When Nancy Pelosi initially let it be known that President Trump would not be invited to Congress to deliver his State of the Union speech until he reopened the government, the widespread media take was that Pelosi had sunk to Trump’s level. “Washington these days represents nothing so much as an unruly sandbox,” sniffed one New York Times analysis, in which “septuagenarian politicians are squabbling like 7-year-olds.”
This overall narrative, which has been everywhere, purported to hold both sides accountable for the standoff, but it put the thumb on the scales for Trump in an insidious way. It did not permit space for a reasonable judgment as to whether one side’s use of the levers of power (Trump shutting down the government to force massively lopsided concessions from Democrats, versus the House speaker denying Trump a platform to profoundly mislead the country about that destructive act in the midst of carrying it out) might be more legitimate, mature and considered under the circumstances than the other.
Now Trump has capitulated. In two tweets on Wednesday night, Trump conceded that it’s Pelosi’s “prerogative” to rescind the invitation, and allowed that he’d give the speech “in the near future." That is, after the shutdown is over.
The result of this is that the obscuring fog of both-sidesism lying atop this whole situation has been dissipated. What has been laid bare, instead, is a simple reality: Democrats actually do control one chamber of Congress, after having won a major electoral victory, and that actually does give them some veto power over Trump’s conduct and agenda.
Pundits can claim all they want that Pelosi is being “as petty as Trump,” as if this is all just a matter of interpersonal conduct. That objection is now irrelevant: What really matters is that Trump will not deliver the speech. He will not use this ceremony as a platform to browbeat Democrats or to spread gales of disinformation about the shutdown and about the wall fantasies driving it. He will not use its pomp and elevating power to, in effect, launder his profound bad faith and the resulting deep imbalance of the situation. Perhaps the only antidote to the false-equivalence fog machine is the reality of power — the power of “no.”
I don’t mean to overstate the long-term significance of this capitulation. Instead, my point is that it gets at the deeper problem we all face here: Trump and his GOP enablers are proceeding as if the 2018 elections never happened.
What’s really driving Trump’s shutdown
This is the whole reason for shutting down the government: To break the influence that the Democratic House has over whether Trump’s wall will be funded, by threatening severe harm to the country until Democrats rubber stamp what he’s demanding as the price of ending that damage. The theory is that they will care more about that damage than he does. The true nature of the staggering malevolence driving Trump’s misconduct here is also being obscured by a great deal of both-sides media coverage. Once again, the only antidote to it may be the power of “no.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Senate will vote on two bills reopening the government: the Trump sham compromise, which packages Trump’s wall funding with fake concessions to Democrats; and the Democratic proposal to reopen the government with no strings attached.
Both of these will almost certainly fail. It is widely assumed that this will open the way toward a new compromise push. But that compromise cannot happen unless Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proceed from an acceptance of the fact that Democrats now control the House.
Trump must leave Foxlandia
And this requires Trump to venture outside of what I have called “Foxlandia,” the place where Trump always possesses all the leverage; where any and all polls showing him cratering are fake news; and a glorious victory, entirely on Trump’s own terms, is always lurking in the next news cycle. As Simon Rosenberg notes, no real compromise can happen until Trump leaves Foxlandia behind and enters the new Washington.
Foxlandia, to be clear, is not a place where Trump is immune from criticism. Right-wing media pounded him mercilessly when he offered temporary reprieve to 700,000 “dreamers” in exchange for wall funding. But they did this to warn Trump off of giving Democrats any more in this regard, such as permanent protections for them. Importantly, the temporary reprieve is not a real concession to Democrats — it only undoes the damage Trump himself is trying to inflict — whereas permanent protections would be a real concession, i.e., an acknowledgment that Democrats now control one chamber and must be given something. Thus, even when it is criticizing him, Foxlandia remains the place where the last election never happened.
There is a compromise to be had
But outside of Foxlandia, there really is a compromise to be had. It might look something like this: Hundreds of millions of dollars to unclog courts (instead of the poison-pill restrictions on asylum seeking that Trump wants) and to upgrade border infrastructure to handle the crush of migrant families, including better care for distressed migrant children, which both sides want. Democrats would get permanent protections for dreamers and people who stand to lose temporary protected status — not merely a reversal of Trump’s damage.
Trump would get much more money for border security — perhaps even the full $5.7 billion he wants — and, yes, this could include additional barriers, provided they are in keeping with a serious accounting provided by the Department of Homeland Security, illuminated by fact-finding via legitimate congressional processes. That would give Trump what he means by the “wall,” as you’ll note from his downgrading of it to “steel barriers in high-priority locations.” All this actually would address the border crisis — including the humanitarian crisis Trump keeps claiming to care about.
But again, this would require Trump to make actual concessions in exchange for Democrats giving him his barrier money, as opposed to Trump using the damage of a government shutdown to extract it unilaterally from them.
Democrats are now operating from the premise that this is really what’s at stake: Whether Trump and McConnell will recognize the outcome of the last election going forward. As Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) put it: “This is no longer just about the wall, it’s about how Donald Trump operates with the Democratic majority in the House.” Rep. Tom Malinowski (N.J.) adds: “If we give in to this tactic in any way we will validate it, and there will be no end to these shutdowns.”
These basic stakes have been badly obscured by the both-sides fog machine. Perhaps the only thing that can cut through that fog is the power of “no.”