Jan. 8, 2019 – If your head hurts and the government shutdown over a border wall strikes you as the theatre of the absurd, you are not alone. As much as Trump and his enablers put on straight faces and make serious-sounding arguments, this entire exercise has to do with Trump’s political brand, not public policy.
As a New York Times story by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Baker reminds us, the wall started not as a policy memo or thinkpiece, but as a memory device for an undisciplined candidate. At his rallies, Trump liked the call and response to his promise to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it. Now, incredibly, this racist rally chant has become the basis for a government shutdown. There doesn’t appear to be a reasonable way out because this isn’t a normal policy negotiation. And that’s because we are not dealing with a normal politician, but a narcissistic celebrity trying to keep his most fervent supporters on board.
Below are reminders of how the “wall” became central to one of the longest government shutdowns in American history:
- During the early stages of Trump’s 2016 campaign, campaign advisers came up with the “wall” as a simple mnemonic memory device to keep their undisciplined candidate from forgetting to emphasize his hard line on immigration in speeches. As the New York Times story, “How the Border Wall Is Boxing Trump In,” notes, “Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump’s early political advisers, recalled telling Roger J. Stone Jr., another adviser, ‘How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration? … We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.’”
- Trump liked the reception from the conservative base and it became a racist rally chant central to his brand. As the New York Times piece captures, “the line drew rapturous cheers from conservative audiences, thrilling the candidate and soon becoming a staple of campaign speeches. Chants of ‘Build the wall!’ echoed through arenas throughout the country … Advisers said the president became absorbed by the idea of a wall because it was the most memorable and tangible promise he made while stumping for the White House in 2016.”
- After two years of Republican unified control that failed to prioritize or deliver on the wall pledge, Trump made it a priority when the Coulter/Limbaugh crowd threatened his brand as a tough guy who puts down brown people. Evidently, his right-wing amplifiers took Trump literally — although not the “make Mexico pay for it” component. Trump picked this fight to beat his chest and protect his brand. There’s no policy solution because there’s no policy basis to the fight.
- The real policy focus should be on the impact of the shutdown on everyday Americans. The shutdown is having a harmful direct and downstream effect throughout America, as detailed in reporting by the Washington Post and an accompanying state-by-state map. A Post article, “U.S. towns with federal workers brace for impact as the shutdown continues,” notes: “Far away from the behemoth federal office complexes in Washington, small towns and cities with workforces dependent on government jobs are beginning to feel the pinch … Many of the affected federal workers — including 10,000 people in Utah, 6,200 in West Virginia and 5,500 in Alabama — have salaries far below the average $85,000 for government employees. But those paychecks drive local economies, and workers are starting to make tough choices about how to spend them — eating out less, limiting travel and shopping at food pantries instead of grocery stores — creating a ripple effect through the neighborhoods and towns where they live.” See here for a map resource accompanying the article, highlighting the state-by-state impact of the shutdown.
Trump and his minions are desperately trying to retrofit a campaign memory device and rally chant into a policy debate about border enforcement. It’s not. This is about Trump’s ego, temperament and brand. Given how ridiculous this all is, it’s difficult to imagine the way out of this mess. Meanwhile, Americans across the country and from all walks of life are feeling the impact of the Trump shutdown. Perhaps instead of sending in policy makers, we should send in mental health professionals.