For about 30 seconds Friday afternoon, Donald Trump did the decent thing. After triumphantly announcing his unconditional surrender — and the U.S. government’s imminent reopening — the president thanked America’s federal workers for their patriotism, and expressed regret for their suffering.
But the moment these words escaped his mouth, Trump clarified that his message was not directed to actually existing federal workers, but rather, to an imaginary class of civil servants who live inside his mind. “Not only did you not complain,” the president informed his fictional construct, “but in many cases, you encouraged me to keep going because you care so much about our country and about its border security.”
In reality, the primary reason that Trump had ceased “going” was that federal workers had discouraged him from doing so.
For five weeks, congressional Republicans had withheld paychecks from hundreds of thousands of civil servants, prevented cancer patients from accessing much-needed medical care, jeopardized food stamp recipients’ access to basic nutrition, undermined public health, devastated Native American communities, and sabotaged America’s (supposedly sacred) border security — because doing so was slightly more convenient for Mitch McConnell than the alternative.
But on Friday, that changed — because the men and women who control America’s air traffic and attend to its airline passengers made it change. After weeks of unpaid labor, America’s (already underfunded and understaffed) air traffic controllers finally brought the shutdown home, calling out sick in numbers large enough to grind airports across the Eastern seaboard to a halt. In a statement, their union disavowed any “coordinated activity that negatively affects the capacity of the National Airspace System” — but noted that it had warned lawmakers that a prolonged shutdown would lead many controllers to “the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry,” thereby undermining their job performance, and thus, Americans’ safety.
The Flight Attendant Union struck a sharper note. “Do we have your attention now Leader McConnell?” the union asked in its statement. “The shutdown must end immediately. Our country’s entire economy is on the line.” Hours later, the union’s president, Sara Nelson, told New York that if the shutdown continued, flight attendants would cease showing up for work, and start amassing outside the offices of their congressional representatives instead.
At that point, there was nothing for Trump to do but cave (like a dog).
To understand why, let’s take a brief trip back in time. Six years ago, the so-called budget “sequester” took effect. Draconian across-the-board spending cuts — that both parties officially opposed — began burdening many of America’s most vulnerable citizens. This austerity package had never been intended to become law; rather, Congress had passed it as a mechanism for forcing a grand compromise on fiscal policy. The idea being, if the alternative to cutting a deal was to inflict needless pain on constituencies in both parties, Congress would somehow find a way.
Somehow, Congress did not. In the end, the sequester provoked exactly one piece of timely, bipartisan legislation: When automatic spending cuts began triggering delays at the airports that lawmakers used to fly into and out of D.C., Congress sprang into action and reached consensus on FAA funding in a matter of days.
Republican lawmakers are willing to inflict a wide range of needless hardships on a cornucopia of disparate constituencies, for the sake of political convenience — but subjecting people like themselves to personal inconvenience at the airport has always been a bridge too far. To the people who rule us, frequent flyers’ lives matter.
To be sure, the president was already losing his resolve Thursday night, in the wake of the Senate’s rejection of his “compromise” proposal for reopening the government and funding his border wall. But as the Daily Beast reported late Friday morning, the news of terminals closing at LaGuardia Airport put “gasoline on the fire,” and strengthened the hand of those Republicans who were advocating surrender.
Mere hours after chaos claimed the airports, Trump agreed to a continuing resolution that would fund the government for three weeks, in exchange for Senate Democrats’ good-faith commitment to debate a broader border-security package, including the president’s beloved wall. In other words, he agreed to settle for what was on the table in December, before he had decided to turn his personal indignation into a weeks-long national crisis.
Trump did say that if Democrats fail to fund his border wall in the next three weeks, he would declare a national emergency and attempt to construct it through executive action. But this was less of a gesture of defiance than a confession of total retreat: Trump’s threat ostensibly takes the specter of another government shutdown off the table. Which means that Democrats will have no reason to capitulate to the president’s demands. It’s no skin off Nancy Pelosi’s back if Trump wants to take a (massively unpopular) executive action, which will almost certainly be nullified by the courts.
In sum, Trump lost “big league.” He did not bow to public opinion (the shutdown has polled horribly for weeks), or back down out of concern for the plight of the furloughed (he’s made his contempt for the “deep state” perfectly clear). Rather, Trump’s allies in Congress collapsed at their first glimpse of organized labor’s latent power to make life hard for people like them.
Let’s hope this is a lesson that no one involved forgets.