Disasters always tell us something about America's sins and blessings. Hurricane Harvey showcased
bad urban planning -- cheap housing built on swamps and wetlands -- and partisan politics. Some said Texans deserved
a deluge for voting for Trump; environmentalists pointed the finger
at climate change. And while the left worships Mother Earth, parts of the right still cower before a God who would flatten Houston for having a gay pride parade. "Here's a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America," said
Rick Wiles, a Christian broadcaster. "They're underwater."
Trump flew into the Houston relief center and delivered
a more positive message: "As tough as this was," the response to Hurricane Harvey "has been a wonderful thing, I think, even for the country to watch." To this, Chelsea Clinton tweeted
with contempt: "People lost their lives, loved ones, homes, beloved pets." And she wasn't the only liberal who found Trump's upbeat tone inappropriate -- treating the hurricane victims as if they had swum here specially to see him. Journalists noted he toured
Texas in a white "Official USA 45th Presidential Hat," which retails for $40 on his website. "What a crowd!" he said at Corpus Christi. "What a turnout!"
The thing is, that's America. Or at least, that's Texas. Liberals paint a picture of a society at breaking point -- torn apart by gender, class and race, desperately in need of therapy. But the response of Texans to Hurricane Harvey proved them wrong. For days we saw images of ordinary citizens -- including CNN reporters -- going out of their way to help other people. And when Trump showed up in Houston his reception was remarkable. He was encouraging, hopeful, kind and even kissed a few kids. "I had a different opinion of him," said
one African-American woman, "and now I think he's a wonderful man."
In all my years of writing about US politics, I've noted that no matter how low a president's poll rating is, they always get a good reaction in public. It's partly about deference to the office, partly the appeal of celebrity. It's also that the kind of men who make it to the White House tend to have high levels of empathy and charm, despite how they appear on TV. But watching Trump doing his job well was also a reminder that there were positive reasons why millions of Americans voted for this man. Chief among them, they thought he might be good at running the country.
In a nation where the government is a byword for incompetence, why not let a businessman have a go -- especially one with an ability to talk honestly about the country's challenges and with an almost unlimited sense of possibility? Trump's "USA #1!" approach to Harvey is far closer in sentiment to many Americans than Chelsea Clinton's search for pity and blame.
Don't bring Americans problems, bring them solutions.
If Trump has had a bad start to his presidency it's partly because he has actually created new problems. The fights with the media, the attempt to overhaul Obamacare, the incessant tweeting, the stream of resignations and sackings, all these have distracted from two of the most appealing Trump messages: the clear focus on growing the economy and the notion that all Americans are in this together.
Trump's colorblind approach to national identity was inappropriate in the case of the Charlottesville, Virginia, statue controversy, where he was required by convention to denounce white supremacy as uniquely evil and failed to do so. But in Houston, it was perfect. Because while America is undeniably plagued by social divisions, it also has a strong sense of goodwill. As any foreigner will tell you, it might be one of the strangest places in the world but it's probably the kindest.
Of course, presidents don't govern by kindness, which is why the administration says it wants to end
the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, set up to help young undocumented immigrants. Trump the grandfather would probably have saved the program; he has said before that thinking about its future pained him. DACA was unconstitutional, say the conservatives; DACA was humanitarian, say the liberals. At the very least, ending it when so many young people had come to rely upon it seems cruel, even if Congress now has the opportunity to cook up a compromise before it runs out.
But there is a rational, nonshouty case to be made for setting the right direction when it comes to illegal immigration. The experience of Australia is that if you refuse to accept people who come illegally, it actually makes
immigration a much safer and more transparent process. Canada, meanwhile, announced that its borders were open, only to have them overrun with new arrivals -- and is now urging them
to apply legally. Imagine if this debate in the United States could be approached with a cool head. Without insult and with greater intellectual discipline.
Trump's presidency looks like it's low on luck, but history in fact keeps giving him chances to get back on message. Harvey was one; the crises in Afghanistan and North Korea are others.
Obama has left behind a mess. Trump was elected to clean it up. If he could only show a little progress, Trump might remind people why he won. A significant portion of the population has decided he is evil, can do no good and must be driven from office as soon as possible. But the warm reception in Houston suggests there are more open minds out there still waiting to be changed.