Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I’ve seen quite a bit of conspiratorial thinking on the left recently about what really is motivating the Republicans to keep the government shut down. Some see it as a coordinated strategy between the White House and Congress to pursue some anti-government ideological goal. Others see it as an effort to cripple the FBI and Department of Justice as they pursue criminal investigations on many prominent party members and administration figures. Still others see it as more of a White House-driven effort to simply distract from the Russia investigation. For Greg Sargent, it’s an attempt by “Trump and his GOP enablers [to proceed] as if the 2018 elections never happened.”

In my opinion, people are overthinking this. There is no grand strategy and there’s no actual coordination between Trump and Republican congressional leaders other than a kind of haphazard effort to develop a common message. If Trump has any legitimate beef, it’s that he was misled by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan into believing that he could get his wall-funding during the lame-duck session of Congress after the midterms. I think he was snookered. I suspect that he feels like they lied to him.

Nonetheless, he signed off on continuing resolution to keep the government funding through the lame duck session and into early this year. And then he was criticized by his anti-immigrant base severely enough that he decided to rescind his support for the deal he had made. This is the only reason the government is shut down.

Overall, I agree with Sargent’s assessment of the situation. The GOP is asking for concessions when they ought to be offering them. The media are not being consistent enough in describing the disparity between the administration’s absolutist demands and the quite reasonable insistence by Democrats that they won’t give Trump what he couldn’t get when his party had total control of Congress.

But McConnell isn’t orchestrating some grand plan. He’s actually angry with the president and wants no part of this battle. And Trump may console himself that he’s keeping the spotlight off of the new Democratic House and the Russia investigation, but that has nothing to do with why he decided to take this stand. He feels like he can’t lose the support of his xenophobic base and survive, and that’s why he’d rather be seen fighting for a wall even if it actually causes him to crash through his previous floor of support. It’s another miscalculation on his part.

It’s also training Republican lawmakers to break with him. First they’ll break with him on his wall, and then it will be easier for them to break with him on impeachment. That’s the main risk he’s running by inflicting this battle on the GOP.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at