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Trump's government shutdown rhetoric is a reminder of just how normalized shutdowns have become

The fact that many Americans believe shutdowns are an acceptable way of conducting business highlights the level of dysfunction in U.S. politics today.
The Capitol Dome is seen behind the Peace Monument statue on Dec. 31, 2018, as a partial government shutdown stretches into its second week.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

What’s really shocking about the government shutdown is how an extreme tactic has become normalized. Shutdowns have become virtually routine in Washington — as a bargaining tactic.

“If we don’t get what we want... I will shut down the government,” President Donald Trump declared when he met with Democratic congressional leaders on December 11. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.”

The assumption is that a shutdown is a national crisis. And it was once regarded as just that. But now the American public appears more inured to the fact that, according to a Senate Democrats fact sheet, roughly 420,000 federal workers are working without pay and 380,000 have been furloughed. Meanwhile, the shutdown may very well thrill Trump’s base, who see it as proof that their president is willing to fight for them. Trump solidified their support by asserting that most furloughed government workers are Democrats. So, like, who cares if there’s a shutdown?

The American public appears inured to the fact that roughly 420,000 federal workers are working without pay and 380,000 have been furloughed.

In fact, we’ve had 21 federal government shutdowns since 1976. Most, however, lasted no more than a few days. The longest and most contentious was in late 1995 and early 1996, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., led his new Republican majority into a standoff against President Bill Clinton in the fight over a budget deal.

Gingrich admitted that he started the shutdown in part because he felt snubbed by Clinton when they returned from Israel on Air Force One. He had to sit in the back of the plane and exit using the rear door!


So, Gingrich’s fit of pique seemed to drive the shutdown. The New York Daily News labeled the speaker a “crybaby” in a front-page cartoon of “Baby Gingrich” throwing a tantrum — and he achieved the opposite of what he wanted as his influence in Washington was sharply diminished.

That shutdown, however, did produce a sense of crisis across the country. Is there the same sense of crisis now? Not so much.

Because shutdowns are no longer uncommon and unexpected. Voters certainly see the shutdown as a problem. But there is no overwhelming public urgency. “It’s become more of a shrug of the shoulders.” said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2014, “rather than this desperation to figure out who gets the blame.”

For one thing, this is a partial shutdown. Around one quarter of the federal government is closed, including NASA, some border patrol and customs agents and the Internal Revenue Service. (Oh my God, what will we do without the IRS?)

The shutdown does not affect military spending or veterans’ benefits or Social Security or Medicare or the post office or passport processing.

Trump even claims that many federal workers are happy to work for free if that helps him get a border wall. “Many of those workers have said to me — communicated — ‘Stay out until you get the funding for the wall,’” the president said on Christmas Day. “These federal workers want the wall.’’ Thousands of unpaid federal workers, though, are taking to Twitter to report their growing financial anxieties and fears.

The president is counting on a sense of crisis over the shutdown to force Congress to fund the wall. But Democrats apparently don’t feel the pressure. After all, Trump has already claimed responsibility for the shutdown, and the latest polls show the president and congressional Republicans getting most of the blame.

Trump also assumes border security is a crisis. That’s not true either. Trump tweeted last week, “The most important way to stop gangs, drugs, human trafficking and massive crime is at our Southern Border. We need Border Security, and as EVERYONE knows, you can’t have border security without a wall.”

Everyone does not know that. Polls show that most Americans — between 54 percent and 60 percent in recent polls — oppose building a border wall.

In fact, Trump was about to sign a short-term deal with congressional Democrats to keep the government open until New Year’s without the wall funding when he suddenly reversed himself. What happened?

What happened is that his base exploded in rage at the idea that he would go back on his campaign promise to build the wall. “Trump gets nothing,” Rush Limbaugh complained, “and the Democrats get everything!”

As Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said on NBC, “[Trump] says it is an issue of border security. I think we know better. It’s an issue of his own political insecurity. When the right-wingers start screaming at him, he just backs off and dissembles in front of us.’’

Trump knows that immigration is the issue his base cares most about. It’s the issue that got him elected in 2016. Congressional Republicans urged him to campaign on the strong economy during the 2018 midterm elections to help them appeal to swing voters. But Trump doesn’t care about swing voters. He only cares about his base. And his base is ever watchful for signs that the president could betray them on the wall.

The standoff is likely to be resolved next month when the new Congress convenes. How? The way these things always get resolved, with a face-saving compromise. Trump is now talking about a “fence” made of “aesthetically pleasing steel slats” rather than a concrete wall.

In October, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held a ceremony to unveil the first two miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, complete with a plaque prominently displaying Trump’s name. Except Nielsen insisted it was not a fence. “It’s different than a fence,” she said, “in that it also has technology. It’s a full wall system.” But it looks an awful lot like a fence.

The response from likely new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. was telling: “[President Trump] says, ‘We’re going to build a wall with cement and Mexico’s going to pay for it,’ while he’s already backed off the cement. Now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something.’’

It shows the level of dysfunction in U.S. politics that so many Americans have come to believe that shutdowns are an acceptable way of conducting the business of government. The hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs have effectively been taken hostage might disagree.