Five takeaways from the farcical Trump shutdown

Unions and supporters join the AFGE TSA at Philadelphia International airport to call for an end to the government shutdown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Unions and supporters join the AFGE TSA at Philadelphia International airport to call for an end to the government shutdown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s morning in America. Air traffic controllers will get paid again to ensure our safety. Food inspectors will get paid again to stop the spread of disease. Workers held hostage by Donald Trump’s racist wall fantasy won’t have to stand in line at food banks or worry about draining their modest nest eggs, like the IRS data processing assistant whose baby has staggering medical bills. And the economy will stop hemorrhaging money (the shutdown tab was $11 billion). Hopefully, this detestable episode — assuming it’s not repeated — will be viewed as just another Trumpian debacle.

Here are five quick takeaways, culled from the 35 days of needless pain:

There is a concept in the American system called “checks and balances.” We all know that Trump never cracked a civics course and that he was spoiled in his first two years by all-Republican servility, but how is it possible that he failed to process the message that voters sent last November? By a historic margin of nearly 10 million votes nationwide — the most massive repudiation ever suffered by a president in a midterm election — Americans awarded the House to the Democrats and told them to put a leash on him.

Which prompts more rhetorical questions. Since the Republican House and Senate had failed to fund Trump’s demagogic campaign promise during his first two years, how is it possible that he actually thought a Democratic House would agree to indulge him? What aspect of divided government does he not understand?

It’s clear by now that “The Art of the Deal” was just a book title concocted by his ghostwriter, because what’s crystal clear now, thanks to the shutdown, is that this guy can’t negotiate a parking ticket. A good negotiator knows how to read other people; Trump apparently had no idea that Nancy Pelosi is the real alpha dog in that duo. He’s a very long way from his comfort zone, barging in on beauty queens. Pelosi has proven that Trump is just as susceptible to the laws of political gravity as anyone else. Does Trump really think the next three weeks will melt Pelosi’s steel?

There is a limit to the public’s patience. For many Americans, especially those who rarely pay attention to politics, Trump has likely been viewed as a distant carnival act. But this time, he was hurting real people. His job approval rating, in the latest poll sponsored by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, is 34 percent. Another new national poll says that his job approval among women has dropped to 27 percent. And in the latest Quinnipiac poll, only 28 percent of independents endorsed shutting the government to finance a border wall.

If those trends continue — and it’s hard to foresee a reversal — many Republicans on the 2020 ballot may have to decide whether it serves their interests to follow him off the cliff. And speaking of Republicans…

There is even a limit to the Senate Republicans’ servility. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, must’ve been spinning in his grave during those 35 days. He envisioned the Senate as a chamber suffused with “wisdom,” an august body that would not “yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions” or be “seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious” actions. But that mission was systematically betrayed by Mitch (“We are all behind the president”) McConnell, who at any time could’ve pushed legislation to reopen the government and sought to rally a veto-proof majority; instead, he indulged Trump’s intemperate and pernicious actions. As the old saying goes, if you lie down with a dog, you get up with fleas.

But in the end, even some Republican senators opted for flea medicine. Cory Gardner and Susan Collins (both of whom face tough re-elections in blue states), Lisa Murkowski, Ron Johnson (who reportedly yelled at McConnell, “This is your fault!”), Lamar Alexander (who’s retiring in 2020 anyway), and Mitt Romney all signaled their restiveness.  If Trump threatens another shutdown in mid-February, perhaps other Republicans will join these slim ranks in rediscovering Article I of the Constitution, which entrusts Congress to “provide for…the general welfare of the United States.” It does not say that Congress “shall do whatever the president says.”

There are no limits to this regime’s ignorance about how average people live. A quick memo to Trump’s fervent rally-goers: He is nothing like you, and he has no clue. This is a guy who recently thought that people needed a photo ID to buy food. Then he said, during the worst of the shutdown, that his victims can simply go to the supermarket and work out a deal to buy food on credit.

Or something like that. Here’s the actual quote: “Local people know who they are when they go for groceries and everything else…They will work along. I know banks are working along. If you have mortgages, the mortgagees, the folks collecting the interest and all of those things, they work along. And that’s what happens in times like this. They know the people, they’ve been dealing with them for years, and they work along.”

When was the last time he bought food in a supermarket? (Likely, never.) Can you imagine going into Wegman’s, loading up on $300 worth of family food for the week, and saying, “Hey, I have no money, so can we just work along?”

There are no limits to his delusions. OK, we knew that already. But one particular lie — repeated over and over during the shutdown; in the Cabinet room, in his Oval Office address — is a veritable road map of his mind. I’m referring to his riff about immigrant women being blindfolded with duct tape and driven across the wall-less border. He said it again last Friday, during his shutdown surrender: “Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths, in many cases, they can’t even breathe. They’re put in the backs of cars or vans or trucks.” There isn’t a shred of evidence that this happens, and nobody in his administration has the faintest idea what he’s talking about.

This is the guy who still thinks he’s getting a wall, who’s threatening another shutdown unless he gets what he wants. Over to you, Nancy Pelosi. On Friday she simply said: “Have I not been clear on the wall?”

Which reminds me of the scene in “Citizen Kane” when the blustering plutocrat was nailed by a political foe. Kane, pig-headed as always, vowed to fight on. But his foe said, “You’re making a bigger fool of yourself than I thought you would. If it was anybody else, I’d say that what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.