What’s Right: The Government Shutdown

After 35 days, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history has come to a stopgap-induced close. Between the time this article was assigned and the time it was actually written, a provisional bill to fund the government through February 15 was approved by Congress and the president. The objective of the debacle, funding for the construction of a physical wall on the southwestern U.S. border, was pushed into negotiations over the 2019 Homeland Security Department budget. In the same amount of time, Trump’s approval rating fell eight points to 37 percent.

Trump was lifted into the White House on gusts of “build the wall” chants. This was his bread and butter. One would think appropriations for the border wall would have been order of business number one on the first day of his presidency. One would think this would have been done quickly, even quietly with the approval of a friendly Congress. One would think that this would be done so that if the then nascent Trump administration achieved nothing else, it could point to this base-satisfying steel apparatus on the southwestern border. One would not be thinking like Donald Trump. The government shutdown was a failure and a compelling microcosm for the administration as a whole.

In the campaign season of 2016, then-candidate Trump was leaning heavily upon a promise so simple as to be ingenious: a southern border wall. Likely the brainchild of the now indicted Roger Stone, the border wall proposition stoked racial animus within the Trump base while doing so in the framework of a perceived failure of “establishment” Republicans—there is indeed no singular cohesive barrier along the U.S./Mexico border. This had the effect of staking out the territory in which Trump could make himself an “outsider candidate” and doing that in a way so as to draw out the ugliest tendencies of xenophobia in American political life. But most importantly, it was simple. Compared to recent past signature campaign initiatives—Obama’s healthcare expansion, Bush’s social security overhaul—the construction of a border wall is financially and logistically modest. This is a failure so glaring its explanation must lie beyond incompetency.

The reason I say this shutdown represents the administration as a whole is because it seems to be predicated on yet another example of the Trump administration believing it knows better than well established norms in political life. The arguments put forward by the administration that this funding was merely “left out” of previous allocation packages (yes, these happened in 2017 and in 2018) is absurd. This was done because members of Trump’s oval-shaped echo chamber saw an opportunity for a good row with the Democrats. They wanted a fight. They wanted to prop-up Trump’s evanescent negotiation skills; likely, they wanted to throw some more coal in the particularly nasty elements of the “build that wall” furnace. This was done intentionally either to flout a norm in political strategy or to dig deep divisions even deeper, perhaps both. Brute incompetence is not an adequate explanation.

To be clear, the border wall does not strike me as being particularly logistically important either way. States all across the world construct walls on their borders with little fanfare. This is a pretty vapid idea on its face (of course, it was approved by a bipartisan Congress but without funding in 2006) that has been made into a sort of dog whistle. It is a symbol in a dark corridor of the American political mind, and perhaps for this reason it fails, but the actual existence of a wall in Arizona changes more or less nothing (it also, in the grand scheme of a $4 trillion budget, costs nothing). So this is a symbol, and by my interpretation a symbol of Trump and his friends trying to stick it to the norms, as they have relished doing in Syria, North Korea, the press room etcetera. Of course, as in these other cases, the outcome is failure. This particular failure was done to the effect of delayed paychecks for 800,000 government employees and at the obvious expense of what remains of the quickly eroding political capital on Pennsylvania Ave.

Contact Ryan Zoellner at [email protected].