President Trump signed a stopgap budget bill on January 25 to end the partial U.S. government shutdown, which began on December 22. The end of this affair brought a big sigh of relief across America, especially for about two million federal employees and government-contracted private sector workers whose paychecks were all paused in the interim.
But as the president gears up for his February 5 State of the Union address, postponed for a week due to the shutdown, the state of the United States is subject to shifting and uncertain realignments in power, both at home and abroad and with losers and winners.
The biggest loser is the president himself, weakened as a result of his shutdown showdown with the House Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Trump assumed that by bringing the government to a halt—thus reneging on a bipartisan budget deal due to right-wing pundits’ pressure on him over his failure to secure funding for a wall on the Mexican-U.S. border—he could force Pelosi and the Democrats to cave to his budgetary demand for $5.7 billion as a down payment on the wall.
Why bring the government to a halt over one policy dispute out of a thousand, and far from the most important dispute at that? Because “Build the Wall!” had been Trump’s top promise and arguably his campaign crowds’ loudest rallying cry during his 2016 run for office. Following his victory, it constituted a central goal of his presidency.
The call for a wall thus reflects his highest political priority. And it incorporates many of Trump’s most spurious allegations about border security and the many Mexicans and Central Americans sneaking across the border to seek freedom from poverty, repression or violence in their homelands: that they represent a crisis (though U.S. Border Patrol statistics suggest the rate of such border-crossings has fallen by 80 per cent since 2000); that many are dangerous criminals (though their crime rate, and that of all immigrants, is lower than native-born Americans); that terrorists plotting violence are coming across as well (though there is no record of their ever having done so); and that the wall is crucial to blocking illegal immigrants (though at least half of foreigners illegally in the United States are simply overstaying their visas, and though there are more effective ways of reducing illegal border-crossing).
Getting back to the shutdown: The president’s priority and those statements aside, Pelosi thumped Trump. He bowed to her insistence that no budget could include funding for a wall and agreed to reopen the government. She established herself as a force to contend with for the remainder of his time in office. And her Democratic Party emerged from the struggle united.
Normal democratic processes lost out in this fight, however. This was the longest in a string of shutdowns stretching over the past 25 years, mainly but not solely spurred by Republicans in order to pursue policy preferences normally subject to legislative compromise. Such moves are no way to run a democracy, to put the point mildly.
The shutdown’s end does not end the wall as a salient issue, even in the short term. Trump has threatened that if congressional negotiators do not find a way out of this impasse by the February 15 expiration of the temporary budget agreement, he’ll probably shut down the government yet again. Or, in the alternative, he’s maintained he may employ emergency powers (arguably illegally) to try to have the U.S. military construct the structure—a move sure to be challenged and at least seriously delayed in the courts.
The tragic irony in all of this is that the Democrats would probably approve funding for the wall if Trump agreed to regularise the status of millions of “Dreamers”, migrants who came to the United States illegally as children and have grown up here in a state of legal limbo with a dream of eventual citizenship.
But Trump remains in the thrall of the same right-wing pundits and politicians who forced him to back down from a budget deal before the shutdown. In fact, his policies regarding even legal immigration are moving in the opposite, more restrictive direction, seeking to limit family reunification and student visas, for instance.
Yet another tragedy is that while the president preaches about a so-called crisis at the border, the country is facing far more serious challenges that he largely downplays or ignores: climate change, Russian interference in our elections, a nuclear North Korea and tens of thousands of annual deaths from guns and opioids, for starters.
All the while, mirroring his efforts to exclude new immigrants, he increasingly cuts off America from allies whose support can be crucial in countering military and economic challenges across the globe.
The most current international challenge and potential crisis concerns U.S.-China trade relations, just as negotiations on that relationship are slated to start in Washington. Tensions in this simmering, sanction-filled dispute escalated on Monday with the U.S. Justice Department announcing that it had filed criminal bank and wire fraud charges against the largest communications equipment manufacturer in the world, China-based Huawei Technologies, and its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Huawei has been additionally charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and with seeking to obstruct the investigation of those violations.
The matter becomes even more fraught with the news that the United States is seeking to extradite Meng from Canada, where officials arrested her on a U.S. warrant on December 1. She and Huawei are neither a normal executive nor a normal company—Meng is the daughter of the company’s founder, and Huawei is a firm with a special place in the Chinese economy and special links to the country’s Communist Party.
Which brings us to back to the shutdown. It is doubtful that the Chinese stance in its multi-faceted dispute with America will be much affected by Trump’s recent defeat by Pelosi. But it can’t help the president, the self-named master of the “art of the deal,” that Pelosi is seen as calling his bluff; the Chinese could be inclined to see more bluffing in whatever pressure he seeks to bring to bear in the negotiations.
And back too, to the State of the Union address and the state of the United States. True to form, Trump may falsely claim victory at every turn, be it stopping Central Americans from the south or extraditing Meng from the north. He probably will similarly insist that everything is great, and that to any extent it’s not great it is the fault of the Democrats and perhaps a few turncoat Republicans. He will likely harp on the health of the economy. All while Pelosi, sits behind and above him on the podium, the traditional place for the Speaker during this address, perhaps smiling ever so slightly.
No one can be certain of what Donald Trump will do or say a week in advance. But it is far from far-fetched that his speech will return to his theme of America First, to his cry to “Build the Wall!” and to the danger that America, a nation of immigrants, faces from immigrants. And while they do not represent a majority of the citizenry, many of his supporters will agree—which is a sadder commentary on the state of the United States than any dark speech could ever deliver.
(The author is a widely recognised international development scholar and an expert on U.S. politics. Views are personal)