When he finally got around to saying something about Puerto Rico, it was to blame the territory for its own problems.

The impression one gets is of a massively self-centered individual who can’t bring himself to focus on other people’s needs, even when that’s the core of his job.

And then there’s health care.

Obamacare repeal has failed again, for the simple reason that Graham-Cassidy, like all the other GOP proposals, was a piece of mean-spirited junk. But while the Affordable Care Act survives, the Trump administration is openly trying to sabotage the law’s functioning.

This sabotage is taking place on multiple levels. The administration has refused to confirm whether it will pay crucial subsidies to insurers that cover low-income customers. It has refused to clarify whether the requirement that healthy people buy insurance will be enforced. It has canceled or suspended outreach designed to get more people to sign up.

These actions translate directly into much higher premiums: Insurers don’t know if they’ll be compensated for major costs, and they have every reason to expect a smaller, sicker risk pool than before. And it’s too late to reverse the damage: Insurers are finalising their 2018 rates right now.

Why are the Trumpists doing this? Is it a cynical calculation – make the ACA fail, then claim that it was already doomed? I doubt it. For one thing, we’re not talking about people known for deep strategic calculations. For another, the ACA won’t actually collapse; it will just become a program more focused on sicker, poorer Americans – and the political opposition to repeal won’t go away. Finally, when the bad news comes in, everyone will know whom to blame.

No, ACA sabotage is best seen not as a strategy, but as a tantrum. We can’t repeal Obamacare? Well, then, we’ll screw it up. It’s not about achieving any clear goal, but about salving the president’s damaged self-esteem.

In short, Trump truly is unfit for this or any high office. And the damage caused by his unfitness will just keep growing.

©2017 New York Times New Service