It is Christmas in America and the government is shut down, after President Donald Trump forced a showdown with Democrats over funding for his quixotic border wall – you remember, the one he kept saying on the campaign trail would be paid for by Mexico. (It is redundant to say these days that the president was lying, of course. Bears defecate in forests, popes practice Catholicism, Trump lies.)
The US government is closed for business. Civil service offices are shuttered. Federal workers – more than a million of them – will not receive their paychecks before the holidays. National parks are closed. Customs and immigration officials will continue to man their posts, but without pay. Workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development are furloughed, delaying the processing of home loans and grants. Workers at the Internal Revenue Service are on unpaid leave, meaning that tax queries will go unanswered. The Food and Drug Administration has stopped its inspections. (The Pentagon and the Department of Education are not affected).
So far it has played out like other previous government shutdowns, except in a mirror-world way – usually both sides desperately try to avoid owning a shutdown, preferring to blame the other side; Trump’s approach has been the exact opposite.
This week, he invited Democratic leaders to a meeting at the White House to negotiate. At issue was the $5bn Trump is demanding for his largest folly: his border wall, a vastly expensive boondoggle designed purely for political optics. (In fact, the vast majority of illegal immigration in the US happens by plane, with people arriving on legal visas and then overstaying them once they expire).
When House speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer arrived, however, instead of the closed-door meeting they expected, they found themselves unwilling participants in a weird theatrical facsimile of a negotiation, in full view of television cameras.
If that was meant to be an intimidation tactic by Trump, it backfired severely. Pelosi kept asking if he wanted to negotiate in private; Trump appeared to think that this meant they were ashamed of what they wanted to propose, but the reality is quite the opposite: in deference to accepted norms, as Pelosi said at one point: “I don’t want to publicly contradict you” on the numbers he was quoting – numbers that bore little or no relation to reality.
Trump at first responded with shock when Pelosi framed the shutdown as the “Trump shutdown”, but later decided that he would own the phrase. Schumer and Pelosi could hardly contain their glee: Trump had decided, voluntarily, to take the blame for the thing that you always blame the other side for.
It is hard to see what his game is here. It could be sheer obstinacy: Trump will double down on any position he finds himself in, especially when challenged. If he accidentally said the sky was green, he’d then argue to the death that it is so; if you point to the sky and say that it is manifestly blue, he’d call you “fake news.”
But in the case of a government shutdown, it is possible that Trump has underestimated the scale of anger generated by forcing people to go without US federal services over Christmas, as well as the federal workers themselves going home to their families for the holidays without their pay.
Trump is counting on the fact that the Democrats’ will object to the funding of his border wall – funding that, as incoming progressive Democrat rising star rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, could be used for real work that would have a real impact on people’s lives. “For the wall’s $5.7 billion, every child in America could have access to Universal Pre-K,” she wrote. “Yet when we propose the SAME $, we’re told Universal Edu is a ‘fantasy’ & asked ‘how are you going to pay for it’ … Education is an investment in society that yields returns. Walls are waste.”
Trump has also clearly underestimated Nancy Pelosi, who is ably outmanoeuvring him in terms of public perception, coming across as reasonable and sensible compared to Trump’s childish and clumsy obstreperousness. She and Schumer have successfully managed to brand it as a “Trump shutdown”, without even any opposition from the president.
“Democrats have offered Republicans multiple proposals to keep the government open, including one that already passed the Senate unanimously, & all of which include funding for strong, sensible, & effective border security – not the president’s ineffective and expensive wall,” she tweeted on Sunday.
Even Republicans have responded with disappointment at the president’s intransigence. “This is a made up fight so the president can look like he’s fighting and winning,” senator Bob Corker, who is retiring at the end of this year, said.
He’s not wrong. This shutdown is clearly another Trump stunt – likely fuelled by a desire to distract from his more pressing problems, like the circling Mueller investigation and the chaos at the Department of Defense which followed the shock announcement last week that US troops would be withdrawing from Syria and which precipitated the resignation of secretary of defense Jim Mattis.
Trump may be playing to his base, but he seems to have miscalculated this time. A poll from last week by Politico/Morning Consult showed that 55 per cent of voters don’t consider a border wall important enough to shut the government down over. Among GOP voters, 60 per cent believe it is important enough to shut down the government – but independents are against it more than two to one.
Since Trump has been so keen to take ownership of the shutdown, he may find it difficult to spread the blame around once public anger starts to increase. It’s like he’s playing a game of chicken – with himself.