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In Puerto Rico, Trump’s paper-towel toss reveals where his empathy lies

President Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center in San Juan. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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A century from now, men and women yet to be born will shoulder the complex duty of identifying the precise moments, the public statements and images that captured the complex essence of President Trump and his influence on American life.

One set of images — captured this week as Trump paid court to the storm-ravaged island of Puerto Rico — is a real contender for that archive, which will exist beyond the life span of the president and his most ardent defenders. In those images, the 45th president can be seen at a supply distribution point, dressed in a dark suit sans tie while tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd.

A tale of two Puerto Ricos: What Trump saw and what he didn’t

It was a moment that the mayor of San Juan called “terrible and abominable.” Families in Puerto Rico have been living for nearly two weeks without electricity, some struggling to find food and clean water. The president’s tossing of desperately needed goods to the crowd in a manner befitting “USA” merchandise has been panned as exceedingly tone-deaf.

But Trump’s behavior during his four-hour trip to Puerto Rico follows a familiar pattern. This is what grudging benevolence rooted in a sense of personal superiority and belief in the power of performance looks like.

Nicholas Vargas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Florida, noted that Trump doesn’t approach everyone in such a state of callous disconnect. In August, Trump said there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville that left a counterprotester dead. Soon after, he pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, formally expressing  concern for a man known for racially profiling Latinos and housing jail inmates outdoors in tents.

In these cases, Trump showed compassion.

Puerto Ricans are a surging, outraged political force in Florida in the aftermath of Maria

“But when it comes to Puerto Rico and the humanitarian crisis there, what we see is a hands-off, bitter, hardly restrained resentment that anything is expected of him at all,” said Vargas, who studies issues related to race and ethnicity. “This is a man who has the capacity to empathize. It — even in a catastrophe — is just a selective thing.”

These images show a president without mercy for certain human beings, “people unlike him,” Vargas said. “That is women, people of color — even in the most dire of circumstances.”

What was captured in Puerto Rico this week was the period in American history when the president of the United States responded to pleas for help from U.S. citizens and officials with a series of dismissive, then demeaning, tweets that suggested the real problem on the island was a lack of gratitude, self-help and spirit of industry.

These are the images of a visit during which the president joshed about the budget-busting cost of island storm recovery and offered what his own advisers have described as the empty promise to somehow erase the massive public debt that had pushed Puerto Rico into a crisis before the storms arrived.

FEMA removes statistics about drinking water access and electricity in Puerto Rico from website

These are the images of a president who chided anyone prepared to complain about the pace and volume of federal aid.

Those who work for or adore Trump attribute his commentary on the disaster in Puerto Rico to the notion that Trump was attacked and is temperamentally inclined to bite back. For the same reasons, those convinced of Trump’s magnanimity — he did, after all, display very different behavior this week in Las Vegas, which is reeling from a massive, deadly shooting — will pronounce the paper towel incident another Trump success. Most in that crowd are smiling, they say. And, they had enough electricity to charge their phones. Such a response is a symptom of denial and a focus on minute details in the face of wholesale horror. That’s a standard part of public discourse in Trump’s America, too.

Already on the mainland, assessments of Trump’s visit have been gentle or largely political, said Carlos A. Suarez  Carrasquillo, a University of Florida professor who teaches courses on the politics of the Caribbean and researches his  native Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico and in Miami, however, the paper towel toss, the budget jokes and the meaningless promise to erase the island’s public debt have left people feeling offended, unattended to and incensed, he said.

Trump’s sense of disconnect from Puerto Ricans is common. Almost half of all Americans told pollsters in September that they did not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans demonstrated a sense of their limited regard on the mainland, Vargas said, when their cries for help centered on their citizenship rather than their humanity.

Members of the island’s legislature have begun to discuss disaster response in tandem with Puerto Rico’s status as a piece of colonial bounty, a U.S. territory rather than a state or free actor in the global political and economic arena for over 100 years. Arguments for statehood, a long-running part of the island’s political landscape, have gained in the weeks after the hurricane, new evidence that citizens living in territories are not equal to those living in states, Suarez said.

Even the community where the president went to see the storm damage up close has drawn some scrutiny. It is one of San Juan’s most affluent suburbs, full of sturdy, concrete homes, Suarez explained. It’s a place where people are busy making repairs, not trying to imagine how to rebuild or relocate. He should know. It’s the area where he grew up.

A 10-minute drive would have put Trump in a community where far poorer people are living, bathing and cooking outdoors, Suarez said, people reduced to sustaining life with almost Neolithic-era tools.

“It implies that the president does not want to know or want the rest of the American people to see the scope of loss and misery,” Suarez said. “It was a very sanitized visit where a president did not deliver aid or comfort in any kind of personal or emotionally meaningful way.”