The government shutdown is over, at least for three weeks. After saying in early December he’d be “proud” to shut down the government — and did — in a bid to have leverage to get money for a border wall, President Trump backed down last week and agreed to reopen the government as discussions about funding for a wall continue. Politically, Trump’s shutdown and resulting capitulation was a huge loss for the president and for Republicans. Trump, who likes using chaos as a political strategy, thought shutting down the government would divide Democrats and he’d get money for his wall.
Instead, the shutdown divided Republicans, hurt Trump in the polls and gave Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi something around which to galvanize Democrats. She won the shutdown battle by beating Trump at his own game. In the process, Trump is now a much-weakened president.
Trump has nobody but himself to blame for all of this. He played every card wrong in the fight.
Let’s back up a little. The shutdown fight was delayed in the fall because Republicans didn’t want a shutdown just before the November mid-term elections. Meanwhile, Trump initially agreed to a budget that had $1.6 billion for border security. But far-right commentators from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and others roasted him for not fighting for his campaign-promised wall.
By December, Trump had changed course, bowing to his far-right base and rejecting the budget he had earlier agreed to support.
In a Dec. 11 meeting, Trump told Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Pelosi, on national television, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.” He also said that he’d take full responsibility for the shutdown.
You could see the look of glee in Schumer and Pelosi’s eyes.
It was an impulsive and dumb move by Trump. Shutting down the government as a way to leverage the wall issue was a non-starter from the beginning.
Although Trump and his minions subsequently tried to blame Democrats for the shutdown and resulting chaos, everyone remembered how Trump had bragged that he’d be “proud” to shut the government down. The result was that most Americans blamed Trump for the mess and his poll numbers began to dive.
While Democrats remained united behind Pelosi, Republicans began to argue among themselves. Last week, a proposal in the Senate by Democrats to reopen the government got more votes than one from Republicans, although Republicans control the Senate. That vote — and the chaos at American airports stemming from the shutdown — finally convinced Trump to back down and agree to reopen the government on Pelosi’s terms.
It was a humiliating defeat for Trump, one that weakened his position and enhanced Pelosi as the Democratic leader. Before the shutdown, Democrats were poised to begin their own infighting; Trump gave Pelosi a gift by giving Democrats a clear issue to rally around.
That entire mess could have been avoided in early 2018. A bi-partisan plan in February 2018 would have given Trump a whopping $25 billion for his beloved wall in return for creating a path to citizenship for the DACA kids, those who were brought here illegally as children.
But Trump, again bowing to his far-right base, rejected the idea as “amnesty.” In the Senate, a vote on that wall-DACA plan got 45 Democratic votes and a handful of Republican votes, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to proceed.
Now, a lot of moderate Republicans wish that plan had moved forward. It was the best chance Trump will ever have to get his wall and would have gotten bi-partisan support. But by playing to his base, Trump, the man who coined the phrase “the art of the deal,” blew the one deal that would have defined his presidency.
Today, the political dynamics are very different. The mid-term elections flipped the House, giving Democrats far more power at the table. And the Supreme Court has blocked the Trump Administration from taking further action against DACA immigrants, a move that weakened Trump’s leverage. All of that, and Trump’s defeat last week, make the wall even more unlikely, at least through Congress.
Let’s be clear: Trump’s wall plans have nothing to do with border security. Zero. Nada.
The wall is a political symbol, something Trump used during his 2016 election to gin-up his base with xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. (And whatever happened to Mexico paying for the wall as Trump promised in 2016?)
Building a wall won’t stop drugs from coming into the U.S. as Trump claims. Most drugs come through legal entry points hidden in vehicles, or by boat or air. Sometimes, they come in via tunnels dug under walls. Very little comes in by someone carrying it through the desert and sneaking across the border.
Nor will a wall solve the problems in Central America where public corruption, gang violence and shattered economies are leading some Central Americans to head north to the U.S. border to seek refugee status. These people aren’t sneaking across the border; they go to ports of legal entry to apply to become refugees. They want to be caught. (And a large number of illegal immigrants came in the country legally, but overstayed their visa. That reality has nothing to do with a wall.)
In addition, illegal immigration has slowed. It may shock some Republicans, but between 2007 and 2016 — during the Obama Administration — the overall number of illegal immigrants dropped. There isn’t a “crisis” at the border as Trump has argued.
And here’s another reality: While Trump and his base talk a lot about illegal immigration, the truth is that the Trump Administration is also wanting to curtail legal immigration into the U.S.
It’s part of a larger narrative, an isolationist view that underpins Trump’s trade wars and the idea that the U.S. doesn’t need any immigrants. Trump aide Stephen Miller is the architect of Trump’s war on all immigrants, legal and illegal. Behind the scenes, Miller is throwing wrenches into the immigration process in an attempt to slow it down.
But that view is counter to U.S. history and to what most Americans think. Most Americans want border control, but do support legal immigration and helping refugees. Most Americans want Congress to make a path to citizenship for DACA immigrants. Most Americans want the entire immigration and visa system fixed so that people can come to the U.S. legally to work, especially for seasonal labor in agriculture and hospitality.
All of that needs to be done, but has been blocked over the last 20 years by far-right Republicans who scream “amnesty” every time immigration reform is discussed. It is that anti-immigrant fringe group that helped elect Trump and it’s that group that he’s been grandstanding to during his first two years in office.
Trump has threatened to go around Congress by declaring a national emergency and divert military funds from other areas to build his wall. He might do that, but it would face a lot of legal challenges in court, especially since there is no true national emergency on the border.
Politically, declaring a national emergency to build a wall might appease Trump’s die-hard base, but it would also set a precedent for future presidents. What if a future left-leaning, Democratic president decided to use the scheme of a “national emergency” to bypass Congress to fund something Republicans abhorred? (Republicans complained bitterly that Obama issued too many executive orders to bypass Congress, but Trump has done the same thing with 92 executive orders since taking office.)
The best solution would be for Congress to fund a reasonable amount of border security, including some barriers where they’re truly needed. But Trump has so poisoned the debate with inflammatory, anti-immigrant rhetoric and political overreach that a true bipartisan solution may not be possible. The “wall” has come to represent something much larger, and uglier, than border security.
In 1987, a different wall defined another U.S. president. On June 12, 1987, president Ronald Reagan stood in Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The Berlin Wall had come to symbolize communist oppression and Reagan, a Republican, led the West in resisting the Soviet Union’s control over Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989.
So it’s ironic that now, another Republican president is trying to build a wall not to keep people in, but rather as a symbol of American isolationism and xenophobia.
And the truth is, we wouldn’t even be talking about a wall if Republicans had the courage to fix a broken immigration system.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher is Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.