Trump Has Left Himself No Way Out of This Mess

Perhaps the best thing that can be said of the Trump Administration is that its incompetence often undermines its malevolence.

A smarter, more disciplined and more intellectually rigorous version of Trump would be terrifying indeed; instead, the country has stumbled into 2019 psychologically traumatized, well behind the eight ball on urgent priorities like climate change and outraged at both systemic and individual travesties of justice. But so far, we have gratefully avoided the sort of cataclysmic policy failures that defined the Bush/Cheney era.

The ongoing government shutdown may change that. But it seems unlikely to do so if for no other reason than that the Trump team seems to have no real plan, and no idea what they are doing from day to day.

As we approach the second week of the shutdown, it’s clear that Trump has backed himself into a corner with no good way out. Of all the ridiculous promises Trump made to his xenophobic base, the Wall was by far the most important. It was also the most visually symbolic and emotionally appealing: while a Muslim ban and cuts to services that predominantly benefit ethnic minorities are mostly theoretical to Trump’s voters–after all, few of them personally know anyone affected–a Wall is a big, bold artifact declaring that Trump’s America is determined to defend white supremacy by keeping Those People out.

And since Trump has determined that the only people that matter in America are Fox News viewers and those aligned with them, he cannot go into 2020 without the item they care about most. If nothing else, the far-right media organs who actually run the Republican Party won’t allow anything less.

Democratic legislators, for their part, see no upside in granting Trump funding for a border wall that will have no real impact on border security and that would serve as a stark reminder of an American attitude toward immigrants that most Americans (to say nothing of most Democrats) find reprehensible. Democrats would be inclined to possibly trade Trump some border funding that he could try to call a wall in exchange for Democratic immigration priorities like a DACA fix. But Democrats already offered that deal when they had considerably less leverage, and white nationalists in the Trump Administration like Stephen Miller helped scuttle it. Now that Democrats control the House, there is even less reason to negotiate a deal that isn’t far more favorable to liberal terms.

For their part, Republicans don’t feel that they can afford to make a reasonable trade because if you’re serious about wanting to Make America White Again, you know that a Wall doesn’t really do you much good except keeping your dwindling base happy. But actually giving away humane policies in trade for a Wall would only continue ongoing demographic trends, so the think tanks on the Right looking to reverse those trends cannot accept even something as mild as Wall-for-DACA.

So here we are. A shutdown with no end in sight. Trump can’t back away.

Which in turn has led to Trump insisting, in his typical bullheaded Art of the Deal way, that he could continue the shutdown all the way to the 2020 election. The normative Fox News viewer (and Trump is nothing if not an archetypical Fox News acolyte) tends to think that government shutdowns only hurt minorities and liberal bureaucrats, anyway.

But as in so many cases, Trump’s own incompetence undermines him. A long government shutdown means chaos at airports, including reduced security screenings. It means food stamp cuts that hurt a very large number of low-income whites who make up an enormous part of Trump’s base. It means damage to his own immigration policies. It means chaos at national parks, which tend to be in rural areas enjoyed by a large number of Trump voters. And, of course, it means that millions of Americans go longer and longer without paychecks, unable to afford rent and basic necessities.

A shutdown cannot continue indefinitely. Even Republicans in Congress cannot tolerate this situation much longer. The border wall is deeply unpopular, and Democrats have no earthly reason to cave into Trump’s demands.

The only way this reasonably ends is with Trump getting some minor pittance for border security, maybe some fencing, then loudly declaring to his base that he got his wall funded and hoping they’ll believe him. It’s not a great option for him, but it’s the best one he has.

Because once again, Trump’s incompetence has managed to overwhelm his malevolence.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.