Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In the game of “chicken,” two people — usually teenage boys with more testosterone than brains — face off at opposite ends of a deserted road, start their cars and literally drive at each other. If they’re lucky, one of them, the “chicken,” swerves his car out of the way of the other before they crash, with the “winner” who didn’t swerve getting to keep both cars. If they’re not so lucky, they crash into each other and end up dead or severely injured.
The current partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which as I write this (Wednesday, January 23) is at 33 days and counting, is like a game of “chicken” between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It really began in early December, after the midterm elections that gave the Democrats control of half of Congress but before the January 3 date set for the new House of Representatives actually to convene. President Trump called Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic minority in the U.S. Senate, to his office and, with TV cameras in the room, loudly and seemingly proudly proclaimed that he was “glad” to shut down the government if that’s what it took to get $5.7 billion dollars to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump promised that he wouldn’t blame the shutdown, if it came to pass, on the Democrats — a promise that, like most of Trump’s promises, he quickly broke. It seemed for a few days as if a shutdown could be at least temporarily averted when the U.S. Senate passed, 100 to zero, a bill to keep the government open for three months while the two big parties continued negotiations over how to secure the border and whether to build a wall. The House, still in Republican hands, balked and instead passed a bill to keep the government open that included the wall money. Trump, who had promised to sign the Senate bill if the House passed it and sent it to his desk, then reneged after a firestorm of criticism from Right-wing media figures Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham accused him of selling out his political base and winning no concessions from the Democrats in exchange.
It didn’t help that the shutdown broke just as Congress was recessing for the holidays and its members were flying home. Washington usually shuts down voluntarily for Christmas and New Year’s, and 2018 was no exception. At one point Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and end the two centuries-old tradition of the Senate filibuster so he could pass the House bill, including the wall funding, with the 51-member (now 53-member since the Republicans gained two Senate seats in the 2018 election — which is why I called it “not a blue wave so much as a blue ripple”) Republican Senate majority. But he didn’t; instead he waited until the Democrats took over the House on schedule January 3 and announced that he would not allow the Senate to vote on any bill until he had a signed, sealed and delivered pledge that Trump would allow it to become law.
The shutdown has ground on since then. Over 800,000 federal workers have so far missed two paychecks. FBI agents are organizing food drives for other FBI agents. Trump’s budget director said that the workers should look on it as “a vacation” even though they’re not getting vacation pay, and about half of them — people like Border Patrol agents and Transportation Security Agency airport screeners — have been deemed “essential,” meaning at least in theory that the government can force them to continue to work but doesn’t have to pay them. To me that sounds an awful lot like the “involuntary servitude” the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was supposed to have banned, along with slavery — and indeed I’ve seen one report that a group of “essential” federal workers were planning to sue the government for their money on precisely that ground.
It became pretty obvious early on in the issue discussions that the shutdown was over quite a lot more than a policy dispute over how to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump made the promise to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border a centerpiece of his campaign, and it’s now become not only a symbol of the kind of America he wants — deeply suspicious of outsiders, as economically, militarily and politically self-sufficient as possible, and governed by white men with women and people of color “knowing their place” — but a monument to himself, the last and greatest Trump real-estate development. As for the Democrats, it’s become about ego for them, too; in her first public statements after the Democrats retook the House and elected Pelosi Speaker for the second time, Pelosi called Trump’s wall an “immorality.”
That was an awfully high card for Pelosi to play that early in the game. Political issues usually can be negotiated and compromised; moral issues can’t. That’s why the U.S. Civil War happened; both sides were convinced that they had the moral high ground. As U.S. President-elect Abraham Lincoln wrote to Alexander Stephens, later vice-president of the Confederacy, in December 1860, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” More recently we’ve seen activists on both sides of the moral, political and social divides in this country invoke basic moral principles — the Left in the 1960’s in favor of civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam, the Right more recently in opposition to abortion and Queer rights.
By calling Trump’s border wall not merely bad policy — an ineffective boondoggle that will not solve the problems of undocumented immigration, crime and drugs Trump says it will — but “an immorality,” Pelosi staked out a position as intractable and uncompromisable as Trump. And so far she’s been able to keep the House Democrats in line with her. The conventional wisdom is that she’s “winning” the political battle over Trump because polls show a majority of respondents blaming the Republicans in general and Trump in particular for the shutdown.
But what if that changes? If the shutdown goes on for much longer, and the media are filled with more and more horror stories of federal workers having to sacrifice their homes, their children’s health care, and ultimately even their lives (one recent report described a woman who has to choose between paying her rent and paying for her cancer chemotherapy), the U.S. population is likely to shift to blaming both sides for the shutdown and demanding that they reach some sort of compromise before their two cars crash into each other and damage not only themselves but millions of Americans who elected a government to work together and get things done for them, not call each other names and engage in petty squabbles reminiscent of grade-schoolers fighting in a schoolyard during recess.
Indeed, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats got a big fat warning in a recent Civiqs poll showing Pelosi’s favorability rating as 35 percent favorable to 50 percent unfavorable. Trump, in the same poll, did even worse, but that shouldn’t give Pelosi and the Democrats much comfort. When the Democrats won back control of the House in the midterms, the question many pundits were raising was what would they do with it. Would they pass a series of bills to guarantee and improve people’s access to health care — the biggest issue on which they won — and institute other party priorities like infrastructure and a significant response to global climate change? Or would they spend most of their time launching investigations into the endemic corruption of the Trump administration?
Thanks to the shutdown, Democrats have been able to do neither. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who won her House seat by beating a top member of the Democratic House leadership in a primary, told Stephen Colbert on January 22, neither she nor any other of the House’s new members have ever served during a period in which the government wasn’t shut down. In that sense the Republicans have already “won” the shutdown; they still control 2 ½ branches of the federal government (the Presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court) and they’ve been able to neutralize their opposition in the one-half of one branch of government they don’t still command.
It has taken a full month for any hints that either party might be willing to be the first to swerve in this bizarre game of political “chicken.” On January 21 President Trump offered a so-called compromise by which in exchange for his $5.7 billion in wall funding he’d guarantee three years’ protection for the so-called “Dreamers,” children born outside the U.S. who were brought here by their undocumented immigrant parents. The Democrats were already skeptical when Trump made the announcement — they were hoping that the courts, who have already put on hold Trump’s cancellation of the Delayed Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program former President Barack Obama put in place by executive order, would finally force Trump to abide by Obama’s program — and vice-president Mike Pence replied that even if the DACA recipients win in the lower courts, the Republican-packed U.S. Supreme Court is likely to do Trump’s bidding and declare the program unconstitutional.
Democrats were even more united against the President’s so-called “compromise” offer when they looked at the fine print in the bill and saw Trump and the anti-immigrant hardliners in his administration had sneaked in language drastically curtailing the ability of people from other countries to apply for asylum in the U.S. It called to mind a deal Trump and the Democrats almost reached last year, when in exchange for full protection, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship, for the “Dreamers” they offered Trump the full $25 billion he had estimated the border wall would cost (though undoubtedly it would go quite a bit higher — up to $100 billion — in predictable cost overruns if it were actually authorized and built). Trump sent signals he’d accept the deal and then reneged, insisting that it also contain drastic cutbacks in legal immigration.
The cutbacks in legal immigration are what Trump is really after on the issue. Like other Republicans, Trump sees that the demographic changes in the U.S. are boosting the share of the country’s population that are likely to vote Democrat: women, people of color, young people, poor people. The Republicans have responded not by trying to broaden the appeal of their party to these groups but by an extensive campaign of voter suppression, gerrymandering election districts, rigging the census so non-Republican populations will be undercounted, and pushing a revival of the 1924 immigration bill (whose supporters pushed it through Congress with openly racist arguments) that slashed legal immigration and set up a quota system that ensured most documented U.S. immigrants would come from white-majority countries.
It’s not “illegal” immigration that Trump and the Republicans hate; it’s immigration, period — especially immigration from Latin America and what Trump calls “shithole” Black-majority countries like Haiti and Nigeria. The wall proposal may have started, as some New York Times reporters have suggested, as merely a memory device invented by Trump’s campaign handlers and speechwriters to make sure he emphasized the immigration issue in all his campaign appearances. But it’s become much more than that. It’s become a symbol of the new exclusionary America he wants to build — a reversal of the Statue of Liberty and its “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” inscription representing the old, inclusionary America. It’s become the monument Trump wants to leave behind, the fact on the ground for which history will remember him and mark the philosophical, historical and ideological distinction between pre-Trump and post-Trump America.
