Trump is one of a kind
Huey Long, when asked about his core beliefs, answered, “Just say I am sui generis and let it go at that.” So it might be with President Donald Trump that he too is one of a kind. Hurricane Harvey brought out his best side while he toured Houston, with a bit of a heartfelt smile. He consoled, he cheered and seemed aware that it was an occasion not for bombast but for consolation.
Trump has not behaved like that many times since taking office in January. He waged a permanent campaign, beginning with the divisive Muslim ban and continued it through the pardon of Joe Arpaio. But the floods that hit Houston brought out a different style in Trump — more humane, more commanding and more presidential. As a result he deserves high marks in how he handled the disaster.
Steve Bannon and his curious crew had Trump appearing with a scowl and seemingly at war with everything. The inaugural address, which acted as if the Unites States was in immediate peril, set the wrong tone. Everything was political, including a speech to the Boy Scouts. The confrontational style left the president isolated and besieged. Trump might have mouthed the words but it made him seem like a cranky critic whose sole desire was to make people anxious and miserable. Then came Harvey.
With the storm, Trump was in his element, a commanding CEO who simply wanted to get things done. No snarky tweets, no partisan swipes, just a president that cared that his people needed help. He outperformed George W. Bush after Katrina and he mastered the moment. And he looked natural handing out meals and comforting children.
Too much of the Bannonite philosophy made people simply stereotypes, but in Houston Trump saw desperate souls, not targets. Even Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, both of whom rose to the occasion, never seemed to offer a program Trump could sell. Perhaps he might be better off resurrecting George W.’s “compassionate Conservatism.” It would be better than appealing to a narrow base.
Democrats would be well advised to also rise to a better place. By showing Trump some respect, they may help nurture these better angels. In the 1950s, the congressional term of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson helped Dwight Eisenhower with their “program with a heart.” The 1956 Interstate Highway Act spurned growth and Social Security was increased.
And it might make Harvey a turning point. Trump seemed a liberated man during his tour, making contact with some who he had disparaged in the past. But the adulation and gratitude that he received seemed to energize Trump and, at least based on appearance, make him a little bit happier and spontaneous. The Bannon formula was all negative. If populism is defined solely as a mean-spirited tirade then Bannonism fits that description. But if it means concern for the most vulnerable in out society, then Trump’s performance in Houston is close to the real thing.