Hurricane Harvey has unleashed unprecedented destruction on Southeast Texas. But while the destruction may be unprecedented for the region, the national response is decidedly not. It’s a playbook we’ve seen many times before: hyperbole-filled 24/7 cable news coverage, countless “pray for [blank]” memes shared across social media, and a preponderance of encouragement to donate to victim-aid funds. While these aspects of the playbook are benign enough, one is decidedly not: the inevitable—and seemingly endless—politicization of disaster response.
The examples are now infamous: President George W. Bush’s widely-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Obama’s election year visit to Gov. Chris Christie’s New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Of course, the political fallout of these events was impossible to ignore, suggesting that disaster response may be inherently political, rather than politicize-able. However, a mere five days after the landfall of Harvey, the wave of reactions suggest the latter politicizing instinct is the more powerful in the American psyche right now.
First, there was the Joel Osteen “did he-or-didn’t he open the church to flood victims” saga. The megachurch pastor and televangelist was taken to task in the court of public opinion for reports that his Lakewood Church had shuttered its doors to Harvey victims. The reports turned out to be largely false, but they represent an important trend in American disaster response. Amidst all of the despair, we still endeavor to discredit an apparent charlatan whose popularity and ostentatious lifestyle has been a constant thorn in the side of the secular Left—and all this despite Osteen’s numerous departures from Christian orthodoxy.
Of course, it wouldn’t be disaster coverage without scrutinizing every move of the president. And, with an exceptionally polarizing figure occupying the Oval Office this time around, scrutiny has indeed been intense. But for all the legitimate points of analysis that could be made, the story has instead turned towards the president’s choice of headwear. The news cycle has been abuzz about Trump’s decision to prominently display the “Official USA 45th Presidential Hat” on his tour of Texas. The source of contention focuses on the fact that the outlandish hats (the president has sported both the red and white versions in past days) retail for $40 on the Donald Trump official campaign website. Predictably, ethics concerns have been (legitimately) raised about using a tragedy as free advertising for an overpriced hat. But such trivial concerns hardly merit the coverage they’ve received when compared to the real plight faced by those affected by the storm—unless, of course, attacking the president is the primary objective of storm coverage.
Meanwhile, Linda Sarsour, the Arab American progressive activist who came onto the national scene as an organizer of last January’s Women’s March on Washington, joined the legions of celebrity-activists who publicly pronounced their support for Harvey victims. She did so by encouraging her Twitter followers to donate to the “Harvey Hurricane Relief Fund.” And of course, like many other public figures, Sarsour couldn’t resist politicizing her support: the “Harvey Hurricane Community Relief Fund” might be more accurately named “President Trump Relief Fund,” as the donations go directly towards the left-wing advocacy group Texas Organizing Project (TOP).
TOP’s website offers no illusions as to where donations solicited by Sarsour and others will go:
Your donation is vital to ensuring that we have the resources we need to organize and fight for Texans devastated by Hurricane Harvey!
Together we will organize and advocate for our devastated communities, shining a spotlight on inequalities that emerge in the restoration of lives, livelihoods, and homes, amplifying the needs of hard-hit communities, and providing legal assistance for residents wrongfully denied government support.
Sarsour’s money-grab is clearly inappropriate, and has been rightly denounced. Sadly, her filtering of the disaster through a political lens—as duplicitous as it may be—is yet another example of a politics-first approach to American life.
Perhaps most of all, Hurricane Harvey has revealed how tribalized American society has become. The cynical response to Sarsour’s fundraising effort by the Right is that progressive organizations like TOP could not care less about flood victims, and instead use tragedy to engage in shameless fundraising. But the charitable interpretation of Sarsour’s fundraising pitch is an even bleaker commentary on American tribalism. If we assume that Sarsour and TOP’s response is sincere, then we’ve reached a point where even disaster rebuilding efforts have become a partisan issue. Taken on face value, TOP’s “Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund” statement implies that to Sarsour and other progressives of her ilk, the biggest challenges facing those rebuilding from Harvey are “inequalities” and “wrongfully denied government support.” In other words, fighting the “systemic discrimination” constantly decried by progressives remains the number one priority, even (if not especially) in light of a natural disaster.
Historically, one of the few silver linings of a disaster like Harvey has been its ability to foster national unity across political and ideological lines. And, undoubtedly, Harvey has provided instances of citizen altruism that engender hope that this unity persists—but these instances occur predominantly on a local and personal level. It’s this local-national dichotomy that could offer a key to taking incessant media focus off the likes of Osteen’s controversies, Trump’s hats, and Sarsour’s money-grab, and onto the more pressing issues like the information needed to truly make a difference to those affected by the flooding.
When disaster response is considered fulfilled by firing off a tweet within a social media echo-chamber of the like-minded, or writing a check in response to a telethon from the comfort of the couch, politicization comes easy. But if we do the hard work of building local communities and relationships among neighbors across the political spectrum, we just might be able to see that more political activism is hardly the response Harvey victims need.
Emile Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative.