Maui fires: Biden’s request to Congress shows priorities

Flames swept through the historic town of Lāhainā so quickly that many people jumped into the Pacific to escape the fire
Flames swept through the historic town of Lāhainā so quickly that many people jumped into the Pacific to escape the fire. | Photo:

By Gregory Williams

On Aug. 10 – two days after the Maui fires – President Biden asked Congress for another $21 billion in aid to the Ukrainian government as Washington’s proxy-war with Russia drags on; if approved, this will be added to the $113 billion already given.

The same package includes $10 billion to undermine Chinese and Russian “influence” abroad, via the World Bank and other imperialist-dominated institutions. That’s separate from the $1 billion Washington has given to Taiwan this year, including a $345 million weapons package announced on Sept. 1.

By contrast, the Aug. 8 request includes only $12 billion for domestic disaster relief, with another $60 million added on specifically for wildfires.

Maui recovery

According to, “the Biden-Harris Administration has approved more than $16 million in assistance to 4,200 households” for Maui fire victims as of Sept. 4. Another $95 million is going to be used to improve Hawai’i’s power grid.

However, Hawai’i Gov. Josh Green estimates that the Maui fires caused $5-$6 billion in damages. Even if this estimate is conservative, it is far more than what has been provided by the federal government so far. On the other hand, it is only about 5% of the $113 billion given to Ukraine – or 0.7% of the 2022 U.S. military budget ($877 billion). A small fraction of the military budget could cover those damages.

If we just consider that $16 million given to households, that comes to only $3,809 per household, assuming that the money is distributed evenly among the 4,200. Hawai’i is the most expensive state to live in according to a recent study by online-bill-payment-service Doxo. Monthly expenses for an average Hawai’i resident are $3,070. If survivors are able to access the money, it is barely enough to cover expenses for one month.

People on the ground have told news outlets that aid has been inadequate. Lāhainā resident Ana Carolina Penedo is staying in an Airbnb with her five-year-old son and mother. She got a measly $700 in aid. FEMA denied her request for housing assistance.

She told the Guardian: “We don’t feel like outside help, massive outside help from the government, is coming. …I don’t have income, I don’t have a place. It would be amazing to have a place, so I can start long-term rebuilding, but how can I get a place if I don’t have income? … I will have to go back to work, but I’m having panic attacks. I am grieving, I am in a really deep sadness.”

Propaganda win for right-wing

The right wing is taking the opportunity to point out the obvious, awful fact that the U.S. federal government is spending almost nothing to help Hawai’i, while pouring many billions into overseas wars. This is, of course, a standard aspect of the way that U.S. imperialism functions, and is bipartisan. Congressional Republicans approve the military budget along with the Democrats, while continually attacking even modest social spending.

Almost daily, this New-Orleans-area writer hears about people still struggling to get recovery funds for hurricanes like Isaac (2017) and Ida (2021). On New Orleans buses you can see lawyers’ advertisements with lines like, “Still battling Ida? Call…” Frankly, people are still battling Katrina (2005).

The right’s approach here is not unlike the way that they tapped into justified outrage about the 2023 train derailments and pollution disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. They use it to attack Democrats in power, while redirecting away from discussion of climate change, deregulation, and so on.

Some on the left are buying into the right’s narrative manipulations, and see the Republican Party – and especially Donald Trump – as somehow less imperialist than the Democrats. This is a dangerous delusion that will do nothing but disarm people’s movements, as do conspiracy theories.

All of the right’s rhetoric specifically thwarts any recognition of the problems of imperialism. They appeal to nativism, for example – prejudices against foreigners – while painting the “real danger” as China (as the Democrats also do).

They claim that Biden is controlled by China, that U.S. school curricula is being dictated by the Communist Party of China through secret funding, and all manner of preposterous things that build up war fervor in the interest of U.S. imperialism.

Republicans are not anti-war, even if some have been critical of the handling of the war in Ukraine.

MLK said it better

In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” That was in 1967. Fifty-six years later, this truth is still being borne out. The rot today is far more advanced.

When we look at Lāhainā – or the homeless people dying from heat-related illnesses during record-breaking heat waves across the U.S.  – we see the truth of King’s words.

Right-wing propagandists are using people’s justified anger, in a sleight-of-hand, to present themselves as if they were the contemporary truth-tellers, in a mockery of Dr. King.

When Fox News points out the hypocrisy of the Democrats, or right-wing social media influencers post graphics comparing the government’s response to Ukraine vs. Hawai’i, they do not mean what King meant. They are appealing only to nativist tendencies and have no intention of carrying out domestic social uplift – quite the opposite.

Case study of a Louisiana congressman

Republican Mike Johnson is the U.S. representative of Louisiana’s 4th congressional district. In 2022, he voted against aid to the Ukrainian government. He said, “We should not be sending another $40 billion abroad when our own border is in chaos, American mothers are struggling to find baby formula, gas prices are at record highs, and American families are struggling to make ends meet, without sufficient oversight over where the money will go.”

The suffering that is happening at the border is the result of U.S. imperialist policies, which Johnson and his party support. But more broadly, there is nothing anti-imperialist or pro-working-class in the above statement, nor are there any such things in Johnson’s actions.

He supported and praised the House’s passage of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act – that bloated military budget. The budget includes over a quarter billion dollars for military development in his congressional district, “which is home to Barksdale Air Force Base and Air Force Global Strike Command, Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center, and Camp Minden,” as explained in the Bossier Press Tribune.

The same article explains that the bill provides $125 million for Barksdale Air Force Base, for “the construction of a Weapons Generation Facility (WGF). Building upon the $40 million secured last year for this project, the WGF will enable Barksdale to once again become a nuclear weapons Air Force Base. Currently, B-52s stationed at Barksdale must fly to North Dakota to be armed with nuclear weapons.”

That’s right. The plan is to put nukes at Barksdale – not very anti-war. Perhaps not incidentally, 20.1% of the population lives below the poverty line in Bossier City, which is contiguous with the base. The disparity between military spending and spending for social uplift is stark there.

It is unclear what Johnson has done to help “American families struggling to make ends meet” in his district. As former chair of the Republican Study Committee – an ultra-right grouping in the U.S. House focused on slashing spending on social programs – he is unlikely to do much for his working-class constituents.

Neo-fascist movement must be combatted

In sum, neither the Democratic nor Republican parties have any solutions on offer to help domestic disaster victims, and neither are anti-imperialist. The right uses the obvious treachery of the Democratic Party leadership to push its own agenda. The right wants to stop any assistance to the poor and prevent solidarity from emerging between the U.S. working class and international and internal victims of U.S. imperialism.

When the left says, “there is money for war but we can’t feed the poor,” part of the point is that workers here and victims of U.S. imperialism abroad (as in the NATO-provoked war in Ukraine) share common enemies: the capitalist class. The right seeks to obscure who the enemies are.

The fact that the right can make inroads among some anti-imperialist forces – sowing confusion – speaks to the current weakness of the left.

These inroads indicate the growing strength of the neo-fascist movement. This type of confusion also occurred with historical fascism in Italy, Germany, and other places, where the fascists’ populist language was dressed up with working-class and anti-imperialist phrases. But this was done in the service of capitalist rule and imperialism to shore up the rule of the imperialist bourgeoisie in a time of crisis.

We cannot allow ourselves to be taken in by these old tricks.

This article is reprinted with permission from

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