The Chickens Return

Mexico hearts Trump. Tijuana, October 2018.

A large number of chickens have been coming home to roost lately. Most prominent among them are those associated with Mr. Trump’s much vaunted negotiating skills. But across the political spectrum, the consequences of the decisions made by past selves are emerging to shape the present.

And so, as American political life spirals around the dysfunctional spectacle of the partially shut down federal government, the question of how the quiet dogmas of the past brought us to this place is once again worth considering.

For all that is apparently new in political life in the United States, there is a good deal of business as usual too. Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speak of the House to no one’s surprise. There had been talk of an insurgency, perhaps centring on the long-serving northeast Ohio representative Martha Fudge, perhaps backed by young firebrands like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. Amongst the chattering classes, there was talk of the Democrats veering to the left and much hand-wringing about whether the result would be a reshuffling of offices or the formation of a People’s Republic.

In the end, the fears of the great and the good of the Democratic establishment proved unfounded and Pelosi was duly anointed. Her priorities were made clear when during the vote on rules at the beginning the sitting of the House of Representatives she made paygo the order of the day. In the heady days of the campaign, she had been at pains to stress that she was “progressive” in some meaningful sense of the term. Her insistence on saddling the House with this particular piece of conservative bampot (it required all new spending to be offset with tax increases or spending cuts) illustrates just how mired in the worn out thinking of the late, lamented blue dog faction.

Even Republicans don’t hold to this version of fiscal conservatism anymore, at least when the recipients of government largesse aren’t non-whites or the undeserving poor. Their commitment to fiscal moderation involved increasing the deficit by $113 billion or so. Pelosi’s obsession with financial probity seems oddly out of plumb with the prevailing inclinations of most of her colleagues and illustrates the fact that, in political terms, she is about as progressive as a Styx reunion.

On the topic of things said during the campaign that one might now come to regret, we find that Mr. Trump’s assertions two years back that people who doubted his ability to get things done simply hadn’t read The Art of the Deal (ghost-written by Tony Schwartz but whatever…). But Trump the skilled negotiator is, like Trump the successful businessman, an image created out of bluster and moonbeams. In the cold light of day, recent events have shown exactly how insubstantial that image actually was.

Mr. Trump and his followers like to tout his resolution and decision-making nous. Yet this is hard to square with the fact that he was ready to sign a bipartisan bill to keep the government open before being brought up short conservative media (the only constituency to which he has managed to show consistent loyalty). Having been disciplined by figures of intellectual gravity such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, Mr. Trump asserted forcefully that he would sign no bill that didn’t include shooting $5 billion down the rat hole of his vanity project for the southern border.

Here we can see clearly some of the truth that underlies the images swirling around the president. Mr. Trump was never a businessman, in the sense of creating a functioning productive enterprise. Mr. Trump was for the entirety of his pre-political career a real estate speculator, something entirely different. He produced nothing outside of tacky, self-branded properties, synergy, and the occasional fraud claim. He was used to giving free rein to his blog, secure in the knowledge that no one was ever going to check his work. If the deal didn’t suit, or if the counterparties couldn’t be massaged, leveraged, or otherwise bullied, he could just move on to hawking steaks or real estate seminars or whatever other enterprises from which the affixing of the Trump name might generate a haircut (so to speak).

The difference between that world and life in public service could not be starker. Whatever else one might say about the qualities of the American polity, what is beyond dispute is that it employs armies of bureaucrats whose only job is to track the degree to which the utterances of politicians match up to reality. Mr. Trump is clearly irritated by the insistence of people, even some in his own party, on comparing his words to affairs as they actually stand, and the government shutdown is a case in point.

It is well known that Mr. Trump’s favoured negotiating technique is to try to unbalance his opponents, Unfortunately, this only works if one can reasonably threaten to take one’s interests somewhere else and abandon whatever enterprise is currently under consideration to the dustheap of history. This technique simply will not work when the enterprise in question is the federal government, much as certain factions on the lunatic fringe of the American right might wish that this was the case. It would be one thing if Mr. Trump could simply pull up stakes and go build a wall in some other country. Sadly for him, he is stuck with this one and the responsibility of making it function simply will not go away.

One can gauge Mr. Trump’s inability to adjust to new condition be the widely reported events at his most recent meeting with the congressional leadership aimed at ending the impasse. Told for the umpteenth time that Democrats were unwilling to send a gigantic pile of dollar bills to be essentially set on fire on the banks of the Rio Grande, Mr. Trump reported pounded the table, griped that the whole thing was a waste of time, and stormed out of the meeting taking his toys home with him.

The whole thing would be comical were it not for the pain being inflicted on government employees, to say nothing of the citizenry at large. In the name of minimizing the irritation caused the latter, Mr. Trump and his people have increasingly demanded unpaid sacrifices of the former. He has also toyed with a number of non-legislative solutions to the crisis (or, better yet, stasis) that range from the grossly impractical to the plainly illegal. His current favoured option, declaring a state of emergency and then raiding the coffers of FEMA for extra cash in order to have soldiers build the wall, will certainly end up in the courts, probably long enough to extend to the next round of federal elections in 2020. This begs the question of what will become of the federal government in the meantime.

The irony of this current state of affairs is that it has resulted from Mr. Trump’s fundamental incompetence as a negotiator. Even granting that he might have had to so something to fend off the backlash from the right at not getting funding for the wall in the measure to keep the government functioning (and any politician worth his salt could have finessed this), Mr. Trump managed to stake out a position in which no one can without the other side losing. Mr. Trump’s lack, be it of empathy or political knowhow or both, blinded him to the fact that the Democrats had made not paying for a wall an article of faith.

In addition, Mr. Trump’s frequent campaign trail assertions that the wall would be paid for by Mexico are now being thrown back in his face. This was always ill-conceived, and it is likely that any of his associates who knew the first thing about how international trade actually works must have cringed with each repetition and hoped against hope that they were fodder for Mr. Trump’s spittle-flecked supporters, to be cast aside at the first opportunity.

Mr. Trump seems not to have understood that it is the receiver of goods, not the shipper, who pays the import duty. As such, tariff conflicts, of the type that Mr. Trump seems intent on fomenting with all and sundry, are paid for by domestic industry and consumers, at least in the first instance.

The president and every pro-Trump troll on the web has responded by claiming that the renegotiated North American trade deal is paying for the wall. Putting aside for the moment that, having not been approved by Congress, it’s not currently paying for anything, it is clear that international trade simply doesn’t work that way. (For anyone in still in doubt on this score, the wild-eyed reds at Forbes have pretty conclusively put paid to this idea.)

Mr. Trump is caught in a cleft stick of his own making, and at a particularly infelicitous time, at least for the country. The departure of most of the adults from his administration has left Mr. Trump with an even higher than usual concentration of yes-men, placeholders, and toadies in his orbit. These are not the kind of people liable either to find creative ways to solve the problem, or convincing Mr. Trump of the wisdom of abandoning a lost cause in the hopes of fighting another day with his base intact.

For the people who elected Mr. Trump, or at least those not crazy enough to actually believe his rhetoric, this might be the time to consider the truth of the old adage about being careful what one wishes. But one supposes that if they were susceptible to that degree of wisdom, the idea would have occurred to them long ago.


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Photograph courtesy of Chris Hunkeler. Published under a Creative Commons license.