Puerto Rico is underwater, out of power, and in dire need of help. American citizens are begging reporters for news about loved ones, and months could go by before the whole island gets electricity back. The devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and, especially, Maria has left Puerto Ricans in crisis, and it’s up to the rest of us to help in whatever ways we can. While all that is happening, the President of the United States, sworn to protect those very same American citizens that need every aid possible, is holed up on Twitter, picking fights with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL, and the NBA.
Such is life in 2017. As 3.4 million American citizens face a humanitarian crisis, with possibly months of no electricity coming their way, Trump is accusing sports of being a divisive and disrespectful force against the flag of the United States. Which is bullshit. Of course it is. Since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee back in the pre-season of the 2016 NFL season, kneeling has never been a protest against the anthem, or the flag, or the troops; it’s always been about racial inequality and police brutality and the reality that people of color are not seen as worthy of equality in the United States. But that’s not the narrative Trump wants to push; he wants his constituents to see these rich, successful, predominantly black athletes as the enemy, because he wants the focus on them and away from him.
Why does a President who lives for attention want the media to focus on #TakeTheKnee protests and debates about who is and isn’t invited to the White House? Perhaps it’s to take away attention from the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill that is so reviled that administrators from the hospital, doctors, and even health insurance industries came out in a unified stance against it. Or perhaps Trump wants to distract from Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion with Russia during the election, an investigation that heated up Monday morning with reports that Mueller might target former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. However, the most pressing issue that Trump wants to draw attention from seems to be the crisis in Puerto Rico, one that he and his administration have been silent about since Maria left a trail of devastation in its wake.
Since Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Trump has sent out two tweets in support of the island territory. Two. In contrast, since giving a speech on Friday night about the “sons of bitches” who kneel during the national anthem in protest of inequality, Trump has sent out no fewer than 12 tweets (and various retweets) voicing his opinions on what a private industry should do with its employees. Putting aside the fact that it’s extremely silly that we have to use tweet counts as political discourse, it is telling that the President is using his preferred method of communication not to send a statement of solidarity to, again, the American citizens in Puerto Rico, but to pick fights with athletes expressing their freedom of speech.
Trump’s stance on this makes sense from a macro, non-moralist perspective; he sees anyone that is the “other” as against him and his primarily white supporters, even if that so-called “other” isn’t asking for radical changes. They’re just asking for help. The words of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz ring loudest this weekend, even louder than LeBron James’ (perfect and amazing and praise-worthy) “U bum” tweet: “Don’t forget us.” Trump’s complete silence, aside from the two tweets he sent in half-hearted support, is exactly that: a country that colonized the island ignoring those it colonized, leaving them alone to face the wrath of a historically devastating hurricane all on their own.
Even if you have been beaten down into cynicism by the past 8 months of the Trump administration, you might still be surprised at the inaction in Puerto Rico. Not for any humanitarian reasons; when the administration green lights policies that allow ICE to arrest undocumented parents waiting for their child’s surgery, being concerned with humanity goes out the window. No, it is shocking because this administration is desperate for any positive press possible, and there would have been no better way to earn bipartisan brownie points than to direct the might of the United States’ recovery apparatus towards its most vulnerable citizenry. Imagine that, instead of picking fights, Trump decided to outline a plan for aiding the millions of people without power, and those outside of the island who don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The conclusion, then, is obvious and terrifying: Trump simply does not care about Puerto Rico and its citizens. We know that he doesn’t care about immigrants, and we know that he believes the white supremacists that marched on Charlottesville are “fine people.” But to not even pay lip service to millions of citizens under his domain is a galling oversight at best, and malicious ignorance at worst. The language he used in the already-paltry amount of tweets mirrors his tweet to Mexico after the CDMX earthquake on September 19: we’ll be there to help, we’re here for you, stay safe. Good sentiments but not what either needed. When Harvey struck Houston, Mexico offered aid and tangible support, and yet the United States could only offer some platitudes and well-wishes.
Ironically, one group that has gone above and beyond in aid of not just Puerto Rico, but Houston and Mexico City and Oaxaca has been the group that Trump is now targeting: athletes. From J.J. Watt’s $30 million-plus fundraising for Hurricane Harvey relief, to Chicharito and West Ham auctioning off game-worn jerseys for Mexico, and to Carmelo Anthony’s call for help in Puerto Rico, figures from all over sports have put their time and money into helping those affected by this summer of Nature’s wrath. Hell, while not specifically about relief for these natural disasters, Kaepernick himself has donated close to a $1 million of his own money to various causes, and he has done so transparently and openly. Trump, on the other hand, claimed to be donating $1 million to Hurricane Harvey relief, a claim that he–through Sarah Huckabee Sanders, of course–later backtracked on; he would eventually feel the pressure and donate the money after all, but not before the damage was done to his already record-low reputation.
There’s a meme in the sports world dating back to the 2016 NBA Finals: “don’t let the fact that [UNRELATED THING] happened distract you from the fact that the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.” It’s a reminder that no matter how strong and cocky a team is, they can always be beaten, and their monolithic power can be, if only for a moment, shelved in favor of the underdog. With that in mind, we say this: don’t let Donald Trump’s petty athlete beef distract you from the fact that 3.4 million Puerto Ricans will be without power for months. Trump might be in power for the full tenure of his 4 years, but he should not and cannot win this particular battle. The fate of an entire island is at stake, and no amount of “sons of bitches” and “U bum” vocabulary should distract from the pressing danger that is enveloping one of the United States’ territories. Don’t let the monolith distract you from the underdog; Puerto Rico can’t afford to become a footnote to one megalomaniac’s personal dispute with the world of sports.