While most of us are just trying to get on with our lives, maybe welcome some visitors and enjoy some time-off (who knows? … Maybe even stay off Twitter for a few days!), the unrelenting Trumpian chaos once again intrudes. This time, it’s a partial government shutdown as Trump refused to sign a spending patch that did not appropriate $5 billion for his border “wall.” (I’ll explain the quotes below.)
There’s no need for any “he said, she said” on this one. Trump said if he didn’t get the money for the “wall” he’d shut down the government, and he did. If you want the depressing details of how this debacle unfolded, see here.
The quotes around “wall” are important, to me at least. When contemplating consequential actions, like a partial shutdown, we should be clear about what we’re fighting for. But nobody knows what Trump’s “wall” is, other than a potent signal to his base voters. Surely, we — and I include the rest of the media — should be much clearer about this. When we talk about the “wall” as if it’s real, we’re reifying a dark fantasy, a vague, though powerful, signal of anti-immigrant sentiments, not an actual, physical thing.
While I’d love to block all of this out of my mind for the next week, that’s not an option for the hundreds of thousands of furloughed and unpaid government workers (those who must work without pay through the shutdown, like TSA workers, should get paid retrospectively after the shutdown; affected government contractors, however, may lose money).
But I do have one thought to share, and believe it or not, it’s actually sort of a positive one in keeping with the spirit of the season.
It starts with the recognition, shared by many, I’m sure, that this “wall” argument is tired, old and boring. There’s a new year starting with a new House majority and given the serious work they’ve come here to get started, it’s well past time to stop wasting energy, time and media space on Trump’s chaos.
That’s not to say, as the reference above to the affected workers shows, that the shutdown doesn’t matter or shouldn’t be resolved as quickly as possible. But as the new majority is in the wings ready to take office in a few days, we must put it in context.
What do I mean by that? Simple: It should be clear by now that Trump is a hopeless negotiator who is in way over his head. That’s one reason the government of one of the world’s most advanced and dominant economies can’t reliably fund itself. But he is a masterful manipulator, who, with the aid of a willing mainstream and especially social media, manages every story to be not about substance, facts, and policy, but about how angry he is and how badly he, and by proxy, his base, is being treated by everyone else.
It could not be clearer than Trump has no idea what to do about immigration, health care, the budget, the Islamic State or anything else. The one and only thing he knows is the fight he wants to pick about those and any other issues that come up. That’s his only comfortable turf. Unfortunately, it’s one that’s endlessly captivating to the media — an insight the president has expertly tapped for as long as he’s been in the public eye — so it’s the turf we also end up on, at great cost to the nation.
My hope for 2019, and again, I’m sure I’m not alone, is that those coming to town to do more than feed Trump’s ego stop engaging in those fights; that they are guided by the words of George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
Yes, the first job of the new Congress is to end the shutdown, but every moment spent wrestling with Trump about an imaginary wall is one not spent on what you were sent here to do.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting any meaningful legislation will pass for the next couple of years. But as the new year dawns, so does a unique, political moment, one wherein a new, diverse, energized majority can try to remind the nation that politicians don’t exist merely to cut taxes for the wealthy, pit economically vulnerable groups against each other and engage in high-stakes fights about fantasies (it’s not just the “wall;” it was also the “caravan”).
Yes, many politicians come here to make sure Washington stays broken. For them, a shutdown is proof of the uselessness of the system, so why not just cut its funding and shut it down? But others come here with a higher purpose: to try to solve the challenges that face us, from vast inequalities in income, wealth, and power, to climate change, health care, fiscal imbalances, geopolitics, and the rest.
It’s our choice. We can either begin the new year by seriously engaging in that existential project. Or, we can keep fighting about the border “wall.”