Politics & Policy

Shutdown Symbolism

A security barricade in front of the U.S. Capitol on the first day of the government shutdown, December 22, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
$5 billion is a pittance in the budget, but blocking it would keep Trump from fulfilling his main campaign promise — and threaten his reelection.   

This year, the United States government will have spent more than $4 trillion. Right now, the government is shut down for a dispute over funding for the border wall proposed by Trump, amounting to $5 billion, or 0.125 percent of total federal expenditures. The shutdown has been going on for two weeks, and there is as yet no indication of any resolution.

Normally, government shutdowns are over major disputes on spending. Think of the 1995–96 shutdown, as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich squabbled over the extent to which constraints on Medicare spending were necessary to get the deficit under control. The shutdown in 2013 was due in part to historically unprecedented levels of deficit spending during peacetime, and substantive disagreements about what to do about it. But not in 2018. Right now, nobody in Washington, D.C., seems to care about the deficit. This is all about $5 billion to build a wall. Yet $5 billion is a pittance in terms of overall federal spending. Politicians in recent years have knowingly signed off on much more for purely political purposes.

This is beyond bizarre — or at least it would be in any other time except the Age of Trump.

What to make of all this?

Far be it from me to predict what will come from any of this. Still, I think this fight is the triumph of symbolism over substance in the squalid politics of our age, and it is a prelude to the brutal fight that awaits us as we near the 2020 presidential election.

The $5 billion for the wall is but a drop in the bucket in terms of completing a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico, which itself is not the best use of money in controlling illegal immigration. So why fight over it? The answer is that President Donald Trump made it the centerpiece of his campaign in 2016. He turned “the wall” into a symbol of his America First candidacy.

This explains not only why the Democrats are stubbornly refusing to give him the appropriations but also why the Republicans themselves are obstinately demanding it. It is all, once again, about Trump. The fight over this measly $5 billion is yet another illustration of the country’s obsession with refighting the 2016 presidential election.

This is why it is so hard to reckon how the shutdown will resolve itself. Usually, when the two sides are fighting over meaningful differences in the federal budget, they can find some place in the middle, with the final figure based on whose votes are the most necessary. But this fight isn’t like that at all. The real question is, Who is going to suffer a symbolic defeat to restart the 25 percent of the government that is currently shuttered?

What is especially notable about this is that both sides are so intent on this symbolic clash that they have agreed to keep one-quarter of the government shut down. Far from nearing an agreement, the major figures in the battle are not even in town right now. Everybody seems to have an interest in extending the shutdown, so long as it means they don’t look as if they’re knuckling under to their opponents.

This shutdown fight is like a microcosm for the disconnect between America and Washington, D.C. Everybody in politics (above all Trump himself) is so obsessed with TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP that they have turned virtually all governing questions into a referendum on the legitimacy of this president. But is this really what is good for the country? Is it really in the national interest to shut down the government over $5 billion for a small portion of a border wall?

These are the sorts of questions that our political class, in its Trump obsession (for or against), seem completely incapable of answering. Egged on by hardcore ideologues in the grassroots and donor classes — the diehard Trump supporters who swooned over his wall proposal two years ago and the implacable #Resistance in opposition who hate everything about the president — they are spoiling for a fight. If the government shuts down as a consequence, so be it.

This is an indication of what kind of campaign 2020 is going to be. It is all going to be all about Trump — and whether or not he should have been elected president in the first place. That will be it. Issues of actual relevance to ordinary Americans are going to be of secondary import. Everything will be made subservient to the issue of Trump’s legitimacy — even, it seems, the government that both sides claim an interest in running.

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