The Hostage Taker in Chief

by Emrys Westacott

Like millions of other people in the US, I often begin the day by listening to ‘Morning Edition,’ the early morning news program on National Public Radio. Sometimes, though, I get so disgusted by the rubbish spewed by the politicians being interviewed, or so infuriated by the flimsiness of the questions put to them, that I just can’t stand it and have to take myself out of earshot. Friday was a case in point.

The topic, of course, was the partial shutdown of the federal government. Congressman Gary Palmer, a Republican from Alabama, came on to be interviewed. Here was the first question

“Both sides have to give in any kind of compromise deal… Where should the Republicans and the president be willing to compromise?”

Right there was where I’d had enough. It is simply nonsense that in every negotiation both sides have to compromise, moving toward some sort of shared middle ground. This is not the received wisdom when it comes to dealing with hostage takers. And that is exactly the situation the House of Representatives is currently in.

Funding government operations is one thing. Policy regarding security on the US-Mexico border is an entirely separate issue. The Trump position, endorsed by most Republicans in Congress is this. We want $5.7 billion to build a wall. If the Democrats don’t give it us, we’ll cause a lot of suffering, damage, and disruption. Trump could with equal legitimacy (i.e. none at all) use the same tactic to try to secure any other policy goal: e.g. abolition of the estate tax; disbanding the Dept. of Education; criminalizing abortion.

Presenting the shutdown as a standoff between two equally intransigent parties masks the true nature of what is going on. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has voted to fund the government in the normal way. The measure would then normally be voted on by the Senate. But these are not normal times. The senate actually approved the very same bill in December, while the House was still in Republican hands. But now Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the senate, won’t allow the senate to vote on the matter. Why not? Because this would embarrass Republican senators by forcing them to either vote against Trump or vote for the shutdown. The first choice, they fear, would be unpopular with their base; the second option would be unpopular with the rest of the electorate. So McConnell stands to the side, trying to keep out of the spotlight, while actually playing a vital role as enabler to the Hostage Taker in Chief.

How the standoff will end is anyone’s guess. Trump may try to short-circuit the whole business by declaring that the situation on the US-Mexico border constitutes a national emergency, thereby allowing him to divert unspent funds from other programs such as disaster relief or defense to build his wall. Congressman Gary Palmer happily parroted this claim about the existence of a national emergency during his NPR interview. But it is patently absurd, as can be seen from this graph.

Moreover, the majority of these unauthorized immigrants  US didn’t sneak across the border but entered legally and overstayed their visa. And the total number of illegal immigrants has actually been falling over the past few years, as this second graph shows.

If the shutdown continues, however, it’s most probable that the eventual outcome will be decided by public opinion. Given Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder, one can assume that he won’t be moved by any concern for the suffering he is causing. He’s more likely to be bothered by the fact that while the shutdown continues his minders keep telling that he can’t go golfing in Florida since that would run the risk of making him look like a callous, selfish, lazy playboy. Republican congressmen, though, may well start feeling the heat. After all, if enough of them voted now for a bill that they readily approved in December, that would override a presidential veto and end the shutdown.

Polling trends are mildly encouraging here. According to 538’s calculations, Trump’s popularity is declining. From Dec. 13 to Jan. 11, Trump’s disapproval rating went up 2.3% while his approval rating went down 1.5%.

So what should the Democrats do?

Quite simply, they should pull out all the stops to win the public opinion battle. In speeches, statements, interviews, and ads, they should hammer the same basic points home:

  • that Trump’s tactic is that of a hostage taker demanding a ransom;
  • that the House has passed a bill to end the shutdown;
  • that Mitch McConnell won’t allow the senate to vote on it–even though the senate unanimously approved the same bill in December;
  • that Trump explicitly said that the shutdown would be his doing and not something he would blame the Democrats for;
  • that having repeatedly that Mexico would pay for the wall, Trump now says he needs billions of taxpayer dollars for this purpose.

As everyone realizes, the stakes in this standoff are high. Senators might not be re-elected. Presidents may lose face. Meanwhile, millions who work for the government, have contracts with it, depend on it for vital services, or ask it for asylum–a.k.a. the hostages–must suffer unnecessarily.