How is Tropical Storm Harvey like Donald Trump?

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By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

Tropical Storm Harvey and Donald Trump both were foreseeable disasters that have caused a lot of damage and suffering.

Republicans knew Trump would be trouble. His campaign was accompanied, but not at all impeded, by a whole litany of negative comments about him by his fellow primary candidates, former candidates and presidents, and other Republican leaders. But they couldn’t get organized to stop him.

A few days after the November election, then-president Obama summed it up:

“Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”

In the early primaries, Trump couldn’t get more than 35% of the vote, and those are the 35% who are sticking with him still today. The other candidates, if they had wished, could have chosen the strongest among themselves, cast lots, whatever; but they all felt too important to drop out for a good cause.

Short version: people saw it coming but no one did anything about it.

Like Tropical Storm Harvey. I don’t mean as it took shape and strengthened in the Gulf last week; I mean the many warnings Houston has had that it was vulnerable to just such a storm. It has had floods, some of them “500-year” ones, in “the past ten, fifteen, twenty years.” This “can-do” city grew up on former farms, prairie, and marshlands, and spread out without zoning; every developer or property owner who has wanted to has paved over green space, thereby swelling streams and rivers, even in violation of Corps of Engineers guidelines.

When an interviewee mentioned such factors on NPR, he was asked if he was blaming the victim. Of course, the ordinary homeowners are the victims and you have to feel very sorry for them. They are the victims of a political disaster, not just a natural one.

But it’s not useful to keep quiet about the causes of disaster. When all eyes are focused, people and the country have to learn how to plan ahead better. Of course rain needs open space to soak into, of course waterways need floodplains to expand over, of course buildings destroyed by floods should either be relocated or elevated and protected against future waters. Will they be?

And of course our political system needs to find a way to protect itself against any future candidate who breaks with long-established norms of civic life, consorts with people far outside the mainstream, and stirs up fear and anger in the public as a campaign tactic. But will it?

It’s anyone’s bet. The only way I can see is for the public to resolve to pay more attention the next time around and for the one-third of citizens who did not vote in November to do so next time, and really every time, every six months, to get in a good habit. You just have to hope that an educated, motivated public will make good choices. If not, we are doomed anyhow.

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