Having blundered into a government shutdown, President Trump has three plausible options to end it. One, he could simply agree to reopen the government and shift to blaming Congress for failure to build his wall. Second, he could try to cobble together some broader trade, in which Democrats would give him border funds in return for a path to citizenship for Dreamers or some other concessions. Or third, he could declare a state of emergency, reopen the government, and leave it to the courts to stop him from unilaterally building the wall, allowing him to save face.
Every one of these methods carries risks. All of them have at least some chance of success (or, at least, of mitigating the damage Trump would otherwise incur). Instead, however, Trump for the time being appears to be rejecting all three options. Instead he is pursuing a fourth strategy: Keep the government closed, refuse efforts to open it, and wait for Democrats to cave in and fund the wall.
The broader political calculus controlling this situation is obvious. As a tactic to gain leverage, shutdowns never, ever work. The only theoretical reason to believe a shutdown might work is that a president is held responsible for bad outcomes, and might feel pressured to pay a ransom to end a shutdown on his watch. But since in this case the president is the one demanding the shutdown, this factor is simply another reason why the shutdown is backfiring on Trump. He is both the person demanding concessions to end the shutdown and the person who absorbs public blame for bad conditions in the country. And the shutdown, already the longest in American history, is approaching a duration at which it could seriously detract from economic growth.
What’s more, as a general matter, presidential speeches fail to move public opinion toward the president. To the small extent presidential speeches about issues do change anybody’s opinions, they tend to bring the public’s beliefs about an issue into alignment with its opinions about the president overall. People who already like the president will take his side on the issue in question, and those who oppose him will do the opposite. But since Trump is already highly unpopular, this small effect can’t help him much anyway.
Most importantly, Democrats have a strong and clear incentive not to give Trump a ransom. If they do hand over unilateral concessions in return for reopening the government, Democrats understand perfectly well that Trump (and other Republicans) will simply continue shutting down the government and demanding more ransom. And since the Democratic base loathes Trump, raising the profile of this issue increases the incentive for Democrats to hold fast. However costly it would have been for Democrats to give Trump concessions three weeks ago, it’s much costlier now, and the price will continue to rise.
So how does Trump escape? He’s rejecting every possible avenue of retreat. Some of his allies have tried to wrap the shutdown in a broader immigration deal, which would allow both sides to spin the trade as a win. But Trump blew up those talks. He could also claim he can use emergency powers to build the wall without Congress, and then reopen the government while it gets tied up in courts. But Trump told reporters this morning he doesn’t intend to try this:
Of course, Trump could always change his mind. But the rational time to try the emergency gambit was last week, right after he walked away from the negotiating table with Democrats. Instead, Trump appears to believe that letting the shutdown drag on will somehow force Democrats to surrender. The extent of his delusional, self-destructive behavior is striking even by Trumpian standards.
The Washington Post reports that in a recent meeting with congressional Republicans, Trump delivered a rambling, egomaniacal address about how he was “winning” everywhere, and Republicans would win the shutdown if they hold fast and back his demands. “Trump’s advisers are scrambling to build an exit ramp while also bracing for the shutdown to last weeks longer,” observes the Post. “Current and former aides said there is little strategy in the White House; people are frustrated and, in the words of one, ‘freaking out.’”
Other Republicans have tried to explain to Trump that his tactic cannot succeed, but Trump refuses to believe them. “Early this month, at a negotiating session in the White House Situation Room, Mr. Trump and his team said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, at the time on the eve of her election to the top post, would be more willing to give in on the wall once the vote was behind her,” reports the New York Times. Trump also predicted that when federal workers missed their first paycheck from the shutdown, Democrats would yield. This also failed to occur.
At some point, the economic and political costs of the shutdown will accumulate to such a level that either Trump agrees to end it, or a veto-proof supermajority of his fellow partisans override him. How long that takes is hard to say. It has already gone on far longer than most of us might have guessed. Trump is imprisoned in a mental bunker, believing that his willpower can overcome the objectively deteriorating conditions all around him.