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Undermining science and government vigilance are hallmarks of the Trump presidency

The hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas on Sept. 8, 1900 prompted the federal government to further develop the nation's weather forecasting system
The hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas on Sept. 8, 1900 prompted the federal government to further develop the nation's weather forecasting system (Associated Press)

Given the ridiculous side-show that just passed before our eyes — the president tweeting inaccurate information about the path of a hurricane, then spending days trying to prove he was right and, in the process, politicizing the government agency responsible for weather forecasts — it’s important to remember what happened in Galveston on Sept. 8, 1900.

Historical perspective is essential in the time of Donald Trump because we need to remember what government is supposed to look like, and what it could be again, once this presidency ends and the tempest passes.

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One-hundred-and-nineteen years ago, a hurricane hit Galveston, on the Texas coast, and the result was catastrophic. The storm flattened the city and killed at least 6,000 people and possibly twice that many, according to estimates, making it the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

In those days, forecasting the nation’s weather was still a science in development. At first a responsibility of the military, the weather service became a civilian agency under the Department of Agriculture in 1890. Ten years later, as the Galveston hurricane developed, the U.S. Weather Bureau was still building a network of communications, primarily by telegraph. And there were other reasons why Galveston did not have enough warning about what was coming its way. Historians say American meteorologists ignored reports from their counterparts in Cuba and got the storm track wrong. By the time they realized the hurricane was roaring west, instead of north, it was too late.

The Galveston catastrophe made clear that the American people deserved a better weather forecasting system, and that the government needed to take the fostering role. So the weather service ramped up its vigilance. Over the next three decades, it started using airplanes and weather balloons to conduct atmospheric research. It started issuing three-day forecasts and developing better ways to communicate them. It provided forecasts for farmers, commercial aviation and the military. Most importantly, it established a hurricane warning center.

The Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1970. Until last week, when NOAA knocked the NWS Birmingham station for its prudent contradiction of Trump’s warning that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama “much harder than anticipated,” no one could imagine that the agency’s forecasts might be politicized. We’re talking about the weather, after all. It is what it is, not what the president says it is.

There is a lot of mistrust in institutions today, but, while it is not perfect, Americans generally trust the National Weather Service to be grounded in objective science, not in political considerations.

That’s the reason for the outrage about the NOAA statement. It’s why Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, felt a need to tweet an assurance that “the hard-working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management.”

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post. “If we’re politicizing the weather, what is there left to politicize?”

Trump has attacked government agencies — the CIA and the FBI, for instance — and tried to curtail the important work of the Environmental Protection Agency. His abandonment of American leadership on climate change is a rejection of government action informed by science.

A president is supposed to be the leader and champion of a federal system that serves and protects the public. Except for his racist push against immigration, rationalized as making America safe from an “invasion” of Central Americans, Trump shows little interest in a government that accomplishes anything whatsoever. He appoints the incompetent or corrupt to head federal agencies and leaves numerous vacancies. He sabotages the health insurance system established under his predecessor. His administration has been steadfast in trying to undo as many environmental regulations as possible.

Trump is not the first anti-government president. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, came into office with a warning for the American people: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

That message, a Republican creed, pushed against the history of the 20th Century: It was government that lifted people out of the misery of the Great Depression, government that mounted the forces that defeated fascism, that built roads and highways, schools and libraries, and the state universities where veterans were able to get an education. Public health campaigns eradicated diseases. Government agencies worked to make our food, air and water safe, and to warn us about hurricanes.

The episode over the track of Hurricane Dorian won’t break the public’s trust in the National Weather Service. No one should be worried that maps of the next Category 5 will have to be approved by the president and subjected to his Sharpie.

US President Donald Trump and Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan update the media on Hurricane Dorian preparedness as they show a map, from August 29, 2019, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, September 4, 2019.
US President Donald Trump and Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan update the media on Hurricane Dorian preparedness as they show a map, from August 29, 2019, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, September 4, 2019. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, the taint of politics — that NOAA could eschew science, even for a moment, to defend a mistake or misrepresentation by a narcissistic president — is there.

So while the whole thing seemed at first like a joke, there’s a lot more to take from it, and it’s not funny. It points up Trump’s scorn for (and willingness to abuse) the federal agencies and the people within them, those who believe in science, the rule of law and competent, diligent service to the public good. Undermining all of that is one of the most destructive aspects of this presidency, and it will stay that way until the tempest passes.

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