It’s easy to see why Trump, a person who sees a partisan conspiracy in every single criticism, would gravitate to this brand of denialism. Indeed, denialism is part of the reason the death toll is so high in the first place. From the beginning, the president has trumpeted the success of his administration’s effort, even as efforts on the ground by multiple levels of government failed. He has complained over and over that Puerto Rico—an easy flight away from D.C.—is too far away. In October, during his ill-fated visit to the wounded island, Trump favorably compared the death toll to Katrina’s, saying only “16 versus literally thousands of people” had died. He toured mostly wealthier neighborhoods that had not suffered the kind of fallout that other areas in Puerto Rico had. He gleefully tossed out paper towels at a supply-distribution center like a game-show host. There is nothing in the arc of Trump’s response to the island’s woes that suggests anything other than self-delusion, a self-delusion that unfortunately colored the official response.
Accordingly, any attempts to make the disaster of Hurricane Maria bigger than Trump wants it to be are dismissed. Most deaths don’t really count. The science is bad. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s all part of some grand conspiracy to delegitimize his administration and make him and his supporters appear racist or callous. Show me the people who died. These are all strains reminiscent of other kinds of denialism of disasters, human mediated or not. When facts are inconvenient, they must be demolished.
Every thinking American can see how the short term will play out. Trump will double down, probably to the point of actually denying further support for the island. He’ll begin the work of short-circuiting whatever recovery exists, simply because acknowledging the true scope of Maria after today would mean admitting his falsehoods. The thousands of Puerto Ricans awaiting some formal acknowledgement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the the form of funeral vouchers will likely be stiffed, and further efforts to make a more resilient island and perhaps investigate exactly what went wrong will be ignored. Now that Donald Trump, the holder of the highest office in the land, has officially given the imprimatur of his office to the false belief that the disaster Puerto Ricans know to be Hurricane Maria essentially didn’t exist, people who’ve observed the past two years of politics might expect the rest of the country—at least the rest of his party—to follow suit.
The tragedy occurred, a tragedy was created, and a tragedy is still taking place. Above all, even in the crucible of floodwater and mile-long gas lines that characterized the island when I visited just after the storm, what many of the people I talked to first demanded was recognition and respect. They’ve never really gotten it. Many mainlanders still fail to even recognize that Puerto Ricans are citizens. The continuing response has been subpar and fraught with scandal. People on the island remained without power for the better part of a year. Even news of staggering death tolls has struggled to break through regular brush fires about Roseanne Barr and the NFL, midterms, campaign-finance violations, and the Russia probe. If this is a grand conspiracy to focus Americans on Puerto Rico and get them fired up against the president, it is a rather poor conspiracy, all things considered.