Up against the wall: Trump shuts down reality

The North Portico of the White House is seen, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, in Washington. The partial government shutdown will almost certainly be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year, as both parties traded blame Friday and President Donald Trump sought to raise the stakes in the weeklong impasse. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

The North Portico of the White House is seen, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, in Washington. The partial government shutdown will almost certainly be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year, as both parties traded blame Friday and President Donald Trump sought to raise the stakes in the weeklong impasse. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Theodore Roosevelt, who died 100 years ago yesterday, famously declared that dissent was a citizen’s duty: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public…It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that, by inefficiency or otherwise, he fails in his duty to stand by the country.”

Thank you, Teddy. Because today we have a massive failure, by inefficiency or otherwise. Today we have a perilous government shutdown that crystallizes everything about Donald Trump that everyone with an ounce of cognitive intellect warned about three years ago. I feel compelled, as a patriot, to point out that what we are now witnessing is an unprecedentedly toxic mix of narcissism and ignorance. Goaded by right-wing media cranks to conflate the phony wall issue into a national crisis, he is stripping 800,000 people of their paychecks and threatening much broader economic damage.

This story makes it clear that Trump’s wall was just a rhetorical gimmick from day one:

“Before it became the chief sticking point in a government shutdown drama that threatens to consume his presidency at a critical moment, President Trump’s promise to build a wall on the southwestern border was a memory trick for an undisciplined candidate. As Mr. Trump began exploring a presidential run in 2014, his political advisers landed on the idea of a border wall as a mnemonic device of sorts, a way to make sure their candidate – who hated reading from a script but loved boasting about himself and his talents as a builder – would remember to talk about getting tough on immigration…”

His own advisers, quoted in the story, knew the wall idea wasn’t serious; Republican congressmen dismissed it, too. Mick Mulvaney, currently Trump’s acting chief of staff, was a House member in 2015 when he said that Trump’s wall idea was “absurd and almost childish.” But Trump kept repeating it because his followers kept applauding it, and the mindless trope morphed into a campaign promise.

And now he has become a hostage to his promise, to the point where he’s willing to shut the government in a pathetic bid to save face – while wreaking havoc with real people’s lives. In the tweeted words of George Conway (Kellyanne’s off-the-reservation spouse), “Virtually everything about this man and his ‘presidency’ can be understood through his narcissism.”

Real people’s lives: The aforementioned 800,000 federal workers will miss paychecks starting this week, food stamps for 38 million low-income citizens will soon be imperiled, $140 billion in anticipated tax refunds will be delayed, airport security screeners who are already working without pay are calling in sick, pilots at three airlines are warning that civilian flying will become more dangerous if the shutdown continues as long as Trump is currently threatening…and yet, we’ve now learned this:

“The Trump administration, which had not anticipated a long-term shutdown, recognized only this week the breadth of the potential impact, several senior administration officials said. The officials said they were focused now on understanding the scope of the consequences…”

Take an extra beat and ponder those sentences. We all know that Republicans, by dint of their longstanding ideological crusade, do not value federal governance. But even though we’re benumbed by the malevolence and ignorance of the current regime, it still boggles the mind that these people, by their own admission, are scrambling to grasp “the scope of the consequences” triggered by the Trump shutdown.

It’s not rocket science to anticipate in advance that there are ripple effects – on retail businesses, creditors, the travel industry – when people can’t pay their mortgages, car payments, and student bills. And yet, they failed to plan for what they were too ignorant to know. One furloughed Coast Guard guy, who voted for Trump (and still supports him!) has this message for his president:  “Peoples’ lives are at stake…You have a lot of people across the country that put you in office so think of them before you think of yourself.”

But Trump’s only reference point is himself; everyone else is potential collateral damage. One of his allies, right-wing media executive Christopher Ruddy, tells The New York Times: “He’s very obsessed about carrying out his campaign promises – I think to a degree that’s unhealthy.” As a result, he’s walling himself off from reality in ways that are uniquely creative. He’s threatening to declare a national emergency and claim special powers to fund a wall – a move that would likely spark a new rule-of-law crisis. He has also insisted in recent days that past presidents have urged him to build a wall – thus prompting spokespeople for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to declare that no such urging ever happened.

Indeed, there was a priceless exchange this weekend on CNN, where host Jake Tapper confronted Mulvaney, citing the Bush-Clinton denials, and pointing out that neither Barack Obama nor Jimmy Carter has ever endorsed a Trump-style wall. Tapper then asked Mulvaney: “Who exactly was (Trump) talking about?… Which one told him? Which president did?”

To which the acting chief of staff replied: “I have no idea.” Once again, a Trump servant was hung out to dry by a Trump lie.

This is the kind of ginned-up crisis we long warned about. This is the predictable price we’re forced to pay by hiring a grifter with no qualifications for the job. And what comes next? David Frum, the prominent reality-based conservative, says that Trump has “refused every face-saving exit. He now faces only ugly options: 1) trigger an even bigger crisis by invoking emergency powers or 2) humiliating surrender to Nancy Pelosi.”

Personally, I’d choose door number 2. But given his abiding fear of humiliation, the Trump shutdown – which he told Pelosi and Schumer that he would be “proud” to own – will likely damage a lot more Americans before it plays out. And anyone who claims to be shocked by this farce has not been paying attention.

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.