Trump goes all-in on the shutdown: Here's why it's a losing bet

Trump thinks his military visit will help him sell the shutdown. But the public is already turning against him

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 27, 2018 2:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Despite portraying himself as a great dealmaker, it's become sadly clear that Donald Trump, overgrown manchild, only knows how to bellow threats and blackmail his opponents. Which is why we're now six days into a government shutdown over Trump's demands for border wall funding — money that is largely symbolic, as it falls billions of dollars short of what building the president's ludicrous and unnecessary wall would actually cost. The entire shutdown makes no sense, except as amateur dramatics from a man who wants to look like a wheeler and dealer but has no real negotiation skills.

Unfortunately, real people are getting hurt to placate the reality TV president's need to have drama for drama's sake. Nearly 400,000 federal workers are furloughed and another 400,000 or more are being made to work without pay. The result is that important government work isn't getting done, causing trash cans to overflow and threatening to slow down access to food assistance and other necessary services.

Trump, however, seemed downright gleeful about the pain he's causing on Thursday morning:

As many others have observed, Trump does not see himself as the president of all Americans. He only sees himself as the president of his own followers. As I noted earlier this month, the supposed reason for the shutdown — border wall funding — is largely a pretext.  Shutting down the government is increasingly viewed by the Fox News crowd as a way to stick it to the liberals, and therefore a good thing in and of itself.

Trump and the propaganda troops at Fox News have been selling this shutdown as something that only affects "liberals" and not "real" Americans. That's almost certainly why Trump, who has previously expressed revulsion at the very idea of visiting the troops, sucked up his fears and visited some service members stationed in Iraq on Wednesday. While there, he blatantly lied, telling troops he gave them "one of the biggest pay raises you've ever received" and bragging about increasing military spending.

Holding this trip during a shutdown was brilliant propaganda, it's sad to say. It sent a clear message to Fox News viewers: The shutdown doesn't affect government functions they support, like the military. The implication, backed by Trump's tweet, is that it's only hurting "Democrats," stereotyped by right-wing media as welfare cheats and useless government bureaucrats.

How well this propaganda push will work remains to be seen. The early signs suggest that it's not going too well for Trump, however. While Republicans faithfully adhere to Trump's party line and blame Democrats for the shutdown, most other Americans correctly realize that Trump is to blame. Morning Consult reports that Trump's approval rating has sunk to 39 percent, which is where it fell after he made excuses for the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

Government shutdowns, in other words, appear to be about as popular as neo-Nazis: More popular than you'd hope, unfortunately, but still strongly disliked by the majority of Americans.

The Democratic response to all this, therefore, should be a stalwart refusal to budge on the issue of border wall funding. The reality is that if weren't about the border wall, Trump would find some other reason to create drama and have a government shutdown showdown, because generating pointless conflict is the only thing he really knows how to do.

Trump is best dealt with on the emotional level where he lives -- that of a toddler throwing tantrums. That means letting him cry it out until he's tired, instead of giving him what he wants. As with a toddler, giving into tantrums only reinforces the idea that tantrums work, which only means the toddler will ramp it up the next time. Same story with Trump: If he gets his symbolic border wall money, that will just encourage him to keep shutting down the government. The only thing that will scare him off this tactic in the future is a major defeat.

Trump clearly thinks shutdowns are all upside for him. He may even believe that the only people who get hurt are people who would never vote for him  anyway, making the strategy similar to that of a terrorist who holds people hostage that he would be just as happy to murder.

But the no matter how much Fox News pundits and Trump try to argue that only "Democrats" are affected by shutdowns, the reality is that a number of more Republican demographic groups will be harmed. As NPR reported, small business loans and programs that help farmers will be shut down, causing economic slowdown for those communities. The stock market has also been volatile and trending sharply downward, which isn't helping Trump sell this shutdown as a good thing to his own constituency.

Fortunately, Democrats seem to realize that giving into Trump on this will only cause problems in the long run, even if, as expected, there will never be a single brick laid -- or "steel slat" planted -- Trump's silly wall.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, told the Washington Post there's a "widespread feeling" that it's unwise to incentivize Trump for "holding the federal government hostage for [his] latest whim."

"Now that the holidays are behind us, the cold reality of the shutdown is going to start to hit," he also told the paper.

Whether or not this confidence is sincere or posturing, it suggests that Democrats are not interested in blinking first. Instead, the plan seems to be that the House will pass a funding bill, without wall money, as soon as Nancy Pelosi takes the speaker's gavel in January. Democrats are betting that Trump will be tired of seeing his approval ratings fall and will just give in. He already has a long history of trying to save face by falsely claiming that the wall is already being built, so there's little doubt he'll revert to that once he's bored with this particular drama.

Either way, Trump's continued strategy of playing exclusively to his base is looking more and more like a loser. Gerrymandering and voter suppression can only go so far, as Trump will be reminded when he steps to the podium for the State of the Union address in late January, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi right behind him.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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