There’s a genuine policy difference here, of course: Trump wants a border wall and Democrats (joined by some Republicans) don’t. But if that’s all it was, a compromise wouldn’t be too hard to find. The trouble is that in his own mind, Trump has made the conflict intensely personal. As he told troops in Iraq on Wednesday, “We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don’t want to let us have strong borders — only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it." As far as he’s concerned, this is all the more reason that he can’t compromise. If it’s personal, then he has to win and his opponent has to lose.
Unfortunately, Trump makes everything personal. Whether it’s a result of his own narcissism, his history as head of a company dependent on his personal celebrity, or his lack of understanding of how government works, it leads to the same place: It’s always and only about him.
Nevertheless, there’s some truth behind what Trump is saying, not so much because right at this very moment Democrats are trying desperately to deny him some kind of win, but because everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, has their views of policy issues shaped by who’s advocating for them. To take just one example, at one time many Republicans believed that a health-care system that combined an individual mandate with government subsidies for low-income people was a wise, market-based solution to the problem of the uninsured; It was what Mitt Romney did successfully as governor of Massachusetts. But when President Barack Obama embraced the idea as a basis for his health-care reform, they all decided it was a policy demon so horrifying that it could have spat forth from the off-gassing of Joe Stalin’s corpse.
So yes, Democrats are far more resistant to the idea of a border wall now than they might have been in an earlier time when it wasn’t being advocated by a president with such a nakedly racist agenda. And the the truth is that there’s already about 700 miles worth of walls and fences along the border, and Democrats don’t object to having barriers in strategic locations. They’re willing to offer more money for border security, but they need to be able to say, to themselves and their constituents, that they didn’t give Trump his stupid wall, at the same time that Trump needs to say that he got his big, beautiful wall.
Which obviously makes a compromise tricky. One other complicating factor is while Democrats dislike the shutdown on substantive grounds, since they actually care about government functioning properly and don’t like the harm being done to federal workers and the people who depend on the services they provide, they don’t really have to worry that they’ll be harmed politically by the shutdown, since Trump is the one who will be blamed.
For Trump, it’s just the opposite. Everyone saw him proclaim, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security” and say to Chuck Schumer, “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.” He can now say it’s all Democrats' fault, but not too many people are going to buy it, especially since most of the public doesn’t want the thing he’s fighting for. Substantively, on the other hand, he doesn’t much care, nor do the people he’s appealing to. The more political damage he perceives, the more eager he might be to compromise, but he tends to live in a bubble of denial where every unfavorable poll is “fake” and the greatest measure of success is what the halfwits on “Fox & Friends” are saying about him.
That leads us to the conclusion that the shutdown will end only when there’s a compromise that allows the president to save face. Especially now when he’s confronting so many other problems, he needs to be able to declare victory and tell his base he kept his promise. He knows that with Democrats taking over the House in a week, he might never have another chance to secure substantial funding for a wall, and if he goes into 2020 not having kept the central promise of his 2016 campaign, motivating his base could be much harder.
What does a face-saving compromise look like? Right now it’s hard to say. But if there’s a glimmer of hope, it might lie in Trump’s willingness to describe any result, even the most abject defeat, as a spectacular win for him that was only possible because of his limitless brilliance. As depressing as it is, that’s what we might have to count on.