If Irish people wince when they watch Donald Trump scold and blame Puerto Rico for its problems, it's because we have seen this kind of thing before during the Great Hunger.
Donald Trump's high handed response to the suffering of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma reminds us of the English indifference to Ireland during the Great Hunger.
Throughout the tragic potato blight in Ireland the infamous British colonial administrator Charles Trevelyan expressed hostile racial sentiments towards the Irish, who at the time were starving by the million thanks to the centuries long colonial exploitation that was enriching his countrymen.
Both Trevelyan and Trump have been accused by observers of “remarkable insensitivity” to the two suffering nations, and both men clearly let their own prejudices guide their responses to the life-altering crisis they had the power to change.
Trevelyan simply saw famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population,” and in 1846 he declared it was “the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought-of as it is likely to be effectual.”
To him the prospect of millions of Irish dead was a matter of arithmetic, not compassion. He was accused of by his contemporaries of pursuing a genocidal program and he still stands accused of it by historians to this day.
For the Irish, the Great Hunger is the Year One of our history. It's a fixed point in time that the English colonial disaster in Ireland travels toward and from.
As the recent shocked responses to the Famine episode of Victoria in the UK have shown us, the history of the Great Hunger is not taught in English schools and it is often overlooked in their historical accounts.
For the Irish however it is an insuperable disaster, with a legacy so consequential that we are still recovering in 2017 (the Irish population, 167 years later, has yet to rise to its pre-Famine levels).
In his day Trevelyan pompously defended the export of grain from starving Ireland on the grounds that the British government should not interfere with free trade, as “the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
The Irish deserved it, in other words. Being evil, perverse and turbulent, Trevelyan had God in one hand and racism in the other.
If the 19th century had Twitter it's quite easy to imagine Trevelyan tweeting out a photo opportunity at a soup kitchen (in Killarney, there was just one soup kitchen for 10,000 people, for example). Trump flew in for half an hour to toss kitchen towels at locals in a photo op that will one day come to define his careless presidency.
President Trump throws paper towels into the crowd at a Hurricane Maria relief event in Puerto Rico https://t.co/FLHYyPsaLD— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 3, 2017
Of course now we have Trump's own tweets too, which are unprecedented from a sitting US president for their breathtaking spite and malice.
Threatening to pull emergency responders from the country, telling fellow Americans he might pull the plug entirely before the relief work was done, a thing utterly unheard of in our politics before, astonished seasoned observers (for context, relief work is still ongoing in New Orleans twelve years after Hurricane Katrina).
Puerto Ricans, Trump tweeted in full tantrum mode, want everything to be handed to them.
...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.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
That racial scolding, portraying Puerto Ricans as lazy ingrates, sounds all too familiar to Irish ears. Our ears prick up at that dog whistle.
It's bad enough that nature sent them a Category 5 storm, but now they are to be blamed for their misfortune too. John Mitchel, the Irish nationalist and contemporary of Trevelyan, once gave the lie to that kind of thinking when he wrote: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
Offensive. When millions in Puerto Rico are in crisis, the president should be better than this. https://t.co/ca52gNgHUZ— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 30, 2017
Like Trevelyan, and like the law that claims Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory, Trump appears to think that the island belongs to but is not really part of the United States. He acts and tweets as if need not concern himself with their terrible plight in the same way he would when hurricanes Harvey and Irma Texas or Florida.
For a president (and indeed a vice president) who has been accused of exploiting raw racial divisions to score cheap political points with his base, Trump's cruel indifference to the plight of the people of Puerto Rico lays the charges bare against him.
The fact that I’m saying that as a citizen of the richest and strongest country in the world disgusts me. And so do you.— Jeff Yang (@originalspin) October 12, 2017
No wonder San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin criticized the president in a statement sent out to CBS and NBC News last week.
“Tweet away your hate to mask your administration’s mishandling of this humanitarian crisis. While you are amusing yourself throwing paper towels at us, your compatriots and the world are sending love and help our way,” she wrote.
But to the world Yulin sent out a much different message, one that echoes from the time of the Great hunger to our own.
“Help us,” she implored. “Without robust and consistent help we will die.”
Trump has already looked away but the world won’t.