For Trump, shutdown vs. Wall is a false choice
The government shutdown is about distracting the population from Trump’s failures, it also about ultimately furthering Bannon’s agenda to bring the US government crashing down.
In worrying about what it will take to end the latest showdown over funding the US Government, many Democrats and Republicans are missing the point. Since Donald Trump’s core supporters hate non-white immigrants and they see the federal government as the enemy, they win whether he gets the money for his border wall or the government remains partially shut down.
Trump’s candidacy and presidency have tapped into a spiralling insurgency within the right wing of American politics, in which shutting down the government is an end in itself. As this movement has begun trending globally, it’s worth considering just how far it will reach.
At this moment, in addition to the shutdown of significant daily functions of government, the United States has no permanent White House chief of staff, defence secretary, or attorney general. And it has announced a significant withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan, absent any coordination with international partners, rivals, or local leadership on the ground. There is no single explanation for President Trump’s pronouncements and policies as President, just as there is no single reason he got elected. Nor is there only one factor behind the United Kingdom’s Brexit or Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in last year’s French elections — and the latest eruption of “yellow vest” protests.
One growing aphorism of history is that we should believe politicians when they advertise their goals, especially when they are dystopian. As we prepare to conclude the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration, it’s worth revisiting what his former chief strategist Steve Bannon told a Daily Beast reporter back in 2013: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Republicans have long appealed to business interests by calling for “small government”. Although the business community may not welcome the more destructive impulses of Bannon’s agenda, they saw Trump as a way to get the historically “pro-business” Republican Party back into the White House. Like many enablers of previous revolutions (e.g., Russia, Iran), they still hope they can distract or restrain the true believers.
The second holiday season in a row with a government shutdown over immigration issues. And each time, it has been President Trump who forced the shutdown. Business has not been pleased with this turmoil or with the President’s attacks on the Federal Reserve, or his new trade war with China, and so on. But the 2018 tax cut netted them and their companies hundreds of billions in extra cash and stock buybacks.
Since leaving his White House perch, Bannon has been touring the European Union (EU) to rally support for the local nationalisms and phobias of every destination — from London to Paris to Rome, to Budapest and Prague — with an eye to the 2019 European Parliament elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been helping out right-wing anti-EU politicians, mostly behind the scenes, in France, the Netherlands, and most successfully in the EU-busting United Kingdom.
Since a defiant Russia cannot leverage the current system to its abiding benefit, Putin has good reason to weaken or even derail the EU, NATO, and the good faith and credit of the post-World War II global order. Back in the United States, Bannon did not somehow force his ideology on Mr. Trump. He found a ready and receptive audience.
Trump was proud to impose a shutdown of “non-essential” government agencies — with or without his border wall — because he knows his base supports both. What could be more fundamental than a great wall to defending the nativist conception of national interests? And what could be more appealing to a base that sees federal employees as the enemy than defunding and dismantling the government?
Despite his intentionally reckless approach to government and global stability, Trump could not have been President, along with control over both chambers of Congress these past two years, without major support from the normally cautious business community.
In the 1987 film “Wall Street”, fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko publicly proclaims, “Greed is good!”. In the 1980s, aggravating the Vietnam and Watergate upheavals, US President Ronald Reagan challenged Americans to vote on the basis of their own economic interests — effectively reversing John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your county.”
As faith in the social contract has continued to erode, the moneyed classes have enjoyed the fruits of widening income and wealth gaps. Even as national debt grows, the top 10 percent are realising ever higher profits and tax cuts. For those still extolling the “Wall Street” ethos, government shutdowns are a dress rehearsal for deregulation, reduced social services, and lax oversight. In recent years, the budget for the Internal Revenue Service — which collects federal taxes — has been cut significantly. This means less government spending, and less enforcement, which is welcome news for those looking to weaken the government for ideological or financial gain.
Where the government does spend, billions of dollars are being farmed out to private prisons for criminals and immigration detainees, private health care for military veterans, and private contractors for securing Afghanistan and other hotspots. This both enriches well-connected insiders like Elliott Broidy — who has gained notoriety as a target in the ongoing Mueller investigation — and it weakens the oversight and effectiveness of the federal system.
For Americans and others who think disrupting the system is good, it is worth considering just how much depends on that system. Beyond the money, it’s what keeps countries from invading their neighbours. It keeps criminal enterprises from taking over the functions of government. It protects the free exercise of religion. It facilitates international tracking and interdiction of illegal drugs and terrorist financing. It secures international shipping lanes and multilateral trade. And it shores up national currencies when politicians and corporate leaders make the wrong bets. At any rate, it would be a grave error to see Trump as gambling with the government to achieve his policy goals. It’s not a gamble if he’s equally happy to lose.