And, for a man who’s been president of the United States for two years and a candidate for that office a year and a half before that but still considers himself a
It’s not just businessman, and thinks of the presidency largely as a way to make more money for himself and his friends, the wall is also a money-making opportunity. As a builder in New York City, Trump had to deal with the Mafia — the real one — which controls most of the contractors in the city and most of the labor unions which supposedly represent their workers. You don’t do as many real-estate deals as Trump has without cozying up to the Mob big-time. And, as Craig Unger noted in his book House of Trump, House of Putin, Trump has been in bed with the Russian Mafia at least since the 1980’s, when Russian mobsters bailed him out by buying units in New York’s Trump Tower and his other buildings as ways to launder their money.
For a man who sees everything as a profit-making opportunity, Trump is no doubt at least partly eyeing the wall as a way he can pay back all the big-money interests, including the crooks in both the Italian-American and Russian Mafias, who financed his private developments and his presidential campaign. It’s a way of making sure Trump, who’s been through at least four corporate bankruptcies, will ensure that the crooks — the sort of people who have been called “the kinds of people you cannot owe money to” — who helped him as a real-estate tycoon and who quite possibly brokered the deals between Trump’s people and the Russian government to win him the presidency in the first place — will get the largesse they’re expecting at the expense of the American taxpayer (now that it’s dawned on even Trump’s thick head that Mexico is not paying for the wall).
And there’s one other reason Trump wants the wall so badly he’s willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of millions of Americans (both the 800,000-plus federal workers who are directly affected and the hundreds of thousands of people who work for private contractors that do business with the government and are not going to be made whole, as the federal workers themselves are likely to be, once the shutdown ends) to get it funded. He wants to deal the Democrats a humiliating defeat and send the message that, no matter how the American people vote, they are going to be governed by his and the Republican Party’s priorities.
It’s not just Donald Trump. As George Packer noted in a December 14, 2018 article posted on the Web site of The Atlantic, “The Corruption of the Republican Party” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/how-did-republican-party-get-so-corrupt/578095/), the GOP as an institution has fundamentally rejected democracy in the service of an ideological agenda. When they lost gubernatorial elections in North Carolina in 2016 and Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, the Republican legislative majorities in those states simply rewrote the laws to strip the newly elected Democratic governors of as many powers as they could. As Packer wrote:
Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order.
As historian Leonard Schapiro wrote of the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party that took over in Russia after the 1917 revolution(s), today’s Republicans are “a minority determined to rule alone.” Their disinclination even to treat Democratic legislators as a legitimate opposition, let alone as equals, was shown when Trump allowed Republican Senators to hold private meetings with Attorney General nominee William Barr but said that “because of the shutdown” Democrats in the Senate would not be similarly privileged.
It’s been noted by a lot of people, including former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res, that Trump’s attitude towards deal-making — the subject of the best-selling book he wrote (or which at least was credited to him on its cover) — is not working out an arrangement that is mutually satisfactory to both. It’s using every bit of leverage he can garner to crush and humiliate his opposition totally. That is what Trump is after in the government shutdown: he wants to force the Democrats to back down on a position that’s very important both to the Democratic leaders themselves and to their political base.
And he’s likely to get his wish. Trump has one huge advantage over the Democrats: they genuinely care whether the government functions properly and whether its workers get paid. He couldn’t care less about that. The character of the Republican ideology is for a government that does as little as possible in the economic sphere — just national defense, criminal justice and a civil lawsuit system to resolve disputes between rich people — and especially doesn’t tax the rich to pay for social services for the not-rich.
As the tales of suffering among federal workers mount, as more and more Americans who don’t work for the government are also harmed by the shutdown, and as the shutdown itself looks more and more like a tit-for-tat routine (Pelosi bans Trump from delivering the State of the Union address in the House chamber, and Trump bans her from taking a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan), there will be far more pressure on the Democrats than the Republicans to end it. This is why I predict the shutdown will end with a total public victory for Trump: he’ll get his wall money, he’ll humiliate the Democrats and he will have effectively neutralized the threat a House of Representatives nominally controlled by the other party could have posed for him.