the national interest

If Trump Gets a Ransom to End the Shutdown, He’ll Do It Again and Again

Do I look like a guy with a plan? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer (Photos: Getty Images, Warner Bros.)

Much of the news coverage of the government shutdown has implicitly communicated an argument: Yes, President Trump may bear the blame for starting it, but Democrats have a responsibility to rescue him from his blunder. And since Trump’s need to collect a “win” from the shutdown is taken as a given, Democrats must therefore contemplate what they are willing to give up in order to reopen the government.

Numerous Republicans have been making this argument explicitly, and at least some non-Republicans have joined in. The Washington Post editorial board and one of its columnists, Joe Davidson, both argue that Democrats must think of the greater good and the humanitarian damage from the shutdown and give Trump something so he agrees to end it.

The premise underlying this calculation is that Trump wandered into the shutdown purely by accident, and that only sheer pride prevents him from backing down. There is certainly some truth to this. Almost the entire congressional party, and large chunks of the Trump administration itself, considers Trump’s shutdown a mindless, self-inflicted wound.

Jonathan Swan reported last week that Trump unnerves his advisers by repeatedly quoting Mike Tyson’s axiom, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Traditionally this line is used to underscore the importance of designing a plan that is robust enough to account for adversity. Trump reportedly takes it as conclusive proof that strategic planning is useless in every situation. Indeed, the entire idea of planning seems to irritate him. “He gets frustrated when there is a plan,” an adviser tells Swan. “He’s not a guy who likes a plan. … There’s an animosity towards planning, and there’s a desire to pick fights that have nothing to do with us.”

Trump’s actual inspiration seems not to be Tyson but the Heath Ledger Joker character from The Dark Knight:

Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things. The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans…

You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even when the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I told the press that, like, a gang-banger would get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds!

Trump shares another relevant quality with that character: an intention to inflict indiscriminate suffering on the populace for the purposes of extortion. Trump’s view, which he has applied to numerous bargaining scenarios throughout his career, is that his sociopathic indifference to human welfare gives him a negotiating advantage.

But crucially, this is not just a Trumpian view. Republicans are inherently more suspicious than Democrats of political compromise, a difference that has endured under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Republicans in Congress have found it difficult to negotiate anything, especially on a bipartisan basis, without angering their compromise-hating base.

And so the party has developed an attraction to hostage-taking as a means of achieving its goals. The distinction between hostage-taking and normal negotiating is that it involves taking steps that the hostage-taker agrees are harmful, in order to leverage concessions. The Republican Party shut down the government during the Clinton administration. This ploy ended in failure, but in 2011 President Obama opened himself to more extortion by responding to Republican threats to force the government to default on the public debt and unleash economic chaos by negotiating a budget deal that Republicans deemed favorable.

“What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming,” explained Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Drawing on this lesson, Republicans in 2013 staged another debt-ceiling hostage threat and a federal government shutdown in order to compel Obama to hand over various policy concessions. It was only when Obama signaled his refusal to be extorted, correcting his earlier error, that Republicans gave up on the tactic.

And Republicans may be skeptical of Trump’s prospects of winning the shutdown fight, but they are almost uniform in their public support for his position. Republicans in Congress, all of whom had lined up to support a bill to continue operating the federal government in December, have lined up behind Trump’s refusal to open the government up without finding for a wall. They have treated Democratic refusal to pay Trump a ransom as though it were itself a ransom demand. “Instead of making a counteroffer and negotiating in good faith,” complains conservative columnist Marc Thiessen, “Democrats are demanding unconditional surrender.”

To be sure, Trump has tried to climb down slightly from his blunder by mixing his shutdown demand with immigration policy negotiations. This maneuver is extremely fraught. Republicans have been trying to maintain internal party agreement on immigration since 2006, without any success. Every time Republican leaders try to come up with a deal, hard-liners attack it as a sell-out. It’s unlikely Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller could negotiate an immigration deal with each other, let alone with Democrats as well.

But even if Trump somehow walks this tightrope, and finds an immigration deal acceptable to both sides he can use as a face-saving gesture, he will almost certainly draw from it the same lesson McConnell took from the 2011 debt-ceiling negotiation. It is a hostage worth ransoming. Trump defied all the worrywarts, braved his way through the hardships, and avoided all the terrors the naysayers warned would come. If Trump extracts a win from his shutdown, he will immediately start plotting out his demands for the next one.

If Trump Gets a Ransom to End Shutdown, He’ll Do It Again