President Donald Trump is trapped in a way we’ve not yet witnessed.
It’s so bad that he appears to believe he has little to lose in keeping the government partially shut down indefinitely over money for his border wall, vowing he won’t budge until he receives the funding. But he could see his already-eroded base flee if he does open the government without wall money.
Democratic leaders have remained firm, and that’s been a good thing. But history tells us they’re about to face a fickle media that will increasingly blame “both sides” for the shutdown, particularly as Democrats take control of the House in January.
History has also told us that that’s when Democrats get weak-kneed, and that’s been particularly true of Democrats in the Senate. Which means voters who ushered them into power in the House will have to make themselves heard loudly and clearly right now.
With well over a dozen investigations underway by federal prosecutors examining Trump, his family, his business, his now-defunct foundation and his campaign’s possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election (and Democratic committees likely targeting him come January), Trump only has his hard-core base to lean on. Unfortunately for him, he’s continuing to see his support erode among those who’ve backed him but were never that enthusiastic.
Simply placating his few supporters and the right-wing media might be futile in the end, as members of the GOP could grow a spine, clearly spooked by Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria without consulting with military leaders, the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Trump’s attacks on the Federal Reserve chairman while the markets have been erratic.
But for almost two years, Republicans have absorbed Trump’s recklessness, expressing outrage at first, then going back to business as usual. Any outrage this time surely can’t be counted on to continue.
It’s unlikely Trump will listen to Republicans anyway, even if they try to pressure him to change his mind on the shutdown. If the shutdown continues and Democrats take the House in January, they can pass a new budget bill with no wall money. That will challenge Republicans in the Senate to oppose it, thereby causing them to take ownership of the shutdown, or to vote for it and challenge Trump to veto it, which could, in turn, trigger a veto override.
For almost two years, Republicans have absorbed Trump’s recklessness, expressing outrage at first, then going back to business as usual. Any outrage this time surely can’t be counted on to continue.
Before we get there, however, we’ll likely hear in the next few days and beyond a lot more talk about “fence” and “wall” and repeated false claims from Trump and Republicans that Democrats already supported a wall because they voted for fencing across a portion of the border (mostly on government land) west of Texas in 2006 and late in 2013. And this could impact media coverage and put more pressure on Democrats.
But that fencing, which includes miles of gaps, is nothing like the 30-to-50-foot wall Trump previously envisioned, nor is it anything like his more recent visions of “beautiful” 30-foot steel slats with spikes on top. The fencing in 2006 was a trade-off Democrats took to stop Republicans from retaining an amendment deeming undocumented immigrants felons. Later, in 2013, in return for comprehensive immigration reform that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, Democrats lent support to additional fencing, but the GOP ultimately voted the bill down.
Trump, however, said at various times during the 2016 campaign that none of that fencing was adequate or something he viewed as a “wall.”
Still, Democrats fear bad media coverage, even with the backing of the majority of Americans (most of whom say in polls that they are both opposed to the wall and to shutting the government down over it).
As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent wrote in his book Uncivil War, even when Democrats were presented with polling from progressive groups showing that Trump and Republicans would be blamed during the last government shutdown, they caved in:
“The message that came back to progressive groups from lawmakers was that they were frightened of negative mainstream media coverage — a factor that just doesn’t weigh heavily on GOP lawmakers.”
Even though Democrats have held firm — and even if it would seem crazy to capitulate with the American people behind them — the pressure has to come from voters to their Democratic representatives, via phone calls and emails telling them they’d better not cave this time. And that pressure should be put on Democratic leadership as well as on every possible presidential contender and Democratic senator up for re-election in 2020.
Even though Democrats have held firm, the pressure has to come from their voters via phone calls and emails, telling them they’d better not cave this time.
Let’s not forget that in the first few months of Trump’s presidency, we saw too many Democratic senators backing Trump’s Cabinet nominees. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) backed Ben Carson for housing secretary while in committee, the outrage reached a crescendo. After calls to her offices, as well as emails and tweets, she did an about-face and voted against him. From then on, Democrats realized they needed to follow the energy of the base and many consistently voted against Trump Cabinet nominees.
Still, we’ve seen Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cave in time and again to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump on extremist federal judges rather than fighting hard, even if he might ultimately lose the battle. Yet Schumer, too, has gotten more backbone since the Democratic House win — both on judges and in that infamous Oval Office meeting with Trump two weeks ago.
There will be younger, more diverse and progressive members in the Democratic caucus in a few days, and they’ll be putting the pressure on. But no one should take anything for granted. The Democratic leadership could reflexively go back to its old ways at any time. (We saw this recently, when Democratic leaders blocked incoming freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push for a select committee on a Green New Deal, though the proposal had enormous public support.)
The brutal fact that another child, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy, has died in Border Patrol custody, and that we’ve seen the horrific child separation policy play out while Trump and the GOP have only endangered the fate of Dreamers further should be enough to keep the Democrats from bending. But, as I said, much of the media, itself under pressure from the GOP and the White House, will soon be loudly saying the Democrats share responsibility now that they’re in the leadership.
Any capitulation to Trump will be a disaster for the Democrats — angering progressives and, in this energized environment, even inspiring primary challenges. There’s no satisfying the media, anyway, which will likely turn around and portray the Democrats as being in turmoil.
Beyond that, caving in will embolden Trump in his temper tantrums — and embolden members of his extremist base to continue to threaten him in order to get their way.
Democratic leaders must be made to see that, no matter which way the coverage goes in coming days, the majority of American voters — progressives in their base, as well as independents and even some Republicans who broke from Trump — brought them where they are, and they’re the people the Democrats must listen to now.
Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.