The government isn’t shut down because of President Trump’s unbelievable cluelessness as a deal-maker. It’s shut down because of his many fears.
I don’t mean his pretend fears. Surely Trump doesn’t really believe his own racist nonsense about the U.S.-Mexico border being a sieve for homicidal maniacs and walk-to-work terrorists, and he can’t be too worried about a humanitarian crisis that is largely of his own creation. I’m talking about his real fears — the ones that must keep him up at night.
Trump is afraid of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, Laura Ingraham and the rest of the far-right echo chamber (he sees Sean Hannity as more of a house pet). He’s afraid of his shrunken but loyal base, which could abandon him if he doesn’t give them a wall. He’s afraid of special counsel Robert Mueller and the federal, state and local prosecutors in New York who are investigating various Trump enterprises. And he’s afraid of losing his coercive hold over the Republican senators who one day could sit in judgment of his fate.
Not one of these intertwined fears is irrational. Trump must realize he has painted himself into a corner but sees no alternative. According to news reports, the president knew his hostage-video Oval Office address on Tuesday and his photo-op at the border on Thursday would make no difference. He must also be aware that the GOP leadership in Congress can’t hold the line forever.
To be sure, Trump has shown himself to be a clumsy and incompetent negotiator. When he reneged on the original agreement to keep the government funded through Feb. 8, he cut the legs from under anyone who claims to be negotiating for him, up to and including Vice President Pence. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would be crazy to agree to anything at all that does not have Trump’s personal, public endorsement — and his felt-tipped signature, preferably in blood.
“You’ve got to be willing to walk away,” Trump often says when touting his alleged deal-making prowess. And indeed that is true — in negotiations about real estate, branding rights or a reality television show. But when you are president, you can hardly walk away from your own government. When Trump tried the maneuver Wednesday —calling congressional leaders to a meeting and then ostentatiously stalking out — everyone just shrugged. He had nowhere to go.
Trump could have tried to tempt Democrats with a grand bargain on comprehensive immigration reform -- or even a limited swap of “border security” funds he could use for his needless wall in exchange for permanent protection for the undocumented “Dreamers” who were brought to this country as minors. That kind of offer could at least have caused some restiveness in Pelosi’s and Schumer’s ranks. But since Trump is offering nothing at all, except a take-it-or-leave-it demand, Democrats have easily maintained a solid front.
Another pro tip for getting what you want: Don’t loudly and publicly take personal responsibility for negative consequences that would result from a breakdown of negotiations. With television cameras running, Trump boasted that everyone should blame him for a shutdown. Polls show this is exactly what the public has done, and Trump’s numbers will surely get worse as the effects of the shutdown on families and communities become more dire.
The Democratic proposal —fund the government while continuing to debate border security and the wall — is eminently reasonable. But Trump is scared.
He went back on the original deal after the far-right commentariat went ballistic. The president must realize that having failed to get funding for the wall when his party had control of both chambers of Congress, he is less likely to get it following a blue-wave midterm election that gave Democrats the House.
But Trump doesn’t want Limbaugh, Coulter, et al. wailing to his base that their hero has surrendered to the snowflakes and given up on “the wall,” which from the beginning was more of a rallying cry than a serious proposal. Trump’s approval numbers have always been underwater, but as long as he retains overwhelming support among Republicans, he can expect GOP senators to worry that crossing him would amount to political suicide.
Depending on what Mueller and the other prosecutors find, it is not inconceivable that the House could vote for impeachment. The more support Trump retains among the GOP base, the better his chances of surviving a Senate trial.
That is why Trump looks so joyless, so grim. He sees this as an existential fight, and so far he’s losing.
Reach Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.