January 2, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Only Fox Can Save Trump
Fox News helped create the shutdown dilemma. It can solve it—if it wants to.
The federal government has been shut down partially for 12 days, one of the longest shutdowns ever, and we are no closer to a deal that would reopen it. You have likely seen much pontificating on the matter, but the key question, for me, is this:
Is the border wall something that will break Donald Trump’s base of power?
Hugo Gurdon seems to think so. He’s the editorial director of the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication. On MSNBC this morning, he said that the wall has become the equivalent of George HW Bush’s “read my lips, no new taxes.” After winning in 1988, the former president broke his vow, setting the stage for his defeat.
“‘I’m going to build a wall’, Trump’s phrase from the election, it helped him win,” Gurdon said. “The danger for him is that if he betrays that promise, his base will desert him and he will lose in 2020. That’s what the Democrats want to make sure of.”
I’m skeptical. Here’s why.
First, the Republican base does not operate in empirical reality. Achieving goals is often beside the point. They think fighting is the same as winning (they are not), and winning can be defined in any number of ways as long as it reinforces group identity.
The Republicans will never win the fight over “sanctuary cities,” for instance. Federal courts have ruled conservatively: the US government can’t compel states, and thereby cities, to enforce federal law. But don’t expect such rulings to stop future candidates from railing against the party’s favorite boogeymen. It’s the fighting that counts.
The second reason I’m skeptical is because the Senate Republicans are “triangulating,” or staking a “middle ground” between Trump and House Democrats. Alabama’s Richard Shelby, for instance, is calling on “both sides” to come to an agreement.
Such posturing insulates Senate Republicans, for now, from public blowback, and it signals to the base that Senate Republicans are fighting for GOP goals, even if that fight ends up yielding nothing. Indeed, triangulation seems to be working. A recent Reuters poll shows respondents blaming the Republicans (7 percent) less than the president (47 percent) and the Democrats (33 percent) for the partial shutdown.
The conventional wisdom is that Senate Republicans feel pressure to get the president to reopen the government, but the polling gap here suggests otherwise. If the shutdown goes on for another week, Trump and the Democrats will get most of the blame. The Senate Republicans can say they tried, and the Washington press corps, which is eager to talk about anything that’s not partisan, will probably oblige.
But here’s the main reason I’m skeptical of Gurdon’s claim. You could hold George HW Bush accountable, because he was an honorable man. Not so this president. Donald Trump can be trusted to lie his way out of any problem. Indeed, that may be the most likely way forward—if the right-wing media universe goes along.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar of Congress, said over the holiday that one scenario leading to the government reopening includes: “Democrats give $1.5 billion or so for border security, with provision that none can be used for a wall. Trump lies to his base, telling them that he now has the money to build his wall. Fox supports his lie.”
That last bit is important: “Fox supports his lie.” If it doesn’t, all bets are off.
That last bit is the linchpin to understanding our current dilemma: For reasons I don’t fully understand, Fox News and others decided collectively, in the hours before the president was supposed to sign a bipartisan bill keeping the government running, that doing so would break a promise. So Trump freaked, and the shutdown commenced.
So the solution isn’t so much lying, but lying in a way that’s acceptable to Fox.
I don’t know what that would be, but I do know Trump has been calling the wall anything but—“barrier” or “fencing” or “artistically designed steel slats,” among others, to soften what had been a hard line. John Kelly said the border wall was never really real. The former White House Chief of Staff told the LA Times that the president had “left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration” when it was clear that building it would be a political, legal and logistical nightmare.
In any case, Trump can’t get his wall. The House Democrats, coming off a wave election, have every incentive to prevent him from getting it. (He has already requested half the $5 billion he originally asked for; the Democrats have already said no.) The Senate Republicans have little incentive, so far, to make the president reverse himself. And Trump fears his days are numbered if he can’t deliver on a campaign promise.
Given all this, the shutdown could go on for some time. The right-wing media universe, especially Fox News, could save him, but will they? We’ll soon know.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.