Boston University

Hurricane Maria Through the Populist Lens of Donald Trump by Chance Rogala @ Boston University

In the aftermath of the devastation brought on by Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump has made it clear that immediate, widespread aid efforts by the federal government were not his top priority. The Category 4 Hurricane (which, at 155 mph, falls just shy of the 157 mph wind requirement for Category 5 storms) wreaked havoc on the island of Puerto Rico throughout September 20th and into the 21st. The damage is extensive, with a complete loss of electricity, as well as large swaths of the landscape facing extreme flooding and structural damage. Trump’s initial response, apart from comments regarding the extent of the destruction, is relatively lackluster. He pledges to help Puerto Rico rebuild the day after Maria’s landfall, but provides no concrete action. It was not until six days after the Hurricane’s initial hit that the President held his first Situation Room meeting to discuss the catastrophe and the proper government response.

Not long after this, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz, publicly criticized the Trump Administration, saying “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.” Trump’s response to Mayor Cruz, as well as his statements and actions following the response employ increasingly populist rhetoric. “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” he writes. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”

Since his time on the campaign trail, Trump’s actions and statements have been said to be tinged with populist ideas. However, the connections between his comments regarding the Hurricane Maria response and certain facets of populism can also be observed. Trump’s statement about San Juan’s Mayor draws direct correlations to his constant bashing of Democratic Representatives, painting Mayor Cruz as having been poisoned by them in order to further undermine his cause. Through doing this, Trump placed the Mayor into the ranks of those he admonishes: The Establishment. His statement also includes a reference to federal workers handling the crisis, but these members of the government are distinct from the breed that Trump has crafted as the previously mentioned establishment.

Trump further undermines the legitimacy of the Puerto Rican leaders and adopts Populist ideas in his statement that those “elite” leaders can’t actually manage to get anyone to join the work effort. Painting political enemies as either lazy or unable to rouse moral, hard-working people behind them is a common theme in Populism, according to Jan-Werner Müller in her book, What is Populism?

Crisis framing, as defined by Müller, can be seen in Trump’s refusal to accept criticism of his handling of the situation, instead saying things like “We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military,”.  His words ring with common Trumpisms such as the reference to the ever-existent Fake News, except now their use has been twisted into pushing a narrative downplaying any sort of negative commentary. This tactic in recent weeks displays populist themes as well, as Trump’s attempts to suppress those who would speak ill of him strongly reveal anti-pluralist tendencies.

Although Trump has made a response to the situation in Puerto Rico, even those actions have been called lackluster. It’s evident through much of his defense that Trump adopts populist themes in order to further bind his supporters to him, as well as to cast out any who throw a shadow of doubt over his decisions (in this case, the Mayor of San Juan and other Puerto Rican officials). What’s significant about this new iteration of Trump’s relationship with Populism is the added aspect of crisis framing. The impacts of the Hurricane season are the first times when the world is able to observe President Trump’s ability to respond to critical domestic situations. So far, his reaction has been to lean back further onto the crutch of Populism that has been said to allow for his rise. The consistent uses of crisis framing and portrayal of Puerto Rican leaders further align with the analysis of Trump’s adoption of Populism.


Photo by The National Guard, “Hurricane Maria Response” (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero License.


  1. Rachel Bennetts

    October 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I would actually disagree with your assessment that Trump has made Mayor Cruz and the Puerto Rican people the establishment. If you are looking at this through a populist lens like Muller, I could see it argued that Trump is defining who constitutes “the people” (in this the main land American people), who he thinks are deserving of government help, are and who are not (Puerto Ricans), though his tweets. However, Trump blaming them for creating their own problems doesn’t mean they are by default the elites. Though Muller does talk about blame in populism, she frames it more about the elites creating problems for “the true people”, not for themselves.

    If part of what classifies the elites is someone who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves and put in the work, then Trump is defining himself too as the elite. He does say the slow response is on them, and that Puerto Rico should be doing more to help their own, but he also says that they (the federal government) will not be putting long term work to fix the situation, which also puts them in the less than productive category.

    I think in this specific case, you have to look at the larger picture which points to Trump being Trump. It is easy to read into things Trump says and think they are indicative of larger political movement, however, he is always bending the truth, claiming he is doing more than he is, and that he is doing an “A+ job”. I think this specific example is an representative of this, not that he is making a political statement, or populist rumblings in the executive branch.

  2. Isabela Karibjanian

    December 5, 2017 at 5:54 am

    I would agree with your assessment that Trump, in his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, relied on his many populist crutches, in particular defining an “other” in the citizens and representatives of Puerto Rico. However, like Rachel, I do not believe that in this case Trump was defining the mayor of San Juan as a member of the “establishment” or as an “elite”. Rather, I think his othering of her and the Puerto Rican people has to do with his ethnocentric determination of who the “American people” are.

    As we’ve seen in his rhetoric both on and off the campaign trail, he appeals to what Hochschild calls “the deep story” — the notion that hardworking (white) Americans have gotten the short end of the stick due to undue benefits and opportunities to “cut the line” on the way to achieving the American dream afforded to minorities groups and lower income folks. This “deep story” and the “Make America Great Again” rhetoric is ethnocentric in nature, centering the narratives of white, primarily male Americans, and othering “illegal aliens” and communities of color. It has proven wildly successful for Trump’s populist aims, and he continuously goes back to this base.

    He is applying this ethnocentric conception of the “in-group” to the case of Puerto Rico crisis relief as well, and, as you say, painting the Puerto Rican people and their government representatives as “lazy” and “unable to rouse moral, hard-working people behind them”. Unlike in his crisis response in Houston, because of this ethnocentric conception of who “Americans” are, Trump is not as eager to help, and in his lack of response, falls back on stereotypes that Hispanic and Latinx populations are somehow lazier than white Americans.

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