President Trump is a conspiracy theorist. And on Thursday, his conspiracy theory du jour was that Democrats somehow oversold the official death toll in Puerto Rico last year — a toll that a recent study found is near 3,000 — “in order to make me look bad.”
The baselessness of it is one thing; the potential real-life impact is another. And that potential impact is this: People might take hurricanes such as Hurricane Florence, which is set to hit the Carolinas within 24 hours, less seriously.
Trump’s tweets fit neatly into a very real, growing conservative effort to question the severity of hurricanes — sometimes even before they hit. Rush Limbaugh picked up that football this week and ran with it, saying this:
Hurricanes and hurricane forecasting is like much else that the left has gotten its hands on, and they politicize these things. For those of you asking, “What’s the politics of a hurricane?” Climate change is the politics of a hurricane. The forecast and the destruction potential doom and gloom is all to heighten the belief in climate change.
In 2016, Matt Drudge made a similar point as Hurricane Matthew bore down on Florida.
“The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate,” he tweeted Oct. 6, 2016. He added in another tweet: “Hurricane Center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims. Nassau ground observations DID NOT match statements! 165 mph gusts? WHERE?”
At the time, Limbaugh agreed that liberals were using hurricanes to push their climate-change agenda, but even he admitted, “There has been no politics. This is a serious, bad storm.”
By 2017, though, Limbaugh jumped onboard with Drudge’s theory, saying that Hurricane Irma was overhyped in its potential impact on major cities to “advance this climate change agenda” — and even to get people to buy storm-preparation goods. (Even Limbaugh, though, wound up leaving his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., to be safe.)
Trump, it bears emphasizing, has not sought to diminish the seriousness of Florence. If anything, he has applied his own unique brand of hyperbole, saying that “they haven’t seen anything like what’s coming at us in 25, 30 years — maybe ever.” He has told people in the path of the storm, “Get out of its way. Don’t play games with it.”
But now Trump is, in the same breath, arguing that a major tragedy in Puerto Rico wasn’t such a major tragedy — that the number of deaths attributable to the hurricanes there is overcooked. Rather than have people believe we’ve had multiple hurricanes in the past 13 years that have each killed more than 1,000 people, Trump is inherently suggesting that the government can’t be trusted to be a neutral arbiter of storm impact.
And even some Republicans are differing with Trump -- albeit mostly gently. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he had no reason to doubt the official death toll, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) emphasized that “an independent study said thousands were lost.” Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) accused Trump of crying “fake news” because the news hurt his image. “How can you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much?” she said rhetorically. "It’s mind-boggling.”
This is indeed geared toward covering his own behind, of course, rather than necessarily undercutting governmental institutions he doesn’t like (which has often been the case). It’s perhaps less deliberately insidious.
But Trump also has a devoted base that often buys into his conspiracy theories in large numbers. That base is largely skeptical of what the government does and says — and is largely skeptical of climate change. Trump’s tweets Thursday are perfect for fertilizing the already-existent seed of doubt that others have planted about the true severity of hurricanes. And if and when this or other storms wind up not being as bad as some projected, those people will latch on to that theory even more. Well-founded warnings about possible destruction will be chalked up to politics.
And fewer people may bother to be truly prepared.