Government shutdowns are rare, and almost always ineffective, expressions of conflict between opposing parties in control of Congress and the White House. President Trump’s plan to shut down the government is something different: an expression of conflict between his campaign promises and reality.
Trump famously campaigned on a promise of building a wall on the southern border, and forcing Mexico to pay for it. He has two problems fulfilling this promise. First, Mexico is not going to pay for the wall under any circumstances. And second, Congress might pay for it, but only under circumstances Trump’s base won’t accept.
Funding for a wall — or some kind of barrier Trump could describe as a wall — needs to be approved through a budget bill, which requires 60 Senate votes and, hence, the approval of some Democrats. Earlier this year, Democratic leaders in both chambers struck a deal to fund a wall (or “wall”) in return for protection for undocumented immigrants who came as children. This was the briefly famous “Chuck and Nancy” deal. But restrictionists like Stephen Miller prevailed on Trump to back off his agreement.
Recently, the president, seeming to grow concerned about heading into reelection without having fulfilled his most famous promise, appeared to be laying the groundwork to claim victory. First, he insisted that the moderately tweaked trade deal with Mexico would somehow bring in money to the United States and hence “pay for” the wall:
Second, he began to fudge the difference between a wall and a fence. Democrats, after all, have previously supported fencing on the border. What’s the difference between a fence and a wall? A wall is solid and a fence can be seen through. Trump was describing his “wall” as something more like a fence — ergo, a barrier Democrats could support:
Kellyanne Conway appeared on television messaging this rhetorical strategy. “Let’s not all acquiesce to the ridiculous sound bite that this is about a wall. They’re trying to make a wall a four-letter word when the president has been talking about border security all along,” she said.
You could see the outline of a plan. Trump would wheedle some money out of Democrats, rebrand the tweaked NAFTA as Mexico “paying” for it, rebrand the fence as a wall, and say he won. Accordingly, Trump abandoned his previous threats to shut down the government over the lack of a wall.
But then right-wing media threw a fit. A backdrop here is that numerous right-wing infotainers build their audience by promoting irrational confrontational tactics. Figures like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the cast of Fox & Friends don’t have serious, substantive policy disagreements with Republican leaders, but they do like to goad them into hopeless confrontations by pretending they will create leverage that does not exist. Under the Obama administration, conservative media promoted a series of government shutdown threats out of the belief that they could be used to make Obama give them policy concessions. For whatever reason, they’re not going along with the plan of pretending the wall is getting built, and instead they’re demanding Trump shut down the government to get the wall.
And when right-wing infotainers demanded this, Trump “alternately seethed and panicked about the stream of invective he’s hearing from allies on television,” as Politico reports.
The normal political strategy of a shutdown holds that the president will give up in the face of a shutdown because presidents care about the government looking competent and orderly. But this is an unusual situation — a shutdown being engineered by the president, rather than against him.
It’s even more unusual in that Trump has flouted the normal strategy of trying to pin the blame for the shutdown on the opposing party. Rather than piously insist he is working to keep the government open while the his devious opponents refuse to budge, he openly claimed responsibility for the outcome. And rather than at least appear to be working on a solution, he is headed off to his Florida resort.
The shutdown truly stands no chance of working. The only real question is how long Trump has to go before he decides to back down. Days? Hours? Minutes?