Art of the Deal?

by Dylan Giles

The longest government shutdown in American history (34 days, beating Bill Clinton’s total of 21 days) and its aftermath only proved one thing: President Trump’s “Art of the Deal” was merely empty posturing, and the next two years are going to be very difficult for him.

Facing mounting public backlash, Republican infighting, and airports buckling under pressure, President Trump decided to end the longest shutdown in American history. Eight-hundred thousand federal workers breathed a collective sigh of relief as they finally received their pay, allowing them to resume paying off their mortgages and handling their credit card debt. A few weeks later, Congress, reluctant to face the wrath of air traffic controllers for the second time, passed a spending bill with no appropriations for Trump’s wall, as no Democrat would have conceded to appropriations within the constraints of time.

The end of the shutdown and Trump’s bypass brought with it two conclusions about President Trump’s governance, and the implications of what each stakeholder comes away with.

One: President Trump backs down. While this is not necessarily new information, it is assuredly now attached to the most publicized failure of his presidency. From day one of his announcement to win the White House, the border wall was the central feature of his campaign — notwithstanding the attached “And I’m going to make Mexico pay for it.” The New York Times reports Trump stuck to the wall because it was a mnemonic device from his campaign officials, out of concern for an undisciplined candidate who’s “on-script” mode was essentially everyone else’s “off-script.” Trump’s popularity stemmed in part from easily repeatable campaign promises that have been his fallback; in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, former Representative Ryan Costella (R., Pa.) said Trump’s supporters love him because he sticks to the “two or three things … he owns over and over again.” Those supporters, who have bought into simple promises like the wall, now may see Trump as a man who has backed down on a key promise.

For supporters who see him as shrewd and tough, this concession is anything but. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter has now branded Trump a “bigger wimp” than George H.W. Bush, a war hero who regularly imperiled himself in bombing missions to serve his country. The shutdown only proves Trump’s subservience to the strongest whims in the room: Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh at the start (even a senator from Trump’s own party agrees) of the shutdown, and by the end, air traffic controllers, TSA agents and the hundreds of thousands of other federal workers.

Supporters who see him as an unyielding firebrand may feel compelled to rethink that belief. This moment is especially poignant considering Trump’s failure to create any sort of compromise in Congress that includes his wall — his so-called dealmaking capabilities may be thrown in sharp relief following the aftermath of his shutdown.

Two: Trump’s investment in protecting his interests is not as strong as that held by the Democrats — or the Republicans, for that matter. Politically, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her party faced two choices during this shutdown. They could concede to Trump and provide funding for the wall — thereby lying down and rolling over to Trump’s bidding on the metaphorical day of their inauguration. Or, they could refuse and watch Trump throw out tactic after tactic, exposing his lack of political shrewdness in fixing a shutdown he himself purported to own. Laid out in that way, the choice was an easy one.

Beyond the left, Republicans actually faced difficulties from the sustained shutdown that finally grew too painful to ignore. If Trump had not conceded, their choices were thus: they could remain with the president and deal with the growing dissatisfaction among their constituents that were negatively impacted by the shutdown (something that the executive does not need to consider as much), or they could have broken rank and faced backlash from Trump, a notoriously mercurial ally, and his small but defiantly loyal base of supporters. The 2010 midterms serve as a reminder to Republicans that a loss is merely a primary away from a more loyal or conservative candidate, no matter the district or state. Fortunately for them, on the verge of major infighting, this binary did not remain, as Trump indeed ended up conceding. Since Republican lawmakers were reluctant to enter another shutdown and stay the course with Trump, they voted on spending measures that kept the government open.

Trump set a record with very little, if anything, to show for it. He is back to square one with perhaps even less than he started with; Democrats are emboldened by the public display of concession, he has been scapegoated by the majority of the public and even some of his supporters for his role and Republicans are less eager than ever to cause further harm to their constituents. Not only does Trump have little to show for this months-long stint, his new workaround may fail to stand up to legal scrutiny, removing yet another possibility for him to make his wall. This defeat and aftermath sets the stage for the possible endgame of his presidency; beleaguered by the House and unsupported by his own party, Trump might be brought to his knees under the weight of his own hubris with no political acumen to keep him standing. His supporters, then, might become disillusioned with a man they believed would radically alter the face of the government. This outcome does not even touch upon Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recently released report. Time will tell how these relationships will play out, but it is not a stretch to imagine Trump will face increasing pressure from both sides.

Some timely words of wisdom for the President may carry more than a hint of irony: “Part of being a winner is knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes you have to give up the fight and walk away, and move on to something that’s more productive.” I’ll leave the author up to imagination– believe me, it’s easy enough to figure out.